The Malay Heritage Foundation

Sembang Ilmu Plus (+) Series #05 – Empowering Youth for Cultural Excellence

The Malay Heritage Foundation‘s (MHF) Sembang Ilmu Plus (+) Series (SIP(+)) returned with an enriching fifth session in November 2023. Launched on 14 March 2020 as a spin-off from MHF’s prior event, Sembang Ilmu, SIP(+) stands out as a unique platform crafted by youths for youths. This series is meticulously curated to captivate and empower young minds, immersing them in the intricate realms of heritage, culture, and the arts. While Sembang Ilmu primarily catered to Malay youths, MHF, in collaboration with Andika Warisan Temasek Foundation, has extended the reach of this platform to youths from all ethnic groups, thus introducing the new series as SIP(+).

Emcee, Mr. Muhammad Fadli Idris, welcoming the audience. (Credit: MHF)

Saturday, 18 November 2023 – Mr. Muhammad Fadli Idris, emcee and Assistant General Manager of MHF, took the stage to inaugurate the event. With warmth, he extended greetings to the audience and panellists gathered in the Screening Room at The Arts House. Following a brief introduction of SIP(+), he introduced and welcomed the forum’s esteemed guest moderator, Dr. Azhar Ibrahim Alwee.

Guest Moderator, Dr. Azhar Ibrahim, setting the context and introducing the panellists. (Credit: MHF)

Dr. Azhar Ibrahim, a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore (NUS), brings a wealth of knowledge to the forefront. His expertise encompasses Malay-Indonesian literature and ideologies of development. His research interests include the sociology of literature, social theology, Islamic thought, critical literacy, and Malay-Indonesian intellectual development. Noteworthy among his published works are “Emancipated Education” (2020), “Historical Imagination and Cultural Responses to Colonialism and Nationalism: A Critical Malaysian) Perspective” (2017), “Contemporary Islamic Discourse in the Malay-Indonesia World” (2014) and “Narrating Presence: Awakening from Cultural Amnesia” (2014).

Setting the stage for the enlightening discourse ahead, Dr. Azhar opened with a poignant quote from the UNESCO World Heritage Convention in 1972, “The cultural and natural heritage is among the priceless and irreplaceable assets, not only of each nation but of humanity as a whole.” He emphasised that the loss of any of these valuable assets constitutes an impoverishment of the heritage of humanity. Further, he adds that “parts of that heritage, because of their exceptional qualities, can be considered to be of outstanding universal value”. In underlining the importance of protecting and preserving heritage, he posed the crucial follow-up question: how do we go about doing it?

Dr. Azhar highlighted the value of discoursing on heritage, especially among youths. Without this, the imagination to nurture, protect and develop heritage can never be developed. With this, he welcomed the first speaker, Ms. Sokhna Fall, to delve into her presentation titled “Code Mixed and Word – Formation Characteristics of Chinese in Singapore”.

Ms. Sokhna Fall sharing on the importance of embracing your culture. (Credit: MHF)

Ms. Sokhna Fall is a fourth-year exchange student at the Department of Computer Science, National University of Singapore (NUS), originating from UNC Chapel Hill in the USA. As a first-generation American of Senegalese heritage, Ms. Sokhna has always seen the world from two different lenses. She has become open-minded, curious, and adaptable with many interests.

Commencing her presentation with a personal introduction, Ms. Sokhna shared that her parents are from Senegal on the west coast of Africa. Growing up in America presented her with the challenge of navigating two distinct worlds – at home, she embraced her Senegalese roots in language and attire, but outside, she was forced to immerse herself in American culture. Unfortunately, her distinctive roots subjected her to unwarranted questions and prejudices in school, fuelling a conflict in her understanding of her identity and leaving her feeling lost.

However, this internal conflict also prompted Ms. Sokhna to realise that embracing her unique qualities was crucial to understanding who she was. This newfound confidence enabled her to stand up against negative influences, understanding that those who sought to undermine her were only battling their internal conflict. She then emphasised the importance of embracing one’s culture and encouraged the audience to do the same, highlighting how it creates a sense of identity and belonging.

