Ten years ago, says Abdullah Tahir, a Malaysian studying economics at American University, neither he nor his country could have afforded to send him to school in America. Now they can't afford not to send him here.

That's because the Malaysian economy is booming, thanks in part to its natural resource wealth. At the same time, Malaysia does not have all the superbly trained planners, technicians and managers it is going to need to take advantage of that wealth in the years ahead.

So where do Tahir, 35, and his government superiors think they can find the knowledge and training they need?

"America," Tahir says frankly. "There is no alternative . . . You have the best teachers."

Around the globe, from Africa to the Middle East to the Orient, dozens of Third World countries are coming to the same conclusion. Survival, whether a country is rich or poor, demands know-how, and the result has been an educational gold rush to America of astounding proportions.

The number of foreign students in the United States has more than doubled in the last 10 years, from 145,000 in 1971 to 305,000 today, according to Douglas R. Boyan of the Institute of International Education (IIE). Between 10,000 and 20,000 of them are in the Washington, Virginia and Maryland area alone. There are, of course, benefits to schools locally and nationally: classroom seats will stay filled that would otherwise be vacant as America's student population decline's, and that means more money for the institutions.

But to those foreign governments, who eagerly send tens of thousands of their best students here and cushion their stay by providing lavish benefits, and the hundreds of thousands more who come on their own, the stakes are far higher.

The 300 Kuwaiti graduate students here, all of whom are government employes, even receive $1,020 a month plus their full government salary, according to Kuwait cultural attache Abdulaziz Al-Ghanim. The 2,500 Kuwait undergraduates in America receive $750 a month, plus an additional 80 percent if they are married and their familiies are here, he said.

"We cover them [for] everything, everything," said Al-Ghanim. "And transportation. And they are available to travel back to our country [each year] plus they get their summer salary in advance."

"These governments want to leap decades technologically, "said American University President Richard Berendzen, chairman of the American Council on Education's committee on foreign students. "They look to the United States which is viewed as the technological giant of the world."

There are far more foreign students in the United States than in the Soviet Union, and that reflects practical considerations, said Fred La Sor, country officer for Southern Africa at the U.S. International Communications Agency.

Even though Eastern Bloc nations provide schooling free to such Third World countries and friendship ties sometimes demand that countries send students there, "it has less functional benefit to the country," he said. s"The student spend the first year just learning Russian and getting orientation courses, so every four-year degree takes five years."

La Sor said that, more importantly, in the Eastern Bloc students work with equipment that they will most like never encounter in their home countries. Most technical journals are in English so it pays to study in America for language reasons as well.

Finally, those students who study in the Soviet Union, frequently detest the experience because they are segregated from the general population, unlike here.

The students sent here by their governments have little in common with the image many Americans have of malcontent foreign students given to demonstrations. They are generally the best and the brightest, frequently subjected not only to rigorous tests by their governments but also background checks. Almost invariably, say American educators, once they master English, they rise to the top of their class.

The most obvious growth in the number of students has come from the oil-rich Middle East. In 1970, for instance, there were 1,029 Saudi Arabian students here, IIE figures show. By last year that number had grown to 9,540, many of whom are on full government scholarships. At the other end of the scale, are tiny nations like Oman, which sent one student in 1971 but now has about 250 here this year.

But it isn't only the newly affluent nations who send their students to American schools.

The Maldive Republic, an Indian Ocean archipelago nation of 150,000 people, now has two students here, one of whom is studying in suburban Maryland. With finaicnal help from the U.S. government, they are studying meteorology and electronics, in part so that they will be able to run the nation's modern airport, according to Ahmed Zaki, the Maldive's United Nations ambassador (it has no Washington representative).

"I don't think any country can beat the United States in terms of science and technology," said Edward Yang, a member of the Taiwan Cultural Center in Washington who looks after the 17,000-plus Taiwanese student contigent in the United States.

Because the stakes are so high, those governments who send their students here go to great lengths to make life confortable for them. The government of Oman, for example, not only pays tuition, medical and book expenses, but also provides an additional stipend of $630 a month to its undergraduate students here. As a result, one source familiar with Omani students says, about 75 percent of them own cars and live alone in apartments.

In return, most foreign students receiving scholarships are expected to study in applied technology fields such as computer sciences, mechanical engineering and industrial engineering, all areas of tremendous importance to a developing nation.

In addition, they must maintain good grades and agree to take a job as a government employe for two or more years when they complete their studies. Few of those who receive such aid renege on their commitments and the overwhelming majority return to their homeland upon gfraduation, officials say.

Yet this rush for an American education poses risks. Many developing countries abhor what they see as American decadence and fear their young students will be seduced by American lifestyles.

"Students coming here from my country have difficulty," said Maldivan Ambassador Zaki, who represents a strict Moslem nation. "People from our part of the world, when they come to live here for a long time, the tendency develops in them -- they find the inclination to go back to their country becomes less and less.

"This is one reason I think our government has not been requesting assistance from this country to send students here," he said. Instead, he said, the U.S. government has provided aid so that Maldivan students can attend the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. "That's more to our liking as well because it's in our part of the world," he said.

Nonetheless, the benefits outweigh the risks, even to the Islamic fundamentalist Maldive Republic, which has one student at the Capitol Institute of Technology in Kensington.

"Capitol Tech is the only college in the country that has a four-year program in electronic engineering technology," said Sheryl Mintz, director of the school's office responsible for handling foreign students. "We teach practical application rather than theory. And that's what the Third World countries are looking for."

Of the school's 800 students, 133 are foreign, just under half of whom are here on government scholarships, she said.

"These things will not continue indefinitely," said American University's Berendzen. "There is a very strong sense of national pride in many of these developing countries. Most are now building universities of their own and pouring millions into them. Eventually, for instance, the bright, young Kuwaiti student will not find it obligatory to go overseas for a good education."

"There are still certain fields, like rubber technology, that my country prefers to send students to England for," said Tahir. "You must remember that my country was a British colony, so all my bosses and predecessors were trained and educated in England.

"But the last five years it has turned around," he said. "You have the technology and the practical experience we need."