Merantau to the pluriversity

By Aizuddin Mohamed Anuar

The concept of merantau in Malay cosmology denotes the act of movement—sailing, walking, or adventuring—to other lands away from home, in search of a different life. After gaining independence from the British, the young nation state that evolved to become Malaysia looked to education as a means for attaining economic development. Kassim (1995) observed that over time, as the economy expanded, university qualification increasingly became a necessary form of differentiation in the labour market. In this modern light, merantau became associated with young people from rural areas bearing parental hopes and dreams for a better life through the movement from the traditional kampung (village) to the city for a university education. 

This notion of merantau is best captured in Malay poetry. Consider the following excerpt from a poem entitled Pesan lelaki kecil kepada gadis kampus (The humble man’s advice for the campus girl) by Sazalee Yacob (2003) (part of the Malay Language curriculum in secondary schools): 

Kuhantar kau mengecapi angin baruudara lain dari kampung bendang kuningmubumantara asing dari yang sering kaumesraiyang sama sekali berbezadengan suasana suntimukau nikmatilah angin dan udara ilmu itumemesrai azimat dan tangkaldari tangga gading.I send you off on winds anewthe air unlike golden meadows of the kampunga land foreign to that you often consortits difference altogether starkagainst your girlish timesimbibe the wind and air of that knowledgeconsort with the amulet and talismanfrom the ivory steps. 

The imagery in this poem signifies the necessity to merantau in search of knowledge—a village father ushers his young daughter up the ivory tower, placing hope in its magical promise of a land so unlike the girl’s childhood kampung (village). The prospect of a better life means leaving the rural for the urban. A university education requires sacrificial exile, a severing of homely familiarity, because amulets and talismans await elsewhere, at the foot of the ivory tower. 

The concept of merantau also suggests the magnetic pull to return. Songs such as Balik Kampung (Returning to the Village) and Dendang Perantau (The Sojourner’s Refrain) are Malay allegories that distil this longing for home. Nevertheless, one does not return on a whim, not without a tribute to offer the elders and the village folk. Another Malay proverb displayed in many educational institutions is telling: pergi dengan harapan, pulang dengan kejayaan (leave with hope, return with success). For young people leaving their rural homelands for university, the return in merantau is thus contingent upon success. To journey back without it is to lose face.


I conceived this piece in the thick of graduation season in Malaysia. It is a time of the year for joyous celebration. Such elaborate occasions are indicative of the massification of higher education in the country. It is also a time of optimism. The public hungers for heart-warming stories of graduation success, to renew the oscillating faith in education’s power for social mobility. The stories often juxtapose rural beginnings with towering academic successes in urban universities—the sons and daughters of gardeners, goat herders, penebar roti canai (tosser of local flatbread) with first-class degrees abound. The more hard-won the battle, the more rapturous the reception. It is crucial to render the stark contrast in the same sentence, to allow both realities to inhabit the same space. Otherwise, the stories lose their sheen of wonder. 

The celebrated narrative is that despite such humble beginnings, these young people rose above. But the pernicious message we have come to internalise is this: given their background, these rural young people are not supposed to succeed. To be clear, these are magnificent successes born of hard work under extraordinary, alienating circumstances. I do not overlook these achievements and I join in the celebration of the indomitable nature of the human spirit. I am, however, at once fascinated and troubled by the fetishistic framing of these successes. Year after year, such narratives continue to capture our imagination because they defy a norm that we fail to interrogate. Their arcs neatly align with pergi dengan harapan, pulang dengan kejayaan (leave with hope, return with success).  We consume these stories in earnest, willing them to universality. We live to believe in the power of education until the next graduation season.

But what of the untold stories of rural students in urban higher education? The structural problem is shrouded in obscurity, eclipsed by newsworthy success stories of a few individuals. To uncover it requires engagement with a sociology of absences, interrogating how the “colonialism of power, knowledge, and being, operates together with capitalism and patriarchy to produce…certain groups of people and forms of social life as non-existent, invisible, radically inferior, or radically dangerous” (Santos, 2018, p. 25). Undertaking this line of inquiry requires us to pay close attention to questions such as: How and why are rural students set up to fail in higher education? In the parable of the kampung (village) girl consorting with the amulet and talisman from the ivory tower, how likely is it a case of yang dikejar tak dapat, yang dikendong berciciran (what is pursued is not grasped, what is already carried is lost)?


