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Breaking down barriers at Kem Muhibbah: an interview with Jason Wee

Written by Iman Amran, IDEAS Intern under Democracy and Governance Unit

About Jason Wee

Jason Wee was an intern at IDEAS in 2017 under the Democracy and Governance Unit. He studied at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University with a minor in Statistics and Machine Learning & Cognitive Science. After interning at IDEAS, Jason worked with Dr. Eric Olmedo at the Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA) in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) – assisting in various research subjects like food sociology as well as workplace organisation and community. In the summer of 2019, Jason co-founded a non-profit organisation, Architects of Diversity (AOD) with the support of the Princeton School.

About AOD

Jason is the co-founder and lead coordinator of Architects of Diversity, an initiative to bridge identity groups and communities among youth in Malaysia. AOD develops and implements programmes for empathy and conflict resolution, particularly among secondary school students. One of the main programmes led by AOD is Kem Muhibbah, a programme organised in collaboration with ABIM and Dong Zong and various NGOs to develop interracial connections and improve racial understanding among secondary school students in Malaysia. AOD served as the primary partner for curriculum development and impact assessment. Kem Muhibbah brought together 77 students from various educational institutions and streams on 13 – 15 December, 2019. (MKini report here).

AOD Team Photo (Jason on far left)

Jason was interviewed by Aira Azhari, the head of our Democracy and Governance Unit to explore more on AOD and Kem Muhibbah.

Keys: Aira (AA), Jason (JW)

AA: Can you explain what AOD’s mission is? How many of you are running it?

JW: In Architects of Diversity, we primarily believe that we need to create that space for Malaysian youth to feel vulnerable and able to discuss difficult topics. Apart from that, it is also about meeting peers at a level they would not have in their day-to-day life. Given the huge fragmentation of schools in Malaysia, oftentimes a lot of kids don’t have the opportunity to form deep friendships with people from outside of their groups. Thus, our primary goal is to provide platforms; not only providing those spaces by running camps and workshops, but secondly to also develop the curriculum to curate that space to ensure that we balance both building deeper connections and empathy with learning the skills to navigate conflicts between groups. That’s what Architects of Diversity is about. Those are two very difficult things especially as a small NGO. And when I say us, it’s primarily me and two others but we have around 10 to 15 United World College (UWC) alumni that we often call on. When we ran Kem Muhibbah we had two other UWC alumni that helped out.

AA: You described facilitating this sort of interaction between our young people who don’t have the opportunity because of the silos that we live in. What kind of tools do you use to facilitate those kinds of interactions? You mentioned Dr. Ananthi, how does she come in with her work?

JW: Dr. Ananthi’s work primarily focuses on intergroup contact. The theory is that in order for contact to produce positive outcomes, a certain set of conditions need to be met. That’s the theoretical aspect of it and that’s where Dr. Ananthi covers. Where AOD comes in is that we put it in actual practice. Our approach is that in order to examine the view from oneself to the outside world, you first need to start asking questions about your own identity and attempt to understand those things first. Our theory becomes a three-step process. First, it’s “Who Am I?”, so it might sound a little existential but that is the primary thing we start at. Understanding who you are, what identity groups you fall into, what are your experiences. For example, what stereotypes have you experienced? What kind of biases do you have? So all those things fall in the “Who Am I?” – examining it from personal end first. I think that’s the most important thing because oftentimes, especially Malaysian youth, they are clueless in this phase of growing up. Especially in camps where they come and they’re really scared at first. The first day is all about breaking that ice and deforming all their typical habits and routines of falling into comfortable places, and building that space for them to feel comfortable in interacting. So in anything we do, for any long camp that’s at least two days we usually start with a community agreement. A community agreement is basically setting down ground rules on how we should interact and what norms shall everyone practise.  We get everyone on the same page and establish that sense of vulnerability and safety for the students. Afterwards, after “Who am I”, we ask “Who is my community?”. That extends from just examining yourself to examining other people around you. At this phase we have this benefit of putting them in small intimate places where really structured conversations help them to get to know other people. If we go about our day-to-day lives we can know someone but we don’t know their stories, their concerns. We don’t know their experiences with discrimination, their backgrounds and we also don’t contrast them with our own (experiences). That’s why the first step is really important – to establish that safe space and allow them to engage with each other on a very human level. It strips them down of the hesitations that you often find everyday in Malaysia. In the third phase, we ask “Who is my society?”, and that starts interrogating on a broader level in society. It questions what their responsibilities are to society – who do I owe an obligation to? For example, we ran a refugee simulation short course where they had to, as a community, decide whether to take in refugees or not. And then pairing that experience with sustained information about the realities in Malaysia helps them connect their experiences not only from the camp but putting that in contrast with the lived experiences of people they might not have met. So it extends to the worldview outside.

