Summer in Malaysia




Ethnography of Migrant Life in the City

June 5 - July 5, 2020

Bard, Bennington, Sarah Lawrence, and Vassar colleges have joined forces to form the Consortium of Forced Migration, Displacement and Education (CFMDE). This consortium was formed as a response to the unprecedented acceleration of forced migration throughout the world due to war, political/ethnic/religious persecution, and poverty. Our students will be engaging in a number of different learning initiatives including, at the core, an innovative shared curriculum in Forced Migration across all four campuses.

As a signature project of CFDME, the Malaysia program offers undergraduate students from across Consortium colleges the opportunity to visit and learn about issues and challenges facing marginalized and displaced communities outside of a Western context. An estimated 150,000 Rohingya refugees live in Malaysia. Malaysia is also a major destination country for migrant workers from Indonesia, Thailand, India, Nepal, Philippines, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. The unofficial count of undocumented workers and displaced peoples ranges from around 200,000 to 300,000.

Migrants (refugees, guest-workers, and undocumented alike) find themselves navigating the challenges of everyday in Malaysia in ways that require ingenuity, creativity, and mutual trust between different cultural and ethnic groups. Informality becomes critical for those who seek to find resources and ways to secure a dignified life in the major cities of Malaysia. Migrants turn to informal means to finding homes, forming relationships, finding employment, and building lives in the new country. In cities like Georgetown and Kuala Lumpur, different communities of migrants, including refugees, often live in the same spaces and neighborhoods, relying upon each other in forms of grounded cosmopolitanism for support and resources. These include taking care of children and elderly, caring for the sick, cooking for different families, and providing financial assistance during emergencies.

Using Malaysia as an international field site will allow for greater engagement with issues of forced migration and displacement in that region of the world; for example, the ongoing crisis of Rohingya refugees from Burma and the major problem of human trafficking affecting the region. Everyday migrant life in Malaysia offers profoundly different perspectives on the experiences of different communities, allowing us to challenge commonly held beliefs and assumptions about migration. For instance, formal socio-legal categorizations that distinguish between documented and undocumented migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers are often not enough to help us understand the ambiguity and diversity of experiences and practices that such communities engage in. By turning the focus on informal and the everyday, we will pay attention to practices of place-making and community building that migrant communities from various backgrounds engage in, individually and collectively.

Program Description

This intensive four-week summer semester in Malaysia will be administered by Sarah Lawrence College under the direction of Dr. Parthiban Muniandy, professor of Sociology at Sarah Lawrence. The semester abroad will begin with an orientation in Kuala Lumpur followed by study and work with various organizations in Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Eight students (two from each consortium college) will attend workshops and lectures led by local experts and scholars in the region. In addition, they will also be visiting and working with local organizations:

  • UnRepresented KL
  • Asia Business School Research Group
  • Tenaganita
  • AGE (Malaysian newspaper investigative journalism team)
  • Khazanah Research Institute
  • Other local organizations that work on migrants’ rights, advocacy, and activism

Under the guidance of Dr. Muniandy, the students will learn how to conduct mini-ethnographic projects in the city that will prepare them to carry out observations, interviews, and properly document their findings and research.

Students will learn directly from local organizers, experts, and the communities about the experiences of migrants, refugees, and statelessness in this region. As a major destination and hub for transnational migration, Malaysia attracts a wide-range of people from across socio-economic, national, and ethnic backgrounds—from international students from Nigeria to refugees from Burma. In particular, students will gain a better understanding of non-traditional destinations outside of the North American and Western European context and see how different experiences are shaped in the context of one of Asia's "global cities." Students will be visiting sites that have served as important centers for migrant life over the last two decades.

Through fieldwork and writing students will be prepared to:

  • Conduct ethnographic research
  • Observe fieldwork sites, including informal refugee settlements, ethnic enclaves, and kongsi settlements in KL and Penang  
  • Participate in daily collaborative writing opportunities
  • Collaborate with local scholars, students, and writers in the form of workshops who are based in Malaysia, including refugee poets and writers with UnRepresented KL, local researchers from the Asia Business School, and at Hikayat Gerakbudaya’s Blue Studio.


