As I boarded my ‘mystery flight’ I was painfully aware that I was unsure where I was actually going… I knew Alor Setar was 90 km north of Penang, but that was all I knew.

I was invited to give a keynote on 21st Century knowledge, skills and capabilities. I was unaware of who the audience would be and needed further clarification, which would then require some mental gymnastics that night to customise the presentation to the specific audience.

The window seat availed me of the views of the coastline and ocean of west peninsular Malaysia. I chuckled as I realised that I was flying with Firefly Airlines and was observing the lights of container ships in the Malacca Strait that looked like the ‘fireflies of the ocean’.  

We landed and I exited the plane, greeted by a smiling attendant who provided an opened umbrella for the disembarking passengers to walk across the rainy tarmac. First impressions are important and the umbrellas provided a nice introduction to the friendliness of the people in Kedah which continued throughout the trip.

I was greeted by Prema who was my personal guide for the short trip. I began determining details for the presentation while we drove to my lodgings. I asked why the keynote was for two hours, how many people would be attending and what were the major issues to address. By the end of the 20 minute trip I had determined the tack for my presentation in the morning. I had my second dinner for the night at 9 pm while asking questions and getting further insight into the 150 education leaders and school principals from 15 states who I would present to at 8:30 am the next morning.

I first needed to contextualise the presentation for the school sector and expand the range of topics for the 2 hour keynote. I intended to embed questions at strategic points in an attempt to obtain audience participation. I would also focus on values-based leadership.

I entered the three-bedroom apartment and unpacked my ‘performance clothes’, realising that I had packed two French cuff shirts but forgotten cufflinks. My ingenuity kicked in as I adapted the wire rings on the door key to craft ‘trendy cufflinks’. I was satisfied at my cuff link effort so I began to choreograph my wardrobe with colourful socks and my signature Kandinsky tie for the impending presentation.

I then worked toward expanding the presentation that would keep me on my feet presenting for two hours, hoping that it was interactive enough to engage the audience.

I entered the auditorium surprised at the quality of the space, technology and support for presentations. I decided to use the wireless microphone and slide changer as I generally moved across the stage as needed. I was introduced in English and Malay and nodded at a boisterous round of applause, not really sure what it was about.  I found out later that they were applauding me because I asked for no payment for the presentation. I felt that it was my way to give back as an educator.

It is always interesting trying to read the audience, obtaining feedback that I was making sense, making eye contact with people who showed some reaction. I’m always highly organised, passionate, personal and genuine in my presentations. It is who I am if you like, my signature style. I believe in education to make the world a better place, no matter where I am.

I used embedded questions to get a sense of the audience as well as an attempt to ‘break the ice’. It was a semi-successful strategy but what I gleaned was useful. I finished the presentation to applause and received a gift. It is always difficult to gauge whether you have connected, made sense, provided a challenge, made a contribution in the two hours particularly when you are a foreigner in another land.

I must have done something right…as delegates lined up to have a photograph with me.

I spent close to an hour having my photo taken with groups and individuals, with just about all delegates. I shook hands with more people than I had done before in such a short time. I had spoken about feedback and they were demonstratively telling me that they enjoyed my presentation, enjoyed my presence and were delighted to commemorate the occasion with a photograph. As I exited the hall, I was stopped for more photos including caterers, cooks and drivers.

It was one of the most humbling times in my life. Here I was in a place I did not know, people who understood basic English and probably only understood me some of the time, an Australian who sometimes spoke too fast, being respected as a kindred educator. They seemed to cherish my shared thoughts, passion, vision for education in a genuine way. They must have liked me challenging them to try to catalyse action to change the current educational system. They seem to respect the different perspective that I brought to the auditorium.

I retreated to my room after morning tea to recharge. I was more exhausted than I realised. I joined for lunch which was interrupted with more photos and then was taken on a tour of Alor Setar.

I passed paddy fields of rice, mesmerised by the harvesting, ibis birds and workers in the field. The number of paddy fields are diminishing as children elect not to continue the family trade, instead moving to the big city for a different life. We visited the Rice Museum as Kedah is the rice bowl of Malaysia. We visited markets and viewed the 100 year old Mosque, then went to the art gallery.

My persuasive companion appealed to the man at the door of the gallery to allow the visiting professor to enter the gallery being set up for an exhibition. As we were guided around the curator explained the nuances of the paintings. He even showed his paintings that utilised impressionist and realist styles.  My Kandinsky mind enjoyed the colours and vibrance of the art work. I thanked the curator for his generosity in showing us around, explaining the art and showing me the friendliness and genuineness of the people.

I returned to the lodging to another dinner of fish, curries and of course rice. I joked that I would need to pay excess baggage for the return flight for the extra weight that I had accumulated before flying back to KL.

I exited the boarding gate and was given another umbrella for the rainy tarmac.

The genuine friendliness of the people was the highlight of my visit. I was genuinely touched by the kindness and hospitality of all people.

I will forever remember where Alor Setar is as I settled into a well-earned sleep on the plane.