Transitioning to the core question of why one should embrace one’s cultural heritage, Ms. Sokhna asserted that understanding cultural heritage is fundamental to building a solid foundation for personal identity. Consequently, one remains grounded in his beliefs and morals by having a strong sense of identity. She quoted Alexander Hamilton, stating, “If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for everything,” underscoring the importance of being steadfast in one’s beliefs.

Moving on, Ms. Sokhna explored the role of arts in preserving cultural heritage. She posited that arts serve as a powerful medium for self-expression, offering unique ways to explore and communicate cultural heritage. Additionally, participating in cultural arts often involves workshops and events that foster a sense of community with individuals who share similar interests. Importantly, traditional arts, rich in stories, symbols, and techniques passed through generations, connect individuals with their culture and the wisdom and experiences of their ancestors.

Despite its countless benefits, Ms. Sokhna acknowledged the presence of challenges, including unequal access to cultural resources due to socioeconomic disparities and the influence of social media, which often promotes homogeneity. Additionally, cultural stereotypes further hinder genuine exploration; when the world has negatively predefined your identity, you feel discouraged from seeking answers for yourself.

Ms. Sokhna proposed strategies to address these challenges, advocating for an inclusive cultural education in schools and communities. To maximise its benefits, efforts must be made to increase the accessibility of cultural resources. Additionally, it is essential to foster an environment that encourages open dialogue and communication. Ms. Sokhna also urges youths whose shared interests provide a platform to exchange stories and overcome challenges.

To conclude, Ms. Sokhna encouraged the audience to learn about their culture and share it with others. Yet, in doing so, she emphasises the importance of not viewing one’s culture as superior to others. Nonetheless, embracing uniqueness, both in oneself and others, is critical. As she concludes, she quoted Audre Lorde: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

Ms. Aileen Liang sharing her personal experience growing up, which piqued her interest in the topic. (Credit: MHF)

A lover of words and the worlds spun out of them, Ms. Aileen Liang recently graduated from Nanyang Technological University with a Bachelor’s in English Literature. With inclinations towards women’s writing and Southeast Asian literature, you can find some of her critical work at Singapore Unbound’s SP Blog and SUSPECT journal.

Titled “The Other Bodies of Southeast Asian Women,” Ms. Aileen commenced her presentation by sharing her connection to the topic. Growing up with superstitions from her mother’s rural Kelantan upbringing, she reflected on the dichotomy of fear and attraction towards supernatural figures, sparking her research into regional supernatural entities.

Ms. Aileen’s presentation revolved around three supernatural figures from Southeast Asia, namely the Pontianak, Phi Krasue and Manananggal, delving into their origins and her interpretation of them as figures of female liberation.

Ms. Aileen introduced Barbara Creed’s “The Monstrous Feminine” idea to start. In her research, Creed found a lack of scholarship about the female as a monster. At best, previous critiques only talked about how women should be portrayed through their biological function as victims in horror films. Hence, Creed introduced the “Monstrous Feminine”, an idea that pushes one to reconsider the role of gender in the construction of monstrous female figures that goes beyond the simple reversal of the male monster. She then introduced the concept of the ‘abject’ by Julia Kristeva, emphasising its role in symbolising the imaginary border separating the self from perceived threats and ambivalences surrounding these boundaries.

Beginning with the Pontianak, Ms. Aileen introduced her as the beautiful young woman, sometimes with an infant in her arms, who transforms into a terrifying hag with claw-like fingernails and fangs with distinctive long black hair that conceals a hole in her neck. Both the “wronged woman and unruly killer”, and this shifting form of the Pontianak serve as a critique of the treatment of wayward women in the society, challenging patriarchal norms. Interestingly, the distinctive Pontianak’s laughter, as discussed by Alicia Izharuddin, can also be read as a tool to resist the norm of defining women by their physical bodies, establishing a new form of female presence that has no physical limitations,

Moving beyond the Pontianak, Ms. Aileen discusses two other regional supernatural figures, namely the Phi Krasues and Manananggal, that bear similarities worthy of discussion. Similar to Pontianak, these ghostly figures appear as beautiful women, except that they go a step further by being reduced to their innards, distancing themselves from their biological reproductive functions. Clearly, these figures traverse the prevailing symbolic boundaries imposed on females, which are often confined to reproductive functions, revealing the instability of these binaries – so precarious that they can be collapsed, making way for women to define their desires and identity. 