Fieldwork and Ethnography: 2 Credits (to be issued by the student’s home institution)

During the program in Malaysia, students will be required to conduct visits to different sites for at least two hours each day. They will need to conduct mini ethnographic observations* at the sites, in addition to any interviews or conversations with professionals, experts, and activists that they may be meeting. The group will then meet together each afternoon to share and discuss their experiences and work for the day, followed by an hour of writing of reflections and field notes. As part of their written assignment, these reflections will be shared in a private blog that each student will post to daily.

*Please note that students will not be conducting interviews with any members of the groups, homes, or schools they visit and will also not be interacting with any members of any groups, homes, or schools they visit without consent and supervision by the staff at these facilities.

Course Goals & Expectations 

The focus of this program is to provide students with the opportunity to learn how to conduct ethnographic research and writing in a non-western social and cultural setting. To prepare, students will be given a series of key texts to read beforehand on key elements of participant observation and ethnographic writing, which they would then be expected to apply during daily site visits, observations, and interviews. In addition, students will also read and discuss scholarship pertaining to migration, culture, and society in Southeast Asia and Malaysia. At the sites in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, students will spend two hours each day conducting observations at various sites listed for the program. At the end of each day, students will record their field notes and reflections, which will become part of their term project. Students will also be expected to present and share their work as part of the Consortium’s Annual Teaching Lab at one of the four member colleges.

Students will travel to Kuala Lumpur, where they will be provided an orientation and training for conducting ethnographic research in Malaysia, followed by two weeks of site visits. The group will then travel to Cameron Highlands for a three day stay. The group will then travel to Georgetown, Penang, where they will stay in hostels/homestay in the center of the old Georgetown. While in Penang, students will meet together with Dr. Muniandy every day in the morning before travelling as a group to different sites in Penang Island, including refugee settlements in Butterworth and Seberang Prai.  

Admission Requirements

This program only accepts applications from students at the following consortium colleges:

  • Bard
  • Bennington
  • Sarah Lawrence
  • Vassar

Apply now

All completed application materials are due March 1. Please e-mail Prema Samuel in the Office of Global Education with any questions about your application.

Required Readings


  • Hoffstaedter, Gerhard. (2017) "Refugees, Islam and the state: the role of religion in Providing Sanctuary in Malaysia" Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies 15(3). 
  • Muniandy, Parthiban (2015) Politics of the temporary: ethnography of migrant life in urban Malaysia. SIRD/Gerakbudaya
  • Chin, Christine (2008) "Diversification and Privatization": Securing Insecurities in the receiving country of Malaysia" The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 9(4)

While Abroad

  • Emerson, Fritz and Shaw. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes., 2nd edition. University of Chicago Press.
  • Caldeira, Teresa (2017). "Peripheral urbanization: Auto construction, transversal logics and politics in cities of the global south" Society and Space.

Academic Calendar

Friday, June 5
Students Arrive in Kuala Lumpur

Saturday, June 6 - Sunday, June 7
Orientation in Kuala Lumpur

Monday, June 8 - Thursday, June 19
Studies in Kuala Lumpur

Saturday, June 22
Travel to Georgetown, Penang

Saturday, June 22 - Wednesday, July 1
Studies in Penang

Thursday, July 2 - Friday, July 3
Wrap up on Langkawi Island

Friday, July 4
Return to Kuala Lumpur

Sunday, July 5
Program ends and students depart Kuala Lumpur International Airport
(Students to return home or pursue other travels on their own)

Program Costs

  • Air fare: $1,200 (estimated for travel to and back from Malaysia, plus internal program travel costs)
  • Room and Board: $1,000 (estimated cost for housing, including most meals)
  • Personal expenses in country: $500 (estimated; may vary depending on student’s travel and personal needs)
  • International medical insurance: TBD (for duration of study abroad program only)

Room & Board

Students are housed in apartments/hostels. While most meals are provided, on occasion students may need to purchase their own meals.