Answering The Million Dollar Question

By Aira Nur Ariana Azhari

SPM. I remember the night before I took my first paper, almost four years ago now, endless thoughts ran through my head – tomorrow will be the summation of seventeen years of my life, the whole point of my education, all those hours of tuition and slaving over subjects I was completely hopeless at (read: Add Maths) – this was it, the moment of truth. Dramatic, I know, but I can tell you with utmost confidence that I wasn’t the only one with those thoughts that night. We strive and struggle so much for SPM, and it didn’t help that teachers told you – “This is going to be the hardest exam you will face in your life,” and worse still – “University is easy! SPM is harder!”

To a lot of students in Malaysia, SPM seems like the be-all and end-all of their education. The amount of emphasis parents and teachers put on its importance eclipses the longer, more challenging road that lies after it. For many youths, the journey after SPM is confusing (due to the abundance of pre-university options, and uncertainty about what they want to do with their lives…), daunting, and just plain baffling.

It was this that spurred a bunch of youths (who were in a similar position themselves), back in early 2009 to come up with What’s After SPM?, a meta book project compiling stories of Malaysians youths, for Malaysian youths, to spread awareness on post-secondary school pathways and opportunities. They managed to collect 101 stories of young Malaysians who have pursued different pathways after SPM, and in collaboration with Leaderonomics, published them in a book. What’s After SPM? is a non-profit project and none of the authors receive royalty from their participation.

It was not the intention of the team behind the project to impose notions of what constitutes an ideal pathway for a young person. On the contrary, it is their hope that their readers will come to realise and appreciate that every life experience is uniquely rewarding, and presents its own opportunities. CEKU sat down with Michelle Tam, Chief Editor of What’s After SPM? and Goh Jing Pei, who is on the management team, to discover what they think about education and career awareness amongst Malaysians.

Q: Tell me a little about yourself. Where are you from, what and where did you study, and what are you pursuing now?

Michelle: I’m from Seremban. I pursued the University of South Australia’s BA in Communication and Media Management at Taylor’s University via a twinning program. I’m currently a journalist.

I’ve wanted to write for the longest time, this stemmed from my love for reading anything and everything I could get my hands on. But I paid my dues and did Pure Science all the way up to Form 6 before finally pursuing (one of) my true love(s): writing.

I’m also big on women’s rights. I was part of a non-profit organization that had a creative stop motion video campaign to help raise awareness on the many things that are actually violence against women – we were called Stop Motion Project; Googling should bring up some press on us. I also keep an eye on policies where I can (was part of, which was produced with Popdigital and Konrad Adeneur Siftung, a think tank), and generally have my finger in as many pies I can manage.

Jing Pei: I am from Butterworth, Penang, and attended vernacular primary and secondary schools there. I read East Asian Studies and International Relations majoring in China Studies at Universiti Malaya. After graduation, I started my career at an HR consulting firm with operations in Malaysia and Singapore, specialising in assessment and development with business psychology framework. That experience enriched my exposure on human capital space in Asia, especially when I was involved in many projects aiming at graduates and young professionals. Apart from my professional pursuit, I was also volunteering for a human rights NGO, singing for a band, organizing the largest Harvard conferences in Asia, co-publishing What’s After SPM? – basically enjoying collaborating with many interesting folks and growing myself at the same time. I left my job after three years to continue my academic interest on Asia. I obtained the Fulbright Scholarship for my Masters in Asian Studies at the University of Oregon, where I am currently at. I am looking forward to complete my graduate degree soon, while happily working on Otak2 with a few good friends.

Q: What do you think is the primary concern for Malaysian students in their choices after SPM?

Michelle: I think funding is indeed a primary concern. Dreaming big is one thing, finding the money to pay for it is another. Some take any scholarship they can get, even if it means doing something they’re not genuinely interested in. Others trudge to any university that is affordable enough.

Some also feel pressured into pursuing something more ‘practical’ that will ‘pay the bills’, and turn their backs on doing what would make them happy. But it’s entirely possible to do what you love, be very good at it, and be paid well for it. Wanting something fiercely enough would drive one to excelling at, and earning from, it.

Some also feel burdened with the bewildering amount of options out there for SPM leavers. Quite a few at education fairs, when asked what they want to do or what they might be interested to pursue, simply have no answer. They don’t even have the slightest inkling of where their interests lie, or what their (self-determined) purpose is, which worries me: do most of our young workforce/students wish they were doing/studying something else?

Not saying that you should know what your calling is at 17 – but it would be helpful to at least have a rough idea.

Also, some can get wrapped up in the idea that this is IT. That whatever I choose now will indelibly define the rest of my life. If I choose engineering, I will end up in a branch of engineering. If I do X, I will end up in X.

Choosing a certain pathway in uni does not spell a dead end, and whatever you will end up loving to do (and there will be multiples), is something you usually have to arrive at. Some chance upon it straightaway, but I feel a lot more eventually discover it through trial and error. This is a common theme explored in our book.