The project of development, progress, and modernity in Malaysia privileges the urban, cosmopolitan way of life. Our staggering rate of urbanisation is one marker of this. In the name of development, the government persists in the deficit framing of rural communities as backward and trailing behind their urban counterparts. It is not surprising then that the Rural Development Policy launched in 2019 includes a section on changing the mindset of rural communities towards a ‘first class mentality’. Burdened by these assumptions, rural students may encounter multiple forms of alienation when they merantau to urban spaces for university education. They are stigmatised with coded labels that denote backwardness, such as budak kampung (youngster from the village). Often, their rich experiences are undervalued, their dialects ridiculed, and their lives complicated by unspoken institutional rules. The spatial separation from family and the loneliness that ensues can be overwhelming. 

These challenges are magnified by the financial burden of life in the city. As a result of intense rural migration to cities, the spectre of urban poverty looms above like an omen. Yet, rural students persist with precarity because they have hope for the future. One student recalls: 

I spent two days without eating as I ran out of money. My father came to visit me with some rambutan and apologised as he too did not have any money to give me… I hope that with my qualification, I can land a job that secures my future so that I can help my parents and younger siblings.  

(Rafidi, 2019)

In the pursuit of success in higher education, is individual hope enough—without confronting the colonial, oppressive structures of universities? Universities are spaces where rural students are forced to engage in mimicry of their urban(e) counterparts, only to fail by design and so expose themselves to blame. Ultimately, they are held responsible for their inability to sufficiently adapt to university life, for lacking the strength to survive the project of development, and for failing to match the ‘industriousness’ of their urban counterparts. That this vilification is reminiscent of modern Malay capitalism’s hostile relationship with rural poverty—attributed to rural folks’ ‘laziness’—is no accident (Maaruf, 2014). 

Photo by Hamidah Saleem

A retired professor in development economics, with whom I recently spoke, opined that the Malaysian education system is urban-biased. Education is meant to prepare the modern worker for industrial, urban spaces.  The rural populace is only useful insofar as they supply food and labour that fuel these urban metropoles. Rural, indigenous students in particular, partake in mainstream education against overwhelming odds, at the same time losing their identity and worldviews away from their ancestral homes. They leave formal education to enter a liminal, ambivalent space where the promise of social mobility is broken and their indigenous bearings are lost. Stories that reflect this reality rarely make the news, for they shatter the neat arc of education for social mobility. When they do grab our attention as special reports, the framing is one of crisis and pity—enough to shock briefly, but soon forgotten. We choose instead to consume feel-good graduation stories of the select few in earnest, willing them to universality. We live to believe in the power of education until the next graduation season.

Are rural students and urban universities doomed to a perennially strained relationship? In higher education literature, rural and indigenous students are sometimes included under the broader category of ‘non-traditional’ students, alongside mature students and students with caring responsibilities. In relation to rural students, even the qualifier ‘non-traditional’ here seems an ironic inversion, given that traditional is often synonymous with rural, as modern is with urban. This qualifier further demonstrates how rural students typically do not belong in universities, which were traditionally the court of the urban, metropolitan elite. It seems that rather than adopting ad hoc solutions to integrate ‘non-traditional’ students into the urban university, thus fossilising the status quo; mending this relationship requires a radical reimagination of what the university can and must be as a space.


