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Journeying through Maritime Southeast Asia on the NUS Southeast Asia Friendship Initiative

With a population of almost 640 million people, Southeast Asia (SEA) is one of the most culturally diverse regions in the world. To further explore this region, students from various NUS halls, residential colleges and houses embarked on inaugural experiential study trips to neighbouring SEA countries, spanning 10 weeks from May to July this year, as part of the new Southeast Asia Friendship Initiative (SFI) under the auspices of the Office of the Provost and NUS Global.


As part of the new Southeast Asia Friendship Initiative, students from various NUS halls, residential colleges and houses went on experiential study trips to countries in the region.


Focusing on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), SFI aims to expose students to real issues and challenges faced by Southeast Asian communities, while fostering a deeper appreciation of the diverse cultures, histories and complexities in the region.


“SFI blends classroom teaching and a carefully curated study trip in the targeted country to help students gain insights into the history, culture, peoples, and potential of Southeast Asian countries,” explained NUS Associate Provost (Special Projects) Associate Professor Melvin Yap, who is also Chief of SFI.


Reflecting on the intent of the SFI, Associate Vice President (Global Relations) Associate Professor Reuben Wong added, “We hope that through SFI, NUS students will build long-term friendships and connections, appreciate the challenges and opportunities in the region; and that many more NUS graduates will work and live in SEA countries.”


Tapping on the academic expertise of the NUS Southeast Asian Studies and Malay Studies departments, students were given a broad introduction to a selected country of study through informative lectures and tutorials, before heading to their destinations with their fellow resident-mates. For the pilot launch, NUS residential units organised 12 unique overseas field trips to SEA, each narrowing in on specific SDGs and exploring the challenges faced by their chosen destination of travel.


This is the first of a two-part series on the SFI study trips, where students share their insights into the Maritime Southeast Asia region, which is made up of the world’s two largest archipelagos situated between the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and the Western Pacific.


Sustainable agricultural practices in Malang, Indonesia


Sixteen residents of Pioneer House (PH) were whisked away on a seven-day trip, in May, to Malang, Indonesia, to learn about sustainable agricultural practices. Led by PH Resident Fellow, Dr Andi Sudjana Putra and three other NUS staff, the group interacted with staff and students from Universitas Brawijaya, gaining a deeper understanding of the culture and customs in Malang, as well as the sustainability issues in the city. They also visited Ngroto, a village in Malang, and Bumiaji, an adjacent village outside Malang, where they were introduced to sustainable and organic farming practices, as well as innovative ways to cultivate crops while preserving the ecosystem and promoting biodiversity.


Student residents from Pioneer House visited the city of Malang, Indonesia as part of the new Southeast Asia Friendship Initiative.


Gideon Tay, a first-year student from NUS Business School recounted that his time at Bumiaji Farm was an immersive, eye-opening experience that allowed him and his fellow students to establish a genuine connection with the land. “As we worked alongside the farmers, we felt a sense of camaraderie and admiration for their commitment to nurturing the earth. The experience went beyond education and was invigorating and transformative,” said Gideon.


“By actively participating in their activities like planting seeds, tending to the crops, and observing the farmers' techniques, we gained practical knowledge and an understanding of the importance of sustainable farming practices,” he added.


In Batu, a city located approximately 20km from Malang, a group of NUS and local students interacted with farmers of a smart farm that makes use of the Internet of Things and technology in their practices.


Gideon's testimony highlighted the transformative power of hands-on experiences in sustainable agriculture, which is vital in fostering a deep appreciation for the natural world and an understanding of the interconnectedness between humans and the environment.


To find out more about SFI at PH, click here.


Sustainability and education in Bali, Indonesia

For the 23 students who took up the SFI course offered at LightHouse (LH), their discovery of the meaning of education and sustainability, amidst Indonesia’s booming tourism industry, was an enriching experience.


With concrete learning outcomes in mind, LH Resident Fellow Dr Lynette Tan who led the study trip explained, “I wanted our students to be equipped with skills to solve real-life issues faced by our partner organisations and universities. At the same time, it was an opportunity for them to learn to develop and apply a framework to evaluate the sustainability of solutions proposed.”


Dr Tan also made sure to include experiential learning throughout the itinerary, by incorporating forest visits and meetings with Junglo and Green School, organisations which focus on forest regeneration via the Miyawaki Method to regrow ecosystems.


The LightHouse team visited the Green School and learnt about the sustainability efforts by Junglo, an organisation that restores lost forests in Indonesia.


At a half-day workshop organised by Bali’s Udayana University and Plastic Bank, a social enterprise seeking to stop ocean plastic by allowing coastal communities to exchange plastic waste as currency for necessities, the students examined the SDG Goals on Quality Education and Sustainable Cities. The event was complemented with lively group discussions on Bali’s challenges given their economy’s heavy reliance on tourism.


Students from NUS and Udayana University, Bali’s first public university, doing a post-discussion sharing on the island’s sustainable waste management efforts and its impact on tourism.


At another visit, to the International Institute of Tourism and Business (IPB), students learnt about the principles of Tri Hita Karana, which refers to the interconnectedness of ‘God, Community and Environment’, and how this influences sustainable tourism in Bali. IPB thoughtfully curated a series of activities which gave the students a taste of Balinese culture, hospitality and dining.


