Siew Mei and her mother during her graduation ceremony.
Article by: Siew Mei, a coach in the Duit Right Financial Education Program Activator Team
Growing up in a lower middle-income background, I always felt it was unfair that my peers had more material possessions than I did. I came from a family where my mum had very little education. This was because my grandparents believed that girls were destined to be married and taken care of, so going to school was seen as a burden. After primary school my mum stopped studying not because she didn’t believe that education was important, she did it so that her younger sister could pursue an education. I was the first and the only person in my family to complete my secondary and tertiary education, so you can imagine my mum’s joy when I brought home 10A’s for my SPM and subsequently got a JPA scholarship to complete my degree.
I always felt that my mum had a lot of inspiring traits. She was a determined woman and would go from house to house looking for jobs to earn money. When I was free, I would follow her around the neighborhood at the back of her “keok che” (bicycle) to ask if anyone needed any house cleaning services. Despite being the sole breadwinner of the family, I witnessed my mum do her best to raise the four of us up. There was an old piggy bank that my mum cherished, a gift my dad gave her the year my younger brother was born, which she had saved coins in over the years. One day, she reluctantly decided to smash the piggy bank open in order to feed our family. The coins that she had saved over the years fed us for weeks, and that was when I understood how much of a sacrifice she has made.
The coins that she had saved over the years fed us for weeks, and that was when I understood how much of a sacrifice she has made.
Siew Mei with the Activator Group. First row, 4th from the left.
All these memories came flooding back as I recounted my story at the Duit Right sessions where I was a trainer and facilitator just recently. Honestly, I was overwhelmed by the responses. Students sat in complete silence as they listened to my piggy bank story, and the values from the money cycle I was teaching in the program—Earn, Save, Spend and Donate—felt so relatable. The most heartwarming part for me was the value SAVE because it talks about “Saving for your future”. Students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds were given a glimpse of hope that they could dream beyond their circumstances if they started saving now. Most importantly, they will be able to practice saving as a family culture and pass this value on to others.
Students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds were given a glimpse of hope that they could dream
Back in the day, having a saving meant having security in life. However, the current generation is exposed to more temptations and it’s easier to spend than save. There are also options of resorting to loans or credit cards when we do not have enough. But thanks to my mum who saved, our family of five was saved from hunger in times of desperation. Saving enables one to have more control over where your money goes and if we save first, we are less likely to spend beyond our means. I realised that if we do not raise awareness on these issues early on, children will grow up not knowing how to handle their money and take it for granted.
Siew Mei teaching in Miri, Sarawak.
In a bigger picture, my previous work as a teacher in an underperforming school in Miri, Sarawak also made me realise that there are many social issues besides financial ones in our communities. Most students from less advantaged backgrounds lack encouragement and support where people around them would not invest to build them up. I believe that hope is strengthened by the people around us, so when they don’t have that support group, they fail to see a better future for themselves. I almost dropped out of school because I felt inadequate due to my circumstances.
With the help of people who believed in me, today I am a chemical engineer graduate who inspires others with my childhood stories. I want to encourage all of you who have the privilege to be educated to go the extra mile to give back to the community because your stories give these students exposure to a world they can only imagine, and your presence gives them the support in a high need environment.
We all have the capacity to build another person up and it is a ripple effect.
We all have the capacity to build another person up and it is a ripple effect. While I have stories that inspire people to save and go to school, I believe you have your own inspiring stories too. Through the opportunities and exposure I gained from teaching and doing social work, I learnt that privilege makes life easier, but it’s more important for us to be able to address inequality and make a difference. I echo what Marina Mahathir wrote in her book “Telling It Straight”.
In a time when many middle-class Malaysian parents want to put their children in private schools or in international schools, let me explain why I did not and do not plan to do so at the primary level. I feel very strongly that despite the many justified complaints about our education system these days, I want to send my children to local schools not so much for academic but for social reasons. I want them to realise that there are kids from different backgrounds in our country, not just ethnically but also in terms of class. Not every child goes to school in a big car or gets to go abroad for holidays. - Marina Mahathir
We need to allow our children to understand that there is more to life than our own, but a world out there that needs our love & care.
- Siew Mei, Loo
Duit Right is a financial literacy program uniquely designed for youth, introducing four money management concepts: Earn, Save, Spend and Donate. It aims to empower youth to make positive financial decisions by helping them understand good money management habits. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like us to run this program in your school for free.