White Water Summer Camp (WWSC) was founded in 2009 by its Producer and Director, Robin Gan, who was born in Malacca but spent most of his developmental years in a British boarding school and his college and university life in Australia.
Robin Gan is a Christian minister, and founder of a local church in Bandar Sunway. While overseas, Robin observed that most youths adopted a laidback, do-what-you-want-when-you-want, hipster lifestyle, very different from what he knew of Malaysian youths, yet similar in certain aspects. The difference was that Australian youths were at the centre of the stream of post-modern, post-intellectual culture sweeping the world. This was developed in literary and philosophical circles by the likes of Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault and later reinforced by television and the information society. Jacques Derrida is most famous for his deconstructive approach to literature, which is currently subconciously applied by the general youth to everything. These youths now see philosophy, ideas of life and reality, and convictions separate from their original authority and reinterpreted by the reader as he desires with themselves as the reference point with disregard to objective truth.
Much of Malaysian youth culture today (even our youngest Asian tweens aged 12-13 years) borrows from its Western counterpart and the labels that began and progressed in the West since the 1970s till today. Youths today are called‘a lost generation’, ‘Generation Y’ (aptly named following ‘Gen X’ failure to achieve the ‘American or Asian Dream), and ‘Generation Me’ by previous generations. The previous youth cultures from the 1970’s to the mid-90s were constructed by valorised emotion of love with related social form. The hippies were all about ’free love’ flowing through their practice of LSD and psychedelic rock. Their social structure was the community, the liberation movement, a utopia of togetherness. Youth culture eventually transitioned from the ‘inner self and spiritual quest of inner freedom’ of the Beatniks in the mid-60s, to the ‘nihilistic anarchy’ of the Punks in the early 80s, to the ‘non-committal apathy’ of the Slackers in the early 90s.
How do all these affect the Malaysian youths? Malaysian youths appear to be on a similar trajectory and just as influenced as the Americans and Australians by the swing in cultures and subcultures. However, due to the Asian social construct of authoritarianism, Malaysian youth are less overt in their rebellion towards authority and their pursuit of meaning (self-created). Instead, this rebellious, post-modernism manifests itself in silence - more inward-looking activities, an obsession with all things self, a retreat into cyber media and virtual reality, social retardation and a dislike for close community. Narcissism is rampant as social media like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and apps like Instagram all support youths in nurturing a self-image that may or may not accurately reflect their real selves. The line between realities blur as their ‘real selves’ become intricately entwined with their ‘cyber selves’ or ‘avatars’. In the past, youths would take part in social activities in community, play sports together outdoors, spend time in political endeavours, sit around and share ideas that could change their nation; this is no longer true. No more do youths grow up aspiring to take on social roles like the husband, the mother, the social worker. Rather, they chase self-fulfillment, self-aggrandizement, hedonism, or money (which is another form of self-worship); at the same time, they have a “whatever” culture, still a sense of aimlessness and purposelessness similar to the slackers of the late 80’s and early 90’s.
The concept of summer camp is relatively new in Malaysia; summer camp is more than just having fun in camp in summer weather. It’s about building positive culture, people with character, a convention of respectable persons having been born from years of summer camp. The Americans know this, and it is more tradition than anything else to send their children to camp. Summer camp tradition in America is a lot like a family tradition of sending sons to Yale or Harvard or Oxford; it’s practically a given that teenagers get shipped off for two months during the holidays to learn new skills, grow and mature relationally, build character and have time away from their families. It is this open, independent, positively challenging culture of summer camp that WWSC is trying to capture when the organization was first named.
The benefits of camp have been widely discussed by parents, clinical psychologists, youth counsellors, school consultants, children specialists, children networks and even family therapists. Michael Thompson, a clinical psychologist and school consultant, author of ‘Homesick and Happy’ wrote an article in the New York Times entitled ‘Kids Need To Be Away from Home.’ He says, “Parents assume that their presence always add value to their children’s growth. I disagree. Sometimes parents can seriously impede their children’s development... Camps get children to turn off their electronic devices ... take psychological risks...Camps build character and community...” Another family therapist, Marie Hartwell-Walker, author of “Tending the Family Heart: Connecting Your Family in Disconnecting Times” also writes, “A well-run camp focuses on fun but also provides opportunities for kids to be successful in connecting, contributing and developing confidence.” Coupled with the personal benefits of camp, nature-based camps like WWSC as well as other learning centres like the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI) by the North Carolina State University are tapping into the positive link between nature and child and adolescent development. The NLI have compiled a body of research proving the positive benefits of learning in an outdoors, natural environment. Among these benefits are:
- Supports creativity and problem-solving (Bell and Dyment, 2006, and Kellert 2005)
- Enhance cognitive abilities (Wells, 2000)
- Improves academic performance (American Institutes for Research, 2005)
- Improves social relations (Burdette and Whitaker, 2005)
- Reduces stress (Wells and Evans, 2006)
- Improves self-discipline (Taylor, Kuo and Sullivan, 2001)
What WWSC hopes to offer is captured in its tagline “Pure Good Fun”. The rationale behind it is simple. WWSC hopes to capture an entirely different way of life. From the outdoors environment, to the way activities are designed to be analogue (sports, “brains and brawns” combination, “human versus nature”, creative arts) to the food (health and nutrition, not fast food) to the community emphasis, everything is packaged for a holistic environment. In a sense, the muse of summer camp is the Renaissance man (balanced in both brain and brawns, moral compass, theologically and philosophically astute, yet modern). Youths need to return to natural living as part of a process of living an authentic life. Teens need to live with their five senses as well as think critically, develop an inquiring mind, and a resilience at taking on any challenge, which will make them a success in life.