Sunday, August 29, 2010

Economics @ Home © Volume 2 Issue 18

Inspire me, inspire me not

Below is a story published by the Star on 16 Aug 2010, about a Malaysian girl who overcame one of the greatest adversities to achieve a success many of us can only dream of. I am certain that June is not the only person in Malaysia who has faced the same kind of obstacle that exists because of the poor culture of “un-meritocracy” in Malaysia. Please read through the interview below carefully and I will share my thoughts below.

Tiong gets it right in Harvard
Story and photo by YU JI

AT just 23 years old, June Tiong - straight As student, ex national squash player and Harvard University undergraduate - has a heck of a CV.

Few young adults have accomplished more, but her success has not been without setbacks.

As a squash player, Tiong had always played one age-category above her own. By 17, she was ranked fourth in Malaysia’s junior category.

But her first heartache did not arrive on court, it came when she was rejected by a government scholarship. Perhaps rebelling, Tiong quit playing squash for the country, and proceeded quietly to Form Six.

On solid ground: Tiong had a second chance at higher education when Harvard University granted her a scholarship.

Such stories are not unheard of, but zooming in on Tiong, what was apparently not good enough by local standards was good enough for Harvard University.

About three years ago at 2am, Tiong, fast asleep, received a phone call informing her that the world’s most prestigious university had granted her a scholarship.

In an interview with StarMetro on her summer break, the Chemistry undergraduate talked candidly about the importance of speaking up, her “awesome” roommate who cooks for her, and whether she wants to return home for work.

Question: Can we begin with your family background?

Answer: Sure. I’m the youngest and I have two other siblings. One is working in Kuala Lumpur, and the other, a student at a private college here. I was a student at St Teresa Kuching, before doing my Form Six at St Joseph’s.

Q: What were your SPM and STPM results?

A: Nine A1s and one A2. In STPM, I got three As and one A minor.

Q: Did you apply for government scholarship and what did you apply for?

A: Yes, I did. I applied for the Public Service Department scholarship, but they rejected me. I applied to do pharmacy.

Q: Did you find out why you were rejected?

A: I was rejected because they told me my results weren’t good enough.

Q: Were you offered a place at a local public university after Form Six?

A: Yes, I was offered a place at Universiti Malaya.

Q: How did you feel when you found out you were rejected for the scholarship after Form Five?

A: Well, honestly I thought it was sort of unfair, especially given my sports achievements. I also felt that, even with just my academic results, they were pretty good.

After that, I told myself, well, fine. I can’t dwell on this. Behind every cloud there is a silver lining, I kept telling myself; and furthermore, I got to stay home for another two years for Form Six.

Q: Was there a particular area of study you enjoyed?

A: Not really. Not in primary school, and at secondary school, as you know, everyone goes through the same drill. I was in the science stream. I don’t recall having a particular favourite subject.

Q: But every young kid has an ambition. What was yours?

A: I went through a lot of phases. [Laughs]. First I wanted to be a doctor, then I wanted to be an architect, and at some point later, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I’ve been through many kinds of ambitions.

Q: So why chemistry at Harvard now?

A: Well, besides chemistry, I’m also trying to get a second major in archeology.

Q: How did you get into Harvard?

A: After STPM I was applying for several things along with several friends. My coach also chipped in to help. At that time, he was promoting squash to other young kids. I was helping out a little bit. One day, he told me, “Oh June you should be applying to universities in the US too. Your squash achievements will help.”

He had contacts. He had advise from sports coaches he knew at Yale and Princeton.

Q: Was there an interview? I can’t imagine Harvard accepting undergraduates without interviews.

A: Yes, there was one. But even before that, there was a lot of paper work to do. Only short-listed candidates will then be given interviews. I was granted just one interview. That was in Kuala Lumpur by a Singaporean interviewer.

Q: Were you the only Sarawakian at that interview?

A: No, another girl from my school, Jacintha Tagal, the daughter of the late Dr Judson Tagal (Ba’ Kalalan assemblyman who perished in a helicopter crash at Bario in 2004) got into Harvard the same year with me. So, it was like, awesome.

Q: Okay, so why chemistry? That’s about as far away from architecture as you can get.

A: I guess coming from a Malaysian education, being in the science stream, made me think about a career in science.

Q: What year are you in now?

A: I’m in my third year. It’s a four-year course.

Q: Any more Malaysians in your year?

A: There’s three of us, another is a boy from Kuala Lumpur. Next year, there will be a total of seven of us.

Q: How is it like to study in Harvard?

A: It’s pretty stressful but it is also a lot of fun. The style of learning is also very different from Malaysian education. They really want you to ask questions in class. They encourage you to think out of the box. We have assignments every week that goes towards your final grade. Basically, it’s a continuous grading system. Classes are very diverse too, in the sense that, even though I’m a chemistry undergraduate, I’m taking up archeology, photography, history and even classes on Confucius.

Q: Do you feel pressured being at Harvard? I mean just living up to expectations?

A: No no, I’ve never felt that way. I have the coolest parents ever. They’re always telling me to go have fun. They’re like, “Go watch a movie. Stop stressing out,” and I’m like, “Mum, I don’t have time”. [Laugh].

Q: That’s what I mean, you must feel like you’ve got a lot to accomplish. No?

A: I don’t feel that way. My parents have always told me to enjoy life, and that’s what I’m doing now.

Q: Growing up, did you ever attend tuition?

A: Not really, except for Additional Mathematics.

Q: So you’ve always self-studied?

A: Kind of. I used to have a friend who studied all the time. She kept inviting me but I was always ‘too tired’. [Laughs]

I’m someone who derives a lot of energy from my friends and family.

Q: From a Malaysian education background to Harvard, were you well prepared?

A: Honestly…not at all; at least not for the first few months. I had difficulties speaking my mind. We had to participate in all kinds of discussions, and for the most part, I just didn’t know what to say. Malaysian education doesn’t really prepare you for that.

It would be good to have more group discussions within Malaysian classrooms. I suppose it’s really about encouraging young kids to talk. I feel a lot of Malaysians are not ready to have discussions. I mean, once you go into the working world, all of us have to deal with meetings, presentations, or just to come up with good ideas.

Q: Let’s move onto sports. Are you still playing squash?

A: I started playing at the age of 10. My mum felt I was too meek. After playing, I started to open up. I played in the junior circuit competitions once a month. I had the opportunity to go to many places, but by 17, I had quit. At that time, I was ranked fourth in the country in the junior category.

Anyway, so now, I’ve started playing for my school again. It’s an inter-varsity league kind of thing.

Q: Having excelled in sport, growing up did you ever want to make it your career?

A: No, never. I just don’t think I have that much passion in it. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing. As a career? No, I don’t think I can be that good at it.

Q: It’s often said that the Malaysian education system neglects sports. What are your opinions?

A: For sure the government needs to emphasise more on sports. In the US, sports is really big. It’s part of their education. As for me, I know very well that it was a stepping stone into college.

Q: Are you the only Malaysian on Harvard’s squash team?

A: Yes, I am. But it’s really a team thing. We train three hours every day, and absolutely do not drink alcohol during the squash season.

On the weekends we have matches. I think there are two other Malaysians playing squash for other Ivy League schools.

But to go back to your question about sports in schools, a lot of people assume that the reason I’m still playing squash at Harvard is because I have to; because I got in under a sports scholarship. But that’s not the case. I don’t have to play the game. I continue to play because it is fun. And making learning fun is really important.

Q: To cap off the interview, will you come back to Malaysia to work eventually?

A: Yes I would love to. But I would like to work overseas for a couple of years first. Maybe the US, maybe Europe, maybe Australia. I think that kind of experience and exposure is very important. Ultimately though, Malaysia is home. It’s about friends and family really. Food is a plus too.

Q: Is it possible to get Malaysian food in Harvard?

A: Yes there is one actually but it’s a bit far away in Boston and I don’t have that much time to travel. Anyway, Jacinda is my room-mate and she loves cooking. [Laugh]. She’s always like, “Hey dude, here’s Malaysian food,” and I’m like, “Woah, okay. Awesome”.

Even talking about food, I’ve come back to friends and family again. My parents, my friends, my coach has always told me to do well in school, do well in squash, and the world is your oyster.

This seemingly amazing story is made even more amazing simply because she is Malaysian. Sadly, this is not a success story of Malaysia Boleh. If anything at all, this story exemplifies why Malaysia Tidak Boleh. How do you explain that one of the best universities in the world can recognize the talents and abilities of this young girl, yet our government, with its vast resources and “foresight” did not see any “potential” in her. Or was something else at play?

After serving the country by representing Malaysia in squash, June’s services were repaid with a cold shoulder when she needed it most. She was one of the more fortunate ones to land a scholarship to Harvard after Form Six. Many of us (I was one of the more fortunate ones), had to face this obstacle yet AGAIN after Form Six, when we apply for university. Many students with excellent results could not enter the universities that they desired and worse, were only given their 8th or 9th choices for the desired course. Imagine, a student so passionate about Astronomy being sent to a university in the outskirts beside the jungles of Malaysia to study Biology. Do we know the detriments of such an action? Instead of having a world class astronomer in the making, we have a mediocre biologist at best instead.

When I read June’s story, part of me wants to feel inspired by her achievements, but a greater part of me feels so discouraged by the fact that my children may not be as fortunate as June when they finish Form Six. What if my children get sent to the jungles of Malaysia to study advanced pottery, simply because our system chooses not to recognize the talents and abilities of Malaysians? Yet, the 10th Malaysia Plan talks about attracting and maintaining talents.

I want to feel inspired but I simply can’t.


  1. Sighs. Such a heartwarming story. My sister went through the same thing but wasn't so lucky. Got a place in Oxford for law but didn't get a scholarship except for a small merit scholarship from the university which is only a fraction of the total amount. But she's doing law in UM and managed to represent the country for the World Jessup moots. Thing is, Malaysia are more than willing to send douchebags to study in some half baked uni in the UK then cater to the brilliant ones. Sighs.

  2. the govt policies changed some time ago in my year. i put the first three choices as my 6th,7th & 8th choice knowing that they usually allocate us those last choices. and put my least favorable course as my first choice. turns out, they gave everyone their first choice in my year. i think it's cus they lost badly in elections in penang. haha. but the scholarship part remains the same. it's still not according to merit.

  3. The fact that you have to try to outsmart the government into giving you your last few choices is a big joke.