CRUISING on a ship through the South China Sea together with over 300 youths from 11 countries is an opportunity of a lifetime.
The Ship for Southeast Asian and Japanese Youth Programme (SSEAYP) allows participants to embark on a sea voyage for two months.
The youths sailed on Nippon Maru, an ocean liner chartered by the Japanese government, from Nov 3 to Dec 12.
It’s equipped with 202 cabins, a hall, lounge, theatre, library, Japanese tea room, swimming pool and grand baths.
Living and travelling together, the youths have ample opportunities to discuss global issues and challenges, conduct joint multilateral activities and gain exposure to different cultures.
In its 46th year, SSEAYP 2019 saw the involvement of 28 Malaysians out of 319 participating youths from countries like Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Malaysian contingent youth leader Nur Liyana Norazizan, 25, a dietitian by profession, saw the programme as a platform to promote the country’s image and values to their foreign counterparts.
“We were representing our country; hence it’s important for us to showcase exemplary attitude. As goodwill ambassadors, we need to uphold the pride of Malaysia,” said Nur Liyana.
Being a goodwill ambassador came with a lot of responsibility, said Naga Kavin Mugila Nagaligam, 23, another participant from Malaysia who works as a genetics product specialist.
“Our experience differs from the youths who travel to other countries for leisure or business.
“As participating youths, we have the responsibility to develop international friendship and promote kindness with youths from other nations.
“We also carry a diplomatic mission from Malaysia that we need to share with other countries,” said Naga, who was also the cultural exchange programme and voluntary activity secretary.
Established from the Joint Statements issued in January 1974 between Japan and Asean countries, the programme aims to promote friendship and mutual understanding among youths, broaden their perspective of the world, strengthen their spirit of international cooperation and enhance their practical skills for global collaboration.
Organised by the Japanese Cabinet Office and supported by the Asean member countries, SSEAYP has benefited over 12,000 youths in the region.
The two-month journey allowed the youths to bridge cultural differences and make lasting friendships.
For Naga, living together with her cabin mates was an amazing experience as it exposed her to new perspectives.
“My cabin mates were from Myanmar and the Philippines. We really took care of each other and bonded like sisters. We learnt about each other’s culture from various aspects such as health and self-care.”
Living with youths from diverse backgrounds taught Nur Liyana to value the differences.
“We saw the varieties and complexities as strengths, not weaknesses. Although there was some friction, we always resolved them in a diplomatic way.
“During the programme, we also learnt new phrases from other languages, traditional games and tasted the different national cuisine,” she added.
To introduce their national culture and heritage, the contingents were required to take part in a presentation.
“We could do a musical performance, dance or sing according to our creativity. The Malaysian contingent decided to perform a variety of folk and traditional dances such as Jong Jong Inai, Tarian Piring, Ulek Mayang, Borneo dance, Dikir and Bharatanatyam,” said Nur Liyana.
“We received a standing ovation right after the first dance. After the performance, the audience said that we really showcased the tourism tagline Malaysia, Truly Asia,” said Discussion Group head Mohd Yusof Zulkefli, 28, who is a lecturer at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman.
Mohd Yusof was deeply moved by his cabin mates from Cambodia and the Philippines.
“A main reason that my Cambodian friend joined the programme was to help his terminally-ill mother. Out of the 10 other countries onboard, he wanted to find out which country has the best healthcare.
“I was also inspired by my friend from the Philippines. As a disabled person, he tells me that his flaws are his strength.
“Having to adhere to a strict schedule on board, I usually walked really fast. But with my friend, I would slow down my pace to assist him. From that experience, I learnt to be more selfless.”
The programme was not a competition between countries, he added.
“We try to inspire others through collaborations. For example, we had a Deepavali night where we collaborated with Singapore for our performance.
“Even though we could do it on our own, we wanted to put aside our differences to showcase the beauty of Asean countries,” said Mohd Yusof.
Similarities were also seen as grounds for collaborations, said Nur Liyana.
“For example, the traditional Borneo Magunatip dance is generally known as the bamboo dance under different names in countries such as Brunei and Indonesia.
