Humanitarian and Youth Programs


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Religious Youth Service

Decades of Religious Youth Service Build Bonds Among Malaysian Youth

Malaysia is a unique nation that works hard to create an environment of religious cooperation among its people of Malay, Indian, and Chinese origins. The service-learning projects of Religious Youth Service have been facilitating that since 1993.

There is a strong linkage between the country’s multi-racial and multicultural make up and its history. Fifty-seven percent of the population are Malays and Muslims. Besides the local Malays and the native groups, immigrants from China, India, Indonesia and other parts of the world have all contributed to the diverse population. Its cultural diversity can be attributed to the country’s long and on-going interaction with the wider world and the legacy of colonial rule by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. Malaysia’s evolution into a cultural melting pot is evident in the unique blend of religions, socio-cultural activities and traditions, dressing, languages, and food. The British brought people from China and India to work on the tea and rubber plantations and the tin mines. The Chinese brought with them their Confucianist and Taoist heritage, and the Indians brought their Hindu heritage. 

Sungal Batu

Twenty-one people participated in a RYS project in Sungal Batu/Teluk Kumbar in the state of Penang from April 19 to 24, 1993. On the northwest coast, Penang is one of the most developed and economically important states in the country, as well as a thriving tourist destination.

RYS found support in the Ministry of Unity and among a number of academics who saw that it offered something of real value to the nation. Malaysian RYS members worked largely to keep the project self-sufficient.

As part of the work on this RYS project the participants demolished an old community hall and laid the foundation for a new community center for the fishing community and painted and refurnished another community center. The project was in part a response to needs of the Ministry of the Fisheries.

As most nations, Malaysia has a deep concern for raising its youth to become responsible citizens. For this reason the theme of the project was "Responsible Youth." Participants stayed in a fishing village and stayed with local foster parents for the five days.

Supporting agencies included the Fisheries Department, Fisheries Association, UMNO Youth Division, Saitya Sai Council.

Kampung Kurung Tengar

After participating in Religious Youth Service projects in Asia and Europe, an energetic and visionary English instructor at a Muslim university on the northwest tip of Malaysia said, “We can do something like this in our own country.” And she did.

Sharifah Shakirah Dato Syed Omar mobilized the UTM university officials, government functionaries and members of the university’s English Language Club to welcome about 40 participants from 10 countries from May 3-9, 2002. The program included learning about team-building and cross-cultural communication, experiencing the diversity of faiths in Malaysia, and serving residents of a fishing and farming village, Kampung Kurung Tengar, in the state of Perlis.

She said she chose the theme, “A Caring Society through Interreligious Harmony,” because she believes that a caring society is the most essential ingredient for world peace and that all religious people need to work together to develop such societies.

The young people cleared out a lot of brush around a village on the coast, cleaned a playground, did landscaping, pulled weeds from around gravestones, painted a mural, and built a bridge. The work was divided among the 49 people who participated, some local students helping for just a couple of days, according to their exam schedule. Villagers and volunteers sat down together each day for a lunch of fresh-caught fish accompanied by rice and vegetables from nearby fields.

About half the participants were from Malaysia. Others came from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Australia, the Philippines, Japan and the United States. Foreign exchange students included three Japanese and one Norwegian.

The west coast of peninsular Malaysia is a thousand shades of green, stretching out horizontally in the fresh new spouts in the rice paddies. The green extends vertically in the intertwined mangroves lining the beach, chunky banana trees along the roads, and coconut palms fanning themselves sin wild disarray. Visiting a mosque with its long rows of columns with fluted tops, worshippers were drawn to the creator of inner and outer vastness.

Each afternoon included a visit to a different faith community, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian participants eagerly looked forward to hosting their companions when it came turn to visit their place of worship.

At the Hindu temple, for example, the priest gave a couple of lovely extended metaphors. He said his children call him daddy, his wife calls him honey, the patients at the hospital where he works as a medical assistant call him doctor, his friends call him by various nicknames. Yet he is one person. He came to the temple by car, while some of the devotees walked from nearby homes, and the RYS group arrived by bus. Yet the temple is one.

The final day featured cave trekking, crawling at times on hands and knees alongside and in the stream bed as it made its way through the limestone outcroppings high up in the rain forest. Creeping hand in hand in near darkness was a good metaphor for the dark nights of soul one feels in the course of our life of faith. It helps to have a hand to hold. An occasional word of encouragement means a lot.

At the end Shakirah recounted litanies of difficulties they encountered and, for the most part, overcame. Several people who made commitments backed out, some at the last minute. She and those who hung in had to do double or triple duty at times. They also were able to raise funds to cover most of the costs of running the project.

The people in the village expressed dismay that their young people leave for the city and don’t return because they see no economic future in the rural fringes of their nation. The elders envision advertising home-stays for those who are stressed by urban life. Cities in Asia can be fast-paced and crowded, so watching the rice grow, ever so slowly, may be the antidote.

Ruah Sejahtere Chuping

Forty-nine people participated in an RYS project in Perlis from June 6 to 14, 2003. The service aspect involved making renovations at the Ruah Sejahtera Chuping Center for the Elderly, including painting, landscaping, planting trees, and cleaning. 

