‘Cultural integration a necessary skill’

TERTIARY education opens doors for students to explore diverse cultures, which is essential in preparing them to excel in a borderless world where they are expected to collaborate with those different from them.

At the school level, the Education Ministry recently announced that the upcoming 2027 curriculum would focus on racial unity and harmony but tertiary learning institutions, said Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities (Mapcu) president Datuk Parmjit Singh, is a crucial place to hone the skill of thriving and collaborating in a multicultural environment.

TehTeh“University is where students from many countries and backgrounds converge to learn, live and work together.

“It is important that students take full advantage of the opportunities presented to them to operate within highly culturally diverse environments during their studies,” Parmjit, who is also the Asia Pacific University of Technology & Innovation (APU) chief executive officer, told StarEdu.

Students, he added, should take advantage of Malaysia’s unique muhibbah society to develop a strong global perspective and cultural sensitivity as this exposure prepares them for remote working and having to manage teams across different regions.

“As Malaysians, we learn to operate within a highly multicultural setting. This teaches students to embrace a multicultural environment and provides endless opportunities for networking and building cross-border connections.

“Increasingly, fresh graduates are required to work across borders and the inability to do so can be largely detrimental,” he said, adding that international networks can be leveraged beyond graduation for both personal and professional development.Despite challenges such as biasness and language barriers, efforts to promote inclusivity and intercultural dialogue are key to fostering multiculturalism and preparing students for success in an interconnected world, said Parmjit.

Flexible and adaptable

A necessary skill that comes from being culturally exposed is flexibility and adaptability, said Parmjit.

Students, he added, are required to navigate through the many cultural nuances of their peers and work around these differences.

“They will develop strong communication skills when they have to understand and respect each other regardless of background.”

This attribute of adaptability, said Parmjit, is highly sought after by employers and is particularly desired by multinational companies and globalised organisations.

Through peer interactions, students are encouraged to self-reflect and integrate themselves into the pot of diversity.

National Association of Private Educational Institutions (Napei) secretary-general Dr Teh Choon Jin said it is common in Malaysian varsities that everyone brings a different cultural flavour to class. This, he said, creates an ideal learning ground for personal growth.

“Beyond simply learning about each other’s language and traditions, to become culturally aware is to become more open-minded and ready to embrace diverse ideas.

“This skill helps you become a better problem-solver and collaborator, especially when it comes to working on group assignments, and eventually on collaborative projects in the workplace,” he said.

Fresh perspectives

Beyond communication, training cultural integration in university can promote intercultural competence and understanding, which opens the eyes to a new way of looking at and solving problems, said Teh.

Diverse learning environments promotes critical thinking and creativity, as students are exposed to all sorts of viewpoints and approaches to problem-solving, said Parmjit.

“Students become innovative in ideating and coming up with solutions to complex issues given their greater exposure to different perspectives.

“They will learn to be adept at managing and resolving conflicts due to the heightened sensitivity developed through the process of learning to work with a mixing pot of cultures and backgrounds,” he added.

Working with those who are different from them, said Teh, allows students to attain a greater comprehension of any given topic, challenging them to consider wider worldviews that differ from their own.

“When graduates step into the workforce, the cultural exposure they experienced from university gives them the ability to understand and appreciate different perspectives, allowing them to think in the shoes of someone else.

LeeLee“They will see that this prior exposure helps them communicate better as they have learnt to understand where others are coming from,” said Teh.

In Malaysia, where people from various cultural backgrounds come together, the workforce is a diverse place, with Malays, Chinese, Indians and indigenous groups working side by side, he said.

Understanding cultural differences from their university days helps students learn to be empathetic individuals who can fit in and work well with people from all walks of life.

It’s an important skill to have because it prevents them from developing prejudices later in life, he stressed.

A deepened understanding of cultural awareness also empowers individuals to make beneficial contributions to their organisations, while leveraging their capacity to embrace diversity and drive positive change.

Workplace challenges

Cultural integration in learning institutions can help fresh graduates navigate workplace challenges.

Specific non-verbal cues which stem from different cultural backgrounds and upbringing, for example, may be difficult to ascertain during conversations, said Sunway University Student Life director Lee Siok Ping.

“If we do work around this, it can lead to misunderstandings and communication breakdowns that we may not even be aware of until it is too late,” she said, citing the difference in workplace values and social norms as another difficulty.

“Different countries and societies live their lives according to a set of values specific to their circles.

“In situations like this, someone who is not from their community may find it difficult to adapt, much less understand, and may cause issues at work with other colleagues, bosses and peers,” she said, adding that graduates may also bring to the workplace pre-existing biases and prejudices towards another culture if they are not taught inclusivity.

We cultivate biases both consciously and unconsciously in regard to different groups of people, ethics and cultural backgrounds, she said.

“If we truly want to practise inclusivity, we need to identify our own biases and break them down to cultivate an inclusive culture.”

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