Amid austerity and hiking tuition fees, believe it or not, there are funding and travel opportunities which exist in universities. Admittedly, they are few and far between and you need to snap them up quickly, but if it is something you’re interested in, then it is a good idea to routinely check your university’s website and ask the study abroad team. In June, I was lucky enough to attend a global leadership experience programme led by Common Purpose. Common Purpose is an organization which aims to create and sustain leaders in society at various stages of experience. The opportunity was offered to us mere weeks before the course was due to start. Flights, accommodation (in the University of Nottingham’s Mayalsian campus), and two meals a day were covered by my university (Exeter). It was rather surreal as I hadn’t planned any of the trip and therefore had no idea what to expect.
This was my first trip to Asia, and having done it, I feel so much more confident with traveling there for my year abroad in Shanghai. Malaysia is often dubbed as ‘truly Asia’ by tourist companies, and it really is. It’s so dynamic and ethnically diverse, the population is split between Malay, Chinese and Indian. It was such an educational experience. I applied on a whim and was a little hesitant when I was accepted as it was so last minute and I only knew one other girl who was also attending. I’m so glad I went though, as I met the greatest group of people who I fully intend to stay in touch with. In case anyone is thinking of possibly doing a Common Purpose study abroad trip, I’m going to break down what we actually did..
DAYS -1 TO 0
We left on Saturday morning from Gatwick and arrived in KL (which is seven hours ahead of GMT) on Sunday morning, utterly exhausted. I find it so difficult to sleep on planes. We had most of Sunday free, so it was very tempting to just go to bed, but I knew if I did that, I would confuse my body clock even more. Instead, we stuck it out and went to a nearby mall, before heading back for the opening ceremony and dinner. I was borderline delusional by this point, so once it had finished, I went straight to sleep. This helped a lot with the 8:30am start the next day.
What makes a city smart? This was the question and challenge that was posed to us as attendees of the Global Leader Experience. Smart cities are those which use technology to respond to issues, increase the quality of life of residents and manage different sectors. You can see examples in Barcelona, Stockholm and Amsterdam. Our task was to take this question but to relate it to Kuala Lumpur and what we learnt about it over the few days we spent there. The first day consisted mainly of getting to know each other, and getting to know more about ourselves and how we navigate group situations. There was a lot of self analysis, questioning our own traits and then challenging them. There was also a key question which kept coming up throughout the day: what makes a leader? Some people thought that they hadn’t earned the right to identify themselves as a leader. That it’s a position only granted to those of a certain stature. I personally came to the conclusion that anyone can be a leader, it just requires the confidence to take charge and push a situation forward. We also focused on cultural intelligence, which is the ability to think globally about situations rather than being confined by your own cultural values and beliefs.
A group of us decided to venture into the city (which was about a 30-40 minute taxi ride from the campus or around an hour on public transport). We indulged in dinner and drinks at AQUA restaurant & bar (which can be found in the Mandarin Oriental). For such a remarkable location, with a beautiful view of the KL skyline and overlooking KLCC park, the prices were surprisingly reasonable! We then went on to the SkyBar for a stunning view of the Twin Towers, before heading on to Changkat Bukit Bintang (effectively the ‘strip’, a street full of bars and clubs).
On the second day, we were put into our groups ahead of Thursday’s presentation. As a group bonding session, we were set the task of building a tower with set materials. Then, we went separate ways to go to different organizations for immersion visits to consider the challenge that we’d been set. During these visits, various businesses/leaders/organizations would provide their insight into what they thought makes a city smart so that we could shape our own ideas. I chose to go to an environmental NGO, and they emphasized the importance of educating society to encourage them to work together and realize our collective moral responsibility to help save the planet. After the talks had concluded, we went into the city where we were based with our groups to provide feedback from our experiences and discuss the various viewpoints we’d heard from. I personally took a bit of an issue with the emphasis that other companies had put on data collection and mass surveillance in aiding smart cities. Where do you draw the line between safety and personal privacy? Sometimes it seems that we’re moving ever closer to the omniscient Big Brother state painted in Orwell’s 1984.
We finished in the afternoon, and as we were already in the city, we decided to take advantage of this. We went to the Batu Caves which are a short distance from the city and is a sacred pilgrimage site for Hindus. After this, we went to China Town to peruse the stalls and eat, before retiring for a much needed early night.
On day three I chose the immersion visit to the Women’s Aid Organization and this was undoubtedly the highlight of the experience for me. They have done so much work to combat misogyny and bring about reforms in the law. They act not only as a refuge for victims of domestic and sexual violence, but also as a body trying to effect change. After relaying what we had learned to our groups, we had to start narrowing down our answer to the challenge to one idea for a project. As outsiders, (for most of us this was our first trip to KL) it was difficult to identify what KL really needed to be a smart city without being slightly ignorant. How could we march in to a city and get to the heart of their issues in a few days? Eventually we came to the conclusion that from our point of view (mostly as western tourists) something that we had identified as needing renovation could be the transportation system. Consequently, we decided to propose an app which would work to provide a more reliable system with clearer maps, contactless tickets, GPS and real time tracking on the transport, etc.
We went to Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) and saw the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. We then rushed to get to the Menara Kuala Lumpur tower before the Sky Deck closed (last entrance is 9:30pm). As we arrived close to the closing time, we were lucky enough to have the SkyBox to ourselves.The Sky Box was opened this year to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the KL tower, and is a transparent glass box extending out of the side of the tower with a panoramic and Birdseye view of the city. There is usually a queue as only a few people are allowed to be in the box at one time so this was perfect, especially for conducting the photoshoot necessary for typical tourists like us. Afterwards, a few of us went on to Zouk, a super-club which encompasses around eight clubs and bars.
On our final day, we spent the morning preparing for our final presentation. We had to make a poster which illustrated our ideas, film a short clip, and ensure everyone was adequately briefed on what we were delivering. The last couple of days I felt it was appropriate to take more of a back seat as I have a tendency to monopolize discussions (understatement), but my group actively encouraged me to be one of the speakers so I agreed. We spoke in front of a panel of experts and the rest of the participants, before receiving feedback and a certification of completion.
We went to the HeliPad bar, and as the name suggests, it’s a bar located on an abandoned helipad with views of both the Petronas Twin Towers and the KL tower. This was probably my favourite bar, and we were lucky enough to snag one of the few tables on the rooftop. Their cocktails were a dream. Afterwards, we headed to the strip. We left campus at 5:30am to catch an early flight. Staying out all night actually worked out for the best because I managed to sleep for the majority of the plane journey. Also, as it was around 2am in London as we departed KL, I managed to regulate my body clock and avoid jet-lag when we landed.
Overall, I’d definitely recommend a Common Purpose Study Abroad Global Leader Experience to anyone. It’s such a good opportunity to see a city from a different perspective. You get to network with other like-minded individuals and join an online community after the course to stay in touch. It would be different for other countries (for example, I know Exeter just ran a GLE to Chicago) but Kuala Lumpur was such a cheap city that it genuinely was an affordable destination for those who might be concerned about the financial implications. It’s not all work either, you have enough free time to indulge in the sightseeing, culture and nightlife in the city.