YOU’D have hoped Malaysia would’ve become more united in the 59 years since we achieved independence, but sadly, that’s not the case, according to Wan Saiful Wan Jan.

“Back then, Malaysians were fighting for a common cause,” said Wan Saiful, chief executive of the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas). “National unity and the interactions between different individuals happened more naturally. We didn’t see any difference in one another.”

And that’s exactly why Ideas initiated the National Unity Youth Fellowship (NUYF).

By developing and supporting young leaders who can be champions of moderation and national unity, Ideas hopes to help create a more united generation of young Malaysians.

Out of over 100 applicants, only 11 young leaders were selected for this year’s fellowship, and had the chance to travel across the country to speak with local communities about issues affecting unity.

What brought these young people – aged 18 to 27 – together, despite their different academic backgrounds, was their common passion for national unity and aspiration to be leaders.

Nur Ashila, 24, for example, has a BA in English Linguistics; but she is also involved in student council debates, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) and volunteer work.

“When I got the chance to travel to Sarawak, I realised how diverse it is and how the people have so much respect for each other’s race and culture,” she said.

“I feel this is important and should be practised by Malaysians as a whole.”

This realisation was what Wan Saiful aimed for when he started the programme. Besides hoping this fellowship enriches the participants’ lives, he also believes that it is possible to create a more positive and tolerant society by exposing young people to different cultures and communities.

“People who have earlier exposure to different cultures will more likely grow up to appreciate these differences” he said.

This year’s workshops were held in Kuala Lumpur, Pahang, Sarawak and Perlis over a period of four weekends from March to May.

The participants learnt skills like media writing, proposal drafting, project management, fundraising and social activism, which could help them launch their own initiatives in the future.

But as real-life practice, the participants had to propose a project that promotes unity, with an added incentive – the two best proposals would receive grants of RM7,000 each

On top of that, participants were provided with a holistic understanding of national unity in Malaysia, its challenges and the means to overcome them – all part of the programme’s aim to help them help society.

They also gained soft skills such as critical thinking, teamwork and communication skills.

Nur Ashila said these skills will come in handy not only as a national youth ambassador, but also in the workforce.

“I personally volunteer to help provide education for the underprivileged and those with special needs because I believe education is an important tool in shaping the minds of the younger generation,” she said.

“Many of the skills I learnt during the NUYF will help with all these projects as well as my volunteer work.”

She isn’t the only participant to gain a better sense of community and unity through NUYF.

During a Race, Religious Relations and Diplomacy workshop in Perlis, Muhammad Azizul, 23, learnt that although we don’t always see the unity that exists in the country, there are communities here that are co-existing in harmony.

“We assume that when a temple and a mosque are close together, there will be conflict,” he said.
“But we saw that it’s not necessarily the case. There is unity here in Malaysia, but we just don’t always see it.”

To truly understand the community, participants got down on the ground (literally, in this case) to work with the locals.

Last week, they took part in a gotong-royong at Kampung Orang Asli Batu 16 in Gombak, Selangor, which not only helped them better understand orang asli culture, but also allowed them to do something good in return.

On top of exploring communities, participants also had turun padang (hands-on) sessions where they met with locals and policy-makers alike.

“We met with NGOs, political parties, representatives from religious communities and distinguished leaders to share our experiences and seek their views on unity in Malaysia,” said law graduate Farhan Haziq, who was a part of NUYF’s first batch last year. “We discussed controversial topics without hesitation.”

Wan Saiful said we have to learn to address “taboo” topics if we want to become more united.

“We must be able to talk about things without being overly sensitive,” he said.

The programme also featured guests from a variety of NGOs, including Yayasan Chow Kit, the International Republican Institute and the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns.

NUYF fellow Mable Leong, 27, said the programme benefitted the participants not just on an interpersonal level, but on a personal one as well.

She said:

“NUYF helped us think of nation building as a journey for all Malaysians to engage in patiently, and approach strategically.”

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