Wednesday, February 1

Insights from travel this year

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Abidin Ideas

TRAVEL was a constant refrain this year, with a stream of international events compensating for the lack of travel in 2020 and 2021.

One exception in those pandemic years was Expo 2020 Dubai, where, as with the recently-concluded FIFA World Cup in Qatar, the level of scrutiny on small Muslim countries was itself questioned, with issues of infrastructure development, human rights and environmental commitments uncovering certain facts, and triggering differing opinions of how to improve countries’ track records in these areas… and all of that, too, contrasted against the inherent value of specific events.

In the case of the footie, the moral pontifications dissipated, with previously complaining foreign heads of state going to Doha when their teams performed well.

In recalling my travels, I observed some common threads. In Dubai I saw how the United Arab Emirates successfully brought the world together for a superbly well organised World Expo that benefited Malaysia through our pavilion (which I was proud to be an ambassador for). In May this year I was invited to speak at the Sarajevo Business Forum, and wrote in this column about the many institutional peculiarities of the country established after the war, epitomised by the Dayton Agreement.

In September, Edinburgh’s Royal College of Surgeons saw the next chapter of the Tuanku Muhriz Travelling Fellowship announced in partnership with the National University of Malaysia (UKM), and I observed how a Scottish institution of higher learning with precedents in the Golden Age of Islam was now boosting knowledge and practice in rural Malaysia.

In October, the Faith and Philanthropy Summit at the Vatican made me appreciate the common problems faced by communities of different faiths, and how solutions emphasising shared religious precepts can be more resilient and effective than purely secular approaches.

Indeed, whenever I read racially or religiously-charged polarising statements from Malaysians, I remember the inspirational stories of cooperation between Muslim and Christian organisations from my new friends from other countries, where resources are pooled to provide communities with services, while normalising inter-faith harmony. While we already have a Federal Constitution and Rukun Negara, thoughtfully written for a diverse society, it often feels like we need to continually disseminate their contents just to maintain the peace.

The themes of development, knowledge and problem-solving within an interesting religious context were also present in my final work trip of the year, which was to Uzbekistan last month.

I was invited to speak at the Unesco World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education in Tashkent, where I was proud to share the ongoing story of IDEAS Autism Centre: our humble origins triggered by research on the provision of special education for children in the bottom 40 per cent, and our growth being driven by data, parental involvement and collaborations with autism care providers throughout the country.

Of course, much learning took place from the various conference papers, but the most energetic and profound lessons came from visiting schools themselves. In one secondary school in Samarkand, I saw how patriotism bolstered the teaching of mathematics, since an Uzbek national hero, Al-Khwarizmi, was the founder of algebra. Similarly, astronomy benefits from the legacy of Ulugh Beg, while Ibn Sina (Avicenna) has endowed his name to a most advanced medical institute.

All these coexist with other important historical figures and their monuments who collectively continue to impart inspiration to present-day Uzbekistan. Across Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand I saw monuments and madrasahs of exquisite design asserting the historical and current identity of the country. Islam is a key component of this: near the tomb of Imam Bukhari – the most prolific compiler of hadith – a huge new mosque is nearing completion, ready to accommodate a resurgence of religious tourism.

There are many things Malaysian observers might find weird alongside this. While statues of communist figures have been removed, there are no qualms about national heroes and more recent politicians being portrayed in this art form.

A tradition of vodka drinking continues during weddings and birthdays, and there is a strong tradition of music and dance equally involving men and women.

These facets were all enlightening, but what made me conclude that Uzbekistan is the most optimistic country I’ve visited this year is in meeting its young people, who are keenly aware of their historical legacy and geopolitical position, and are hungry to re-establish enlightenment and economic prowess today.

Addressing students at an English-language school, I was amazed by the synthesis of political, economic and scientific interrogation, and flatteringly, the students saw Malaysia as a role model.

Indeed, useful lessons can go both ways, and I hope in 2023 that the organisations I’m involved with can work together with our relevant ministries to import some of these lessons into reality.