Sabr In The Time of Pandemic

I shared some of my thoughts on how challenging sabr has been during our current pandemic in my entry for the Writing Category of AIKOL’s Got Talent contest at the end of last year. The topic was the Covid-19 Pandemic and now that we’re in our third year living with the pandemic, I believe the essay is still relevant.

It was the pitch of her voice, an octave higher than her usual melodic tone, that first rang alarm bells in my head.

“I don’t know what to do anymore,” she cried, her fast breaths piercing with desperation. “I’m done with being fermented in my own house.”

I felt my heart crumpling up in sympathy, in understanding but mostly, in pain. My grip grew tighter as my muscles argued between pushing the phone away and stuffing it into my ear. To hear the voice of my once exuberant and vivacious grandaunt in her despair, one year after Covid began was heart-wrenching. And I too crave the physical contact we were once blessed but never truly appreciated.

I wanted to reassure her. I wanted to hug her and look into her eyes and tell her that things will be well.

But all that came out was a feeble, “I know” and a silence that stretches as far as the distance between us. The electrical modulated sound waves made no justice to the iron weight of our emotions.

Just a year ago, she was telling me how grateful she was that she had been used to keeping herself busy at home. While there was an undertone of apprehension, she was still excitedly rattling off the list of needlework projects she was going to work on, and the skills she planned to teach her grandchildren. But after many lovingly crocheted ‘kopiahs’ and knitted bags had found their way to various friends and family; she too was feeling the dread of monotony and the feeling that we’ve all been trapped.

We were just two of the billions of others whose lives were scarred by the arrival of Covid-19, and with our families safe and sound, we were two of the luckier ones.

For all of us, when the Movement Control Order was announced, our palaces of comfort and respite were transformed into bar-less prisons overnight. We all knew that this instruction was made for our benefit; to keep ourselves and those we love with all our lives safe from the deadly virus. And yet why is it so hard to reconcile ourselves and be at peace with the knowledge that we are all being heroes to our community?

Of course, there are many opinions and professionally-conducted researches that had been done on this issue. However, I’d like to invite you to explore this question with me, an observer with limited knowledge but with a penchant for pondering, from the perspective of speed and impulse as well as the beauty of Sabr.

Speed and Impulse

In the age of globalisation, technology, and artificial intelligence, we could have all that our hearts desire at the touch of a fingertip. In the past, we had to travel the sea for months to get a taste of authentic foreign dishes. However, with the magic of the internet, our own devices could guess our preference, persuade us into making an order, and a tantalizing box of jeera rice and chana masala can reach your door in 30 minutes.

This advancement in technological communication and social connection has brought us many advantages and opportunities to society. Places of education that were once reserved in urban areas are now accessible virtually anywhere and anytime. In my life, during the day, I attend my university lectures with more than a hundred other people, scattered all over Malaysia, and at night I practice my Spanish directly with a Colombian teacher living in France.

The scale of our economic opportunities too has expanded beyond the geographical and societal barriers. Anyone can start up a new business and approach customers from all over the world through the magic of the Internet. Those with a creative mind and a keen eye are no longer bound to traditional investors to launch their project with platforms like Kickstarter and GoFundMe.

The term ‘The sky is the limit’ is becoming quite literal with the ability to communicate with anyone beneath the exosphere.

However, this digital movement is built on speed. Brands and companies are always promising that they can serve you faster than their competitors. They remind you that you have so much to do and that they’ll do the hard work for you. Just look at the array of instant food and services our post-modern world has to offer. And when you have the smallest amount of discomfort, you receive a notification of a sale with products that will relieve you of your displeasures immediately.

We are not given the time to think. Every offer has a deadline and every content begs for a reaction. We are encouraged to act on our impulses and are rewarded for acting on them with highly emotive content quickly racking up likes and shares on news sites and social media.

Braking at Breakneck Speed

We may not notice it but this convenience does not come without its drawbacks. We have become accustomed to this new standard of speed to the point where we unconsciously expect that we could achieve things quickly and efficiently. And it does not help that the capitalist market is taking advantage of our own psychology by tapping into our reward system and tethering it to their products.