“So we collaborated with them for the Participating Youths Seminar. We brought our own bamboo sticks from Malaysia and taught other youths the Magunatip dance.”
Another way to promote friendship was through Solidarity Groups which divided the youths into 11 groups.
“With two or three representatives from each country, the groups enabled us to mingle more closely,” said Nur Liyana.
Mohd Yusof added: “One of my Solidarity Group members was the The Voice Philippines coach. Despite being very popular in her country, she was very humble with us.
“For the Malaysian national performance, she taught me vocal techniques to enhance my singing. Other contingents also offered their help. Their touching gestures were a reflection of the mutual cooperation that we had.”
From the port of Tokyo, the ship disembarked at four countries, namely Vietnam, Singapore, Myanmar and Malaysia.
During their visits, the youths paid courtesy calls on high-ranking government officials and engaged with the local community.
They also took part in institutional visits to educational, cultural and social welfare facilities.
As the youth leader for Malaysia, Nur Liyana was able to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the princesses of Japan, Princess Mako and Princess Kako of Akishino.
The meeting was a great honour and an exceptional experience, she said.
“We had a conversation with the two princesses who are very humble and friendly. As a dietitian, I shared how I look up to the Japanese healthy lifestyle and diet. The royals said that they were really impressed with my line of work as it concerns both food and health.
“The princesses also shared that their mother, Princess Kiko who participated in the 1987 SSEAYP, really treasured her experience,” said Nur Liyana.
The youths visited several education institutes such as the Yangon University of Education in Myanmar, Ho Chi Minh City University of Pedagogy in Vietnam and Yamagata Elementary School in Japan.
Mohd Yusof said: “A main take-away for me was how Japanese schools such as Shinagawa Joshi Gakuin bring in revenue. I learnt that the schools produce their own products for sale and the income generated helps the school’s welfare.”
The youths also experienced a homestay programme during the port-of-calls.
Naga said: “We spent one or two nights each with our foster families where we experienced the beauty of their cultures, including their religious beliefs, traditional costumes, food and music.”
She stayed with a young interracial family of three in Japan.
“I got to taste both Thai and Japanese cuisines as my foster mother is from Thailand while my foster father is Japanese. They brought us to visit one of the oldest temples in Japan and a few tourist spots in the Chiba prefecture.”
In Vietnam, she was placed with elderly parents.
“We initially had communication difficulties as my foster parents could not speak or understand English. Hence, my homestay partner and I used Google translate to communicate.
“We also received help from the local youths who took us around Ho Chi Minh City. It was such a blessing to have met wonderful souls like them,” said Naga.
For Liyana, the homestay experience widened her horizons.
“I received first-hand experience of living in a Japanese family and their daily routine. I also experienced onsen or the Japanese grand bath as the family has one indoors.
“I was very lucky to live with a family made up of three generations of dentists. My host father was still working at the age of 73 which opened my eyes to the Japanese healthy practices.
“Despite the language barrier, we still managed to converse with each other. My host father also invited his friend’s son over to help us to communicate.”
There was a mutual exchange of culture, she added.
“My foster family was keen to know about our Muslim lifestyle and our national culture. My Indonesian partner and I shared about our batik art, national cuisine and even sang traditional songs such as Rasa Sayang.”
Onboard, the youths were involved in discussion groups which served to encourage mutual understanding through an active intellectual discourse.
They were assigned nine different topics such as media information, health and well-being, education and diplomacy.
Mohd Yusof was a part of the education group, which centred on sub-themes such as early education, social inclusion, girls’ education, higher education and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
“Each country has a different view of education. I learnt that in Laos, access to early education is limited due to geography and socioeconomic status. High fees prevent many young children from attending school.
“We gave opinions and exchange recommendations to uplift each country’s education system such as the conditions to implement STEM policies,” said Mohd Yusof.
In the health group, Naga said they touched on the rising social issues among youths.
“One of the issues of grave concern is mental health. Through the discussions, we learnt more about the mental health status in countries like Vietnam and Brunei.
“We also learnt about the stressful working environment in Japan. A solution that we came up with was to improve the maternity leave system to promote better mental well-being.
