In April 2018 we proudly facilitated our second annual month-long trip to Malaysia for our partners the Australian Catholic University.

We love hosting ACU International Development students on their development education immersion programs in both Cambodia and Malaysia. This blog post looks back on the transformative travel experience we shared with a great bunch of students across enchanting Malaysia…

By carefully framing experiences and facilitating powerful reflection activities, our learning journeys for students encourage students to step bravely outside of their comfort zones, challenge themselves to explore new ideas, consider new perspectives, adopt a critical mind-set, and question preconceptions. Malaysia is a fantastic location to fulfil these objectives thanks to its breathtakingly diverse landscapes, its complex and multi-layered cultural heritage, and all the inspirational people we are able to connect with there. 

During our adventure across Western Malaysia and Sabah in Borneo, we were privileged to meet with a variety of change-makers. Not only did they teach us about local social and environmental challenges and how they address them, but by sharing their lessons learned from working in the field, challenged our presumptions to new heights. Here are some of our key takeaways from this eye-opening experience:

dscf2127‘Humanising’ development is key

The global refugee ‘crisis’ is all over international media at the moment, and even some global leaders are contributing to the fear culture of ‘the other’. We were honoured to have the opportunity to understand more about the migrant situation in the Malaysian context, as it is a key transit location for thousands of refugees.

We spoke with the UNHCR and a grassroots Rohingya organisation to understand more about the reality in Malaysia, learning about the journey from registering with the UN on arrival, to everyday life for a refugee and their hopes for the future.

We were so happy to have the chance to participate in an open-house dinner with the Picha Project, an initiative that provides job opportunities to families from marginalised groups by creating a platform for them to cater food to the public. Not only was the food served by our Afghan hosts some of the best of our lives (seriously!), but having the opportunity to be welcomed into a stranger’s home and hear the real stories of their journey to Malaysia was a true privilege. Sharing a meal with people many fear broke stereotypes, nurtured empathy, and left participants inspired to share this new-found ‘truth’ with others. And for our hosts, they are able to benefit from dignified employment (which is not otherwise permitted under the complex laws applicable for refugees living in Malaysia) and have their stories heard.

“The Picha Project dinner humanises the refugee experience and opens your mind to the reality of the global crisis, not only in Malaysia” – Lily Di Sera, student

homestay-kg-cho-ipohEducation is the most powerful weapon

Spending time with orang asli (indigenous peoples) communities is always a highlight of our Malaysia programs. Huddled over an open fire in the jungle preparing a traditional meal in bamboo is a great time to connect and enjoy stories from our hosts.

Many of our students arrived in Malaysia with the belief that education can always be nothing but positive, but by spending time listening to the real experiences of local people and experts in indigenous studies, it unfolded it’s more complicated than we might first assume. We learned that some children were required to convert to Islam to be granted access to state-run schools, and this in ways stripped them of their native identity. We also learned that inequalities in the classroom still exist for indigenous children, and as a result, school drop out can be high.

We loved learning from the PACOS Trust in Sabah and respected their approach to harvest traditional knowledge and customs, including community native language, handicrafts, traditional medicine, and other skills, at their community learning centres. To learn more about the challenges orang asli people continue to face, we recommend visiting the COAC website.

“Whilst on our educational experience in Malaysia, our perception of development theories and practices were challenged. For example, education is said to be the resolution to poverty and a multitude of other developmental issues. Though, we witnessed people who had been stripped from their culture, religion, ways of life, and even from their basic human rights, due to being forced to partake in an education system” – Alice Slatter, student.

xuan-and-orang-asli-bidanThe ‘indigenous imperative’

By week three, students had already enhanced their critical thinking skills and were confidently questioning approaches to development. We had encountered initiatives that continued to face barriers for change or success for what seemed to us as an obvious reason – the lack of local ownership or engagement. From our interactions with several indigenous communities, we learned that their ancient wisdom was so often disregarded, yet their traditional approaches to caring for places embody sustainability principles being reinvented by modern NGOs!

So when we met with LEAP Spiral and the Forever Sabah team, we were blown away by their approach to include so many stakeholders to support the transition towards a diversified, equitable, circular economy for their state of Sabah. Their founder, Cynthia Ong, described the concept of ‘the indigenous imperative’ as the key to this strategy’s success. “The indigenous imperative is about each person connecting to an authentic sense of belonging to a landscape – where we belong to a place, rather than it belongs to us. Where we choose to take root and give our lives to tending and cultivating the soil, be it metaphoric or literal. When we belong and connect deeply to place, it directly affects our behaviour and choices. Everyone can access this experience, and it may be an imperative if we are to begin treating and taking care of where we live / earth as home. In this context, indigenousness is a quality of connection and relationship, one that is deeply intimate and reciprocal”.




“The program involved meeting and engaging with non-governmental organisations who focused on different human rights issues. This gave us the opportunity to observe development agencies in action. Towards the end of the trip, it became clear that Ayana Journeys had us meeting with certain practitioners to observe and contrast different approaches to development, giving us a greater opportunity to observe and critically analyse development in action, reflecting Ayana Journey’s capacity to design meaningful academic tours. Our leader, Amy, had a wonderful ability to create a space which stimulated discussion and encouraged equal participation. Similar activities were designed to express interests, concerns and to familiarise one another within the group which contributed to the positive group dynamics. Overall the journey was tremendously positive for our class, creating experiences that cannot be replicated in a textbook or classroom” – Tommy O’Connell, student.

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