 

AA: How did you develop those methods? Was it something you learned in UWC?

JW: I think all of us have experienced that in UWC to some extent, whether structurally or unstructured. But Sanggeet Mithra who was the other lead coordinator of the short course; she has a lot of experience working with short courses in Spain and Turkey. She’s a very experienced coordinator, so we borrowed different elements of short courses from other countries and patched it together to develop our own curriculum for our programmes.

AA: How did Kem Muhibbah come about and how did you manage the relationships with Dong Zong and ABIM – who people would think are on the opposite ends of the spectrum?

JW: I think the perception that a lot of people get wrong about Dong Zong is that they are a monolith. What shapes people’s perceptions are probably the things that always come up in the news. But from my interactions with them, they’ve done really good work and they are very acutely aware of the silos that many Chinese independent schools have – they’re trying to break that. Before Kem Muhibbah they were already doing school visits or day-trips with Islamic schools like ABIM. ABIM has also been very supportive and cooperative in wanting to reach out across the aisle. So I was very thankful that Dong Zong and ABIM, together with all the other organisations were very cooperative with shaping Kem Muhibbah together.

AA: When I hear the word “camp”, “unity” and “identity” it brings back bad memories of cliche camps that we used to attend in school. SMKs would have motivational camps (Kem Motivasi) which I think are well-intentioned but quite superficial in their approach. How do you (Kem Muhibbah) differentiate yourself from these camps?

JW: I think I mentioned this in the Malaysiakini article. I don’t like the word unity and harmony. Those two words, in the correct context, can be important in unity and diversity but I think in the Malaysian context, we tend to take unity as: everyone should be the same. It’s uniformity rather than unity and that has been made synonymous with each other. There is a worry that if we are so focused on harmony and unity, we ignore the possibility for conflict and the actual real differences and experiences that happen. We’re different from the other camps because firstly, we zoom in on the differences. We don’t only talk about commonalities but we also want to emphasise that we live very different lives so addressing those things is important.

One of the main activities we always do is the Fishbowl activity. For example, in really small groups they have papers around the floor saying gender, skin colour, nationality, race, income class. Then we will give them a prompt. Example: “In form one, the identity I felt most aware of was..” – and they would go to these different papers and stand there. So you can see that we are NOT emphasising that everyone is experiencing skin colour. We’re not saying that everyone experiences gender the same way. But we ensure that we create those spaces where facilitators come in and say “Okay, does anyone want to share their experiences with that particular aspect?”. I think especially in Kem Muhibbah, that was the most important part; because immediately after that activity a lot of people were shocked at their different experiences. That shock is a necessary element for a lot of Malaysian youth to come out of their comfort zone. We had students sharing about their home conditions, school conditions and all these different experiences that for a very sheltered kid, or a kid that hasn’t interacted much is very, very world-changing. I think that’s one of the things we do that a lot of camps don’t do. The second thing is that we instigate conflict and teach them how to manage it well. I think this is definitely a work in progress and even on a wider scale of things, most adults probably find it challenging as well. We see videos of Parliament, they’re shouting and screaming at each other. That is the epitome of conflict resolution – how you approach disagreement and how you approach fundamental incompatibility in preferences and negotiate those things. In the Malaysiakini article, I think it discussed one of the activities that I altered – it’s called Earthquake. The students were set in different groups and were given a set of rules that they have to defend in order to make law; similar to debating in Parliament but more of a mock. What they didn’t know is that all their rules will contradict with someone else’s rule. We gave them an hour and they still couldn’t get one proposition. It isn’t too much about the final product, but at some point, at least half an hour in, there will be a screaming match between them. And that’s so important because I think for a lot of camps, once they see people screaming they’d shy away from that. They’d say “I don’t want to touch this (issue).” Because it’s too difficult.