We no longer feel a strong appreciation for all of the ease technology has given us. We expect to be constantly occupied. We rely on instantaneous communication. We crave pleasure and gratification approaching that of the ethics of hedonism.

This breakneck cycle of minimal effort and maximum reward is not a bonus for us anymore; it’s a necessity.

When the coronavirus began its ravage across the globe, slowly but steadily, much of the areas of our lives that we had been taken for granted had been brought to a stop. While the globalisation process had promoted democratisation of access in every part of life and the ideals of liberty; in the time of the pandemic, we were suddenly told “No.”

The shift was sharp in both its speed and magnitude. In a matter of days or weeks after the first signs of a local infection, we had to change how we work, how we socialize, and just how we live. Every single aspect of our daily lives had to be modified and restricted. There were limits to where we were allowed to go, who we were allowed to see, what we were allowed to wear, and even how we were allowed to sneeze. And this level of control is so detested by the people of today whose principles are built on personal freedom.

Essentially, the sudden removal of our many liberties was like ripping the needle that was pumping rewards into our veins at high speed without the lull of anaesthesia.

Teetering Balance

As our lives got more and more entangled in the web of technology, we are being bombarded with warnings and statements from experts on the risks of being too dependent on our devices. While physical risks like computer vision syndrome and sedentary lifestyle are known, many people are unaware of the silent, but just as dangerous, risk to our psychology.

Excessive screen time in children has been linked to mood swings, aggressive behaviour, and shorter attention span. Reliance on social media and mobile devices are shown to may have contributed to depression and difficulty to focus on tasks.

I personally find myself checking my phone even when I am in a lecture, with the anxiety of “did I miss anything important?” ever-present at the back of my mind. And when I do get a message that isn’t urgent enough to warrant an immediate reply, my mind keeps running back to it; drafting and editing a reply that correctly communicates my message while I missed half of what my teacher is telling me.

However, this isn’t to say that this speed in technology is all bad. As is proven in the peak of Covid 19, despite the fact that the world was trapped in a physical standstill, we could still connect to anyone from virtually anywhere in the world for a near-instantaneous conversation. Students were still given their rights to education through online learning. Freshly cooked food could still miraculously arrive at your doorstep within minutes without physical human contact.

Technology has brought us such a huge improvement in our quality of life, especially in giving some of the underprivileged a chance to reach into places beyond their economical or geographical means.

At the same time, we cannot deny the fact that video games are curating their codes to hack into our dopamine system. We need to be aware of how social media preys on our emotion, benefitting from our impulse and rewarding it with functions such as liking and sharing, further encouraging thoughtless behaviour. Texts are encouraged to be shorter and more emotive. Contents are suggested to catch audiences within the first 5 seconds.

This technology that has brought so many improvements into our lives is also keeping our emotions running on a never-ending treadmill. This lifestyle is not sustainable. It balances like an egg teetering on the edge of a horn.

The Beauty of Sabr

My earliest introduction to the word sabr was during one of my many childhood tantrums. When I wanted something, I was told to be patient. I was told to practice sabr. And for most of my childhood, sabr to me was a challenge against negativity. It was the remedy to emotions like anger and frustration about menial, unimportant issues.

But sabr is a lot more than just holding yourself back from losing your temper or being willing to wait for an eternity to receive a reward you may never see in your lifetime. And with impatience being a weakness of mine, I had to learn the hard way that sabr also means taking a moment to check if my assumptions are correct because I take action. That Sabr includes consulting with someone who knows better, in crises that I am not equipped to handle.

Most importantly, sabr is learning to appreciate both the rewards and challenges you encounter in life; to explore the beauty behind both patterns, and to grow into someone wiser than before. The Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. said, “Amazing is the believer, for whatever Allah decrees for him, it is better for him! If he is tested with a bounty, he is grateful for it and this is better for him; and if he is afflicted with a hardship, he is patient with it and this is better for him.”

In the hadith above, we are reminded that we should be patient when we encounter hardship and accept that Allah, the All-Knowing, has given us a path that is curated for our good. In the same sentence, one is said to be tested with bounty. We are encouraged to first take a moment to reflect and to praise Allah for His blessings. Neither goodness nor harm should be dealt with the impulsive attitude that our current technology is encouraging.

