Linking the Past and the Future: Capturing Knowledge in Malaysia

February 2015

By Ramesh Pillai, Executive Secretary, Malaysian Association of Creativity & Innovation (MACRI), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

An inspiring social innovation initiative is engaging young people in Malaysia and encouraging them to rediscover and capture the knowledge, insights and wisdom of the country’s elder citizens. Launched in December 2012, by the Malaysian Association of Creativity & Innovation (MACRI), “Linkages: Connecting Past to Future” is a flagship project that focuses on inter-generational knowledge-sharing to both rediscover and tap into the knowledge of the country’s wealth of grassroots innovators and creators.

MACRI has been working to promote a culture of creativity and innovation in Malaysia, one of the world’s most biodiversity-rich and culturally-diverse nations, since 2007. Project Linkages, takes its work to another level reinforcing a culture of creativity among young people; generating renewed respect for the customs and practices of elder citizens and creating opportunities to identify intellectual property (IP) assets with commercial potential. 

Dato Dr Marzalina, leader of Project Linkages, explains to a team of youth the use of Asam Gelugor leaves at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) Ethno Botanic Garden. (Photo: MACRI)

The project was inspired by the work of Professor Anil K. Gupta, Executive Vice Chairperson of India’s National Innovation Foundation. Professor Gupta is a champion of the cause of creative communities and individual grassroots inventors. His work, which highlights the wealth of traditional knowledge (TK) embedded in communities, convinced me and my colleagues at MACRI of the need to find a way to record the know-how and wisdom so readily found in in communities across Malaysia and, and to identify any associated IP rights and income-generating opportunities.

The urgency of the task, was brought home to me during a conversation with Dr. Gupta when he reflected that, “every time an old person dies a library of information is buried. Never before have we lost more traditional knowledge.”

“The idea of getting elders to have their stories and experiences documented by their grandchildren is a worthy goal,” he said on learning about Project Linkages, noting that it would “serve as an excellent platform for learning creativity the experiential way while creating the opportunity for development of new and innovative solutions.”

Many others felt the same way and were drawn to the project’s potential to harvest the TK, practices and know-how of elders as a means of securing an economic return for the communities concerned. A meeting co-organized by MACRI and the Malaysian Innovation Foundation, on the sidelines of the Kuala Lumpur Innovation Forum in November 2011, attracted some 1,000 participants, including experts in community and social development; medicinal plant research; intellectual property; and event management; as well as youth workers.

Interest in the project was given further impetus insofar as its objectives coincided with other national initiatives, such as the drive by the Multimedia Corporation of Malaysia (MDec) to promote the digital skills of young Malaysians. “The aim of Project Linkages to instill a culture of innovation and creative thinking and unravel and value new sources of age-old knowledge is very timely,” notes Sumitra Nair, Director of Digital Malaysia Youth Cluster & Initiative, MDec. “Many youngsters nowadays are into new technology and they are very creative in expressing their ideas. Project Linkages encourages inter-generational respect and trust towards knowledge gathering and sharing. This exercise will also help in establishing a local knowledge digital database that could eventually facilitate socio-economic and commercial explorations.”

One of the most memorable storytelling sessions took place at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) nature reserve. Hundreds of inquisitive and enthusiastic youngsters armed with cameras met with elders and recorded over 50 clips within 24 hours. (Photo: MACRI)

Engaging young people

MACRI’s experience in working with schools and colleges meant we were well placed to engage young people in the project. To attract their interest, we launched the Green Wisdom of Elders multi-media contest, challenging them to uncover and document the know-how, creativity and values of earlier generations.

We also encouraged them to record interesting tips or elements of TK passed on by their elders on postcards entitled “My Precious Linkages” (see box) and to send them to Project Linkages.

MACRI also began working with the charismatic youth leader, Michael Teoh, whose participation drew many young people to the project. On top of his role in animating a series of workshops, Michael helped to appoint Linkages Youth Ambassadors who play a key role in promoting and running the project’s social media campaign. In previous years, some of the Youth Ambassadors even created promotional videos with original ethnic-techno fusion music.

The 2013 contest attracted around 500 entries and in 2014, we received 525 entries, demonstrating the project’s continuing popularity.

“I think the Linkages project is a great idea. I feel that young people today should be proud of the wisdom of their grandparents and should recognize their stories and heritage,” Michael Teoh explains. “I have seen Project Linkages come full circle with hundreds of inspiring stories and anecdotes from our older generation being shared by youngsters. I am very proud to be associated with this very noble initiative. As youngsters we have the responsibility to carry forward our traditions and heritage for our own betterment and a better future.”

Engaging elders

To complete the loop, we needed to engage senior citizens to share their stories and knowledge. To this end, we partnered with the Department of National Unity’s senior citizens program and organized a series of storytelling jamming sessions during which elders were invited to share their stories with young people. One of the most memorable of these storytelling sessions took place at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) nature reserve. Hundreds of inquisitive and enthusiastic youngsters armed with cameras converged on the reserve, which provided an excellent backdrop for shooting videos and photos. Their challenge was to meet with the elders and to record (either on video or as photo essays) as many inspiring stories as possible in one day. Over 50 submissions were received within 24 hours.

Capturing community know-how

Many of our senior citizens have vast stores of knowledge, and our youngsters have a huge amount of creative energy. By connecting them we are helping to rekindle interest in and renewed respect for our TK and cultural heritage.

Through the project, we are also promoting a culture of innovation and creative thinking among young people and exploring the potential to transform this knowledge into IP assets. “There is so much science and innovation that resides in the wisdom and traditional knowledge of our elder citizens,” notes Dato Dr. Marzalina Mansor, who is currently leading Project Linkages. “My grandmother, who is now close to 100 still tends to her little herbal garden in her backyard. She is a walking encyclopedia of medicinal plants and functional foods.”