This project brought young adults from 13 nations and five religions (Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christianity, and Sikh) to a conservative area in Malaysia where they worked in cooperation with one of the nation’s seven Muslim universities. This was the second project with the university and both were locally organized by a young professor who is a graduate of RYS.

The project drew a number of international students who were residing in Malaysia, and this helped give a broad international flavor to the project. Among the program highlights was the deep sharing of the participants with the local community. The comments of Kelly Henzl, a 28-year-old teacher from the US, illustrates this: “I finished up the project and was overcome with emotion! I have never cried so much in my life! The people, the children, the culture, the spirituality, the giving! I have met some people that I will never forget! I will never forget the old man who cried while he thanked us! I will never forget the 200+ children that lined up to touch my hands! I will never forget the tears of peace that were shed the day we parted!”

TheUITM provided local transportation and lodging, and the Center for the Elderly provided materials.


An RYS project was held on May 5-9, 2004 at Bethay Home in Perak, Malaysia. The state of Perak in northwest Malaysia was the center of Malaysia’s tin-mining industry.

The theme, which was “Service to Humanity – the Path to Peace and Unity” was expressed through a program of education and action that was guided by Ms. Sharifah Shakirah. She and Mr. Inderjeet Singh were co-organizers of the project.

The educational program covered topic areas such as cross-cultural understanding, inter-racial understanding, conflict resolution, and a forum on “Appreciating different Religions and their Beliefs.” Also included was a daily cultural interchange among the respective international participants and the various races within Malaysia.

Participants included Muslim RYS alumni from northern Malaysia as well as new participants from the Hindu, Sikh, Christian, and Buddhist communities. The participants felt that the presence of all the ethnic groups gave a special richness to the project. The international participants came well prepared and proved to be a cultural showcase of the highest order. Countries featured, in addition to Malaysia, were South Korea, Sri Lanka, England, and Singapore.

Volunteers worked at various locations, painting two Bethany Home Residential Quarters and also repairing a residence for a family with four handicapped children. Bethany Home is the largest facility treating and rehabilitating mentally challenged children in the country. Both projects ran concurrently and provided participants meaningful experiences of living the theme: service to humanity.

Kuala Lumpur

One hundred and twelve people from 14 nations participated in a RYS project in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, from May 29 to June 7, 2006.

Many hours of planning went into this project to ensure all the logistics were in place. With the support of the Malaysian government, the participants of the 10th RYS actually enjoyed four star hotel accommodations! It was a relief for them to return at the end of the day to the comfort of a hotel room with a warm shower and air conditioner!

The ten-day project was divided into two parts. The first part of the program was in Kuala Lumpur. The service project consisted of some heavy brick and cement work, painting and clearing the grounds of a dilapidated Primary School. A 100-member work force was led by 10 contractors and the project was completed as scheduled. Then participants took a five-hour bus ride northwest for a day of reflection and relaxation at the beach in Penang province. That part of the project was sponsored by the Penang City Council.

The thrust of the project was multicultural and interreligious experiences. Participants came from 12 different nations, making the environment like a mini-UN activity! The participants were able to feel the joy of selfless service while putting into practice the virtues of cooperation and working beyond the barriers of language. Practical peace building skills were learned.

In the closing remarks, the audience was asked, "Who will organize the next RYS in Malaysia?" All answered "Me!" There is indeed much hope for RYS in Malaysia. The seed of peace has once again been firmly planted.


Under the theme ‘1 Community for Peace Service’, a small town 55 km from Kuala Lumpur was the venue for a service project December 4-11, 2010. Forty youths from all over Malaysia plus two international participants from Thailand and Singapore came together in Banting for a period of eight days for the RYS experience.

After an intensive orientation session conducted by RYS alumnae Madame Santha and Madame Shakirah, the participants poured their heart and sweat into the service work – a key element of the RYS experience. The service sites selected were two primary schools that desperately needed a new coat of paint.

The project was organized by UPF-Malaysia with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Department of National Unity and Integration. The participants completed the mammoth task of painting the old wing of the school in Jenjarom. They were assisted by skilled professionals who taught them the finer art of painting. The local community also joined in to help in the service work.

RYS was not all about physical work. There were educational and motivational talks conducted by invited speakers. Topics of these talks include Emotional Intelligence, 8 Summits of Success and Say No to Smoking. The participants spent some of their free time at the beach close by. They also visited the famous Dong Zen Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Temple, a mosque, a Hindu temple, and a Christian church to experience first hand the various faith traditions in Malaysia.

Madame Shakirah conducted a few educational modules, ice breakers, and team-building sessions that helped to bond and open up the participants' hearts. As the orientation ended, the service project was introduced. All the participants were divided into groups with assigned tasks.

The RYS project concluded with a cultural show, which included great performances by each group contributing their unique skits, dances, and songs. Representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Department of National Unity and Integration, the headmasters of the two schools, UPF-Malaysia Committee, and members of the local community participated. The Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, YB Kohilan, congratulated the participants for the service they provided as well as UPF Malaysia for its initiative through RYS that is in line with the vision of 1 Malaysia.

Although the youth came from different cultural background, they concluded the project in the spirit of one community sharing common experiences, appreciation for one another, gratitude for their own lives, and a confidence in a better future.

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