NUS Southeast Asia Friendship Initiative: Experiential learning in Mainland Southeast Asia

Venturing beyond the campus walls and into Southeast Asia’s bustling city streets and remote villages, 229 students from various NUS halls, residential colleges and houses spent their summer engaging with and learning about the different communities in the region, in relation to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 12 overseas study trips taking place from May to July this year were part of the pilot launch of the Southeast Asia Friendship Initiative (SFI), a new special global programme developed by the Office of the Provost and NUS Global Relations Office.

In this second instalment of a two-part series on SFI, NUS students made their way to Mainland Southeast Asia and explored countries along the Mekong River.

Engaging communities and cultures in Laos and Vietnam

Experiential learning came alive when 18 students from the College of Alice and Peter Tan (CAPT) spent 12 days in Laos and Vietnam, experiencing some of the different communities and cultures in Indochina. Led by CAPT’s Fellows − Dr Joelle Lai, Ms Angie Tan and Dr Kevin McGahan − the journey kicked off in Laos, where students learned about the impact of landmines, poverty reduction, gender inequality, and socio-economic development on the locals.

One of the trip’s highlights was meeting with Madam Chanhpheng Sivila, founder of the Laos Disabled Women’s Development Center (LDWDC), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that advocates for the rights of disabled women. After an inspiring dialogue session with Madam Sivila, the students went on-site to meet the trainees at LDWDC, and witnessed for themselves the centre’s efforts in helping Laotian women with disabilities generate an income and support themselves.

The students also visited the Gender Development Association in Vientiane, Laos, which brought to light disparities in education, healthcare and social participation for women from rural villages, as well as the prevalence of gender-based violence in rural areas.

The trip allowed Moon Ng, a Year 2 undergraduate from the Faculty of Science, to realise the value of providing alternative career pathways and the need to address misconceptions about vocational and technical occupations. Expressing the view that these professions are undervalued in Singapore society, Moon said, “I think that supporting and having greater appreciation of these vocational pathways is also something that Singapore should work on; to show those with disabilities or those who do not want to pursue traditional academic pathways, that their future holds a full spectrum of possibilities.”

The adventure then continued in Vietnam, where the students were hosted by their counterparts from the Vietnam National University (VNU) for an exciting day of sharing and learning from one another. The visits to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology and the Hoa Lo Prison Museum were also made more meaningful as the VNU students took time to explain the complexity of Vietnam’s history and culture. The team had the chance to discuss the issues of migration and social enterprises as well as the challenges and opportunities of community-based tourism through first-hand insights from village elders.

To find out more about the SFI at CAPT, click here.

Tackling inequality with sustainability in Laos

For their SFI study trip, 21 students from Raffles Hall (RH) also chose to head to Laos to study the SDG goals of Food Security, Inequality and Urbanisation. Led by Hall Master Associate Professor Stella Tan, Resident Fellows Associate Professor Lee Hon Sing and Mr Ezra Chiam, together with two other NUS staff, the team visited fellow Singaporean, Ms Yap Weiling, who has been running her own farm in Laos for years.

The proud farm owner was generous in sharing her experiences living in Laos, even letting the students have a go at planting trees! Through the process, the students were able to learn about sustainable agricultural practices as well as the benefits and challenges of building sustainable communities in the landlocked country.

Another important element in tackling inequality is ensuring equal access to essential healthcare. At the Lao Tropical and Public Health Institute (TPHI), the students gained insights into the community-based intervention measures by the Laos office of NUS Public Health, and how locals are provided with equitable access to healthcare services. This is part of the NUS Public Health – Lao PDR Programme, which was launched by the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health (SSHSPH) in partnership with Lao TPHI. Lectures by the SSHSPH speakers also widened the students’ perspectives on issues concerning urbanisation and inequality, with many expressing interest in taking up courses from the School when they return to Singapore. 

At the Carol Cassidy Textile Museum in Vientiane, the group met museum founder Carol Cassidy, an American weaver who hires female Laotian weavers skilled at using traditional Laotian looms and making silk patterns. As an effort to bridge income inequality, the Museum hires local women, providing them with an income so they can be financially independent, while preserving Laotian’s weaving tradition.

Yashwini D/O Nelavannan, a first-year student from the Faculty of Science, said, “The focus of the trip – understanding the SDGs – has shaped our way of thinking throughout the trip and made us ask good questions in relation to sustainable growth. It has also made me think and ask questions about Singapore’s efforts in encouraging Singaporeans to live sustainably."

To find out more about the SFI at RH, click here.