How the contest works

Entries comprising video clips of around three minutes are typically submitted online via a dedicated web portal. Contestants wishing to safeguard a submission which may qualify for IP protection may submit their work through a private portal. Any content created – whether a photo essay or a video - under the project remains the property of the creator. Similarly, any rights or interests flowing from the underlying TK or traditional cultural expressions (TCEs) captured remain with storytellers or their community. Winners are selected on the basis of the originality and creativity of their submission and the values imparted. Entries are evaluated by a jury of experts.

New sponsors drawn to Project Linkages

Thanks to Project Linkages, MACRI has been able to attract new stakeholders and sponsors. Among them, the National Innovation Foundation (YIM), a champion of grassroots innovation; the Ministry of Science Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) responsible for promoting awareness in science and innovation; the Department of National Unity & Integration (JPNIN) which seeks to instill greater respect towards elders; and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) and the Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC) which are working to encourage young Malaysians to produce more creative content. Project Linkages has become MACRI’s flagship project enabling us to generate much needed funds and to continue our work in promoting a culture of creativity and innovation in Malaysia. 

Malaysia’s commitment to protecting traditional knowledge

Project Linkages has captured the Malaysian public’s imagination. Its success has been further buoyed by the Malaysian Government’s broader commitment to protecting Malaysia’s TK, genetic resources (GRs) and TCEs. On top of efforts to support the negotiation of an international agreement at WIPO to protect these assets, the government recently developed the Malaysian Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (MyTKDL) to assist patent examiners in processing patent applications. The aim is to prevent the misappropriation of Malaysia’s TK by unauthorized parties.

Similarly, data are being collected on the country’s TCEs. So far, information on over 200 dances, songs, handicrafts, tales and ceremonies has been collected. With a view to supporting these initiatives, the focus of the 2015 Project Linkages challenge will be on capturing stories relating to TK and TCEs. Submissions will be vetted for any commercial potential by MACRI in collaboration with MOSTI and FRIM.

Noting the “lack of understanding on the relevance of TK and TCEs, especially from the standpoint of their IP potential,” Ms. Shamsiah Kamaruddin, Director General of MyIPO said that the Linkages project “is a very timely initiative to create greater awareness on the importance of preserving our culture and heritage for future generations. This initiative complements MyIPO’s MyTKDL database and the plans to develop a TCE database as a national source of information.”

Launch of Project Linkages

Project Linkages’ journey began with a simple launch ceremony. The highlight of the event was a storytelling session by Hasniah Hussein, a 62 year-old grandmother, affectionately known as Mama Tok, who captivated the audience with her stories of yesteryear. She explained that as a child growing up in her village, there was no television, electricity or tap water. “Even hair shampoo did not exist at that time,” she said recounting how her resourceful late grandmother who “had solutions for everything… used rambutan leaves to wash her hair. Interestingly my grandmother’s hair remained silky and black until her demise at the ripe old age of 90 years,” Mama Tok mused.

Mama Tok reminded the audience, both old and young, of the importance of preserving their culture and their heritage. Her stories and encouragement helped to pave the way for other similar outreach programs in which ordinary elder citizens were invited as guests of honor to share their views, experiences and know-how.  “Project Linkages will help advocate the culture of curiosity and sharing of knowledge. Ultimately we hope to rediscover new source of intellectual assets that may have the potential to be further developed and monetized,” explains, Dato' Shaik Sulaiman, MACRI’s President.

Lessons learned and moving forward

The project has enabled us to record hundreds of insights from elders. Examples include Muthi’s Neem Leaf Remedy (video on YouTube) recorded by 12 year-old Jeevan Pillai. The clip documents how Granny Leelavathy uses neem leaves to create a brew which she maintains regulates diabetes and treats skin diseases such as psoriasis.

Thanks to the support of the Malaysian Government, the prospects for MACRI to enhance the impact of its innovative flagship program are very promising. “Malaysia has a very diverse and rich source of TK and TCEs that is waiting to be rediscovered and translated into intellectual property assets,” notes Mr Kamel Mohamad, Under Secretary, MOSTI, and former Director General of MyIPO. MOSTI “sees great potential in Project Linkages and will continue to support MACRI in this endeavor. In collaboration with MyIPO and its counterpart, WIPO, it is hoped that greater strides will be accomplished in the coming months.”

Inspiring submissions and cases of traditional wisdom

Pandan’ leaves as a natural cockroach repellent by Liew Liang Huey & Tee Tze Phei, Grand Prize Winner for Linkages 2013

In their video clip, the winners cleverly connect the use of TK to an innovative and environmentally-friendly solution with commercial potential. The clip shows how pandan leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius) are used to repel cockroaches. The leaf, which emits an aromatic scent, is tied into a knot and placed in locations frequented by cockroaches. It acts as both a repellent and a natural air freshener.

Bery Meris: Bidayuh Kampung Lifestyle by John Dan Adrian

Linkages 2014 Grand Prize Winner

In the video entitled “Bery Meris : Bidayuh Kampung Lifestyle”, the 16-year-old winner captures many tips and remedies for healthy living. In particular, Bery Meris, a 68 year-old grandmother from the Bidayuh ethnic group, shares a recipe for regulating hypertension by boiling papaya leaves with onions and a pinch of salt.

My precious linkages: Postcards from the past

Under the project, MACRI widely distributed My precious linkages postcards to encourage young people to record insights and tips. Some interesting nuggets of information were

  • Use of banana leaves as a wrapper to keep food fresh.
  • Use of onions to treat cracked heels.
  • Use of hibiscus leaves as a treatment for fever and as a hair conditioner.

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