Bridging the Cultural Divide in Malaysia: A Challenge for Doctoral Supervisors?

July 18, 2022 Updated: July 19, 2022


Lately, Malaysia has become the education hub of choice for international students seeking higher education in Asia. Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS) received over 11,000 applications in the January to March quarter of 2022 from prospective international students for study in Malaysian public and private institutions of higher education. Of these, 3,299 applied to a doctoral program.

The doctoral student population has become increasingly diverse in recent decades, with a considerable proportion of students for whom English is not their first language. In addition, some students are the beneficiaries of capacity-building programs or the recipients of home scholarships or are self-funded researchers seeking a Malaysian education.

The substantial increase in the number of doctoral study applications has spawned research into the cross-cultural benefits and challenges of doctoral supervision and the social and academic interactions between supervisors and their students.

Malaysia is a country with a diverse population of 32.37 million, comprising three dominant ethnic groups: 70 percent Bumiputera Malays, 22 percent Chinese, seven percent Indians, and one percent others. Because of its diverse ethnic make-up, different religious principles, traditions, languages, and values, which impact upon the economy, politics, education, and lifestyle, have influenced Malaysia.

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People cross a street in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Oct. 8, 2021. (Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images)

Diverse Cultures

These distinct differences between the major ethnic groups, compounded by the arrival of an international cohort of students, affect the quality of academic supervision in Malaysia’s universities.

Specifically, an awareness of these diverse cultural values and a balanced view of their role in bridging cultural divides can improve students’ academic journey, making it a fulfilling and meaningful experience.

Hence, given the demonstrable increase of students pursuing doctoral education in Malaysia, it becomes useful to explore the intercultural exchanges between supervisors and their students.

In this context, the impact of these exchanges on students’ academic performance and well-being receives special attention in the research literature. This literature suggests that, as the pursuit of academic excellence in a multicultural society is integral to a doctoral journey, supervisors have a key role in bridging the cultural divides by facilitating students’ integration into the interethnic academic environment.

There is anecdotal evidence suggesting that supervisors regard doctoral supervision as a very rewarding experience (pdf)—considered “one of the most enjoyable aspects of academic work.” This is because doctoral supervision offers an opportunity to embark upon an exciting academic journey with a student in pursuit of shared interest while also enabling supervisors to play a vital role in contributing to their students’ scholarly growth and skills development.

Given the strong commitment of supervisors to assisting students during their academic journey, each doctoral completion is a cause for celebration. But the challenges that confront doctoral candidates and the high attrition rates—between 30 to 50 percent—suggest that meaningful integration of students into the multicultural Malaysian society is a key to achieving success.

Malaysian Cultural Values

Hofstede, a global cultural advisory group, has assessed the cultural values of the major ethnic groups in Malaysia. Doctoral supervisors use this assessment to bridge the divide between these diverse groups and between these groups and the large cohort of international doctoral students.

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Students attending class at the University of Southampton in Nusajaya, Malaysia, on Nov. 15, 2013. (Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)

Hofstede assesses the values of the three major ethnic groups in Malaysia on several dimensions, including power distance, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, and individualism.

“Power Distance” is “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.”

“Masculinity” distils a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success, whereas “femininity” connotes a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life.

“Uncertainty Avoidance” deals with the degree to which “the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these.”

“Individualism” is “the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members.”

Hofstede’s study of these cultural values reveals that ethnic Malay people score high on “power distance” and “uncertainty avoidance” but low on “masculinity” and “individualism.” This compares with ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians, who score high on “power distance” and “individualism” but low on “masculinity” and “uncertainty avoidance.”

Fulfilling Student Experience

In considering Hofstede’s assessment of the three major ethnic groups, doctoral supervisors facilitate students’ acculturation into their academic discipline. In doing so, supervisors seek to articulate the need for students to become self-regulated learners by encouraging them to take responsibility for their projects.

Over time, considering the cultural values of Malaysia’s ethnic groups and the manifold values of the cohort of international students, supervisors encourage their doctoral students to assume ownership over their work to establish a more equal relationship with their supervisors.

Hofstede surmises that “The ideal is the culture without leadership, where we are all equal … and that should be the tone we use in communication with doctoral students.”

Additionally, Hofstede indicates that the use of “humour” in doctoral supervision may be a suitable strategy to convey a friendly attitude to students while ensuring that it is not the type of friendship that could damage their professional working relationship.

Notably, supervisors’ actions are gestures of goodwill, prompted by a desire to assist students’ academic progress and well-being. These actions acknowledge that doctoral studies are not only an arduous academic project but also entail students undergoing “a personal transformation process.”

Hence, a considered assessment of the different values of all doctoral students in Malaysia, whether they come from one of the three ethnic groups, or are international candidates, facilitates an academic journey that is meaningful and fulfilling for students and their supervisors.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Kashan Pirzada is an associate professor of accounting at Tunku Puteri Intan Safinaz School of Accountancy (TISSA). He served as an Associate Fellow of the Asian Research Institute for Corporate Governance (ARICG) and senior researcher at the University of Malaya. He is the recipient of the University Utara Malaysia excellence service award in 2020.
Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States. Moens has recently published two novels “A Twisted Choice” (2020) and “The Coincidence” (2021).