Higher education in Malaysia traces its origins to the colonial period prior to independence, starting with the establishment of University of Malaya in 1949, then located in Singapore. In Malaysia’s postcolonial beginnings, universities produced technocrats and professionals who would steer the new nation forward. Gradually, the role of universities evolved to address economic disparity among ethnic groups through their potential to spur social mobility. While the former aim ushered in neo-colonialism, reproducing class hierarchies that persist to this day, the latter increasingly imagines universities as cogs in the neo-liberal, capitalist machine. Today, the university is first and foremost a utilitarian means to a job in the modern capitalist economy. Kader (2012) argues that “universities provide the foot-soldiers, generals and the intellectual, cultural and ideological underpinning for this predatory system which has produced global poverty as well as human and environmental degradation” (p. 52). Burdened with the weight of massive graduate unemployment of late, Malaysian universities are blamed for their inability to meet industry needs, further exposing their role in the capitalist project.

How can universities be reclaimed from these deeply embedded colonialist and capitalist logics? Santos (2018) envisions the creation of the polyphonic university—one constructed out of multiple voices, including those that do not subscribe to conventional ways of the university and its credentialing processes. Such a university will evolve to become a pluriversity, genuinely valorising multiple ways of knowing to create ecologies of knowledge and “questioning the seemingly all-powerful drive towards commodification of knowledge and the capitalist industrialization of the university” (Santos, 2018, p. 279). In the context of rural students’ participation in university, it entails a genuine commitment to honouring the cultural resources and worldviews they bring—recognising the potential for collaborative knowledge creation both inside and outside the institution. This runs counter to current practices, which corrode rural students’ agency and co-opt them into urban sensibilities as they merantau to find rather than co-create knowledge.  

To imagine a pluriversity entails confronting the following challenges Santos (2018) poses, which no doubt will bring further sets of questions unimaginable in the current university model:

Can non-PhD holders known for their practical knowledge be part of PhD committees and even pass judgment on the research undertaken by PhD students when their dissertations deal with topics with which they are familiar?

Can the classroom be polyphonic, involving two teachers, a scientific and artisanal one, such as a medical professor and a traditional healer?

Can books or other teaching tools be co-authored by teachers of both scientific and artisanal knowledge?

How much time will both teachers and students spend inside the university and outside?

(p. 280-281)

Reimagining the university—at a time when its traditional form is ironically under attack by the capitalist system it has long served—requires acknowledging its colonial and capitalist leanings. Rather than placing blame upon rural students for failing to integrate, the more urgent task is to collectively, in the polyphony of our voices, confront and deconstruct the university as a space by questioning whose interest it ultimately serves. This calls for a critical eye to unravel the colonial and capitalist undertones of ‘conventional’ university education, pointing to a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ which is crucial for the project of reimagination. To do so is to heed the father’s advice in another excerpt of the poem Pesan lelaki kecil kepada gadis kampus (The humble man’s advice for the campus girl) thatI introduced in the beginning:

Di awan kampus yang sarat ilmuhadir sihir angin bernafas apidi pohon kampus yang tegar statusberceracak selumbar noda mengabur fikirdi padang kampus yang hijau pertimbangantumbuh gunung ego menghalau pekerti.In the campus clouds pregnant with knowledgeblack magic breathes fire upon the windin the campus trees of suretyseductive splinters shroud the mindin the campus green of fine judgementrises mount ego that banishes character.

Note: all translations are author’s own.


Abdul Kader, M. (2012), Integrating the Sacred into University Education. In C. Alvares & S. S. Faruqi (Eds.), Decolonising the University: The Emerging Quest for Non-Eurocentric Paradigms (pp. 85-94). Pulau Pinang: Penerbit Universiti Sains Malaysia.

Kassim, M. (1994). Peluang Pendidikan Tinggi Bagi Pelajar Melayu Luar Bandar: Kajian Kes USM. The Asia Pacific Journal of Educators and Education (formerly known as Journal of Educators and Education), 13 (1). pp. 1-17.

Maaruf, S. (2014). Malay Ideas on Development: From Feudal Lord to Capitalist. Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre.

Rafidi, R. (2019, September 25). Financial struggles at university. New Straits Times. Retrieved from

Santos, B. de S. (2018). The End of the Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Yacob, S. (2003, October 19). Pesan Lelaki Kecil Kepada Gadis Kampus. Mingguan Malaysia, p. 30.

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