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Reflection from the suicide of a childhood friend: we are shaped by our circumstances in life

Ooi Kok Hin Profile Picture
This Facebook post was first posted on July 9th 2016. It went viral again recently. Ooi Kok Hin:
My friend jumped from the 15th floor last night. An hour ago, I stood there near the spot, looking up to his window.

Of course, it's the 15th floor. How can I forget that all along? I've been there when I was 8-9 years old. We were buddies in the same school in the same neighborhood.

Our neighborhood isn't the kindest there is. There are gangs, which often flourish in a low-income community. Where and who else can you hang out with after school, if not the gangs? He and I hang out with the same circle.

In standard 4, I got a lucky break and was put in the first class of the school. Life, companions, and interests in the first class are distinctly different from the second-last class (The only thing we almost always look forward to was to "settle" a dispute after school hours. Or role-playing WWF at the back when the teacher is not around)

We drifted apart. In the past 10 years, I slowly became the person most of you know today. He plunged deeper and deeper to the dark hole: gangs, illegal stuff, lokaps.

You know how our achievements isn't entirely ours? My family always have my back, my friends and teachers are there for me, my cousins paid for my Form 5 tuition. They are good influence and provide the conducive environment for me to grow.

If we shouldn't take entire credits for our success, we shouldn't absorb all the blame for our failures. I've been asked a couple of times, and I've asked myself this too, "When and where did it go all wrong for this friend? Why did he choose this unforgivable, no future route?"

It's not that people like him have much choices, anyway. It's a problem in our society. Those who dropped out of the system are left to fend for themselves entirely. It was in the news recently that a group of JPA scholars are raising public donation to fund their million-ringgit overseas education. Do you realize this is a problem because you are privileged enough to have the problem?

People like my friend: flung school, only manages conversational-level Malay and very little English, his mom ran away with his sister, his parents divorced. It's all a vicious cycle, one bad thing reinforced another and he plunged further. To a point he could not be reached.

It's crazy. We were just kids back then. If I knew how it would turn out, what would I say to him when we were 9-years old? Maybe I will ask about his ambition, what does him want to do in life.

We met once last year. He asked me for money. When there's a second time, I was afraid there will be a third, and create dependency. I became almost afraid of my friend, but I stood my ground. Why that last call has to be about me telling him I just started working and couldn't continue to give him money? Why didn't I invite him for coffee? Maybe it isn't money that could have saved him.

What do I know. We were from the same school from the same neighborhood. Had some things in life got placed differently, I could've gone down that route too. It isn't just about individual choices, but also the situation, environment, support & help from others, and lucky breaks that separate our fortune.

Take time to remember what others have done for and to us. Those who have done well in life do not make it on their own. Similarly, those who do not make it don't fail on their own. The people and the environment in their life failed them, too.

We should all be kinder. God knows what the others are going through when they come to us for help.

Let's just live fully and deeply while the brief candle lasted, okay?
I could relate to the part where he was a second-last class in school then went to to first class. I was from a middle low income family where both my parents were illiterate. When I got lucky and was first put into the first class during Primary Four, I was shocked at how most of my friends in the same class have parents that are so concerned about their education and arranged them to multiple "best" quality tuition classes. For me I even had to repeatedly plead my parents for permission to go to just one tuition class, obviously due to the cost issue, and I had to find a tuition class near my house by myself.

Educated parents look after and provide for their kids' education while poor-family parents ignored this. It leads to two completely different life paths for their kids, unless of course the kids got lucky like Ooi and yours truly.

It seems like Ooi Kok Hin was a JPA scholarship receiver from his article "Privileged life of JPA scholars" published on the now defunct The Malaysian Insider:
Every year the Public Service Department (JPA) scholarship, and the university admission process, causes a ruckus.

The script is always the same: some excellent straight A students do not get the scholarship (or the course they wanted), the media reports make waves in the social media, and the cycle repeats the following year.

To be sure, this is not a negligible issue. This is a systemic, structural issue that should have been corrected long ago. But this problem is not the focus of this article.

Rather, I want to shine light on the lesser known aspects of this scholarship. The following account is just my personal observation, which may not be generalised for all JPA students.

I am also informed that the new JPA scholarship criteria and terms of contract are different from those of my batch, so take my account for whatever it is worth.

I come from a low-middle income family. My family live in a small flat and I do not have my own room.

We are not poor, but we are not rich either. Back when I was in secondary school, we did not own a car, we never had a family trip, and both my parents have full-time jobs.

When I was in Form 4, somehow an idea was planted into my mind. I dreamed of earning a scholarship that will allow me to study overseas and see the “outside world”.

There are many scholarships, but the most obvious candidate is the JPA scholarship.

The reason boiled down to quantity. There can be as many as 1,500 JPA overseas scholarships per year (or more).

There is an additional 2,000 JPA local scholarships. Compared to other sponsors such as Bank Negara, Petronas, or YTL, JPA is probably the only sponsor which provides over a thousand spots (opportunities).

