Not many students can boast that completing their university degree involved sleeping in traditional Borneo long houses and experiencing customary dance, music, costumes and food.
Catherine Phoenix and Pamalyn Hyde were among four Indigenous Australian students from the University of Newcastle who travelled to Malaysia to experience first-hand the lives and customs of some of the country’s many Indigenous peoples.
They met with some of the 80 ethnic groups and sub-groups scattered across Malaysia including the Orang Asli on Peninsula Malaysia; the Rungus and Bundu Tuhan on Sabah; and Sarawak’s Orang Ulu, Bidayuh and Iban.
The students won scholarships to participate in the Global Student Mobility Partnerships program, run by the University Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). They also received additional support from the University of Newcastle to cover airfares and travel expenses.
"I am studying a major in Aboriginal Studies and the trip to Malaysia gave me the chance to compare Indigenous lives there with our own in Australia," explained Pamalyn Hyde, a third-year arts student.
The four-week cultural exchange program, which carried 20 credit points towards the students’ degrees, kicked off with a week of lectures, discussions and presentations at the UKM campus about Malaysia’s Indigenous culture and peoples.
"Malaysia’s Indigenous people are very fortunate in that they have maintained their own language and stories as well as their traditional costumes and dance, and have been able to pass them on," said Catherine Phoenix, who is in her second year of a Bachelor of Aboriginal Studies degree. "That was really impressive because, where I am from, we have not held on to our past to the same extent. We do not have our own language any more."
Hyde was also impressed by the way traditional society has survived, particularly when she compared the Malaysian experience to the erosion of Australian Indigenous traditions. At the same time, she took particular enjoyment from the grass-woven dresses, dance and rice-based dishes, which were similar to those in the Torres Strait Islands, where her family originated.
Phoenix said Malaysia’s Indigenous people lived a highly marginalised existence that was being transformed by tourism and a push to assimilate the young into mainstream Malay culture. This was threatening those same traditions they still clung to.
When the students visited a village at Mount Kinabalu, in Sabah, she discovered that young people were being encouraged to leave their traditional jungle homes for urban centres.
"Interestingly, the Indigenous people were proud the young were moving away, learning English and not coming back to work," Phoenix said.
Phoenix worries that, if traditions are lost, the lack of political recognition of Malaysia’s Indigenous people will make it hard to regain them. "Constitutionally, these people are not considered Malaysian. It feels like they are where we were 50 years ago. In 50 years, I can imagine that they will be fighting to reclaim their culture and language," she said.
Phoenix and Hyde were overwhelmed by the hospitality from the villagers and how much pride they had in their traditions, in spite of the encroachment of mainstream Malay culture.
The students shared their experiences as Indigenous Australians with other international students, about 30 in total, who were part of the program, and the 30 Malaysian students who acted as buddies and translators. "In the final week, we used our presentation to provide some insight into our own Indigenous culture," Phoenix said. "Many of the students did not even realise we were a part of that. Some thought we would all be dark, would not speak English and would play the didgeridoo."
Looking back on their experiences, both women believe that the chance to interact closely with other Indigenous cultures has enabled them to gain a better appreciation of their own. "It is about trying to maintain our Aboriginal culture as much as possible and share it as widely as possible, especially with our younger generations," Phoenix said.
Find out more about the University of Newcastle’s Indigenous programs - the most comprehensive in Australia.