Sabr in the Time of Pandemic

For many people, Covid-19 is when they are pushed to their very limits. Employers are struggling to keep their business rolling behind closed doors so their workers can bring food home to their children. Doctors and healthcare workers are running around the clock to save as many lives as they could while still protecting their loved ones. Educators are suddenly forced to learn an entirely new medium while dealing with complaints and confusion from equally stressed parents and students.

Some families were pulled apart for more than a year without contact. Many left without a proper goodbye and would never again return. Others were tied together in a social dynamic that is so alien to their usual system that they broke down under stress. Very few people are left unscarred by the pressure of this pandemic. Our struggles may differ but one thing is true for most of us: our concerns and our worries are valid and legitimate

And in my humble opinion, from the short duration of life I’ve experienced, patience under desperation based on legitimate concern is the hardest form of sabr.

When we don’t have enough food to feed our family, when people are threatening to take away our homes and when our mother is struggling to breathe on the other side of the country; this is when we are most tempted with impulse and we look for someone, or something, to blame. Having something to blame will rationalise your emotions internally. It is like telling yourself, “I have no fault in this. I am right to feel this way. I deserve to feel this way.”

And without us realising it, we have been dragged from a completely legitimate concern down to the slippery slope of emotion, impulse, suspicion, and enmity. Even friends and family may not be spared from your su’u zon. You may see your once loving parents as now an invader of your privacy, your teachers being too demanding and inconsiderate to insist on turning on your cameras and your siblings’ heart are black with greed and hate as they disturb every single moment of your day.

For us Muslims, we need to always remind ourselves that first and foremost, we are sent to this Earth to worship Allah. Our faith, our din is the most important thing we have to protect under the maqasid shariah. We are living in dunya to prepare for our home in akhirah.

So, in every worldly concern, we must realign our compass back towards Allah. We cannot, should not, and must not let these legitimate but earthly worries be the rust that tarnish our hearts from our true purpose and our true destination.

This pandemic may be the worst in our living memory. Our quality of life may be in a terrible state compared to just a year ago. We may have lost so many people that we love and care for without the chance for a proper farewell. But be patient and have faith that there is relief in every pain; and turn to Allah in your desperation and your solace. InsyaAllah, our sabr will help us to strengthen our Iman.

Verily, with every difficulty there is relief.
Therefore, when thou art free (from thine immediate task), still labour hard,
And to thy Lord turn (all) thy attention.”

– Surah Al-Insyirah, verses 6-8 –


My ULKCP (Malay) Experience

As I have mentioned in the first post in this series, I sat for my own ULKCP oral exam last year, in 2019, for my SPM as a private candidate. In preparation for the exam, I tried in vain to look up for help on how the exam is conducted and how to best prepare for them. Apart from a few blog posts from previous candidates, there was really not much to be found so here I hope to share both, my experiences during both the Malay and English ULKCP as well as what I think would be the things I wish I knew going into it.

So let’s get on to it, shall we?

Getting to the exam room

Again, just getting to the exam room is already a journey in of itself. We reached the school early as the other students are making their way in for the morning session. I asked a teacher where the ULKCP would be held. They pointed into the distance and said “Bangunan kat belakang ni” and I assumed that they meant the building behind the nearest building but we couldn’t find anything that would suggest that an exam would be taking place there.

After roaming around for a short while, we stopped a prefect, hoping that she would know and she pointed us to the furthest building where there indeed, was a sign at the staircase. Thankfully, unlike the huge circular building we had to navigate through for our English exam, this one was a traditional school building and once we’ve got the floor right, getting to the room itself was just a matter of spotting the sign.

Individual Component – Preparation

In the days leading up to the ULKCP exam, I tried to prepare myself as much as I could but there really is very little information out there and even my tutor, who was an examiner for SPM, had no idea. The resources I could find are for the ULBS (which is what the school candidates would sit for) and they have forums and dramas and sometimes they read aloud with stimulus material (bahan rangsangan). After rounds of general freaking out, the only real practice I did was reading the Jaket Kulit Kijang Anthology aloud to improve my enunciation.

