MY SCHOOLDAYS: 'The greatest lesson is the world is your oyster'
WHILE studying for his Bachelor of Commerce majoring in Finance course at University of Melbourne in Australia, Keeran Sivarajah became highly intrigued when he learned of the murder of a Malaysian undergraduate from the same university.
"I can't quite explain my curiosity," says Keeran, 27, who eventually paid a fee to study archival material on the murder at the New Straits Times Resource Centre in Kuala Lumpur. "I found out all the details at the library!" he says in triumph.
If this is an example of the way mere curiosity drives him, imagine the lengths he will go to when he is fuelled by passion.
As co-founder of Teach For Malaysia, he and Dzameer Dzulkifli have been the driving force behind the programme since 2009. They met at work while Keeran was a management consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers. They took a sabbatical to develop a business plan and secure initial funding to co-found and launch Teach For Malaysia in 2010.
Teach for Malaysia is based on the concept of teaching while serving the country, propagated by the global network Teach For All. The initiative provides outstanding graduates with the chance to serve the country by joining the teaching profession in high-need schools after completing their tertiary education. Malaysia is the first country in Southeast Asia, and the third in Asia after India and China, to implement this project, which has been included in the 10th Malaysia Plan and identified as capable of strengthening the quality of the profession in the country, based on the success already achieved in the United States and Britain through the Teach For America and Teach First UK programmes.
"The programme is at the heart of everything I do," says Keeran. "I tutored children of African refugees while in Melbourne. They were two blocks from the University of Melbourne but they either had no idea of its existence or the possibility of studying there. I was struck by the inequitable access to education.
"It's not the lack of ability that is the stumbling block, it's lack of access."
Keeran knows full well he will not be raking it in after the switch in careers. "After a point, what is making more money?"
As his favourite saying by Holocaust survivor and American psychiatrist Victor Frankl in his book Man's Search For Meaning goes: "Everything can be taken from a man but... the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
And Keeran has chosen his path. On the back of his buisness card is the sentence: "One day, all children in Malaysia will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education."
Now that Teach For Malaysia is up and running, Keeran is contemplating pursuing a Master's in Public Policy, which is very much aligned with his interest in national issues.
He answers questions on his schooldays:
Yaqin: Which primary and secondary schools did you attend?
Keeran: SRK Methodist (ACS) Ipoh, Perak and the Royal Military College in Kuala Lumpur.
Yaqin: Did you have a favourite teacher and why did you like him/her?
Keeran: I've been lucky to have had some good teachers growing up -- both at primary and secondary levels as well as private tutors. If I had to pick one teacher though, it would have to be Mrs Ruma Lopes, who taught English at pre-university level in Sunway College. Mrs Ruma is an extraordinary teacher and helped me view the world from a very different lens. Most importantly, she instilled the belief that I could achieve anything I wanted to in me, and I feel that at the end of the day, that's the greatest lesson a teacher can leave a student with -- a solid, unwavering sense of confidence that the world is their oyster.
Yaqin: What subject(s) did you like at school?
Keeran: English and, at times, History. I wasn't a Science person.
Yaqin: Were you rewarded for good performance by your parents? If yes, in what way?
Keeran: I remember having occasional rewards, but these were more the exception rather than the norm. My parents embedded in me a deep-rooted belief that my life outcome would be determined by the quality of my education. So it was more of performing well for my own future. This is really the fundamental principle that Teach For Malaysia's mission is based on -- the premise that the higher the quality of education a child receives, the more life opportunities he enjoys. It really isn't a lack of ability on the part of children in low-income communities -- it is a lack of opportunity.
Yaqin: What was your best (and worst) school holiday?
Keeran: My father loved travelling when he was younger, though the most memorable family holidays my sisters and I had while growing up were the frequent trips to Johor Baru to visit our grandparents. Witnessing the different world that your parents grew up in and being surrounded by loved ones was blissful.
Yaqin: What hobbies did you have while at school?
Keeran: I loved reading novels. At school, we had to participate in many sports and games, but I wasn't a very sporty person. I loved discussing current issues and ideas with my debating team members and teachers.
Yaqin: What was your ambition while schooling?
Keeran: For a long time, until I was in Form 4, I was convinced that I would be a doctor! My father is a doctor. I think my experience in debating enabled me to discover the passion I have for national and social development.
Yaqin: If you were to live your schooldays all over again, is there anything you would like to change?
Keeran: I would have been kinder and more grateful to some of my teachers. I think teaching successfully, especially in low-income contexts, is one of the toughest jobs. It requires exceptional leadership skills and strong doses of humility.