Aku anak Malaysia dan ini Tanahairku (I am a Malaysian and this is my homeland).
This statement is of particular significance to me because for as long as I can remember I've been embarrassed to be Malaysian. I don't like Malaysia, I don't care for it, and since I was old enough to think about my future, I've wanted to migrate, renounce citizenship & run away from a land I believed would just languish. I always wondered, why am I born a Malaysian?
I've been happily on staff with Yayasan Generasi Gemilang (GG) since 2013 (best workplace ever, honest! incidentally, we're hiring). While I can say that I love my work with a passion unexplainable, my sentiments towards my country have been lukewarm, at best.
On Thursday, July 27, 2017, into my 5th year with GG, all that changed because of an encounter with an extraordinary bunch of youth.
I had the privilege of joining our Youth Services team to run our life skills program for youth in a Sekolah Tunas Bakti (STB), an Approved School. Approved schools are established by the Welfare Department of Malaysia (JKM) under Section 65 of The Child Act 2001 to house youth that have committed underaged crime or have been sent there by court order because they are deemed out of control by guardians. Their ages range from 12 to 19. It is a correctional facility where they are not allowed to leave for 3 years but can be released early for good behavior. Through RISE, a character building & leadership module, Duit Right*, a financial literacy program (created in partnership with Prudential Assurance Malaysia Berhad), and XLR8* a computer literacy program (created in partnership with Microsoft Malaysia), we had the privilege of working with and mentoring all the youth at the STB.
Tak apa, Kak, kami belajar bersama.
Right from the start, I was completely disarmed because of a language handicap. All programs were conducted fully in Bahasa Malaysia. While English is my first language, my Bahasa Malaysia vocabulary barely gets me by ordering food at a local Mamak. I knew I could not hide behind my English.
I was assigned to mentor a group of 7 boys. A gregarious and rambunctious bunch whose names I took a while to remember, but now, I don't think I'll ever forget.
I was greeted with the warmest welcome ever (something about East Malaysian hospitality that I, a Semenanjung girl, still can't get over). In broken BM, I confessed to my group that I couldn't speak well, that I felt very nervous but I would still give them my best.
The way my students replied stunned me.
"Tak apa, Kak, kami belajar bersama" (It's alright, we learn together").
Identities of participants are concealed due to GG's Child Protection Policy
Mulai dari sekarang, kamu ajar saya Bahasa dan saya ajar kamu Bahasa Inggeris boleh?
They didn't once look down on me as how I often do when people don't speak English properly. They didn't look at me with any prejudice but treated me with respect & honour. They received me openly and gave me the safe space to fumble with my BM. For someone who has presumptions and prejudices towards almost everything in life, I was completely floored and humbled. I have never been treated with such honour, hospitality and respect in my entire life.
One boy, sensing my nervousness, started to speak to me with a few English words to make me feel better.
I struck a deal with that boy and told him "mulai dari sekarang, kamu ajar saya bahasa dan saya ajar kamu bahasa inggeris boleh?" (starting now, you teach me Bahasa Malaysia and I will teach you English alright?).
He grinned back at me to seal the deal.
This brilliant boy, I would later discover, has a natural gift of teaching. He would help me teach other members of my group, communicate to them clearly where my BM lacked. I would later discover also, in a resume he wrote, that he had ambitions to become an IT Teacher, pursue a degree in the UK and help others back home.
I wondered to myself how on earth did this boy end up here. I looked at my group whom society had labelled as 'juvenile delinquents'.
I want to be an IT teacher to teach my pupils something that will benefit their lives.
By society's standards, these are the back-benchers. The under-dogs. The runt of the litter. I think we all inherently root for the underdogs, not just because they make for great stories of having to overcome great odds, but because there's an inherent ability in all of us to recognise injustice.
Why is it that the poor, the underserved, the illiterate have so little access to the help, the academic guidance, the mentorship, the quality education they need to break free from this vicious cycle?