The moment after we registered, we were separated into two groups of four. Unlike the English exam where I was simply grouped off with my sisters, they were very meticulous about who goes into which group and we believed that they purposely split initial groups (my sisters and I were separated) and balanced out the mix of ethnicity within each group (both groups had three Malay and one Indian/ Chinese)..

Before we get our tasks, I noticed some people were already having quiet and light conversations with their groupmates. I think this would ease the preparation for the group test later, as you have already broken the ice.

We were called to the front table in twos, one from each group, to be tested in different rooms with a different pair of evaluators. Upon reaching the desk, we were given 5 themes to choose from. For us, those are:

  • Perayaan
  • Pendidikan
  • Disiplin
  • Alam Sekitar
  • ICT

Immediately upon glancing at the list of choices, I crossed off alam sekitar and ICT even though I am very familiar with both, as my vocabulary around these subjects are mostly in English and I really don’t think it’s a good idea to think in English and translate my thoughts into Malay on the fly. It would definitely mess up my sentence structure and my fluency and I might not even get the words accurate. With the assumption that the discussion would be a general one, I decided not to take perayaan, just in case it would approach a festival or a concept that I am not familiar with.

The last two were harder for me to consider as I have a lot of thoughts on both disiplin and pendidikan but in the end, I decided that my opinions on disiplin are rather technical, in a way, and I don’t want to mess up with the technical terms. Pendidikan, on the other hand is something that I’ve talked about a lot in both Malay (albeit in the colloquial bahasa pasar) and English, especially with the rather unconventional education I’ve received.

After choosing your theme, you would be given an instruction. Like I said before, I was expecting a general question so “Ceritakan tentang Pendidikan yang telah anda terima” completely threw me off guard since it was rather personal.

We were each given ten minutes to prepare. We were allowed to write notes if we wish to but we could not use any reading material, and we are not allowed to use our phones. Any notes written could not be brought into the evaluation room. I saw a lot of people writing out notes but I wasn’t confident that I could write fast enough to make it worthwhile, especially since we couldn’t bring them into the room with us anyway. So I only brainstormed in my head.

I started with the backbone of my presentation. Having just done Bab 7 of Sejarah, the idea of formal and informal schooling was still strong in my head so I decided to discuss that concept. I also planned to talk about the history of my schooling: how I studied at two private schools before starting homeschooling and how I found the two to be different.

I later found out that my sister Aeshah also took Pendidikan and had received the same instructions as I did, but being in a different group, she was evaluated in a different room. Anisah chose Perayaan and her instruction was “Ceritakan tentang perayaan yang pernah anda sambut”, thus I am concluding that the questions simply evolve around you personally rather than a general discussion on the concept itself.

Individual Component – Test

As I’ve written in a more lighthearted post here (with some fun comics thrown in) the start of my presentation was a mess. Not knowing what to expect or what I was supposed to do, I walked into the room and met my rather discouraging evaluators who simply stared at me with a blank face. If they were meant to intimidate, they did a very fine job at it. For me, it added to my cluelessness as having absolutely no clue on the format, I was hoping I would be given a basic guide.

So instead, I sat at the table and announced the theme that I took and the instructions I was given. The evaluators nodded and I launched into my script but was cut off immediately and was told that I should first introduce myself. Feeling sheepish now, I gave them my name and my age. After receiving no response and feeling completely lost, I asked them what else should I tell them. The reply was “cerita apa-apa je”.

The thing about being told to introduce yourself is that it as vague as being told to say something in a certain language. Everything seems like a potential topic and nothing feels relevant. “Apa-apa je” is so vast that it is unlikely they would let me talk about simply anything. I tried to think of those ice breaking sessions I did back in primary school, nearly two decades ago when I first join a new class so I talked about my family, my hobby and where I was from.

Again, silence.

“Ada apa-apa lagi?”

“Kalau tak ada apa-apa lagi nak tambah, okey”

I took a, what I hoped to be a subtle deep breath, and started again but unfortunately, that little hiccup had messed up my mindset a little. I was planning to give a good first impression by making a strong opening by stating that my informal education began the moment I was born and making a point that education is not simply about school but I felt like I lost a bit of my cool, the sense of structure in my head and forgot a few points I would have liked to mention. I didn’t even talk about the whole informal education aspect until the very end.