Jing Pei: Apart from funding and other practical concerns, I think one of their primary worries about post-secondary choices, is having problems connecting their interests and practicality about career options. I observe two extremes amongst Malaysian students – those who have too definite an idea about a particular job they would like to pursue and very firm about what they want to get into, and those who don’t know what they want to do and how to get there. The main concern here is the severe lack of awareness, students are not getting the channel they need to increase their knowledge regarding their choices – and how their interests and pursuits could connect to the career path they may choose.

I also think that most Malaysian students are overly reliant on the formal education system: they hope they would learn about career awareness from classrooms or by visiting education exhibitions. My general feel is that most students tend to let conventional concerns (like societal expectations, information and other practical concerns) limit them from realising their full potential.

Q: What is your opinion on the mentality of Malaysian parents when it comes to their children’s education? 

Michelle: I think Malaysian parents genuinely want the best for their children. Of course there is the intrusive kind who impose their own ideals upon their children, but quite a few are more permissive than they let on – it’s usually up to the student to make their stand and say “I want to do this because _____, and I have both the passion and ability to make something for myself out of this.” There’s also the option of procuring funding for field of choice, if it’s not forthcoming from a FAMA (Father Mother) scholarship. Easier said than done maybe, but you see people getting it done regardless.

Ability/talent. That’s probably something parents worry about as well. An education is a huge investment, what with rising costs. And students need to be more proactive when convincing their parents to allow a certain path they want to take. Money is hard earned, kan? No parent wants to see their kid struggling to make ends meet. Students have to prove that they have a genuine passion and the ability/talent to survive/excel at their chosen field.

This can be achieved through internships, regular attendance of relevant workshops (want to be a journalist/writer? Enrol in workshops such as The Star BRATs, keep up with the country’s developments, take part in essay competitions, creative writing classes, participate in projects), and generally just putting yourself out there and proving to one’s parents that one’s passions are no child’s play.

Jing Pei: The thing about most Malaysian parents is that they went through an education that was set against a different social and economic background than ours. As a result, most of them fail to realise that today, the career landscape has changed. This causes them to have different opinions on what their children should study based on what seemed to ‘do well’ for their generation. This disengagement leads them to impose their ideas, which can be quite conservative. Parents cannot help but use their personal experience in making decisions for their children. The more conventional choices their children take often lead to a lack of quality graduates – instead what we get is for instance, an oversupply of accountants and business majors that do not meet the demands of the current job market.

I also need to add that, most Malaysian parents tend to over-emphasise potential employment when considering their children’s education pathways. Though practical concerns are important, they tend to overlook education as part of a wholesome development.

Q: What do you think is the current state of awareness amongst Malaysians regarding unconventional career paths?

Michelle: I think the current state of awareness is slowly but steadily improving. There seems to be a boom in freelancing / personal / small scale consultancies in KL, which was not the norm before.

People are a lot more informed on what works and what doesn’t for them, and this is very empowering: to know that there’s still a place for you in the world even if what is ‘conventional’ or ‘normal’ doesn’t work. Don’t like sitting at a desk pushing paper? Get a job that’s mobile, e.g. working as a photographer and covering different events. Like flexi hours? Find a job that offers that! Prefer to work independently and on projects of your choice? Freelance! Etc, etc.

Jing Pei: No matter who you are, unconventional career paths always seemed to imply ‘uncertainties ahead’ – which is a pretty scary idea to everyone. I see people who contemplate about their careers and lifestyle choices in the long term: many of them are interested to do something completely different from society’s norm of ‘stable 9-5’, but are afraid of being judged or taking a risky step. Most of my peers (majority in their first or second job) meditate on the ‘meaning of work’ frequently, and thinking about how life might be if there is an alternative career path.

It would be a lie to say that all of us know what we want to do in life before SPM. We often take chances and engage ourselves fully in different stages of life – we make mistakes, we learn and we move on. Most of us are afraid of uncertainties, but I think it is perfectly alright to not fully know where your final destination lies, as long as we guide ourselves towards a desired direction and stay true to our personal values and genuine interests. And there are also many practical and actionable steps to translate ideas into reality, before embarking on something radical immediately. One might consider freelancing to try out his/her interests and ideas, connecting with like-minded people, conducting thorough research and working on a potential business proposal, etc. From my observation, most people *do* think of being unconventional when approaching their career options, but they keep their eyes on limitations (mainly mental limitations) instead of thinking about breaking down their idea into some operational steps and actively pursue them.

Q: It is often said that the Malaysian education system is inferior to those of developed, Western nations. From your perspective, are there any pluses at all in our education system?

Michelle: I’m not in a position to speak for everyone, but I’m from a public school system and attended a local private university (albeit with an international program). I enjoyed my time in the Malaysian education system, and had the most amazing experiences. Though there are negatives, there are some definite pluses.

You have some incredibly passionate teachers in the system. Teachers don’t get enough credit – there are plenty who have a genuine love for what they teach, which is amazing given their workload and the fact that it’s (largely) the same syllabus year in and year out. Plenty with a genuine investment in their student’s success. A kind word or praise from one can quite literally change the course of a young life.

