building a nation: on UKEC

The whole crux of this blog post comes from why and how. Why did I join UKEC? Why did I run for another year? How do Catalyst and other UKEC initiatives play a part in steering our students and country forward, even against raging storms in mere sampans? The answer, ironic as it may be, also comes from why and how; but let’s revisit square one.

I submitted my application to UKEC on a ruthlessly cold October night for two reasons: first, in hopes that I could throw myself into work to alleviate the excruciating homesickness I was experiencing; second, I had a lot of bones to pick with Malaysia’s progress, and I was done sitting around and waiting for somebody else to do something about it.

In the name of frank retrospect, the Catalyst office was not my first choice. As someone who spends every ounce of her time either writing or thinking about writing, I wanted to diversify my skills and step away from words heading into UKEC. Call it fate, but I was ultimately placed in the intellectual and publication arm of UKEC—namely, the Catalyst Office. Do I have any regrets about this? Not a squeak.

A preliminary introduction to UKEC for those unfamiliar with it: the acronym stands for the United Kingdom and Eire Council for Malaysian Students, the umbrella body of all Malaysian Societies in the UK and Ireland. UKEC houses eight offices: Chairs, Regional Chairpersons, Secretariat and Strategy, Treasury, Careers, Catalyst, Cares, and Connect. Each office spearheads its own initiatives throughout the academic year, with the Council’s four main flagships under the wings of Chairs, Careers, Catalyst, and Cares.

The Catalyst office aligns itself with UKEC’s mission of nation-building through nurturing and encouraging young Malaysian intellects in the UK and Ireland to participate in scholarly discussions to catalyze nation-building through youth empowerment. As mentioned in the first paragraph, it’s all about why and how. We urge students to take an issue that bothers them and ask “Why does this bother me?” and “How can I solve it?”. Go beyond what is and explore what has been, what should be. 

In short, we hand the pen to students and have them put their thoughts down on paper; we hand the microphones over to them and encourage them to speak out. And behind the scenes, we channel our effort into amplifying those words—no matter written or spoken.

Let’s dive a little deeper into the office itself. The Catalyst flagship is Projek Amanat Negara (PAN), an annual conference where we invite Malaysian country and industry leaders to the UK to table pressing issues and facilitate discourse with our students. The latest edition of PAN was themed Perpaduan: Our Country’s Contradiction and had the honor of hosting Tan Sri Nazir Razak, YB Syed Saddiq, Dr Kua Kia Soong, and many more figures who harbored priceless insights to share. Topics that were brought up included the role of education as a force to unite, the justification behind affirmative action, and the many ways in which we build our national identity.

Our regional initiative, on the other hand, is Coffee n Conversation (CnC). In the Dublin edition, we gathered students to give their stance when it comes to issues of compulsory military service and government data-tracking, as well as answer the questions “What would you do in the Trolley Problem?” and “If you were Thanos, would you have snapped your fingers?”. It was fascinating to learn the rationale behind every person’s answer, to take a peek into how we justify our words that eventually translate into our values, beliefs, and actions.

During the rest of the academic year, when we aren’t busy helping out with other events, we Catalyst kids spend our time curating articles for the Council’s in-house blog, CEKU. Our writing meanders within the non-fictional realm, raising and attempting to answer questions from topics of abortion to desensitization, unity to the national language, and authenticity to the case of the manic pixie dream girl.

This office isn’t without its challenges as well, a primary one being the absence of immediate results. While Careers events may boost student employability and Cares events may help students feel more at home away from home, the effects of Catalyst initiatives are not always visible right after the event concludes. It takes time for people to think about what they have learned, register it in their system, and integrate it into their lives; it takes time for us to answer their why and help rearrange them into how.

Exhibit A: Why should I care about the progress of my country? 🡢 How can I contribute to the progress of my country?

Exhibit B: Why should I care about an ethical thought experiment? 🡢 How do ethics apply to reflect matters like law enactment in the real world?

Exhibit C: Why should I care about going home? 🡢 How can I create a reason for people to want to go home?

“The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow”; a cliche statement that rings truer and true. UKEC does not seek to implement immediate change; the things we fight for today are for the benefit of our country’s future. One can concisely summarise what we do as sowing the seeds that will be reaped tomorrow.

As the calendar creeps into my first-year mark with UKEC, I look back and think about how much I have gained in this council. I can lay it straight and say I have honed leadership, teamwork, delegation, time management, and communication skills, but that doesn’t begin to cover the truth. Through four flagships and countless other initiatives, I have managed to pick the brains of leading figures and my peers alike, debate our country’s contradiction, question the principles on which our education system is built, interview industry leaders on their views toward political apathy, and—my ultimate favorite—discuss variations to the ever-timeless Trolley Problem. I have learned fifty or so new names, listened to more stories than I can count on my fingers and toes, and been brought to many new places. You don’t just gain skills and friendships in UKEC; you build experiences and families, you develop your identity along with your country’s, and you grow as a person in every way that matters.

As I step into the heels of Vice Chairperson of UKECatalyst, I can only hope to live up to the successes of my predecessors and hope that the microphone and pen retain their might in my hands, the words bleeding out of them only growing stronger and louder.