The Arts and Social Sciences and the making of Cultural Ambassadors

As we moved deeper into the 21st century, the world that we live in seems to be spinning faster, the community that we live in seems to shrink in size and the culture that we immersed seems to be relatively diverse and uniform at the same time. Welcome to the dawn of the new Anthropocene era – an era of intense human activities - that impacts on the physical and, more importantly, the social worlds. 

Since the dawn of civilization, we think, create, innovate and transmit Culture to the communities that we live in and preserve it through the generations. Culture, in its broadest sense, has been an integral part of our community. Here, culture is defined broadly to include the perceptual, behavioural and material. What we see, smell and form imaginaries of are part of culture. How we behave, reacts and the actions that follow are part of our behavioral culture. The most obvious are the material things that we create to satisfy our comforts and needs. From small handicraft to modern internet, we have seen our society and world transforming. From isolated community to global village, we are individuals and yet communal. In short, whatever shape and size the world, we are part of the broad Culture that we created. Yet there are diversities within this broad Culture because of our wants and needs. The growth of modern science and technology has led to an interconnected world where the geopolitical boundary is shrinking and in place, we have globalization and transnationalism of people, knowledge and culture across the borders. Hence, we experience uniqueness of our social world and the uniformity of the global world. The local and the global collapsed into one and diverge into variations. It is these diversities that is the hallmark of the 21st century modernity. As individuals and as part of the communitas, we now regard ourselves as global citizens, cosmopolitan and urbane individuals with sophistication and a yearning for global and intellectual experiences. 

The 21st century goes beyond the acquisition of technical and scientific knowledge. It is a century that requires analytical skills and critical thinking in order to drive forward the social, technical and scientific world. The interconnected world needs social and cultural thinkers to propel the world into higher level of modernity. These are the skills that are obtained through the study of the Arts and Social Sciences.

The Arts and Social Sciences are two academic disciplines that focused intensively on the human society and the culture that it creates. Here culture includes both the ideology (secular and religious) that shapes that way we look at ourselves and the world; the actions, social customs, mannerism that help us to navigate our socio-cultural and political world both within the local and global environments; and the material culture such as the cultural heritage (tangible and intangible), music, crafts, food, religious rituals, amongst others. Today, in the digital age, the culture also incorporate modern technology that restructure and reshape our way of life and our interconnectedness with the individuals and the community in real and virtual world. All these cultural items have deep symbolic meanings and shape our collective identity. As such, these socio-cultural elements that comprise the Arts and Social Sciences locate the individuals within the community and help to define them as part of the collective. With globalization, the sharing of these cultural elements are therefore crucial in cementing one’s cultural identity within the community and the global world that they live in. Within the Malaysian community, the shared cultural understanding of the Arts and Social Sciences through the perceptual, behavioural and material cultures are fundamental in creating a cultural identity for individual Malaysians to come together as a community. 

The significance of cultural education enables individuals within the communities and the industries to understand each other’s cultural attributes and thus becomes more tolerant of the multicultural fabric of modern societies. The possession of higher cultural education becomes significant cultural capital for the individuals to contribute significantly to develop a deep social and harmonious relationship among the different social and ethnic groups within the Malaysian society. For example, at the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Monash University Malaysia, higher education courses provided an intellectual platform for students to engage in critical thinking and understanding of the workings of the different ideological thoughts, social actions and material culture. These individuals become important global cultural ambassadors not only within the local community but more crucially in the global village. Thus, they also help to forge foreign relations and political ties given their cultural awareness. Likewise, in the industry, increasingly, apart from the technical skills, it is the possession of cultural awareness and cultural sophistication that constitutes a form of soft power that are crucial that enables local industry to become global and entices global conglomerates to consider setting up headquarters in this part of the world. These are cultural capital and are crucial for a successful society.

In a multicultural society of Malaysia, there is a need for respect of cultural diversities where each cultural group is encouraged and able to express and display its cultural elements. At the same time, the national polity (the State) should encourage the development of a shared cultural identity. In this sense, establishing a set of common values and identifying common cultural heritage, be it tangible or intangible will help foster a deep sense of cultural identity that will contribute to national unity. 

To foster a sense of cultural identity, it is crucial to understand the various actors that are involved in the transmission of this identity. At the informal level, the family plays a crucial role in imparting to the young the significance of their culture of its own community. The respective ethnic communities within the Malaysian society are also significant players in promoting and consolidating their own culture. 

At the institutional level, schools and universities play an important role in helping the students to understand the significance of culture, cultural diversities, the reproduction of culture as a result of the flow of migration and globalization. 

At the university level, university professors with deep knowledge of the Arts and Social Sciences disciplines are especially imperative in the making of social and cultural ambassadors as they teach and armed the students with critical analysis and intellectual curiosity. Hence, the students are not given a fish to eat but taught to fish. Through their academic journey and armed with deep knowledge of the Arts and Social Sciences, these students will emerged as critical thinkers and social and cultural ambassadors within their community and in our globalized world. These students will become leaders with knowledge and skills that they could contribute to make the community and the world a better place for all. Through such actions and the coming together of different cultural groups and individuals, a sense of cultural identity could be fostered.

By Kuah Khun Eng, Professor and Head, School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University Malaysia.
- The Star, 5 November 2015