For my formal education, I briefly explained my experiences in primary school but mostly focus on homeschooling and how it differs from conventional schooling, especially with the fluidity between academic studies and what would have been considered co-curricular activities that isn’t too apparent in general schools. I mentioned my interest in other languages, creative writing and brief stints into subjects like nutrition and visual art and how these subjects often don’t even feel like studying for me as I saw it as a casual or creative pursuit.

I also talked about the other general houseworking skills. I don’t remember the specific details but what I had in mind before I went in were cooking, baking, knitting and crochet and simple sewing or even odd jobs like very basic carpentry or fixing broken locks. I talked about how all of these encompasses this very fluid and ever changing nature of the education I received.

Only at the end did I talk about how my informal schooling took place in the interactions between my parents and me since my birth and how it encompasses cognitive skills, moral and religious teachings. I talked about how my father did science experiments with me, how my mother taught me to read and how they gave me games and TV shows that introduced me to various skills and interests.

Throughout this whole time, I paused several times just to see if I had spoken enough or if time was up but they never broke from their emotionless stare so I kept going back and adding more and more details that I hoped would help. Eventually, I ran out of ideas and decided to take the initiative and just say something outright.

“Rasanya, itu sahaja.” And I pulled my shoulders back, giving the signal that I am done.

Finally, they nodded and one of them asked me several questions regarding the topic. I believe the first questions are about my plans and ambitions (which also threw me off a little as that didn’t seem to me in the moment to be part of the education I received). I mentioned briefly about my study plans and what area of study I hope to pursue for my tertiary education.

The next question was a trickier one, as they asked me about my opinions on education.

I am not strictly all for homeschooling or am I completely against schools in general. I think they’re both unique in what they offer as well and they have their own separate challenges. I personally believe that there’s a situation for both and that one could not completely imitate the other, nor should they. However, I also understand that these teachers are from public schooling system and I have probably decorated my experience a little too dazzlingly despite having never been to a public school all my life.

So my answer here focused my opinions on the pros and cons of the different education and mentioned the things I missed about going to school (such as team sports or just huge team events in general. I was a huge fan of them) with a stronger focus on the benefits of general school (including having a syllabus and structure arranged by a wide range of experts after lots of research).

I had tried to speak very formal Malay, just in case, and in my attempt to be as clear in my enunciation, I felt as stiff as an overstarched shirt by the end of it. As I made my way out of the door, I heard one of the evaluators casually suggesting to the other “Budak BI”.

Until now, I still don’t know if they were simply referring to my possibly inappropriately formal register or if I blew my individual test completely.

Group Component – Preparation

As I have mentioned earlier, we were already separated into two groups and after all of the members of both groups had completed their individual tests, they placed the individual tests on hold (there had been people who had been arriving since the first two group started) and they began giving the instruction to the second part of the exam, the group component.

For this part, we weren’t given a choice but we were given the theme of ‘Pertanian’. I don’t remember what the actual instruction was but I think it was around the lines of ‘bagaimana cara kerajaan boleh memajukan sektor pertanian negara’. And as I don’t remember the exact thoughts that I had regarding this and unfortunately, I don’t think I kept any record on our specific discussions (most of what I wrote and kept are more on the technicalities of how the exam was conducted and how I think we did) but I’ll try to extract what memory I have on it.

We were given 10 minutes to prepare. As soon as we received the instructions, the four of us sat around a table. One of our teammates, pulled out a piece of paper and started asking for points and suggestions. We gave various specific suggestions and separated them into crude categories. At one point there was an argument over what encompasses pertanian and after a minute of debate, we still weren’t sure so just to be on the safe side, we didn’t include livestock.

Having an organiser who leads the direction of the presentation helped immensely. Personally, I would have structured my organization in a different manner, with focuses on turn taking as well as structuring but I was still recovering from the intense individual test and I was just happy to have someone else take the lead and didn’t think much about it.