Sustainable development and education in Laos and Cambodia

For the past eight years, students from King Edward VII Hall (KEVIIH) have been travelling to Laos as part of Project Sabaidee, an ongoing Overseas Community Involvement Project (OCIP) by the Hall. Strengthening their long-term partnership with Laos, the meaningful project has recently been expanded into an SFI programme, allowing students to do more for the local community. The 16-day trip in May, led by Resident Fellows Dr Eugene Tordecilla Macalinga and Dr Wu Jinlu, focused on sustainable development. Through visits to the National University of Laos, the Environmental Management Academic Center and the LDWDC, the group of 18 students learned about their efforts in sanitation management and climate action, returning to Singapore with a renewed sense of environmental consciousness.

Many of them found the experience highly enriching and meaningful. “This journey enabled me to understand how people from a different part of the world live and highlighted the significance of access to education and environmental sustainability,” said Chua Ler Han, a Year 1 student from the School of Computing.

Separately, another group of 12 KEVII students headed to Cambodia to examine the SDG Goals of Quality Education and Sustainable Cities. Led by Resident Fellows Mr Giuseppe Timperio and Dr Shawn Ming Yang Lee, the group was exposed to the impact education had on the local community. At the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), the oldest and largest University in Cambodia, students had insightful discussions with RUPP undergraduates on the challenges faced by Cambodia in providing inclusive and quality education, as well as the differences in education systems between Singapore and Cambodia. The students also had the opportunity to learn about the impactful work that Methodist Missions Society, a Singapore NGO, does as an education provider to the underprivileged communities in Cambodia.

What caught the attention of Year 1 Business School undergraduate Ngoi Yoke Xuan, was the insightful sharing by his Cambodian counterparts which demonstrated their deep understanding of the challenges impeding Cambodian children’s access to quality education. “Their perspectives shed light on the importance of addressing issues such as infrastructure development, training of teachers, and inclusivity to ensure a well-rounded educational system. This experience instilled in me a heightened appreciation and deeper comprehension of the significance of quality education and sustainable cities in driving societal progress.”

To find out more about SFI at KEVII, click here.

Education and sustainability efforts in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Students from Eusoff Hall (EH) also chose Cambodia as their destination to understand and experience the ground issues surrounding the SDGs of Quality Education and Clean Water and Sanitation. At the Prey Veng Village in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 20 residents from EH had the opportunity to support the locals in community projects such as improving the village kindergarten and basic waste management facilities, and through that, they developed a better understanding for the challenges and solutions of having inclusive quality education and potable drinking water.

To further expose the team to the Cambodian culture, a cultural exchange session was organised with the students from Hun Sen High School, where they went beyond learning about each other’s cultures to picking up moves from the traditional Khmer dance, as well as understanding the social and working norms in Cambodia.

Through the nine-day trip where they got to engage with the local communities and partners, the students were able to better appreciate the nuances and challenges faced in pursuing sustainable development, as well as the intricacies of collaboration between Singapore and Cambodia against the larger socio-economic backdrop of the region.

In their reflection, the group shared that the trip was “humbling and eye-opening”, noting that it had left them with a profound appreciation of the privileges many often take for granted living in Singapore.

To find out more about SFI at EH, click here.

Sustainability, infrastructure, and food security in Chiang Mai, Thailand

23 Temasek Hall (TH) residents travelled to Chiang Mai, Thailand for a two-week stay in two villages where they were exposed to the local approaches to sustainability, infrastructure, and food security. The SFI study trip was led by Associate Professor Victor Tan, Master of TH, and Resident Fellow Mr Nisar Keshvani.

Through the field research done on local community projects and learning journeys to various parts of the Pu Muen Nai village and the Den Luang village, TH students learnt about the villagers’ sustainable agricultural practices in farms and tea plantations. Staying with the villagers gave the students a glimpse of their distinct culture and way of life. For the students, that experience also underscored the impact that limitations to the village infrastructure had on the local people’s quality of life. 

The trip concluded with a visit to Chiang Mai University, where the team met with Assistant Professor Juthathip Chalermphol from the Faculty of Agriculture, and Dr Pairach Piboonrungroj, from the Faculty of Economics. They learnt about the professors’ sustainability projects and engagement with local communities, including the development of sustainable tourism through elephant sanctuaries, and efforts to encourage the adoption of sustainability practices in the provinces. 

Despite being a freshman, NUS Business School student Lau Bing Yang bravely took on the role of being the in charge of one of the programmes. The role made him more aware of the way he led and the areas in which he could improve. By trusting and giving his peers more space, he also realised that they had the confidence to step up and take charge of their respective segments. “Throughout the course of this travel, my horizons have been broadened and I have also achieved some personal growth,” He enthused.

To find out more about SFI at TH, click here.  

This is the second instalment of a two-part series on the NUS Southeast Asia Friendship Initiative (SFI). Read about the experiential study trips made to the Maritime Southeast Asia region by students from Pioneer House, LightHouse, Residential College 4, and Ridge View Residential College here.