AS Nahvin Muthusamy gazed at the sea of expectant faces in the huge cavernous hall, he couldn't help but feel a flutter in his stomach. It was a surreal moment for him to stand at the podium, basking in the spotlight of this monumental achievement.
The recipient of the Royal Education Award at Universiti Teknikal Malaysia Melaka (UTeM) convocation was fully aware of the message he needed to convey. Although the task was daunting, he had the platform and the chance to express his thoughts, no matter how challenging they might be to articulate.
He began his speech by expressing his thanks to the parents, guardians, and family members on behalf of the graduating class, and paid homage to the university's lecturers and professors for their invaluable mentorship.
Amidst the audience, his mother, Vasuntha Devi, was overwhelmed with emotion, wiping her tears while listening to the resonating voice of her son. With heartfelt emotion, he called out in Tamil: "Amma, appa… you're the reason I'm here."
As Nahvin neared the end of his speech, he gathered his courage and announced with determination: "I have a story to share with you..." This moment marked a turning point he'd carefully planned after many nights of thought, deviating from the more conventional trajectory his valedictorian speech had initially taken.
He began by recalling a friend from his high school years, also of Indian descent, whom he considered to be smarter, more mature, wiser and significantly more talented than himself.
"When our SPM results were out, I had one more 'A' than him. Though our qualifications were almost identical except for that extra 'A', I was accepted into a matriculation programme, but my friend wasn't," Nahvin recounted.
After a brief pause, he said: "He was devastated, feeling as if it was the end of his life. He became lonely and fell into depression, believing he wasn't good enough."
Nahvin then shared his surprise upon entering the programme, where he encountered students whose academic performance wasn't only comparable to his friend's, but some even had lower scores — and still got in.
Delivering the grave news with straightforward solemnity, he said: "Sadly, my friend is no longer with us." Allowing a moment for this poignant reality to sink in, he went on: "And I can guarantee that if he had the same opportunities as me, he'd be the one standing here, addressing you today, not me. This isn't just my story. It's a reflection of the struggles faced by minorities."
In the hushed silence of the hall, Nahvin continued: "Education should be accessible to all, irrespective of race, religion and background. We must prioritise meritocracy in our educational system, rather than adhere to a quota system employed by political parties which only aims to divide us. In a merit-based system, anyone who's qualified would be accepted, regardless of their background."
He stated with conviction: "Meritocracy is the key to a united and equitable future for Malaysia. I've worked very hard to be here... to represent the often-silenced minorities, and I sincerely hope that the Ministry of Higher Education Ministry hears this. My aspiration is for Malaysia to evolve into a fair and just place for all."
Nahvin's speech quickly captured widespread attention, spreading rapidly like wildfire. His message about an unjust system that deprived deserving students of educational opportunities resonated deeply.
This notion, though seemingly unfathomable, gained traction, especially in light of recent reports highlighting straight-A students being denied the opportunity to pursue their desired courses. His words struck a chord, echoing the growing concerns about fairness and equality in the educational system.
"I dared to express what was considered unspeakable, even if it meant courting controversy, because I believe in a greater cause," Navin wrote in his Instagram post later.
"While speaking out alone might subject me to swift suppression, together, our collective voices become an undeniable force they cannot be easily silenced. So, what are we waiting for? Let's unite and make our voices heard."
"I felt I never had a voice until I did something noteworthy," the 23-year-old admits to me later. "To have something meaningful to say, I realised I needed to reach a point where I've achieved something significant in my life."
It wasn't an easy journey for him.
When Nahvin was a little boy, he received a small toy garbage truck as a gift. "I was utterly captivated by its mechanical workings. At the age of 3, I aspired to become a garbage collector," he remembers, a faint smile playing on his lips.
Reflecting on this, he shakes his head and remarks: "Imagine that! I believed then that was the highest I could aim for. My background didn't present me with anything more to aspire to. At that time, I thought I belonged there. With the trash."
Nahvin's mother worked as a rubber tapper, and his father, before suffering a debilitating stroke five years ago which left him partially paralysed, was a supervisor at a bus company.
"My mother became the sole breadwinner," the Negri Sembilan-native explains quietly. "She'd wake up in the middle of the night, ride her motorbike and go to work. Witnessing her tireless efforts, I wanted badly to succeed and make her proud," he says.
Finances were tight, he admits.
"I don't know how to categorise my family," continues Nahvin, candidly. "We're either lower middle-class or low class." A pause and he continues: "You know the famous Malay saying: Kais pagi makan pagi, kais petang makan petang (earn in the morning, eat in the morning; earn in the evening, eat in the evening)? That's how we lived in the early years."
They didn't earn much, so saving money wasn't a focus or a priority. After all, there was barely anything left to save, if any, once they'd covered their expenses.
"Whatever she (my mother) earned, she used it for us," he remembers, adding: "Sometimes, she'd skip meals to ensure my father, sister and I had enough to eat. I'm convinced that without her sacrifices, I wouldn't be where I am today."
BREAKING THE CYCLE
He admits to being a rebel in his younger days. "I was argumentative, even with my parents, and I struggled with anger issues, leading to several disciplinary issues at school," he shares with a hint of embarrassment.
Despite this, his teachers recognised his abilities, particularly in Mathematics and Science, but Nahvin's playful nature and desire to appear "macho" among his peers took precedence. "It's a thing," he chuckles, adding: "Being perceived as more macho seemed to elevate my status among friends."
He's thankful that his rebellious phase didn't lead him to more serious trouble. Teachers would often compare him with academically successful students, encouraging him to focus on his studies.
"At first, I was annoyed by the comparison to the 'good' students," he acknowledges, adding: "But then, I started noticing the respect and recognition they received from their dedication to education. It showed me the value and prestige that come with academic achievement."
He also saw that students with a clear focus didn't let others sway them. They seemed impervious to distractions or attempts by others to divert them from their objectives. "That fascinated me. I wanted to be that kind of person," he recalls quietly.
Continuing, he admits: "I craved that respect. I understood that being defiant and 'macho' wasn't earning it for me. I came to realise that respect is linked with being educated. It's education that brings everything together."
At around 14, Nahvin recognised the challenges ahead. He understood that the education system wasn't tailored for students like him. "Although I personally faced no discrimination and had friends from various backgrounds, it became clear to me that I had to work twice as hard to achieve anything."
Learning about students with excellent grades who still failed to gain admission made the young boy reflect on his situation. "My parents couldn't afford to finance my education — that much was certain. I realised the only way out of this cycle was through sheer hard work and significant achievements."
Nahvin committed himself to his education. "There was no other path for me to break free and lift my family out of poverty. I knew I had to take action, and give it my best effort."
VOICE OF CHANGE
When he was in Form 5, Nahvin continued to aim high. "I focused on getting into the matriculation programme, a major feat for someone from my background. Despite the challenges, I wanted to prove I could succeed, so I dedicated myself to working hard," he asserts.
The ambitious lad was successfully admitted to the programme, an accomplishment that would have been a cause for celebration. However, the joy was tempered by the situation of his friend, who, despite having achievements nearly identical to Nahvin's, didn't manage to get in.
"I won't delve into details about my friend," he tells me firmly. "It's enough to say that we were part of the same group of ambitious students, all dreaming of advancing through education."
The failure to gain admission into the programme deeply affected his friend. "He had pinned all his hopes on getting a place. When he didn't, it broke his self-esteem and he fell into depression. He withdrew from us, and despite our attempts to reach out, he remained isolated," he sighs, adding: "Sadly, not long after that, we learnt that he passed away."
Nahvin emphasises that this experience isn't unique, insisting it's one of numerous instances where high hopes and dreams have been crushed due to a flawed system that fails many minority students with exceptional results.
"Sadly, no one is really talking about it," he says quietly, adding: "We really need to address the inequalities in access to higher education, which stem from the various pre-university pathways and ethnic backgrounds. Education should be accessible to everyone."
He acknowledges that fully transitioning to a merit-based education system, given the current quota framework, may not be immediately feasible. However, he suggests a progressive approach: "Reduce the quota system gradually and expand opportunities for more students to gain admission based on their academic achievements."
He grows quiet.
After a while, he breaks the silence, saying: "I truly believe that had my late friend been accepted into this programme, he would have gone so much further than I ever could. Education should really be free from any considerations of race, religion, or any other such factors."
Nahvin graduated with a Bachelors of Computer Science (Artificial Intelligence) with honours, and is currently pursuing his PhD in the same field.
"It's certainly a far cry from wanting to be a garbage collector," I tease him, and he laughs heartily.
He muses: "I've changed so much. Now I want to pull my community away from that mindset. I believe when you've achieved something significant in life, it's important to use your platform to speak up for your community. We need to come together in a unified, collective voice to make sure we're not overlooked or left behind. If we don't say something, who will?"
On the day his dreams crystallised into one momentous achievement, dressed in his convocation robes and mortarboard, Nahvin capped his speech with a poignant quote from Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the renowned Indian aerospace scientist and statesman: "Our birth may be just an event, but our death should be a history,"
And he aspires to do just that — tirelessly advocating for justice and equality, undeterred by potential unpopularity or opposition. Nahvin constantly reminds us of the importance of uniting for a fairer, more inclusive world where every dream has a chance to flourish, and every voice, no matter how small, is heard.