However, by the end of it, seeing that we ended up with four general categories, we did mention briefly that each of us would take a part but whether of not it was miscommunication (as we didn’t properly discussed it) or if it was a mistake in the heat of the moment, it did not exactly go as according to plan.

Group Component – Test

For the group component, we switched evaluators. Meaning, if you were evaluated in the first room, you would now be evaluated in the second room by a different pair of evaluators. I was most relieved when our second evaluators smiled as we walked in. It gave me a healthy dose of confident boost now that I know that I could get some body language clues. Indeed, they were encouraging, helpful and they nod a lot so we had an indicator that could tell us that we’ve hit the mark.

Unlike for the English group test where we were arranged in a circle, our tables were simply arranged in a line, facing the evaluators table on the other side. We introduced ourselves briefly by simply giving our names so they could assign us to their forms. They asked us if we had a ‘pengurusi majlis’, to which we said no and explained that we didn’t know that we had to, but they told us that it was fine.

Since I was third in the initial round, I noticed that some of the others spoke Malay bordering on bahasa pasar so I cast off my Melayu baku for a more natural everyday but gramatically correct Malay. We each took turns presenting our points in the order in which we were seated. If I remember correctly, mine was focused on the tourism aspect, making a mention on the agritourism. However, due to the lack of proper planning, by the time it got my sister, Anisah, who was last, we had accidentally talked about all of the four points. As the introverted Anisah took her turn, I was getting very worried especially since she was very quiet during the planning phase

Anisah, however, impressed us all by wrapping our presentation up with a smooth and very well written conclusion, readdressing all that we said and adding one of those ‘this is why’ statements that teachers love so much in conclusions. I honestly don’t know if I could do a better job myself, especially when placed on the spot.

For the questions and answer section, the evaluators asked questions either openly or directed to a specific person within the group. For some of the questions, they wanted to hear the opinions from all four of us and, as the others take their turns, I’m wracking my brains, trying to find a unique answer that doesn’t simply echo the people before me and wouldn’t take the chance of those who would be speaking after me.

Indeed, answering first would give you the advantage of saying anything since nothing has yet been said so if you have problems with trying to find ideas, I’d suggest taking the initiative. I wasn’t too worried about looking for ideas or re-elaborating ideas from a different point of view (I was more worried about my tatabahasa and messing up a format, whatever that my be) so I let others take their turn first most of the time.

There is also that funny moment where Aeshah and I both, in separate rooms, forgot what a mangosteen is in Malay (she was considering manggasteen and I had buoh smete in my head, which is from the Terengganu dialect) but that is neither here nor there.

Group Component – Discussion

My group finished before Aeshah’s group did so we waited in the waiting room for a while before they joined us. In the following discussion, we did confirm that the other evaluator was rather discouraging and there seems to be a flexibility when it comes to the format.

For example, in our group, we simply spoke when our turn came while in Aeshah’s group, they each stood up when it’s their turn to speak (Aeshah did suggested that it may be because was first and she stood up so the others followed her lead). Aeshah’s group were also asked less questions than we were, perhaps because they talked more about each of their points.

Another major difference is in the presentation style and this may reflect the difference in planning and possibly makes a difference in score (though I have no way to verify this). In my group, we tend to each present our points separately. I remember re-elaborating one or two points that others had made but it was still presented as if it was a separate point. In Aeshah’s group, there was a lot more build up on each other’s responses which for me, suggested better planning and a better understanding of the topics discussed. And she did say that in their planning, they did assign clear roles to each other which I thought was wise.

Final takes

If you’ve read my post on my English ULKCP experience, you can tell that there is a bit of a difference between the two and if you’ve read posts from various other candidates in the past, you can tell there there is a huge range of difference in the particulars (like whether you could use your phone or how you work with your group, etc). It is unlikely that my experience would be exactly the same as yours but I hope that my experiences could help you a little with your own preparations and that you wouldn’t be too at lost.

As I mentioned in my English experience, what is important for you is that you should try to show your best based on your level of proficiency.