“The ideas we exchanged can be brought back to Malaysia to help youths with depression or suicidal thoughts,” she added.
According to Nurul Liyana, the topics were given before their departure, enabling them to conduct research.
“We need to acquire accurate information and statistics to share with others as there was no Internet onboard,” she said.
As part of their research, Naga and Nur Liyana paid a visit to Befrienders Kuala Lumpur where they met its director, Kenny Lim.
Naga said: “Lim briefed us on the current status of mental health in Malaysia. He told us that more volunteers are needed for them to tackle the incoming calls after midnight. We later shared the findings with our group members.”
Despite having to take a few months off work, the youths believed the experience gained will help them perform better in their career.
Having improved her communication skills, Nur Liyana said: “I work at the hospital where I regularly interact with patients and the management. From SSEAYP, I learnt to convince others of my ideas and make a strong case for myself.”
Naga echoes the importance of communication skills.
“I learnt to convey information at the right time. Sometimes you just need to convey the key points for others to understand the message.”
Mohd Yusof realised the importance of passion and openness.
“You need to have passion in everything that you do. I learnt it from the vocal coach who told me that singing had always been her passion so she wanted to share the knowledge as much as she could.
“As a lecturer, I learnt about openness. By being more open, I can learn from others, including my students.”
As part of the programme, participants were required to conduct a post-programme activity.
Mohd Yusof said: “We’re planning to do our activity in Lenggong, Perak which is a World Heritage Site. We hope to increase its popularity as an ecotourism location in Malaysia and enhance the local community’s job opportunities.
For Nur Liyana, the experience strengthened her interest to help others.
“All the youths I met on board were passionate which reignited the passion in myself to give back to society.”
Meanwhile, Naga would like to work towards women empowerment.
“In some parts of the Asian communities, women are discouraged from leaving home and pursuing their studies or careers. When I was accepted to Universiti Malaysia Sabah, my father initially did not allow me to go but I was persistent.”
She hoped to become a change-maker in her community.
“I want to show that girls and women can achieve their dreams. It’s unfortunate that while some married women want to be of service to the community, they are made to choose between their family and career.
“Meeting other female youths and the officers who accompanied us during the 52-day trip made me feel empowered,” said Naga.
For an alumna from the 44th batch of SSEAYP and International Islamic University Malaysia student Muhamad Iqbal Rosli, 25, the programme has changed his life.
“After joining SSEAYP, I started a voluntary movement called Redah which focuses on helping marginalised groups in the country.
“Based in Gombak, we work with refugees, single mothers and orphans. I try to adopt and implement the ideas that were exchanged during SSEAYP in Malaysia.”
As an alumna, Muhammad Iqbal also volunteered as a facilitator for the 45th and 46th batches.
“For the past two years, I served as a public diplomacy coach. During the monthly seminars pre-departure, I taught the PYs presentation skills and design-thinking skills to prepare them for activities onboard.”
Getting on the ship
IN Malaysia, the Ship for Southeast Asian and Japanese Youth Programme (SSEAYP) is coordinated by the Youth and Sports Department of the Youth and Sports Ministry (KBS) to prepare Malaysian youths in facing global challenges.
Open to Malaysian citizens between the ages of 18 and 30, the application can be made online through the ministry website.
According to KBS International Affairs Unit assistant director Nik Muhammad Asraff Nik Mod Kamal, the selection process is based on several criteria including social skills, personality and talents.
“Candidates are required to write an English essay to introduce themselves and their objectives in joining the programme. For the second stage, there is an online psychometric test to assess their intellectual capacity and behaviour.”
Last year, 259 youths passed through the selection camp.
“During this camp, candidates were assessed on their teamwork, leadership, critical thinking skills and talents among others.
“They were also interviewed on current issues such as the Sustainable Development Goals, governance, youth development plans, the Malaysian Youth Policy and the 11th Malaysia Plan. Eventually, 28 individuals were selected to represent Malaysia,” said Nik Muhammad Asraff.
After the selections, the department organised a series of pre-departure training camps from June to October to prepare the youths for their life on board.
Last year, the Malaysian contingent received several corporate sponsorships, with Real Me Malaysia as the main sponsor.