19th November 2010 Chevening, UK

The biography of a Chevening scholar

so much depends
a great curriculum

Sorry, I (Shanon Shah, Chevening scholar from Malaysia) just needed to riff off the famous William Carlos Williams poem, The Red Wheelbarrow, which to me at least is as frustrating as it is deceptive. Yet I wonder how many current Chevening scholars out there felt exactly this way when applying for not just the Chevening scholarship, but also a place in the programme and institution of their choice. How many out there, like me, felt the pressure of condensing their biographies into three pages of a CV.

On my CV, I am a journalist, a playwright, a singer-songwriter and, early in my career, I was an activist. I am also a qualified chemical engineer. To me, my existence and experiences are coherent because I, Shanon Shah, am familiar with my own life history. I have realised, though, that for many of those who have just started to get to know me these choices of mine have been, shall we say, unorthodox.

But this is where the Chevening award becomes all the more meaningful. And this is where an institution such as King’s College London, where I am pursuing my MA, is also a haven for people like me. Both recognise that sometimes, individuals get to where they want to by travelling very unconventional paths.

“The heat”

So here is an elaboration of my CV:

Now I am at King’s College London pursuing an MA in the sociology and anthropology of religion. At the same time, I have just released my second album of self-composed material in Malaysia entitled Suara Yang Ku Dengar. My mentors at Instant Cafe Theatre Company in Malaysia, Jo Kukathas and Zalfian Fuzi, are expecting my next full-length play some day – an adaptation of the Kedah Annals, a text both historical and mythological. And my colleagues at Malaysian news site The Nut Graph know that it was the various assignments in which I covered political Islam that have propelled me to pursue my current MA.

And for me at least, as multidisciplinary as my professional career has been so far, I know that some things remain core and constant. I delight in sharing and telling stories that connect people and provide insight into their lives and also mine. I enjoy the company of people the way some people enjoy juicy fruit or rolling green meadows. I am also Muslim, and in a post 9/11 world, I have to deal constantly with the intensifying ideologisation and politicisation of my identity, whether by non-Muslims or by Muslims themselves.

As a journalist, artist and citizen in Malaysia, I feel that discussions about religious and ethnic identity are intensifying in ways that increasingly trouble me. Almost immediately in my position as Columns and Comments Editor at The Nut Graph, I started to feel “the heat” of reporting on religion in the public sphere. For example, in areas relating to the implementation of Islamic laws, I noticed that many people I interviewed or readers who commented on the website would become locked into mutually hostile positions.

I wondered for a long time, and still wonder, if I felt “the heat” more precisely because I worked in the media and the arts. And now I wonder what happens to the spaces in between these mutually hostile positions. What is the reality now in how Malaysians relate to each other every day? What insights can we gain from focusing not on the merits or demerits of certain religious truth claims and counterclaims, but rather on how people’s behaviours and relationships are influenced by these truth claims and counterclaims?

An evolving biography

And so this is what I’m getting from my MA now. I am being trained very vigorously to analyse these issues in more depth and with more discipline. My classes involve studying and arguing about Emile Durkheim, the secularisation thesis, and anthropology of Muslim societies, among other things. Outside class, I am getting to know my classmates in all their wonderful diversity — whether French, Chinese, English, American, or whether their backgrounds are in journalism, theology or management, and so on.

And London! Truly, London is my classroom. Wait – even that is limiting. London is not just my classroom – it is my playground, too. Whenever I attend a talk here that opens my mind, or watch a play that fans my creative fire, or even when I just walk across Waterloo Bridge to go to lectures, I am in awe of this great, great city.

If it sounds like I am not homesick at all, then that’s probably because I’m not. I think in my case, though, having this emotional, geographical and professional distance away from Malaysia is good. Don’t get me wrong: Malaysia is in my blood, my mind and my soul. But being here in London, doing my MA in exactly what I want to study, is the best thing that could have happened to me. It exercises a different intellectual muscle, and opens up new emotional horizons, such that I can only return to Malaysia a more informed, multifaceted citizen who is ready to contribute at a new level. The hope I have is that my biography will keep getting enriched, and will in turn help me enrich the biography of the country I love. And that, really, is the value of the Chevening scholarship to me.

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