…and other things we learned in our Malaysian university classes.
As a group, our four months of living in Malaysia will no doubt generate hundreds of stories and thousands of pictures. So it is easy for people back home to think that our time here is all about enjoying local food and tolerating large lizards (or vice versa). But we also represent a group of people, trained in the American private liberal arts tradition, learning at a prestigious Asian public university ten times the size of Gustavus. So in addition to learning how to use our phones, the coins, and ordering coffee, we are also taking interesting and challenging classes that teach us everything from “ecosystem services” to “when to kill your Mom and Dad.”
So here is Joel’s run-down of our four classes (called “modules”) at Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the kinds of topics we discuss.
Religious Experiences in Malaysia
This course is an introduction to the beliefs and practices within the main religious traditions of Malaysia: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Christianity. We also discuss the notion of ultimate reality, ethics, salvation and afterlife, rituals, justifications for beliefs, religious experience, and religious pluralism.
How do you balance ethics with respect for religious belief? Consider a culture that believes that your body in the afterlife is forever in the condition the body had at death. The religion understands a woman at age 90 who is weak and blind will spend eternity in that condition. Thus, it is the duty of loving offspring to kill their parents (commit parricide) before decrepitude occurs. What is the role of the outsider here – should the stranger interfere with a well-established ‘merciful’ religious ritual? As we learn about religious practices, how do you balance moral relativism with cultural respect?
[Disclaimer: After the Living Diversity Malaysia program ends, the institutions of Gustavus Adolphus College and Universiti Sains Malaysia and their representatives are not legally responsible for any suspicious loss of parents.]
This course aims at introducing students to the studies of tropical biodiversity, ecology, and conservation biology as applied in Malaysia. The program is field-based, with only 90 minutes spent in the classroom each week, and the rest conducted in some of the most biologically diverse and threatened ecosystems in the world. Field activities range from visiting orang utans, to counting aquatic insects and measuring sea turtles!
Why do the tropics, and Malaysia in particular, have so many different kinds of plants and animals? The greatest number of species found in the oceans are found in tropical coral reef ecosystems. The greatest variety of land species are found in tropical rainforest ecosystems. We live near BOTH of these ecosystems, in a nation that contains one in five of the described species on the planet. Why? Is it the greater land area? (after all, the Earth is at its widest in the tropics) Is it the heat? (higher temperatures in cells should increase the rate of mutation) Is it the stability over the millenia? (Malaysia never has experienced an Ice Age that wiped out previous creatures) Is it that species cause more species? (Once a new plant species forms, a new plant-eater can evolve now, too!) OR can more than one of these be correct?
Malay Language and Culture
This is a basic level Bahasa Malaysia course, starting with pronunciation and basic grammar, with an aim to creating basic conversations. Here is where we learn to count numbers, order food, and wish our teachers a good afternoon and basically how to get up in the morning. The class also exposes students to the culture of Malays, from holidays and festivals, to our first field trip, and the apparent need to feed guests every 30 minutes.
Why is English so complicated? Bahasa Malaysia is very challenging for us, as our habit of looking for Greek/Latin root words is simply not helpful. So every, every word must be learned via rote memorization. But the grammar? Oh pleeez … this is an absurdly simple language. No verb conjugation, no male/female pronouns, the pronunciation is straightforward without special letters (no umlauts here). Can’t ask for more than that!
Several classes in one, Living Diversity combines the approaches of social sciences and humanities in examining Malaysia’s diversity. The social sciences provide Malaysia’s political and sociological history that will serve as background knowledge to understanding contemporary issues in Malaysia. Against the backdrop of the nation’s history, the diversity theme re-appears in an examination of literature about and from Malaysia.
What does it mean to be a citizen? The news around BlackLivesMatter, the US Presidential election, and Syrian refugees means that we are all being asked (or are being told) what it means to be “an American. “ Malaysia has the same question, but from a very different viewpoint. Malaysia’s founding Constitution is based on negotiation and race, rather than one based on revolution and ideology. Malaysians must write their religion on most government documents. Children go to one of five separate school systems (college is the first time Indians and Chinese and Malays attend integrated classes). Ethnic Malays and indigenous peoples hold a separate legal status, defined in the constitution, from Malaysians of Indian and Chinese descent. And yet Malaysia is one of the most (if not the most) politically stable nations in Southeast Asia. So what, if anything, defines being “Malaysian”?
It’s not all fun and games…Our First Batch of Homework:
- Read a chapter from Bash’s Forgiveness and Christian Ethics. Respond to the assertion that God cannot forgive a wrongdoer on behalf of the victim.
- Memorize and recite (or sing) a song in Bahasa Malaysia, like this one (Americans will recognize the tune!). This assignment will no doubt be awkward and embarrassing, so group leaders definitely shall video our efforts for later blackmail…
- Read the scientific journal article “Twenty landmark papers in biodiversity conservation.” Choose at least two issues as personally interesting, and consider these as potential topics for a scientific review presentation at semester’s end.
- Provide evidence of the ‘stable tension’ in which Malaysia’s multiple ethnicities exist. In other words, create an essay, backed by observations from campus, field trips, the media, etc., that describes “segregation with cooperation.”