2007 Student-Faculty Fellows: Eckerd College
Joint Project: “The Confrontation between Cultural and Religious Traditions and Modernity among Youth in Malaysia”
Mentor: Nancy Janus
Students: Jonathan Boinner, Melissa Christie, Zoe Friedman, Countney Graham
The goal of this faculty mentored research was to study the lives of Malaysian youth as they live day-to-day between the pulls of Islamic tradition and the global consumerism of modernity. The four students interviewed a total of 199 Malaysians between the ages of 15 and 25 in proportions nearly equal to the ethnic mix of the country. The interview questions focused on school, general interests, religious practice, social and family life, and views about government. In addition to conducting interviews for the joint project, student researchers also focused upon an area of particular interest. Courtney Graham examined the literary expression and consumerism of youth through their blogs, magazines, and books. Zoe Friedman explored the art scene in Malaysia to discover how young people express themselves through visual media. Jonathan Bonner examined the religious beliefs and practices of young people by visiting Buddhist and Hindu temples. Melissa Christie focused her study on family relationships through home-stays with families of the key ethnic groups in Malaysia.
My research focused upon how the religious values of Malaysian youth, many from different religious and ethnic backgrounds, are being altered or manipulated when subjected to the country.s sudden emphasis on consumer living by exploring the tensions arising between religious tradition and an increasingly consumer based society. I discovered that all the Malay youth I interviewed believe Islam to be the most important factor in their lives. Malaysian youth of Indian and Chinese background are not required under Malaysian law to be Muslim. However, I discovered that Chinese, whether Buddhist or Christian, are ethical people committed to doing what is right. Because their ties to Buddhism or Christianity seems less completely defined, Chinese seemed more willing to explore different cultures, especially that of Japan.
While traveling in Thailand at the end of this research experience, I was introduced by Professor Janus to the Baan Unrak Children’s Home, and have decided to remain in Thailand for a year to volunteer my services to this organization.
Before traveling to Malaysia, I believed that globalization was a negative thing, perpetuated on smaller countries by the larger ones. I anticipated that in Malaysia I would find Americanization and the loss of Malaysian culture. Instead, I learned that globalization is bi-directional and that Malaysian culture runs very deep in Malaysian youth. My research focus was on the impact of modernization on the relationships between youth and their families. My information came through interviews with Malaysian youth, their parents, and in home stays with families of Malay and Chinese ethnicity. I discovered that young people deeply respect their elders. I also learned that one of the impacts of modernization is that Malaysian youth now have looser moral standards. Many try to protect their parents by not telling them of their immorality. I also discovered that close family ties are more evident in Malay and Iban families than in Chinese Malaysian families. I also noted that the desire to promote the best in young people causes Malaysians to share responsibility, while in the U.S. it leads to the growth of individuality.
My research focus is on the portrayal of youth expressed through Malaysian art. I met the well-known artist, Charles Cham, in Melaka, and he suggested that today there is no kind of social protest manifest in the art of Malaysian youth. Therefore, art is not utilized by youth to express dissent. I also met the director of the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. We spent time together at the opening of an art exhibit, and I was struck by the lack of protest or impetus to social action in this art. I discovered that most contemporary art is produced for the marketplace, and even in art schools the training is in commercial art rather than the fine arts. Interestingly, there is still a substantial interest in traditional craft arts, and I had the opportunity to see batik made by hand and Iban wall hangings loomed. I intend to return to Malaysia in December for 11 months to work as a teaching assistant in Terrengganu.
In order to develop a more complete understanding about my research project-literature as a medium of communication and reflection of culture, values, and lifestyle-I began to search the internet for youth blogs created in Malaysia, and to read “the Star”, an online version of a major Malaysian newspaper. Once in Malaysia, I discovered that most of the popular literature in bookstores came from England and the United States. There seemed to be few widely known local writers. This may relate to the fact that creative writing is not encouraged in the education system. Most students were focused on studying mathematics, science, business and communications, with the goal of securing a high-paying job.