For most of students, JPA scholarship is our best bet for a scholarship.

Some of us cannot apply for Mara scholarships, which further increases the importance of JPA scholarship as the only realistic avenue for scholarship for those of us who are not all-rounders or super top students.

I know of adults who were previously JPA scholars, so it is probable that JPA scholarship has been around for several decades.

Tens of thousands of (once) young Malaysians have been sponsored to pursue their tertiary education at home and abroad.

I applied for four scholarships after getting my SPM result. JPA was the only sponsor which called me up for an interview.

I remember it was held at Kepala Batas because that was the stronghold of the previous prime minister. During the group interview, we were asked one question in English and another question in Malay.

During my time, JPA scholars received their contract upon successful application and were required to enrol in prep-colleges (Taylor’s College, INTEC, Sunway etc).

After one to two years at those colleges (during which we have to maintain a specified CGPA), we are sent to study at a foreign university.

When I took the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Ohio, US, we made a transit at Narita, Tokyo. That was the first time I’ve ever stepped foot in a foreign land (Keep in mind that I never even get into Thailand or Singapore previously).

Like a village kid who just got into a big city, I was amazed by Japanese courtesy and facilities.

During both our studies at local prep college and foreign university, JPA scholars are given rental allowance and monthly expenditure.

Tuition fees are paid by Putrajaya and we do not have to take a single cent of loan. We basically have everything provided to us.

Occasionally, I come across statements by fellow JPA scholars that the allowance is not enough. The most vivid memory was when a senior JPA scholar at my university told newly arrived students that the allowance was too little.

I too wish for an allowance increase, but scaring off the juniors like that isn’t the right thing to do. Fact is, we are already being given everything.

Rent and monthly allowances are enough for decent living. If you want to eat outside every time, go shopping every weekend, or go travel every semester break, you have to work and earn the money to do so.

Quite frankly, too many JPA scholars have taken for granted the scholarship which we so determinedly and passionately pursued in the past.

We complain every time the JPA officer is slow to get back to our emails, but we never say a word of thanks when the allowance is deposited on time, every time.

We criticise the state of our country, the lack of economic opportunities, and the “backwardness” of our countrymen.

But we forget that we are the ones who are given the opportunities to enjoy quality education and to graduate debt-free, and in return, we will lift our countrymen upwards – not looking down at them.

We say we are too qualified for certain jobs in Malaysia. But without the scholarship funded by the people and given to us by the sponsors who trusted us, do we have the qualifications we now have?

I’m not asking everybody to return and serve the country. Sometimes you can contribute better from the outside, depending on your field of expertise and available opportunities.

Plus, most JPA scholars never served their bond anyway because the civil service is bloated.

There is too much supply (of JPA scholars) and too little demand (vacancies in the civil service), so many JPA scholars have to find their own jobs.

No other country on earth sponsored so many of her citizens every year to pursue higher education at home and abroad.

Welfare states provide free tertiary education, but do not sponsor their students to study abroad in so many numbers. And everybody pays 30-40% tax.

At the Ohio State University, Malaysians make up the fourth largest international population behind China, India, and South Korea.

Most of the international students pay their own tuition fees, while easily over half of the Malaysians are sponsored by either JPA or Mara.

American students take up college loans which they will have to work and pay off for the next 20 years of their life.

Our neighbour down south, Singapore, is well known as a talent hub. To its credit, Singapore knows how to attract and retain talents.

Even several of our MPs are the beneficiaries of scholarships provided by the Singaporean government. But meritocracy has its cost too. Singapore provides scholarships for the best and brightest, local and (especially) foreign students.

Malaysia, on the other hand, provides scholarships on a large scale to its own citizens continuously for several decades.

Sure, there are many things to be fixed with the system and too many are left out.

But as it is, if you are a Malaysian citizen, you know that there is always an opportunity for you to chase your dreams if you work hard enough, with the help of a bit of luck.

Even if you do not get a scholarship, tertiary education in Malaysia is much more affordable than developed countries.

Even after you adjust the currency rate and household income, Malaysians can afford to obtain education if they want it.

There is also the MyBrain initiative, which offers scholarships for Malaysians to pursue Masters and PhD.

We are lucky in the sense that Malaysia is still a developing country which needs to grow its talents.

In America, the pool is crowded and PhD holders are working as adjunct professors with minimal pay and job security. In Malaysia, we are giving money to people to study PhD.

I know there are things in Malaysia which could, and should, have been much better. But in the midst of our complaints and political differences, let us not forget to appreciate the many good things that our country has which other countries don’t (Besides the food, of course).

At the bottom of the article, I have listed a number of scholarship websites. Hopefully more Malaysians get to enjoy quality education and appreciate the opportunity given to us by others.

To fellow JPA scholars, “Pandang langit, jangan lupa tanah”. You and I are not entitled to the privilege which we enjoy today.

The money could have been used to build schools or invest in someone else’s life. But we are the ones who get to enjoy this privilege.

Let’s carry ourselves to the best of our ability and show some return on investment through our character and achievements.