THE FINAL COUNTDOWN: The fifth season of the RHB New Straits Times National Spell-It-Right Challenge is finishing its state rounds and gearing up for the national battle
TENSION is mounting as the search for Malaysia’s best speller continues after a month-long break and the national finals of the RHB New Straits Times National Spell-It-Right (SIR) Challenge loom ahead.
The challenge, which kicked off its fifth season in Perak and Pahang on April 21, has been a gruelling path for contestants — whether they are veterans or newcomers.
The state rounds saw the victories and defeats of several former and defending state champions, the emergence of new word nerds and the entry of spellers who just wanted the experience.
For rural school students, for instance, an outing to the SIR state challenges is a break from routine.
SK Sri Kiambang, Pasir Mas, Kelantan teacher Zamzuri Basheer Ahmed has been bringing his pupils to the SIR Challenge for the past four years.
At last week’s state challenge, only one of his nine pupils made it to the state finals but he sees it as a great achievement.
“My pupils only get to learn and use English in school — they are less exposed to the language compared to their peers in big towns such as Kota Baru, whose parents tend to be professionals and have a better command of the language,” he says.
He adds that at the primary level, pupils only learn English 210 minutes a week, which is not enough time to get a good grasp of it.
“The competition is an important part of learning the language — the school holds a mini spelling bee to determine the entrants.
“Through the quiz, pupils improve their pronunciation, vocabulary and understanding of English,” he says.
To teachers and students of rural schools such as this, winning is not the ultimate aim of entering the SIR Challenge.
For those who have tasted success on the SIR stage, however, the biggest motivations for coming back are improving themselves or bringing home victory.
Negri Sembilan’s reigning secondary champion Kenneth Wu Min Jin is known for spending hours looking up words and going to state challenges to note words down in his preparation.
These methods went a long way towards helping him win the national title in the primary category in 2009 and the secondary one in 2010 and 2011.
It is anyone’s guess as to who will take home the national spelling crown and the accompanying prizes of RM10,000 (for the primary winner) and RM15,000 (for the secondary winner) at the nationals next weekend, although Wu comes to mind.
Another contender to watch out for would be Perak’s secondary victor Ahmad Ihdhar Kamaludin, who had won last year’s Sarawak state title as a SIR novice and went on to win fourth spot at the national stage. Now back in his home state of Perak, the SMK St Michael’s Institution fifth-former beat last year’s state champion Sancialita Santhiyamoorthy to earn his spot at the national level contest this year.
In the primary category, Ryan Ng Tung Chan from Kedah and Nadine Qathira Sahzan from Perlis are raring to get another crack at the national title.
The quiet and shy Nadine Qathira says she knows that the words at the nationals would be very hard so she is enlisting the help of her parents and younger brother to prepare for it.
Ng had come in second at the state challenge last year but represented Kedah when the first place winner could not attend the competition.
Coming back on his own merit this year, he is determined to improve on his fifth placing at the national level.
While experience could stand veterans in good stead at the national level, beginner’s luck could tip the scales in SIR first-timers’ favour.
A notable new addition to this year’s national line-up is Selangor’s Zamir Ariff Zainal, who had come out of nowhere to best former Selangor and Perlis title holders Amirul Fitri Zainol Abidin and Pang Zheng Bin on his way to winning a ticket to the nationals.
The final battle will attract not only the 28 contenders but also their friends, families and some SIR hopefuls who were knocked out in the state rounds.
Darren Leong Wei Jin, last year’s national primary winner who was eliminated in the preliminary rounds of the Perak state secondary competition this year, hopes to make the trip to KL to cheer on his friends and note words down.
This weekend, the remaining six challengers from Terengganu, Johor and the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya will join the fray of state champs who will go head-to-head on Saturday for the ultimate spelling title.
The finals will be held at the Home Affairs Ministry Complex auditorium in Kuala Lumpur.
Get to know the champions so far in the YOU section on pages 22 and 23.