Friday, April 28, 2017

Study trip to Malaysia: in-depth discussions with finance leaders to enhance our understanding of Islamic Finance

Students at SAIS spent spring break in various ways. Some traveled, some returned home to their families, and others took a trip to Kuala Lumpur. Below, Mathew Kostman, a first year MA student in the European and Eurasian Studies program at SAIS Europe, tells us about his trip to the Malaysian capital along with other SAIS students.

The trip embodies SAIS's multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary nature bringing to Asia students in the Middle East and the European and Eurasian Studies programs.

If someone told me earlier this year that I would spend my spring break learning about Islamic Finance from industry leaders in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I would have not believed them because Southeast Asia and Islamic Finance were never areas of consideration of academic study for me. As a U.S. student spending his first extended period of time in Europe, my focus was set on Eastern Europe. However, when the European and Eurasian Studies (EES) program announced a department-wide lottery to spend a week in Kuala Lumpur, I took my chance, and, thanks to the EES, the Middle East Studies (MES) department, and Starr Foundation, I had the incredible opportunity to spend a week in a country I never thought I’d be in, studying a topic I didn't know anything about.

This trip was possible thanks to a fellowship grant by the Starr Foundation centered on giving the opportunity to students outside of Asian Studies disciplines to have meaningful contact with the region, offering students the opportunity in both the European and Eurasian as well as the Middle East Studies programs at SAIS to travel to the region.

Meeting at the Islamic Financial Services Board

To prepare for the trip, my eleven travel companions, from the Bologna and Washington campuses, and I, researched the basics of Islamic Finance and put together a collective syllabus to familiarize with the topic before our meetings in Kuala Lumpur. After a guest lecture by Professor Camille Pecastaing, Senior Associate Director of the Middle East Studies Program, and numerous virtual conferences with the student group at the DC campus, we gained a good understanding of Islamic Finance, its history, the current trends, how its principles are implemented currently and the plans for the future.  It was great to have the opportunity to learn about the inner-workings and future plans of Islamic Finance directly from the source.

Thanks to the coordination of Ms. Kathryn Knowles, Associate Director of European and Eurasian Studies, and the help of one of our hosts Mr. Daud Vicary from the International Centre for Education in Islamic Finance, we met remarkable individuals at different institutions who were true experts and practitioners of Islamic Finance in Malaysia. Our discussions with people from the Malaysian Securities Commission, Malaysian National Bank, and the Islamic Financial Services Board were particularly enlightening. We found ourselves having in-depth policy and technical discussions with high-ranking leaders in Malaysian finance, enhancing our understanding of a topic many of us had only heard about a few months ago.

Our meeting with Members of Parliament gave us a better understanding of the current political situation in the Country and some of the issues they are dealing with. Malaysia has an incredibly multi-ethnic population with large Chinese and Indian communities that add a fascinating element to the Country’s history, culture, and politics. We got to see this up close when we attended a discussion conducted by a group of Malaysian college students about race, ethnicity, and the conflicts they raise. Befriending these students and hearing their stories and experiences was incredible and gave us a window into their lives and cultures.

My classmates tasting their first durian fruit
In our down time we got a taste of the culinary diversity Malaysia enjoys. We searched the city for the best local and authentic foods, discovering wonderful Indian, Chinese, Malay, and Korean food. Some of us tried the durian fruit, a staple of Malaysia.

This trip also allowed us to get to know our fellow classmates across the Atlantic Ocean. Studying, exploring, and attending meetings with the students in the EES and MES programs was a great way to get to know them, and I am looking forward to my time on the SAIS DC campus.

It was the best way to spend my spring break. I traveled to a new country on a continent I had never been to before, I learned about a fascinating topic I didn't know anything about, and I got to experience the culture (and cuisine) of Malaysia while getting to know my fellow SAIS classmates.

Matthew Kostman
MA Student
SAIS Europe 2017

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