And so what’s most important is to approach that in the first place. It is to teach them those communication skills but also the emotional control, and understanding what needs to be done to negotiate with different parties. After the initial screaming match, some could agree on all the rules but I still felt that some of them were also not giving opportunities for other students to voice their opinion. In these programmes, usually a few leaders will arise within these huge groups and then they start talking among themselves. But then unknowingly, they will always leave out a small group of students who are too shy to voice out and they end up disagreeing. In this negotiation process, how do you ensure that voices that don’t have the opportunity to be heard are also heard? I think at some point, at least a few leaders in this camp, they realised that some people were kind of dissatisfied or failed to understand what was going on. This was also due to the huge language barrier in Kem Muhibbah, compared to the short course. It was gigantic. At one point, we had a little political coalition going on. We had three boys; Malay, Chinese and Indian, who were delivering the same content in three different languages. We see that already in our political parties but you know it’s driven by necessity, and understanding the process that we need to communicate with different groups and different languages is very important and the students managed to get that through this activity. I think that’s the two elements that we primarily distinguish ourselves from – understanding the differences.

AA: What was the biggest challenge that you faced organising Kem Muhibbah? I can’t begin to imagine how kids from entirely different backgrounds come together, and in just three days, break down those barriers that have been there forever. I imagine language, as you said, is a big problem and that is essentially our national problem at a very micro scale. How did you overcome that problem and what did you take away from it? Is there anything you would do differently for future Muhibbah camps?

JW: Language is definitely an issue. That’s true for any randomly selected group of students in Malaysia. Kem Muhibbah is interesting because the majority were from very far ends of the spectrum. But we did have a few SMK students who were very proficiently bilingual or trilingual – they became very important centers of the community and they helped to bridge the different ends of the spectrum as mediators and translators. I think for the next Kem Muhibbah, I would increase that share of these cultural mediators. In real life, we have these friends as well, we probably unconsciously have them and they connect us to different communities all the time. It was really difficult to study and understand their role or to even observe because there were so few of them. But how do we connect these different bridges? Who acts as these bridges in real life? I think to understand who they are; we are one step closer to that through Kem Muhibbah.

The second difficulty is: any Malaysian trying to do a programme needs to be aware of the trade off between size and duration of programme. In the short course we had 31 kids for one week. That’s really long with a small group. If you could join an x and y axis between the size and duration – the relationship should be flat. Thus for every 10 students you add on, you should add in one more day of duration time to the camp. While I know we hit that initial hump of breaking that ice, we definitely needed more time to solidify that individual network of friendships which I think was purely a time limitation problem. But the time limitation was also due to the size. The smaller the groups, the less time you need. Obviously the minimum time you need is three days to have that momentum going. Things like national service or things like Saddiq’s programme, I think it was called Future Youth Leaders – those camps are huge, they have big cohorts and the fear of big cohorts is that not only do you get trapped in your group of friends but it allows you to form your own circles within that group. That is why I’m a really huge proponent for smaller groups moving forward.

If you are interested in reading more about Jason’s work, here is the link to his undergraduate thesis “Majmuk in Practice: Intergroup Contact for Prejudice Reduction in Malaysian Schools” at the Princeton School of International and Public Affairs.

2020-07-23T14:21:56+00:00 17th July 2020|Opinion|Comments Off on Breaking down barriers at Kem Muhibbah: an interview with Jason Wee