LH students also spent two days at Generasi Bali (Gerasa), where they learnt about sustainable education from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that helps the marginalised in the local community. After meeting with and hearing the stories of the beneficiaries supported by Gerasa, the students then discussed and proposed ideas to increase the awareness and impact of the meaningful work done by the organisation.


L Keerthnah Lectchumanan, a Year 2 student from the Faculty of Science, had no regrets signing up for the programme. “I’m so glad that I took the opportunity to join the inaugural LightHouse SFI. What I learned on this trip cannot be taught within a classroom. My conversations with the locals gave me a Balinese perspective on education and sustainability. I really appreciate Dr Tan for taking care of us so well, and am grateful for the support from NUS and LH in making this trip possible for us.”


To find out more about SFI at LH, click here.


Leadership at the fringe in Lombok and Pulau Sumba, Indonesia


Across two study trips in May and July, 41 students from Residential College 4 (RC4) discovered the captivating rural locales of Lombok and Pulau Sumba islands located in eastern Indonesia. Led by RC4 Fellows, Associate Professor Tan Lai Yong and Senior Lecturer Li Jingping, the trip sought to explore leadership at the fringe, with a focus on two UN SDGs – food security (Zero Hunger) and climate change (Climate Action).


The SFI programme provided an invaluable platform for staff and students to engage with local partners involved in sustainable development efforts across SEA. “The study trips deepened our understanding of the interconnected issues of food security and climate change in the Indonesian context,” said Assoc Prof Tan.


The students visited a small fish farm, which was near an irrigation canal for inland rice fields.


One such example was their early morning trip to Tanjung Luar village in Lombok, a bustling coastal hub. It was there that they heard first-hand from the local fishermen of the challenges of rising sea levels, unpredictable storms and escalating petrol costs. Thereafter, they ventured to a fish farm to better understand their challenges, and the viability of fish farming as compared to open-sea fishing.


Moving further inland, the students met with farmers and community volunteers from Desa Gangga, whose dedication to tree-planting brought about economic benefits and reduced soil erosion along riverbanks. When the first delegation from RC4 visited in May, they had planted approximately 100 trees; and barely two months later in July, the next group of RC4 students were able to witness the fruits of their labour!


Residential College 4 students met with farmers and volunteers to learn the different fruit tree planting techniques.


Such close interactions with the local communities left indelible memories for participants, igniting a passion in many of them to actively contribute to positive change and finding innovative solutions. Having two study trips back-to-back also allowed for greater continuity in terms of RC4’s engagement with the local communities.


“This trip has been incredibly fulfilling, packed with learning and filled with experiences. Not only have I learned much about food security and food production, I have also gained an intense appreciation for Indonesia and its diverse culture and people,” remarked Dion Chua Yee Kin, a freshman from the College of Design and Engineering. “I will definitely return to Indonesia not just to experience its incredible culture and the warm hospitality of the locals, but also hopefully to contribute to helping push the sustainability frontier of its food production systems.”


Watch the team’s journey to Lombok and Pulau Sumba.


Conservation matters in Pahang, Malaysia


There is beauty in out-of-classrooms learnings. With this in mind, Ridge View Residential College (RVRC) Fellow Dr Patricia Lorenz led 17 students to Pahang, Malaysia to explore facets of conservation. Despite the sweltering heat, the study trip allowed students to take a closer look at biodiversity loss, threats to the ecosystem, the role of indigenous peoples and ecotourism in conservation areas.


Venturing into the forest trails of the Sungai Yu Ecological Corridor, Taman Negara, and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s (UKM) research centre at Fraser’s Hill, RVRC students went on day treks and night drives to get a taste of the region’s diverse wildlife. At UKM, the team got up close and personal with wildlife through activities like a frog night walk and dragonfly walk.


Students at the UKM Living Lab in Fraser's Hill.


To better understand the intention behind the various conservation efforts, the team also met with Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers and Ecotourism and Conservation Society Malaysia – two main community partners in Pahang dedicated to conservation and working with the local indigenous Bateq communities.


Ridge View Residential College students with community rangers and students from the newly created village school, which caters to the Bateq communities.


Freshman Ngoi Kai Sheng from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences spoke candidly of his initial intention to sign up for the combination of outdoor experiences – the hikes, landmarks and scenery. The experience, however, made him gain an appreciation of the value of conservation.


“I discovered so much beyond what I was familiar with, from visiting the Orang Asli villages, to experiencing night life in the dark of the palm tree plantations, to engaging the eloquent representative from Fraser's Hill Nature & Heritage Association,” he shared.


“The biodiversity and cultural heritage we risk losing for ‘development’ is shattering,” he said. “Conservation is not some far-fetched ideal,” even if people may compartmentalise and disassociate themselves from the realities of environmental destruction, he observed. “Development, on the other hand, will always come at the price of precious life.”


To find out more about the SFI at RVRC, click here.


This is the first instalment of a two-part series on the NUS Southeast Asia Friendship Initiative (SFI). Stay tuned for the second instalment of the SFI trips to Mainland Southeast Asia!







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