I grew up in Penang but have studied and worked abroad for many years. Very often, I get questions from foreigners about my life history, especially about how I left home when I was 15 to continue my studies in Singapore under an Asean scholarship. “How could your mother send you away so young?” they ask. “Did she not miss you?”
On Mother’s Day today, I want to pay tribute to this one decision of my mother’s which reflects all the love and foresight she had for me.
It is hard for foreigners to understand the dilemma non-Malay parents face because of the Malaysian Government’s affirmative action policies that puts one group of people over another. My Chinese parents worried about how their children might not get a place in university to study the subject of their choice, and they worried about how our future may be determined by our race rather than by our abilities and aspirations. This policy has been much criticised, however, I do not intend to go into its legal or political implications here. Rather, I want to focus on its human face, on how it forced my mother to make the difficult decision that she did.
We are not a rich family. My parents met at a school in rural Kelantan where they were both teachers. Later, my father took his law degree through a distance-learning programme and established his own small law firm. My mother taught Maths at public schools and served as a school counsellor till her retirement. Both of them worked hard and carefully saved for their children’s education and future. We didn’t have many toys, but my parents were always buying us books.
As a teacher, my mother was well aware of the deficiencies in Malaysia’s public school system, and she tutored us in Maths and English at home. This never fails to amaze me because my mother comes from a Mandarin-speaking background and had to teach herself the niceties of English grammar even as she helped us with our English. Because of her, my siblings and I became confident and voracious readers, writing stories and poems for our own amusement while growing up.
When I was 12, my parents heard of the Singapore Government’s Asean scholarship programme, which promised successful applicants free education in top-ranking Singapore schools. I remember my mother explaining the benefits of the programme to me, and asking me whether I would consider applying for the scholarship.
Even at that young age, I sufficiently understood the importance of a good education and the consequences of Malaysia’s affirmative action programme. I wanted to apply for the Asean scholarship. Though I failed on my first attempt, I tried again three years later and was successful then. A few years later, my younger brother applied for the same scholarship on his own accord, without being prompted by my parents.
My mother came with me to Singapore to help me settle into my new school and hostel. She had packed an entire suitcase full of my favourite Malaysian snacks and busied herself buying new sheets, furniture, and stationery for my room. In the photos we have of that time, her face is happy for me, but sad.
Over the next few years, she travelled by herself from Penang to Singapore on an almost monthly basis, something she continues to do up to today. She would tutor me in Maths, a subject that I was finding particularly difficult to master in Singapore. Never once did she complain of her fatigue or the constant loss she must have felt at home.
Very often, the foreigners whom I tell my story to look at me with well-meaning pity or disbelief. Yet, strange as it may seem, I have the best memories of my school days in Singapore, though I do recognise that not everyone had as positive an experience as I did.
Yes, I missed my mother’s home-cooked food, and yes, I missed having my family around me. But I also had lovely times with the friends I made. I remember our many late night suppers, our weekly trips to the grocery stores, and our weekend excursions to the beach. We studied hard but also played hard.
At school, I was blessed with many kind teachers who took me under their wing. I was part of my school’s dance group, choir, and outdoors club. Together, my classmates and I learned how to pitch a tent in the dark, went night-cycling around Singapore, and camped on the beach under the stars. I have to admit that I got into quite a number of scrapes in school, but who doesn’t? And my mother made it a point to meet with my teachers when she visited Singapore.
The decision to let me go to Singapore was difficult for my parents. My mother worried about whether I was sleeping and eating well at my hostel. She worried about whether I was feeling lonely or homesick. I always told her that I was all right because I did not want her to worry and because I was used to acting “tough”.
I missed her dearly and knew she missed me too. I could always tell from her voice on the phone when she had been crying or was about to.
Many of my friends in the same scholarship programme went through this same experience. Every evening at our hostel, there would be a line of bright-eyed 13- to 16-year-olds lining up to use one of the two public phones to call home. Many would have tears in their eyes during or after the phone conversation.
That said, I have no regrets at all. I have always understood and supported my mother’s difficult decision. Like most Asian parents, my parents strongly believe in the empowering potential of a good education. And like many Asian kids, I wanted to excel in school not only because I wanted my parents to be proud of me but also because I knew that they wanted me to have a happy and meaningful future.
My parents’ desire for my happiness made them change their own expectations of the path I should take many times. Despite their initial hopes that I would work at a law firm, they graciously accepted and supported my unorthodox choice to pursue an international law career which was then followed by an academic career.
I have been asked many times whether I would have made the same decision as my mother and let my own children leave home for a fairer and better future at such a young age. As I no longer reside or work in Malaysia, I am lucky that I do not face the dilemma she did – and I have my mother to thank for that.
Would I have done the same as my mother if I were in her exact position? I pray that I will never be in such a position. But if I ever were, I hope that I will have my mother’s wisdom, vision, and self-sacrificing spirit.
Thank you for everything, Mummy. Happy Mother’s Day!
The writer is an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore.