Conference Summary by William Armbruster
KUALA LUMPUR -- More than 270 former East-West Center participants from

27 countries gathered in Malaysia recently for an alumni conference, reflecting both the loyalty of the alumni and the Center's success in building an Asia-Pacific community –- the chief aim of the 42-year-old institution.

A roundtable discussion on "Differing Perspectives of September 11" symbolized the diversity of the alumni and their personal desire to increase understanding in the region. Panelists included an Indonesian education specialist, a U.S. Embassy official from Manila, a Malaysian newspaper editor, and myself, a journalist who worked at the World Trade Center for 10 years up to November 2000.

"It's time for us to find ways not to believe in the clash of civilizations but rather to celebrate civilizations," said panelist Irid Agoes, executive director of the International Education Foundation in Indonesia, as she described her family's concern about her travel to the United States after Sept. 11. She also shared her distress at being asked to remove her "jilbab," a traditional Muslim head cover, when arriving at a U.S. airport. "I'm very happy to be here with friends who understand."

The Center now has 36 alumni chapters, including new groups in Mumbai, Karachi, Sydney and Seattle, as well as reactivated chapters in Hong Kong and Beijing. Dan Berman, president of the East-West Center Association, the EWC's alumni organization, left for Myanmar and Vietnam after the conference to explore the possibility of forming alumni chapters there.

During our time at the Center, many of us were exploring ways to build a new and better world. Vasanthi Ranganathan, a management consultant, career counselor and educator from Chennai, India, describes her experience at the Center from 1987 to 1990 as "an eye-opener." It prompted her to understand the importance of creating institutions that will serve the public, rather than just doing good works as an individual. Ranganathan has started a new program for unemployed teens to give them both the skills to develop a successful career and to instill in them a sense of public service.

Ranganathan started Genius Education & Learning Systems (GELS)last January. The program now has 22 centers in two states in southern India and she expects to have programs in three more states by the end of the year. She is also launching a leadership program for school dropouts on Aug. 15 that will initially serve 50 boys and 50 girls from "the lowest levels of society." The students, ages 14 to 17, will spend the morning studying history, geography, math and language, and then devote the afternoon to working with the mentally retarded.

"This is a group that thought they have nothing to give, that they can only receive. They must know that they have the power to give," she says.

Four alumni were recognized at the conference: the late Tan Sri Datuk Dr. Anuwar Bin Mahmud, who retired as the director-general of Palm Oil Research Institute Malaysia and who received one of the nation's highest awards for his contributions to Malaysia; Dr. Crescencia V. Chan-Gonzaga, president of Leyte Normal University in the Philippines; Haigo Shen, chairman of Haigo Shen and Partners and an internationally recognized architect from Taiwan; and Dr. Michael Anderson, minister-counselor for public affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Manila.

"This award is coming from an association of people who know from first-hand 'real-world' experience in the U.S. and Asia that bringing diverse people together -- more often than not -- does produce understanding and friendship," Anderson told alumni.

The EWC's Board of Governors met concurrently with the alumni in Kuala Lumpur to foster an exchange of ideas. Board Chairman and former Hawaii Gov. George Ariyoshi drew applause when he stressed the board's commitment to student programs as well as the research programs that eventually came to dominate the Center. "Over the years we have not been able to support student programs in the way we would like. We're hoping to reverse that trend," he said.

Indeed, that is already happening. Close to 100 students from throughout the region, including 50 in the new Asia Pacific Leadership Program, will be arriving in August to make a total of 207 students at the Center. Alumni chapters from Okinawa, Taiwan and Malaysia responded with donations totaling $15,000.

The Center has its next alumni conference in Tokyo two years from now, and many of the alumni are already looking forward to seeing one another again. The conferences rekindle warm memories of golden years in Honolulu. Nonetheless, fears of travel, especially to an Islamic state, curtailed attendance this year.

Siti Zaharah, Malaysia's minister of national unity and social development as well as an EWC alumna herself, said the tragic events of Sept. 11 have made the Center more relevant today than ever before. "There is a need to promote greater understanding and better relations among countries, races and religion, particularly between the United States and countries with Muslim majorities."

As someone who considers himself a world citizen, I have been saddened by the dreadful consequences of 9/11. This worst case of terrorism in American history has also given me greater understanding of what it must be like for people living in societies where violence and terrorism are a way of life.

I have also rejoiced in the way that people of good will from around the world have come together since that tragic day. Perhaps that's one of the good things about Sept. 11 -- that we all care for each other a little more -- because we know how fragile life can be.

Editor's note: William Armbruster, an East-West Center student from 1971 to 1973, is an associate editor with The Journal of Commerce in Newark, N.J. He is also chairman of the Center's New York alumni chapter.