By Mahadhir bin Monihuldin
“Hi. Which uni you from ah?” said the Malaysian Chinese student, genuinely curious about my personal roots.
“Oh, I’m from IIUM. It’s a university all the way in Selangor,” I responded, though a little startled that he came out of nowhere.
“Ohhhh, I see I see. I know I know. Very far from Penang one.” He says this as his head nods excitedly to the rhythm of his words. “So if like that, I should say, welcome to our university!”
I had just arrived at University Sains Malaysia, Penang, representing IIUM for a feature writing competition, and this random conversation that I had with this random student was the first of many upon arriving there.
Interestingly, the student and I were able to trade some refreshing banter with each other. It actually led to us sharing our different life backgrounds. He, being a Penangite of Chinese descent, studying in the prestigious halls of USM gave us plenty of topics to work with. It was quite delightful indeed.
Yet, throughout the conversation, I couldn’t seem to shake off this acute sense of, of unfamiliarity hidden deep within me. To be frank with you, myself being a Malay, studying and essentially living in a Malay populated university like IIUM, it’s been quite a custom for me to interact primarily with, well, Malays.
My daily routine would usually involve speaking to Malays, eating with Malays, studying with Malays, sharing the bathroom with Malays, sleeping in the same room as Malays, you get the drift. But because of this, whenever I speak to a person of a different ethnicity, a keen awareness comes to my mind of the differences that exist between us.
But over at USM, in the presence of an astoundingly diverse group of participants, all of them in attendance for the Immersion Project, Appreciation and Tribute (IMPACT) 2016 competition, a very exotic inkling was brimming out of me. Their eyes, their nose, their skin tone, their hair, the way they talk, the way they dress, all of it were just so different. It’s a sight that I rarely get to experience on a daily basis.
What’s more, as part of the feature writing competition that I was in, I was handed with the task of writing an essay with the subject, ‘Igniting Connectivity’ as its theme. So I began by asking the question: What does connectivity specifically mean?
Well, according to the online dictionary website, Merriam-Webster, the word connectivity is defined as ‘the quality, state, or capability of being connective or connected.’ In the context of human connectivity, it would entail the state of being attached to one another through the bonds of communication, whether it’s verbal or non-verbal in nature. Therefore, approaching this topic of igniting connectivity by myself with no one to communicate with is definitely the antithesis of what connectivity is all about.
I figured, maybe I would be able to write about this topic if I make an attempt to create authentic connections with the participants around me. That I did and I was able to get some of their perspectives on the matter.
How does IMPACT 2016 build connectivity?
The first participant I was able to get in touch with is a man who goes by the name Nurudeen. Nurudeen is a student from Somalia who’s currently studying in the Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM). The question that I posed to him was: How does IMPACT 2016 help build connectivity among its participants? With his arms folded and his hand stroking his chin, he answered, “It provides a chance for us to share ideas on a level ground. I meet you, you meet me, I don’t know about you, you don’t know about me, so let’s talk.”
In fact, throughout the competition, I did notice a lot of talking going on while it was rolling, obviously myself included, with that polite student I encountered with. Conversations were being had not just between students from different universities, but also students hailing from lands so far from each other they’re separated by seas.
I suppose it’s during these brief conversations, not even the lengthy ones which take hours of your time, but simply through the briefest of conversations, we’re able to meet each other on a level ground and understand a little bit more about the lives of others, just as Nurudeen mentioned. Great things are done by a series of small things, aren’t they?
What challenges exist behind our attempt to connect?
Yet, that brought me to my next question. If connectivity is merely about talking to each other, then why is it that all around us, we see human beings committing the most horrific of acts to each other, signalling the utter failures we’ve had in actually embracing connectivity? What challenges exist behind the attempt to connect? I managed to strike up a short chat with Khairul Annuar, a student from USM itself to ask him exactly that. His answer was definitely a thought provoking one.
“The challenge is religion,” he said. “At times, as believers of religion, we do have some obstacles that make it hard for connectivity to be achieved, such as the festivals we celebrate, the traditions we practice, so on and so forth.”
It’s hard to disagree with what Khairul stated. Human beings do often make religion as a reason to sever the ties of connectivity. For example, if I had entered the IMPACT 2016 with a mind-set of shaming whoever who believes in a different religion from mine, connectivity would crumble to the ground. It would not be able to withstand the onslaught of bigotry. But there’s also another side to this picture that gets forgotten.
When I reflect upon my time at IMPACT and the actual mind-set I had entering the competition, I recall the foreignness of everyone around me. But in truth, this actually provoked a sincere intention on my part to want to learn from these different beliefs and perspectives. The religion I believed in, one that was at odds to those around me, was not an obstacle preventing connectivity, but instead, was something that embolden it. Essentially, religion can be the catalyst to destruction, no doubt. But it can also be the bridge to harmony, only if we so choose.
What makes connectivity so beautiful?
And as for my last question, I asked, what makes connectivity so beautiful? A student named Hanan from Universitas Muhammadiyah in Indonesia answered this question rather eloquently. “In my department, we have a big quote on the walls for everyone to see. In big, captivating letters, it says, ‘beauty is diversity.’” To Hana, beauty lies in the fact that we have different eyes, different noses, different skin tones, different hair, different ways of talking, different ways of dressing. It’s exactly that idea which makes connectivity so beautiful. It’s the differences that exists between the people we connect with.
And that’s what I’ll take away from my experience at IMPACT 2016. It was a very enlightening experience for me as a writer, but more so as a human being. The most important message that I learnt was: Connectivity isn’t just the best way to peace. It’s the only way.***