As she concluded her presentation, the big question emerged: what next? What do we do with the potential these supernatural figures offer?

She advocated for the continued retelling of their stories, albeit urging a reinterpretation of the narrative that honours women in a liberating light. These supernatural figures, she asserted, must be read as a way to question, dismantle and envision new ways that women’s bodies might be depicted. Only then can we begin visualising a world where a biological function does not constrict a woman’s identity and desires.

Mr. Tauhid touching on the role of literature in forging critical thinking (Credit: MHF)

Mr. Mohamad Tauhid is an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore (NUS), Department of Malay Studies. Having taken up Malay Literature in his JC stint, Tauhid has since realised the value and richness of Malay literature and thus strives to pursue his passion. He has also been appointed as a Sahabat Sastera(Friends of Malay Literature) and has presented at several Literature events.

Titled “From Readers to (Critical) Thinkers”, Mr. Tauhid’s presentation explored the profound role of literary heritage in shaping the critical minds of readers, particularly the youth. To set the tone, he shared Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo’s words that encapsulate the essence of his presentation on the power of literature. According to Ngũgĩ, “Literature results from conscious acts of men in society… At the collective level, literature, as a product of men’s intellectual and imaginative activity, embodies, in words and images, the tensions, conflicts, contradictions at the heart of a community’s being and process of becoming.”

Additionally, Mr. Tauhid adds by asserting that literati function as ‘intellectuals’ who, as outlined by Syed Hussein Alatas, are characterised by their ability to (1) pose problems, (2) define problems, (3) analyse problems, and (4) provide solutions to the problems. Building on this, he discussed how literary heritage sheds light on concrete issues in politics, society, and religion.

In the realm of politics, Mr. Tauhid demonstrated how literature exposes social structures that perpetuate injustice. For one, Munsyi Abdullah, in documenting his voyages, observed and critiqued how members of the court circles enjoyed immunity from the law even when committing a major offence like murder. Further, in other texts, rulers are given guidelines on how to rule ethically. In Taj Us-Salatin, for instance, universal values of justice and fairness become a recurring theme, emphasising the rewards for rulers who are just and wrath for those who fail to rule justly. While written in specific contexts, Mr. Tauhid highlights that these ideas of justice and fairness are universal values expected in any political structure. Literature plays a role as preservers of heritage in the emphasis on these universal values.

Shifting to social issues, Mr. Tauhid highlighted literature’s role in addressing problems like poverty, which remains an ongoing issue worldwide today. Unlike blaming the poor, critical literati accurately recognise poverty as a structural issue. Munsyi Abdullah, for instance, understood that the lack of motivation to work hard stemmed from the exploitative nature of feudal powers who would take away any meagre money and sustenance the locals obtained.

Additionally, Munsyi noted the elites’ disregard for education, even for their children, which undeniably hampers societal progress. Beyond education, Mr. Tauhid suggests that literary heritage has also critically addressed social issues such as oppression, gender, and corruption.

Lastly, Mr. Tauhid pointed out how literary heritage promotes universal religious values, including recognising the sanctity of human intellect. Citing Bustan Al-Salatin, he posited that using intellect transforms knowledge into something beneficial for himself and others, thereby elevating one’s honour and dignity.

Additionally, Mr. Tauhid underscored the importance of understanding religion that gives premium to the dignity of humanity. While independent reasoning and the use of intellect are essential, they must not undermine human dignity. This principle, as seen in Thamarat al-Muhimmah by Raja Ali Haji, prohibits actions that compromise human dignity.

In short, Mr. Tauhid reinforced that literary heritage constantly unveils real societal problems and ongoing issues that otherwise remain silenced. Through the emphasis on universal values and the ongoing discussion of relevant contemporary issues, literature is both the preserver and moderniser of heritage, showcasing the critical understanding of writers. As readers engage with these works, they are exposed to relevant critical thoughts, contributing to the sharpening of minds and developing critical thinking. For youths to cultivate critical thinking, literary heritage is indispensable, shaping them “From Readers to Critical Thinkers.”

