Projek Serambi (3/3) — Dari Kampala Ke Kuala Lumpur

If we imagined universities as a microcosm of society, what could we say about Malaysia based on our campuses? If we used how we interact with each other in classrooms instead of grades as our mirrors, how would that reflect upon us? This is the final part of a three-parter story.


Clare’s story is a very personal one, so I don’t really want to use a bunch of statistics to blend her into a ‘flock.’ But Clare was, until recently, one of the 86,000 foreign students currently studying in Malaysia. So you could imagine her being somewhere in that impressive crowd that filled the Bukit Jalil Stadium to almost full capacity during the Malaysia-vs-Singapore match this past July.

Looking at it from that perspective means imagining roughly a stadium-full of doe-eyed young hopefuls coming and leaving — and living — with us, a trend that our education ministry does not expect to diminish in spite of increased tuition fees for foreign students starting next year.

I think I speak for many of my peers about how the university experience becomes a blur of numbers, statistics, and timestamps. It’s quite the creature to feed — punctuality, negotiating group mates, timely offerings of tuition fees, arranging class schedules, playing the grades game. We throw ourselves into these rituals believing it’s all part of preparing for the world ‘out there.’

But I have a reason for my conscious decision to describe Clare’s presence in Malaysia as ‘living-slash-studying’. There is an education to be had in studying, sure, but there’s arguably just as much of it to be had in living — and let there be no doubt that Malaysia has generous lessons in the latter, even for those staying just awhile.

I know we can be preoccupied with thinking about how to get people to fly here (considering, for example, “Are our tuition fees too high?”), but after everything that Clare has shared with me, I think it should be just as important to ask, “What do they take back on the flight home?”, and, “What is it that they leave behind?


In Clare’s suitcase of experience, so much of what is familiar and lovable about my home is now hers to know and love as well, and vice versa. I wonder how many in that ‘stadium’ feel the same.

If we imagined universities as a microcosm of society, what could we say about Malaysia based on our campuses? If we used how we interact with each other in classrooms instead of grades as our mirrors, how would that reflect upon us?

This is why it interests me, as a university student myself, to see the communalism clicking into place quietly on campus, one semester after another. I try to imagine Clare’s experience with that, in her first week of university, absorbing one of her first lessons about Malaysian living and wondering what to do next.

Yet, if her experiences (and mine, and many others) are anything to go by, I’m unsure as to what extent we can exalt our status of a multiracial society, especially if our country’s future workforce somehow sort themselves according to their own ‘kinds’ on Orientation Day.

Not all do, of course; there are always a few exceptionally friendly students, and there are also the solitary ones who drift around from class to class to library, sitting nearby without saying a word. Sometimes I see more of the latter, with only their earphones for company. And like Clare in the beginning, sometimes I am one of them.

At first glance, there’s the story of a twenty-something Ugandan business student studying in Malaysia. But after poring over our conversations, I tried my hand at the living part, in the classroom full of mirrors.

The story of a solitary instrument helping a solitary girl find her way into a feeling of ‘home’ again in her days and voice— that was through no credit of our own.

It has become inconsequential to us whether or not this studying-slash-living experience means anything to this flock of foreign students. Yet, we still expect them to come to our shores, which leaves us with the question: What role do we have to play in this story?


Clare mentions the collective feeling of foreign students who anticipate their fresh chapter here, only to be “shut down” and resigned to each other.

But she also speaks adoringly of the friends she finally made in her third year of life here. It seems as if we lack the initial enthusiasm to connect to the throngs of new faces, but yet have the capacity to become wholeheartedly great friends with these new faces, eventually.

When this flock of 86,000 students graduate, will they still be able to take more with them on that flight home, other than just a certificate? Will they, like Clare, return to Kampala, and speak so fondly of Malaysia?

“[In fifty years], I would have expanded a family from Malaysia into Africa. Just by them knowing that they have an ‘aunty’ in the land of the Lion King whose door is always open to them, just like some Malaysians opened their homes and hearts to me…

Whatever I am to them, their family will be mine. African culture is like that. Am I making sense?”


For this story, Clare unearthed a few gems from home and put them through the scanner to share with us. She describes her home as filled with music. This playlist is a sampling from Kampala.

Pata Pata by Miriam Makeba
Makeba herself pauses in between singing in rapid Xhosa to drawl in English: “Pata Pata is the name of a dance […] And everybody starts to move as soon as Pata Pata starts to play […] The dance keeps going all night long till the morning sun begins to shine – hey!” This, incidentally, perfectly describes Clare’s family’s house parties, where relatives would usher the children to click their heels and turn around in step to the dance.

On Entre OK, On Sort KO by Franco & TPOK Jazz
A classic Lingala drinking ballad by the favourite musician of Clare’s father (who also doubles as their family DJ) this famous song is heavily associated with a good night out. Franco made Congolese rumba famous and “molded” Clare’s father’s taste in music.

Jalousie by Madilu System
Jean de Dieu Makiese was given the moniker Madilu System by Franco himself, and he dominated the Congolese scene from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, with and without Franco. Madilu System and Franco & TPOK Jazz have grown on me the most. Listen also to his song Aminata, shared earlier in this series.

Umqombothi (African Beer) by Yvonne Chaka Chaka
From what Clare tells me, Yvonne Chaka Chaka is kind of like the Siti Nurhaliza of Africa. “She made my childhood with her beauty, grace and caring nature. She is a true diva— even today,” Clare gushed to me.

Joanna by Kool And The Gang
Clare’s youngest sister was named after this Kool And The Gang song. Joanna is Clare’s third sister who might be headed to Malaysia too in a few years, getting the chance to experience Malaysian living-slash-studying for herself.

Redemption Song by Bob Marley & The Wailers
The family’s favourite Bob Marley song, and finally, something mutual from our past that we both knew the lyrics to back and front!

This series was commissioned as an exploration of music and migrant diaspora, first published in August 2011 by for Serambi, a capsule project for Malaysia’s 48th anniversary. In Projek Serambi, several young Malaysians imagine the country’s shifting landscapes in 2061. This piece was edited by Grace Chin. 

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