A Postcard from Curtin Malaysia – Celebrating 20 years of excellence and innovation

By Professor Beena Giridharan

As I walk across our campus here in Miri, I reflect on the journey Curtin University Malaysia (Curtin Malaysia) has taken from its establishment in 1999 to 2019, from humble beginnings to becoming a world-class university campus celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

This is a fantastic milestone for any educational institution to commemorate, celebrate, and realign its vision to being a unique campus offering distinctive higher education experiences to students from around the world.

Curtin University of Technology, Sarawak Campus (as it was originally known) has transformed from a small regional campus serving around 200 students at its temporary Riam Road campus in 1999 into one of the largest offshore Australian campuses in the world, and the highest-ranked university in the state of Sarawak.

The purpose-built campus inaugurated in 2002, has continued to grow from strength to strength. It now hosts over 4,000 students enrolled in over 45 foundation, undergraduate and postgraduate courses programmes in Engineering and Science, Business and Humanities.

To match the growth in programmes, the campus has maintained growth over the years, including in student numbers, infrastructure and facilities, and the range of services it provides.

As the global hub in Asia for Curtin University, the Miri campus offers a unique learning experience to students. For one, we are located in the heart of Borneo, with access to the rainforests, and the spectacular archaeological caves in Niah which were recently established as having human pre-history of about 65,000 years, exceeding the previously estimated 45,000 years.

The Niah Caves are one of the significant field sites for our Bachelor of Applied Geology students, who conduct geological field surveys in the region, taking advantage of the natural geographical formations to advance their disciplinary knowledge.

I recall my own visits to the Niah Caves and being told by my local colleagues, “Make sure you carry a flashlight, wear proper walking shoes, and don’t hold onto the wooden handrails”. To my consternation I discovered what they meant, when I had to grip guano laden rails to prevent falling on the slippery boardwalks.

The caves extend down into cavernous dark depths for quite a while before one can see any daylight. Sometimes, you come across bird’s nest collectors who shimmy up precarious poles, the height of multiple storey buildings, to collect the precious swiftlet nests which are touted as a panacea in these parts.

In recent times some restrictions have been placed on these activities to prevent the decimation of the species. The painted caves are a real treat, as they feature reddish hued Iron Age paintings which are now quite faded, depicting scenes of boat journeys of the dead into afterlife. Nearby, there are boat shaped coffins.

I have not yet begun to discuss the cultures and history of the Land of the Hornbills – Sarawak. Recently, I had the privilege of welcoming guests to an enthralling or rather mouthwatering food festival organised by our students completing a service learning unit at the campus. Malaysia is known to be a food haven, nonetheless.

Being home to so many ethnic groups in Sarawak, we get to enjoy the delicacies that are unique to the region such as manuk pansuh, which is a chicken dish cooked in bamboo stems, and midin, which is a local fern that grows in natural environments. The tips of midin are stir-fried in rice wine and make for a crunchy delicious accompaniment to steamed rice.

Of course I would be punished by fellow Sarawakians if I tried to keep the world acclaimed Sarawak laksa a secret. The late Antony Bourdain, in his television series, Parts Unknown, had introduced Sarawak laksa to the world. It is a dish comprising vermicelli noodles, prawns and spices all cooked in a fragrant sauce that doubles up as soup and garnished with slivers of chicken, egg and vegetables. It is guaranteed to make any food lover come back for seconds.

I guess my list wouldn’t be complete without the famed Sarawak layer cakes or kek lapis. These are traditional cakes with exceptional carpet-like patterns that are baked painstakingly, layer by layer, and taste as good as they appear.

I welcome academics and potential students to our beautiful campus through conferences, mobility programmes or enrolment in our varied courses, to experience a truly outstanding higher education experience, particularly in our 20th year anniversary.

Professor Beena Giridharan is the Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor of Curtin Malaysia and Dean of its Faculty of Humanities. She has been a Fellow of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) since 2006, and serves as a mentor to aspiring HERDSA Fellows. In 2006, she won the Carrick National Australian Award for University Teaching and the Curtin Excellence and Innovation in Teaching Award. As a member of Australia’s Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT) funded ‘Learning without Borders’ project, Professor Beena has investigated leadership roles in Trans-National Education (TNE) and internationalisation of curriculum. Professor Giridharan’s research and academic interests cover vocabulary acquisition in ESL; educational administration and leadership; higher education practices; transnational education; work-integrated learning; and ethno-linguistic studies in indigenous communities.