Ms. Shakila Zen sharing her first experience volunteering with KUASA. (Credit: MHF)

Ms. Shakila Zen is currently the media officer for Persatuan Aktivis Sahabat Alam (KUASA), a Malaysia-based non-government organisation (NGO) for environmental issues, biodiversity, forest, grassroots communities, and advocacy. With years of experience as an active volunteer for KUASA since 2016, her presentation, titled “The Environment as Heritage: A Malaysia’s Activist’s Insight”, revolves around her rich personal experience as an activist in Malaysia.

She began by sharing a quote from Vandana Shiva that resonated well with her: “Real development only happens when the people exercise their rights. We shouldn’t have to give up our rights for someone else’s benefit. We want development, not destruction.” This accurately echoes what Ms. Shakila and her organisation advocate for – development without destruction.

News about orang asli (indigenous people) building blockades to protect their forests and customary lands sparked her involvement with the organisation. Curious to explore the reality of environmental issues in Malaysia, she joined KUASA’s Latihan Aktivis Alam Sekitar (LASAK) as a participant, where she witnessed first-hand the displacement of indigenous communities living under a dam. 

With that, Ms. Shakila highlighted some critical environmental issues in Malaysia, foremost among them deforestation, which has adversely affected grassroots communities like indigenous people and fishermen. Further, this environmental degradation has led to human-wildlife conflicts, such as tigers encroaching on villages, compounded by extreme weather conditions. Deforestation aside, Ms. Shakila shared the recurring and pressing issue of annual flooding in Malaysia. The expanding impact of flooding is attributed to inadequate mitigation and water restoration efforts, resulting in the destruction of homes and the displacement of many people each year. Ironically, despite receiving substantial annual rainfall, Malaysia faces water scarcity during droughts, underscoring deficiencies in mitigation and water storage infrastructure, even in urban areas.

Moving on, Ms. Shakila highlighted the collaborative efforts by various NGOs to address these environmental challenges, citing the “Hutan Pergi Mana” campaign, which involves eight groups working collectively to protect the North Kuala Langat Reserve Forest. The campaign garnered ministerial support and continues to gain traction today with the hashtag #hutanpergimana.

Despite commendable efforts, challenges persist, especially for youth activists often labelled as non-experts, troublemakers, or anti-development. Worse, supported by foreign funders, they are being seen as traitors. Consequently, volunteers face intimidation and threats from authorities, political personnel and even public members.

Yet, these challenges do not undermine the enduring value of the cause, emphasising the importance of viewing the environment as heritage and fostering discourse around it. Such discourses enlighten individuals on their connection to the earth, asserting that humanity is intertwined with the planet’s fate.

Ending off, Ms. Shakila underscored the inseparable link between humans and nature, asserting that a thriving environment positively impacts humankind. She advocated for a multi-faceted approach involving political will, public education, academic research, and cultural movements to address environmental issues. Ultimately, preserving nature is a long-term effort that involves a collaborative effort from all segments of the community.

Panellists addressing questions from the audience during the Q&A segment. (Credit: MHF)

The forum concluded with a Q&A segment where the panellists responded to several questions from the on-site audience.  SIP(+) is a spin-off from MHF’s previous event, Sembang Ilmu Series (SIS), a discursive platform for our youth and young professionals to deliberate and discuss issues related to the socio-cultural development of the Malays in Singapore from a contemporary perspective. Differentiating itself from the latter, SIP(+) aims to extend its outreach to youths from other ethnic groups. Through these sessions, participants from various ethnic backgrounds are exposed to issues and intrinsic cultural values that shape the Malay community and the perspectives of their Malay counterparts. Ultimately, SIP(+) seeks to sustain interest in arts and heritage matters over the long term. With this, MHF hopes to nurture thought leadership for future reference, build connectivity and creativity through creative collaborations, and groom future role models and icons for the culture and heritage sector, motivating and inspiring others.

Group photo with MHF General Manager, Mdm. Asmah Alias (most right), moderator Dr. Azhar Ibrahim (most left), and the panel. (Credit: MHF)

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  1. Full Video: Part 1 | Part 2
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