30% of the youth in this facility are "buta huruf" (illiterate)
As I learned about their background through our timeline exercise, some have been through more challenges than people twice their age. They come from backgrounds of poverty, broken homes, abandonment, crime, violence with no solid guardian or father figure to guide them through life. 30% of the youth in this facility are "buta huruf" (illiterate).
These are youth at risk who have no proper access to quality education or a secure family environment. Having no real direction in life, they yearn for a sense of belonging. As a result they get influenced by wrong company, resort to join gangs and commit foolish crimes. They make a mistake that costs them and they end up here.
I want to be a policeman, serve my country, protect my people from danger & save them from harm, even if it costs me my life.
The irony of it all, is that they have a heart for our nation & for helping people.
When learning how to write resumes using Microsoft Word as one part of our XLR8 workshop, all the boys in my group had some element of giving back to community or people or country.
Some of their aspirations (translated):
"I want to be a policeman, serve my country, protect my people from danger & save them from harm, even if it costs me my life"
"I want to be an IT teacher to teach my pupils something that will benefit their lives"
"I want to be a pilot and bring people to their destinations safely and to see the world"
While national reports such as Bank Negara Malaysia's Annual Report 2016 highlight grim realities of youth unemployment being at an all time high, more than 3 times the national rate, the advent of Malaysia's brain drain where a majority of our young professional talent are leaving the country for better prospects, these youth remind me that there is hope yet.
These young Orang Asal, our nation's future, are aspiring to stay and serve their country. All my life, while I have only aspired to attain the very best education overseas in hopes to leave Malaysia, these youth, the ones that have been sidelined by society, are rooting for this very country.
The principal tells us that this is the first time an organisation has come to run computer literacy, values-based or technology programs with these youth. They rarely get offered solid enrichment education programs. Sadly, the institution is unable to run their 3M (Membaca, Mengira, Menulis) literacy & numeracy program to help the illiterate students due to lack of funding and resources.
Terima kasih kerana sudi datang mengajar kami walaupun kami tak pandai (thank you for being willing to teach us even though we are not clever)
After all the students left the classroom, I broke down and I wept. My heart breaks for these youth, because they have so much potential that they do not see. These 'back-benchers' are an extraordinary bunch of gutsy bold countrymen with good hearts.
All they need are enablers. You & I.
With proper and sufficient resources: education, mentorship, coaching, we are looking at our future leaders -- our doctors, teachers, prime ministers -- movers & shakers in their respective fields.
I am more convicted now more than ever that under-served youth deserve the very best of our time, talent and treasure. Whether it is time spent mentoring them in life skills, providing them quality academic guidance or the funding that they need to bridge the tertiary education gap.
I know I am born and raised a Malaysian for such a time as this - to invest in this country and its people.
All my life, I've been given the best: education, privileges & access to whatever I want in order to fulfill my dreams. Now, with these resources and skills, I want to spend the best years of my life to serve these youth so that they are empowered & equipped to serve our nation in the very best way. I believe with every conviction that these youth are the ones that will membangkitkan Malaysia and make it a glorious nation that we are all proud of.
On my last night in Kundasang, Sabah, under the illumination of the Milky Way, I was hit with an overwhelming realisation of how much I love this country. We live in a land that is literally flowing with beauty, resources and diversity. Still, Malaysia's greatest treasure is its people.
I am no longer embarrassed to be Malaysian or do I ever want to migrate overseas (if at all migrate, it will be inland to Sabah). I know I am born and raised a Malaysian for such a time as this - to invest in this country and its people. How blessed I am to call Malaysia my home.
Thank you, young Sabahan student for helping me realise my purpose & identity.
Today, I can proudly say, aku anak Malaysia dan ini tanah airku.
*We want to thank our partners Prudential Assurance Malaysia Berhad & Microsoft Malaysia, donors and volunteers for enabling us to drive real impact at the grassroots. This program would not have reached as far as it did without you.
If you are interested to find out more about how to get involved in whatever capacity whether it is to fund a program, join me on ground or share a story, I'd love to hear from you. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.