Can research educate people on contemporary issues and to what extent?
If you could name the 5 World Heritage Sites (WHS) awarded to the different areas in Malaysia, would your guess include the rural area of Lenggong Valley in Hulu Perak?
For Dr. Sothees Somasundram from Taylor’s School of Management & Marketing, the ability to research, produce publications, and to increase the opportunity to talk about important issues, like the Lenggong Valley, is a pivotal way to make a change in our society.
Q: Tell me more about the research you’re doing on the Lenggong Valley.
A: The attachment to the WHS is based on an extension of my previous work around livability and quality of life in the area. I must admit — before this I didn’t know that the Lenggong Valley existed.
When I was doing the previous project, we had someone take us around the area to show us where the flood happens and how it’d impact the people living around the area.
Photo credit: https://www.tourismperakmalaysia.com/place/Q1Y/lenggong-valley-the-world-heritage-site
As he was taking us around, he talked about a valley closeby and that’s when I remembered that I’ve actually been to the museum there with my husband, who mentioned how they found the ‘Perak Man’. There was a lot of effort in getting the WHS status so my team and I wanted to do research to see what it was like after getting it and, because of all the challenges faced, where we are currently.
The focus of the study was to understand the value placed by the society on heritage and how it impacts attachment to the area. It was driven by the understanding that local culture is a key strategy in new urban agenda related research and a wider recognition of cultural identity which can support the sustainability of cultural heritage sites. Doing this research wouldn’t just help contribute to the body of knowledge, but more importantly it’ll bring awareness to the pride and joy for Malaysians overall.
Q: What got you interested in the area of livability, quality of life, and sustainable cities?
A: The interest was driven by the increase in population in cities and the urban planning challenges faced by governments around the world. There was a mismatch between policy directions and desired outcomes by the society. So, the question arose whether these policies ensure sustainable cities, especially among developing countries like Malaysia. There was a need to understand whether the opinions and views of urbanities residing in these cities were taken into consideration, which opened up a range of research areas to consider.
Q: From your research project on sustainable cities in urban areas, how did you transition all the way to the Lenggong Valley study?
A: The sustainable cities research was actually the first grant I got from Taylor’s. While we had this particular grant, we had the opportunity to work with the ADUN of Subang, Michelle Ng. A colleague from the engineering faculty was working with the ADUN on different aspects — one of them being the livability and the conditions of the low cost flats in Subang. She wanted to address the problems and get feedback on the challenges so our colleague linked. We had an opportunity to speak, understand, and ultimately took it on further.
Through researching sustainable cities, you’ll get a lot of different issues and concerns that come up in urban areas. I really felt we were able to make an active difference and progress further compared to when you do literature research. Slowly when you get awareness and recognition by people approaching you, the kind of work you do becomes more and more meaningful.
The flood mitigation project came about after as they wanted to see the challenges and impact on the livability of the area. It sort of rolled out and took a life of its own which ended up with the Lenggong Valley study.
Though the area isn’t urban, it still addresses a part of the sustainability of places and the importance of heritage on society. I’m hoping my work will allow me to continue collaborating with the government and resident committees to better understand the urban community's needs and make a positive contribution towards the new urban agenda.
Q: What are some of the milestones you’ve achieved and wish to continue achieving for your research?
A: Being able to work and engage with so many different people from varied backgrounds is my milestone. As a lecturer, most of our connection is limited to our own circle of friends and influence.
Knowing that these studies have widened my circle, given me opportunities to work with my academic circle, and to connect with people outside is a milestone in itself.
If some of the work that we’re doing gets the right traction and has influence on policy change, that’d be great. I’d love to see the Lenggong Valley project, although it’s still a work-in-progress, make an impact, get people to turn around, and make a change.
Having read so much about the difficulty in getting the WHS status, on top of having a 60,000-year-old skeleton — one of the oldest in the world, I think many don’t realise the significance. I’d like to see the project make the right dent, no matter how small, to make people sit up, listen, and have some kind of change take place. That’s one of my wishes.
Q: Any advice on people interested in research or sustainable cities?
A: When it comes to sustainability in cities, even with regards to living a sustainable life, we always think it’s something others need to do. Whether it’s in the policies or enforcement other people make on us. I’ve realised that it’s actually you doing what you can, no matter the size.
Though you may not be able to see the immediate effects as an individual, as a group, it’d have a snowball effect. Research isn’t a short-term thing so, in the long run, the kind of research we do and get involved in will definitely make a change. I’m quite confident of that.
Interested to know the start of Dr. Sothees's journey as a researcher? Continue reading on!
A: When I was in Form 6, the decision to choose economics was influenced by my teacher and a group of friends. Though at that time it wasn’t a conscious decision, I’m really glad with how it turned out because I really enjoyed this field of study.
After finishing my undergraduate degree and getting advice from some of my seniors who were doing their Master’s and tutoring at the same time, I felt that continuing was a great deal since I could study and teach at the same time.
After finishing my Master’s, I went into a research institution, Maritime Institution of Malaysia. They researched different areas — one of them being economics where they support policy initiatives. Our role was to focus and look at the challenges faced by the maritime industry and shipping industries. These policy papers would then be shared by the board to the ministry.
After 2 years there, I went back to teaching. Sometimes, you get so focused where you’re at that you forget about other options you could do. Throughout my journey in the academic line, I realised that PhD is something you should do. So, I started my PhD in 2014 after a long break from completing my studies in 1998.
A: Going back to the role of a student, one of the things that didn’t help was my very apparent grey hair! I remember in one of my classes, I'd a lecturer much younger than me and she’d often look at me to respond to her. I often thought, “Am I being picked on because I’m older than everyone else?”
At the end of the day, it’s all about perception. Reflecting back, I realised that I’d been self-conscious and jumped to conclusions — not necessarily the right ones. Upon completing the class, I realised that I’d good repo with this lecturer and enjoyed the engagement in class.
Jokes aside, a lot of other things are similar but one of the things that has changed is the delivery by the lecturer.
There’s a tremendous shift in the mindset, where it’s more collaborative and encourages more positive discussion between students and lecturer.
Together with the experience gathered from going back into PhD and the support by Taylor’s e-Learning Academy (eLA), I’ve been able to get more engagement into my classes now.
The most memorable experience was before going for my viva. I remember sitting outside the viva room, very stressed, and my supervisor started chatting to calm me down. I shared with him, “I don’t know how things will turn out when I go in.”
He said, “You’ve spent 4 years on this. You’ll be ok. It’ll be ok.” He really gave me the confidence, courage, and support needed at that moment.
Going in and after 2 hours plus of completing everything to have the examiners say, “You’ve passed!”, to hear those words after going through a journey of pushing yourself and having doubts creep in — that was a great experience.
A: The academic researchers are normally geared towards how we can contribute to literature bodies out there. One portion is on improving the academic aspect but more importantly, we need to highlight, bring to attention, and talk about contemporary issues to make a difference.
It’s important to know that when you’re doing your assignment, you’re building a lifelong skill set. Definitely what you learn from it, where and what you get, how to cite it correctly, the thought process you should have — those kinds of skills are very very important. In turn, as educators, we need to equip them with the right skills and techniques to build the right foundation.
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