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  • Writer's pictureDr. Asma Abdullah


Source:  An interview with Dr Asma Abdullah, Published by  REALIZE, Cambridge Global Learning, Volume 2,  Issue No.2,  2018

In this era of globalization and the rapid growth in social media it is important that we understand cultural diversity, especially as it applies to education and learning.


In order to gain some insights from a cultural specialist, we approached Dr Asma Abdullah, based in Kuala Lumpur, with whom we have the honour of knowing and working with her for several years.


REALIZE asked some questions based on her work as a cross cultural consultant/working across cultures and her own experiences in education. Dr Asma is a writer, trainer and facilitator in human resource development, organisational behaviour, cross cultural management and organisational change management.


Dr Asma is no stranger to cultural diversity and practices what she preaches. She spent her undergraduate and graduate years overseas (Melbourne and Los Angeles) and now lives in Kuala Lumpur with her British husband, also a specialist in intercultural management. Asma worked for more than 20 years as a human resource development professional for ExxonMobil in Kuala Lumpur before receiving her doctorate in Social Anthropology in 2001. Her insights as both an academic and practitioner, with first-hand experience of both East and West, provide a holistic perspective. She was also the recipient of a Fullbright Scholarship, spending three months on a lecture tour of several universities in the USA. 

Dr Asma has been working with foreign teachers, all from Western countries, who are now in Malaysia working on an educational project to bring about transformational changes to the national school system. Please share with us your experience. 

Below are the questions posed by IJIL with responses from Dr Asma. 

Question 1: What are the main challenges that you faced in dealing with educationists from a diverse cultural background? 

Dr Asma. People from different cultures see, interpret and evaluate messages differently, and consequently act upon them differently. We encode and decode messages into symbols based on our own cultural background. As a result, the meaning of a message may not be the same for each person, especially if the sender and receiver are from different cultural backgrounds. Hence, the potential for miscommunication is greater when two people from two different cultures communicate and make sense of their interactions. 

In working and relating across cultures, we have to be aware of these differences and recognize the underlying values and cultural dimensions of how people, perceive, think and act. The key element is to strive for accuracy in interpreting the observed behaviours and avoid misunderstanding and enhance any cross-cultural interface. 

The need to deal with differences at all levels in this instance means we have to know that while educational determinants influence what is learned by different parties, the “cultural determinants” influence how things are learned in the local culture. 

Based on my own experience, I believe a good understanding of diversity in terms of culture, age and gender is important when we have to deal and work with people across cultures. 

In dealing with foreign advisors (most of them had been school principals or teachers) who were socialized with a different set of values and assumptions from our own in Asia there are a number of factors to consider in communicating effectively. These include: 

  1. A need to be able to converse in the English language and to do so at an acceptable level of proficiency and competency. 

  2. One assumption is that the more you sound like a native speaker of the English language, the easier it would be to communicate, exchange ideas and receive feedback – especially with peers from Anglo-Saxon countries. 

  3. Another assumption is that all of us are familiar with educational concepts mainly from Western-based educational theories and schooling practices. 

  4. An avoidance or perhaps ignorance of concepts, theories and practices on how things are done in non-western cultures. 

Another challenge for those who work across cultures, is to examine the hidden dimensions of culture as these are not often addressed. One’s culture does not only generate meanings, it provides a framework for us to understand ourselves and relate to the world around us. It is important to realize that education is and always will be a cultural process and not primarily a matter of principles, techniques and skills. 

For a start, I would get newcomers to use the metaphor of the tree to compare their culture with that of the host country. It is only by examining the hidden, and invisible cultural roots which are often implicit and not so often articulated that they will be able to understand how people in different cultures see the world, relate with people and with God. Culture is like a tree. The trunk, branches and leaves are the visible differences with each species being unique. The roots are the invisible deeply held assumptions and values. The stronger the roots – the stronger the tree.

Question 2: What are some basic assumptions about learning when you deal with clients from a diverse cultural background? 

Dr Asma:   One of the most important aspects about working across cultures, especially for Anglo Saxon consultants, is for them to be aware of the basic assumptions about how people learn in different cultures. Often there are some culturally biased assumptions that are taken for granted, as they are considered to have universal importance. These include the following: 

  • Students learn best when they are verbally active and participative in class discussions 

  • Students have to show a sequential argument with a challenging posture 

  • Students have to ask questions and use abstract thought and display critical thinking skills 

  • Students have to have a point of view and engage in two way feedback 

  • Students have to consider themselves to be independent, autonomous and are self directed. 