Also, though most of our students get flack for not speaking up – a valid concern – it could be a case of many preferring to contribute only when they feel there’s something worth saying. I don’t deny that more should speak up, but I remember a story from a friend of mine who migrated.

Said friend was excited about experiencing the much praised foreign learning environment, but unfortunately realized that quite a bit of the ‘exciting learning environment’ was just lots of empty vessels making noise, and found self preferring the quieter environment back home, where thoughts had time to develop in not-too-noisy classrooms, and things said – even if not often – were worth listening to when they were.

Of course, that’s just one anecdote, and everyone’s experience differs.

Jing Pei: I am a product of Malaysian education system – went to public school all the way, and completed Form Six in the same public high school before entering Universiti Malaya. It is apparent that we are inferior to those developed, well-funded Western universities in many areas – I believe I do not need to elaborate further. Despite the lack of academic freedom, resources, facilities and many other ‘ideal criteria’, I still look at my UM experience as a formative one – I learned so much about Malaysia, met some like-minded friends, found myself a few excellent academic mentors who are world-class scholars, done multiple odd jobs, and organised some interesting projects which sum up to be a great learning experience after all.

I worked in a human resource consulting firm before, and met a variety of graduates and young professionals through assessment projects for clients. If we place different candidates in an objective and structured assessment process, what we notice is that good students do not come from a particular education system – and many excellent candidates studied at public universities. These local graduates embrace similar traits – highly-driven, learning oriented, resourceful and willing to go beyond what is presented in front of them to compete with others who came from ‘better’ universities abroad. Of course, there is also a question of extremes – those who are excellent, unique and tried their best to gain loads of exposure – and also many of those who were mediocre as a result of a failed education system.

The American liberal arts education, where students are given loads of space to be creative and think critically is also being criticised for producing idealistic graduates without a ‘concrete’ skillset and not ready for the workforce. I think it is about striking a balance. Both systems are imperfect, and both need to be ready to answer the question of whether the purpose of education should merely serve the demand of human capital. That said, I still feel that the Malaysian education system has miles to go. The involvement of politics in education should be removed, and something needs to be done about the lack of investment in research. Only when these problems are corrected, we can talk about competing with those of developed nations.

Q: What is your advice to Malaysian youths who wish to pursue more unconventional career/life choices, but are afraid to do so?

Michelle: There’s a reason the sayings of Confucius live on even after all those book burnings. The man spoke truth – choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

No matter what anyone says – well meaning authority figures, parents, friends, whoever is in a position to pressure you into doing whatever it is that your soul is barely enthused about/storms against – it is you who will have to live with your choice.

You who have to wake up, attend classes, and take exams. You who have to hone your craft, accumulate experiences, embark on job searches, turn up at work, clock in and out.

No matter how many people you allow to have a hand in your initial decision, the rest of your life/career journey is a largely solitary one. When you’re up to your ears in work and deadlines, you’d want it to be all for the sake of something you love. In fact, it’d better damn well be for the sake of something that illuminates your life.

In short, you’re responsible for your own happiness. Choose something at the intersection of your passion and natural talents. Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element comes to mind here.

Jing Pei: It is quite funny, we always say “take a risk,”’ when what we actually mean is “take a calculated risk.” I feel that when one is faced with a turning point in his/her career, it takes more than courage to face it – but readiness as well. One needs maturity and psychological support, and a strong mentality. You should always look at things from various perspectives, and you are allowed to be bold but pragmatic, keep your feet grounded but never afraid to ask yourself those big questions. An interesting observation is that a lot of people fear they don’t have the resources to pursue what they want, but they don’t see it as an ongoing process involving a lot of research, talking to people, and preparing themselves for a ‘bigger game.’ I would say, look at it as a work in progress rather than one huge risk that you are supposed to jump into without working through the hard steps.

Follow The Star on Twitter and Facebook for updates on Michelle’s work as a journalist. Outside her job, Michelle is highly involved in several other projects including Serambi, What Do You Want and the Stop Motion Project.

Besides working on What’s After SPM?, Jing Pei is also one of the directors of the Otak2 program.

Currently, plans to get What’s After SPM? to be translated into BM and Chinese are under progress, and the team is raising funds and looking for volunteers to support the translation work. If you are interested, send an e-mail to While this project is supported by a team back in Malaysia, the team hopes to engage in like-minded individuals to ensure its continuity and to bring the project to the next level.

Feel free to connect with the team to start your own campaign/project, or share your feedback on how they can do better.  Everyone in this project is more than happy to collaborate or even to pass the torch to the next team. Also, there is a tentative plan of collaborating with other organisations to launch a What’s After…  series – stay tuned for updates!

 For general information about the book, and where to buy it, go to Orders and inquiries can also be sent to and the team will take it from there.


Aira Azhari is a first year Law student at the University of Liverpool. She finds bookstores therapeutic, believes that ignorance is not bliss, and that pink is the new black.

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