Learning to walk slowly was one of the hardest things for Jacqueline Snell to adjust to during her 10-month stay in Malaysia as a Fulbright Scholar. It made good sense in the very hot and humid climate, and Snell concentrated on slowing down her pace. "But I was still way faster than Malay women, who are dressed in layers of clothes from head to toe, yet never seem to perspire," she says with an awed smile.
The American emphasis on efficiency and "getting where you are going," is not shared by the 20 million people in this Southeast Asian country.
Yet Malaysia is eager to move into the future. Its leaders want to shed the country's post-colonial image as a cheap labor source and to position it as a "business builder." Snell, who has taught marketing for ten years in the SJSU College of Business, was invited to the Universiti Putra Malaysia, near the capital Kuala Lumpur, to help with that transition.
A fledgling flagship
"The university has aspirations to be the flagship school of a multimedia super corridor, a planned Silicon Valley," says Snell. The country has a "corporatisation" plan, whereby universities must become partially self-supporting. The University Business Center, where Snell worked, is charged with the task of commercializing faculty research toward that end.
Snell cautioned faculty that some companies may retain ownership of all patents stemming from research supported with their money. "In the U.S.," Snell notes, "it is now becoming common for universities and companies to share royalties from patents with faculty. That's good for the universities, the companies and the economy."
Snell found that the university wanted to have equity in start-up businesses. But, she says, it was difficult to convince university officials that if there is no plan to become publicly traded, there is no benefit to the university in having equity.
Greater freedom leads to greater output
Snell worked with Professor Manan, a faculty member who had developed a formula for ikan haruan, a traditional medicine. He wanted to develop clinical trials and get FDA approval of the drug. However, because faculty members work a strict 8 to 5 week and half day on Saturday, the university wants any investors to build facilities on campus so professors can maintain their work schedules. The company was unwilling to meet that condition. "This situation raised questions of how you measure faculty output," Snell says. "The University Putra Malaysia does not yet recognize that giving faculty members greater freedom can lead to greater productivity. Of course, U.S. universities are still struggling with this, too."
Snell advised another researcher, Professor Shariff, who had developed a test for a virus in shrimp that could be used by shrimp farms, not as a cure, but as an early warning system. She helped him to get the right marketing focus and to do the strategic planning that would lead to a profit. In another case, she worked with a chemist who had figured a way to extract carotene from palm oil. Although the carotene produced was not quite concentrated enough to be profitable, he got a grant in Japan to continue his work there.
Practicing good race relations
During her stay, Snell found much to admire in Malaysian culture. The population is diverse: approximately 60 percent Malay, 30 percent Chinese and 10 percent Indian. While there is a class structure with royalty, it is a source of national pride that the country has a history of good race relations. "The last race riot was in 1968," notes Snell, "unlike the case in neighboring Indonesia, with a similar cultural mix, or in the U.S., for that matter."
Across all S. E. Asian cultures, "Generosity, graciousness and hospitality are all highly valued," Snell says. "In Malaysia, everyone has open houses on holidays. At the Prime Minister's open house, anyone can go and shake his hand." Foreigners are especially honored. "My husband and I were received extremely well," says Snell. "For example, we were invited to family weddings."
"Americans would be surprised at how egalitarian the culture is," she says. "Most of the Islamic world is more liberal than Saudi Arabia". Quite a lot of women work in business, although not as CEOs, and there are many women faculty, according to Snell. Men and women socialize together, but she noted that the more westernized, modern women often choose to remain single. The country has numerous universities, and many foreigners, particularly from other Muslim countries, study in Malaysia. Although there is governmental pressure on the media, it is not like the heavy censorship of China.
Since returning to SJSU, Snell finds she has a much better understanding of her many Asian-American students. She also observes that students from both SE Asian and Muslim roots are now more readily speaking up in her classes.
Public Affairs Offices/Campus News