Based on my work and experience, I found that the cultural dimensions of most Asians and Anglo Saxon teachers are different. The former are more relationship driven, hierarchical oriented, high context, group oriented and religious while Anglo Saxons tend to be more driven by task accomplishment, equality, and low context, individual driven and secular oriented. Obviously the dimensions selected by foreign educators and teachers are the polar opposites of those selected by Asians in general. 

The pattern for Malaysians is very consistent with my other findings in the region, which means that there are likely to be differences in assumptions about how the two groups would view learning, communication, getting things done, defining themselves and viewing religious beliefs and practices as integrated into their life and learning. 

Question 3. So, what does all this mean when it comes to learning? 

Dr Asma : The most important difference is how cultures which are more group/collectivistic driven, regard learning and education. In this case, education is seen as a nationalistic endeavor with the main objective being to develop one’s character in order to be perfect members of a society. There are social expectations that have to be met with extrinsic rewards to be achieved. Having an academic qualification is one way to achieve upward mobility and earn a “ticket to ride” into the world of work.

On the other hand cultures which are more individualistic, tend to look at education as a ‘right’ of the individual to develop to their fullest potential based on their innate creativity and ability. The focus is more on the acquisition of knowledge and skills and the achievement of economic worth, self-respect, sense of achievement and subject mastery.

They are driven by intrinsic needs based on their own self motivation to succeed and excel. Also, those in collectivistic cultures tend to view themselves as interconnected with others requiring them to comply with direct requests from significant others, maintain self-control and share credit for the successes and blame for the failures on others. As they derive their identity from being a member of a group it can be difficult for an individual in a collectivistic society to define themselves as a person. Those in Individualistic cultures view themselves as a separate and autonomous entity.

In such a setting, the value system tends to reward the individual in their own right, motivating them to work for the system and yet making the system work for them. These differences in the continuum of collectivism-individualism is often so implicit in one’s own social cultural programming that they can be a source of potential conflict, when people from different cultures work together. Failure to understand how these dimensions influence one’s behavior can be a source of miscommunication and interpersonal conflict, as people from different cultures view the environment, relate with people and God differently.

Question 4. So, what should the foreign teachers do before they begin their work to transform the schools? 

Dr Asma : The initial step is to re-examine the set of assumptions about learning. Based on the differences in cultural assumptions students in collectivistic and more hierarchical cultures tend to be less verbally active and participative in class discussions. Because of their respect for hierarchy they would be less inclined to be argumentative and challenging, may not be too forthcoming in asking questions and are not comfortable in expressing and their point of view. They may even see themselves as interdependent, less autonomous and more group oriented. 

Obviously, the foreign teachers have to recognize where the target population is at and affirm that their assumptions will be preserved while in the process of learning a new paradigm which is more learner-centered and less hierarchical. They have to combine the needs and desires of the individual and yet retain their preference to work and do things in groups. 

As for the host organization, this would mean that they have to arrange a Post-Arrival Cultural Orientation program for the foreign teachers. They can also introduce a Buddy System to facilitate the process of transition for the foreigners and help with On-Boarding programs for them to do the work of educational transformation.

In fact, during my sessions with them, they wanted to know the differences between the Asian and Western worldviews relating to education, the concept of time, how to show respect, deliver service, how to communicate and show compliance, friendliness, justice and integrity and how universal ideas like human rights and equality are demonstrated across cultures. 

Perhaps the dimensions which have an impact on communication between Anglos and Asians is in the low and high context continuum. Knowing how people communicate in these two contexts is important when we work across cultures. “Always assume, differences until similarities are proven” 

Question 5. How does Globalization impact education? 

Dr Asma:  The globalization of education and the entry of social media in our lives have brought about significant changes in how we view physical distance and face time with teachers and students across cultures. Technology has made it possible for us to interact in both the public and private domains without having to travel very far. 

Teleconferencing, Skype conversations, Instagram and text messages are the new normal at our disposal, regardless of time, place and context. As physical distance is no longer an issue, we have to master the usage of these tools and bring about new and impactful ways to relate with each other.


The forces of globalization would also mean that the values of speed, flexibility, responsiveness, and integration and world class innovations are uppermost in the eyes of the consumer. This would require schools and colleges to equip their students to interpret these values from multiple perspectives and articulate them through global best practices. 

The challenge is to persuade them not to use their own familiar set of cultural assumptions to evaluate others as what works in one culture, may not work in another. To compete and relate to diversity in this borderless world, we can no longer have a tunnel vision and see only one side of the elephant

Question 6. What do you have to say to a foreign educator, on how to deal with cultural diversity? What advice do you have on how to deal with students, so they develop a global mindset? 

