At the recently concluded leadership forum held in conjunction with the ASEAN summit in Cambodia, a common theme permeated the sessions. Look East, is the mantra everyone propagated. Many ASEAN experts expressed their views on what the ASEAN identity means and what the region should be focussing on to strengthen it.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, in his address at the ASEAN Leadership Forum aptly argued that knowledge is the connecting thread between us and deserves the greatest impetus. Education has to be our priority and not just ASEAN member states but other Asian nations too must initiate concrete steps to enhance educational opportunities.

Asia is already home to several excellent universities. National University of Singapore often ranks within Top 50 in the world. There’s IIT in India, considered the premier institution for engineering and computer science. The law school in Ateneo de Manila University is highly sought after by students from all over the region. Asia is also the centre of Ayurveda, the ancient medical science. And yet, we continue to look west. If you visit a campus in the UK, or te US it is not uncommon to find a large mix of Asian students. Ironically, the diversity of Asians on a Western campus today is far more than any you will find in an Asian University campus.

Education in South East Asia today needs to be adequate in order for it to compare with the US or the UK. It needs recognition from the government. We can begin by identifying our existing educational resources and cooperate bilaterally and regionally to develop it further. Importantly, the private sector needs to play a part in raising the standards of education.

But first, we need to stop looking west for direction and solutions. Our problems are unique unto ourselves and therefore the solutions will also be. We are Asian and we need to be proud of it. Pick any field of science, technology, medicine or even poetry, music and sports, and you will find Asians excelling in it. The point is that it can be done and we have been doing it. We just have to look within.

The concept and format of the World Economic Forum is ideally structured for the brainstorming and synergy that will lead to the development of a multilateral, multi-lingual, multi-cultural society that will be raised from the ashes of the unilateral, divided and polarised economies of today. The world needs hope and there is hope. Hope that can be borne through interaction and communication, through intelligent reasoning and opening barriers. Herein the WEF has done yeoman service in becoming the platform, the bridge between the first, third and the under-developing world, the so called invisible fourth.  If one were to rename the WEF, I would call it Al-Qantarah, the Arabic word for conduit or bridge, or as the Spanish call it, the AlCantara.

Author: Vijay Eswaran is the Executive Chairman of the QI Group, a Global Growth Company of the World Economic Forum from Malaysia.

Pictured: Students hold their textbooks and stationeries during recess in a primary school in northeastern Khon Kaen province May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang.