Tuesday, September 11, 2012


While some SDARians (alumni of Sekolah Datuk Abdul Razak, my old school) of my generation tasted victories and placement so rarely and were very aware of this fact, some demonstrated the symptoms of having it easy.

I was discussing Gen-Y with two separate groups of people today, accidentally, and I found myself being the old man of the conversation.

I notice, though, that some 'negative' traits of Gen-Y is also inherent in any other generations. Particularly for those who fear losing. In fact, Singapore is an entire country who themselves built an image of people who hates losing, embodied in their one word - kiasu.

Malaysians are also kiasu, but some manifest it in different ways. I notice that for some kids, growing up to become adults was easy. EVERYTHING was easy. School was easy. College was easy. And then the real world came into being before their very eyes and they get scared and run away.

I saw it in SDAR. And I was one of them. I mean, even before that, primary school was easy for me. I was head of the class every single year. I scored, at the lowest, an 88% average for all exams. Highest was 97%. And here's a fact - I never studied for a single day until I was facing UPSR in Standard Six. A week before UPSR.

I'm not bragging. This is the truth, and the story does turn sour for me much later, trust me. And I was not the brightest nor did I score the highest amongst my peers, across the country, even back then.

I'll tell you one thing, though, when I was in Standard Six, for the final exams, I did not get number one. Nope. Another girl did. After three years since I transferred to that school, she beat me by four points.

So there I was, lost and alone, facing the humiliation, not from my peers, but from my father who just a year ago, when I got the 97% average, simply said, "Hmph. You could do better." He had a terrible temper for such a small man and his only two emotions were 'angry' and 'angrier'. He would not have tolerated my losing the number one spot. For a 12-year-old me, it was a life-or-death situation.

So I took my papers, the answers and the exam questions, and I went to every single possibility of a mistake, and I argued with four teachers. I argued and argued until I got the six extra marks because of their 'mistakes'.

I got number one, but the bitter taste of the victory was left in me for over 15 years. I was approaching 30 before I realised the guilt I was carrying was self-serving. See, guilt is just an egotistical thing to assure you that even though you have done something you consider to be wrong, you are still a good guy.

In SDAR, one of the four top boarding schools in Malaysia, we also had it easy. While some of us were morons, none of us are idiots. We all were heads of our class in primary school. Intelligence was prized above all else. Coolness, too, was prized - and I hated that. We established our own study techniques. We had the best teachers in Malaysia.

Cut a long story short, we proved this point when my batch took PMR in Form 3. ALL of us scored 8As - the best result you could achieve if you took 8 subjects - except I think 7 kids or so. These 'leftover' kids scored 7As and 1B.

You see, they are not idiots, but to us (or maybe just to me), at the time, if you scored 1B, you're a moron. That's the standard.

For SPM, our target was lower because it was more difficult. We aimed for everyone to get either single digit aggregates or everyone to get below 12 aggregates.

SPM during my time was calculated like this - the grades are A1, A2, C3-C6, P7, P8 and F9. Six of your top subjects will be calculated. Say, you get six A1s, your average score is 1+1+1+1+1+1+1 = 6. That's the lowest possible score, meaning it's the best.

If your score is below 22 or 23, that's Grade 1. Above that is Grade 2, and some far away ridiculous number after that, is Grade 3. If you fail even more, you get SAP - practically a general high school diploma.

Our target soon became below 12 aggregates max because some of our seniors got to overseas universities in Europe with just an 18 aggregate score. That was my goal - to fuck off somewhere and never return to this country.

In SDAR, at the time, for my generation, the guy who got Grade 3 or Grade 2 was sympathised but would also cause a lot of shock. There's always one in every batch, so the teachers were just aiming for 100% Grade 1.

My batch? Well, out of 124 kids, I think over 40 scored single digit aggregates. Over 70%, I think, scored below 12 (I can't remember) and a few got Grade 2. We were not the best batch ever, but we didn't do too bad.

I scored an aggregate of 8 myself(4A1s, 2A2s). My father's reaction? "Kau main-main banyak ni!" (You were fooling around/You were not serious). I was beginning to realise that there was no pleasing this man.

We graduated high school in 1997, at the brink of economic collapse. That meant the country no longer had the funds to send most of us overseas. So there we were, a whole generation of bright kids who did well at our studies so we could escape this godforsaken country, stranded by the economic tsunami of 1998.

This was also the time when I finally noticed that my family was poor, blablabla, and this is when I discovered there is more to life than scoring As.

I mixed with kids at UM - kids who just a few years ago, I would watch amusedly from the sidelines as some sort of sentient monkeys and apes. Back then, as a teenager, whenever I saw kids my age who were not as smart as I was, I would feel as if I was at a zoo.

But then I realised that despite scoring a wide variety of results in their exams, these people did not die. They were not expelled into the dark nether regions of drug abuse and rape, as I previously believed the fate of anyone who would score a B or an F9.

No. Not at all. They thrive in this godforsaken country. They developed cunning. Street-smarts. Skills. Charisma. Nature and hard work has given them what they needed to survive, to excel in a brand new world where exams - the epicenter of my universe for 11 years - meant close to nothing.

The game has changed, and if you didn't adapt to it - if I didn't - then we would all die.

I retain 70% of what I learned in school, so I set about the next several YEARS acquiring skills, knowhow and knowledge that I could not learn in school. I am still learning today and will not stop until the day I die.

The most important thing I learned, though, the thing that my schools and my family failed to teach me - was losing.

I never lost before, so it was a new sensation. If I list down everything I ever lost at before this, it would be a whining article. Suffice to say, whatever I am doing today, I have failed at it some time or another in my short life.

Yes. I have failed at everything I am doing. In fact, what unnerves me is not failing - it is doing new things, because new things are just fresh opportunities to fail again.

I read a comic book by Neil Gaiman, called Fear of Falling. It addresses this very subject - the fear of failing, embodied by a story of a man with vertigo who dreams he was climbing a mountain. Very good story.

I deal with this fear every day, when I wake up, when I go to bed every night. And I consider myself lucky. Some people I see are very much afraid of failure that they don't even try.

I see them - and not the morons who couldn't score Grade 1 in SPM - as the new monkeys.

I mean, you must realise that there is no such thing as winning or losing; right or wrong. No, there isn't. Those are just abstract concepts created by mankind, guided by our egos. If you chase after that, your whole life will be extremely depressing and stupid.

I'll tell you that my experience of losing is almost the same as winning. There's a finality to it, and whether the ego expands or contracts. That is all. It is perhaps the same situation, viewed with different lenses, different interpretations and different experiences.

If you can see it that way, if you can go beyond the pettiness of winning and losing, you will be standing at the brink of the secret of happiness.