Dr Asma:  Educators can start to understand the many forms of diversity; namely culture, age, personality and gender. They can begin to put themselves in the shoes of the local student, so that they learn to have empathy. They can also immerse themselves in the culture of the people that they are dealing with so that they learn not only how they think but also feel. 

Perhaps, being equipped with the theories and concepts of the social sciences, in particular the skills of an anthropologist, will be one way to understand the deep aspects of culture – things that are hidden and not made explicit. Through some form of immersion with the local culture the foreign teachers/educators will be in a better position to establish familiarity and get into the hearts and minds of their students. 

Based on my own experience this can be addressed by conducting a series of focus group discussions, in order to surface the deep-seated assumptions educators from different cultures have about a particular way of learning. An educator has to understand the needs, wants and values of the student consumer, using the many tools of social media to connect, build trust and collaborate.

It is by understanding the deep cultural issues that they can identify the appropriate interventions. For example, how do you help foreign educators or teachers understand the different levels of cultural interface in another country. Locals may function at three levels of interface – at the intra, inter and cross cultural levels where each level of interface would have its own code of communication symbols, values and expectations. This would again require a certain level of immersion in the local culture in order to understand the context – its nuances, and sensitivities, both verbal and nonverbal. 

For example, at the intra-cultural level people of the same ethnicity, tribe or speaking the same dialect might communicate with each other in their own in order to understand the context – its nuances, and the sensitivities, both verbal and non-verbal. 

For example, at the intra-cultural level people of the same ethnicity, tribe or speaking the same dialect might communicate with each other in their own culturally specific ways. 

At the intercultural level and within a country, people from different tribes, and clans speaking in different dialects will use their own common symbols and rituals to communicate with each other. 

At the cross cultural level, Asians generally would speak in English with their Anglo-Saxon peers and observe a set of cultural assumptions which are different. As we move up each level the challenges increase and it is at the cross cultural level that problems and misunderstandings may occur as what we encode in one culture may not be similarly decoded by another. 

Question 7. How would you describe “Going Glocal”? (Thinking global, acting local) 

Dr Asma:  As we get exposed to globalization – defined as a world without borders – the more we have to understand our cultural roots – that part of our culture which is very much hidden and therefore not easily seen. I believe the more exposed we are to other cultures, through media, travel and business - the more rigorous we should be in preserving and retaining our revered values. Like they say, values are often reasserted when they are under threat. The more global we become, the more local we have to remain, respecting our roots and our unique cultural heritage. 

Globalization and localization are indeed complimentary forces, as we can only become equal partners in the global arena when we are able to set our own agenda and determine the direction and pace to achieve targets. 

There is a saying in my Malay culture that states ‘Kalau sepohon kayu banyak dan teguh akarnya apa ditakutkan rebut’ (If a tree has many firm roots, there is no need to fear the storm) demonstrating that it is by understanding and anchoring ourselves in our own cultural core that we can begin to function from a position of strength. 

Based on my own experience of teaching a module – at postgraduate level – on Cross cultural management, my students are required to examine their values and assumptions. They learn how to describe themselves to others and make meanings of whom, what and why they do things in a language that would make sense to others. In a way they have to articulate clearly the concepts they have invented as part of growing up in their own culture.

So, in a way, being glocal, starts by being fully in touch with one’s core values and the nuances of its context and at the same time remain porous to ideas from all four corners of the globe. Only by being strongly anchored in our own cultural roots, can we become globally appropriate and culturally relevant. When this is achieved, we are indeed Glocal! 

So, how would you sum up our conversation? 

Dr Asma:  It is evident that in this age of increasing globalization and growing integration of our social self with both our work and personal lives, cultural diversity is here to stay. Dealing with it, not only enhances the skills of the educator, but also the learning among student. An educator needs to see the world from the eyes of his students and to understand their viewpoints and needs, while having strong roots in their own respective culture.

To increase student engagement in the field of education they will need to know the differences in how people from different cultures view the world, educational achievement, and relate with others. They have to start by affirming local values and address the new perspectives they bring so that the process of transformation will be one that is synergistic. Whether it is a digital or face to face engagement, cultural diversity is present, and would not disappear. So, both the foreign educator and local student can mutually respect and embrace an emergent new ‘glocalized’ world. 

Thank you very much, and we wish you all the best with your cross cultural work

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