However, with Malay being our mother tongue, there is that added complication of bahasa pasar. Please, please, please try to speak in grammatically correct Malay, the kind of Malay that you would use for your karangan. It would be such a waste if you have great ideas and coherent answers but you get your marks redacted because of your messy sentence structure, your casual and inappropriate imbuhans or words that don’t exist in proper Malay.

From my understanding of it, there will be marks for grammar, for fluency and for vocabulary and the correct use of words (on top of other things) so try to keep this at the back of your head when planning out your answer.

And again, if you mess up one component, don’t think too much about it. Each components are judged separately and your highest score would be taken as your final oral score so you basically have two chance at scoring it.

I would try to write a third part to this series before the start of September, Insya Allah, where I list out tips or things that I wished I knew and had in mind when I went in for my ULKCP. I know that the 2020 session has already started for some of you so you might already have some ideas in mind but I hope that this mess of words would help you feel a little more assured than you were before. Good luck in your exams!

My ULKCP (English) Experience

Back in June, 2019, my sisters and I sat for our ULKCP together for our SPM exams. Ujian Lisan Khusus Calon Persendirian or ULKCP, is the oral test all private SPM candidates have to sit for as part of the SPM exam and the marks you receive in these tests would count towards your final exam score, and thus, your final SPM grades.

Since the new ULKCP session would be starting in a few weeks (my own brother, Ali, would be sitting for his in September), I thought it would be a good idea to share a bit of what I went through in hopes that it could help some of you. These posts would be quite lengthy (and possibly a bit more rambling) than my usual posts and if I have the time (I am preparing for my A-Level exam at the moment), I might also write it all again in Malay.

I intend to divide this into three, or four, posts, depending on the how my words flow. As someone who has been on the other side of the evaluator’s table, I know how frustratingly little information there is when it comes to preparing for the exam so I’ll try to give you all that I can offer and you could take what you wish from them.

My first two posts would be describing my experiences of both, the English and Malay, oral exams so you could have a bit of context and a peep into what the day could be like. I will try to also share why I did them (if I could remember my thought process) so you could take that into account. After that, in a separate post, I would write a bit on what I would suggest you to do before and after the exam session itself. My experiences and my tips may not be the perfect ones for you but I hope you could find some guidance and solace in them.

Note: My Malay ULKCP experience post is now up!

So without further ado, here’s how my English ULKCP went for me.

Getting to the exam room

The adventure began the moment we arrived at the school. We arrived a little early and walked through the student’s gate together with the other students as they all made their way to the courtyard for the assembly. I walked up to one of the teachers, who were greeting the students, and asked them where would the exam be taking place. He gave me a basic instruction on the directions and so we left and tried to follow it as best we could.

Unfortunately, the instructions that I was given was not clear and the three of us got lost for a while before a kind prefect showed us where to go. There was some signage placed up but since we use the student’s entrance, which was closer to a different flight of stairs, we didn’t see any of it until we reached the waiting room itself.

Since the waiting room was empty, we weren’t sure if we were allowed to enter. We decided to just walk in and I used the time to work on my Sejarah revision but we didn’t get to stay long before a teacher walked past and told us that we were not allowed to enter yet. So we packed our things and waited in the corridor for the teacher to arrive.

It wasn’t too long before the teacher did come and we were allowed to wait inside as we took turns to register our names at the teacher’s desk.

Individual component – Preparation

Unlike the Malay oral exam where we were only given our topic 10 minutes before we were called in, for the English exam, we were given our topic the moment we registered our names, so we had ample more time to prepare. I am guessing that this level of strictness depends on the people who manage your exam sessions and isn’t necessarily linked to the subject itself.

Having sat for my Malay oral test, I was expecting that I would be given a few different topics to choose from. I also thought that I would get a bit of a guide on what to say (as for the Malay papers, we were given a question after we chose our topic).

However, we get no such privileges this time. We were each assigned a topic and nothing else. Mine was ‘Favourite actor/ actress’ and it took me a few minutes to decide that they probably want me to talk about my own favourite actor and not a philosophical dissection of how one chooses thier favourites would say about them as a person (well, perhaps not that extreme, but I was genuinely confused for a while).

The problem was, I have no favourite actor/ actress. I don’t remember ever singling one out as someone I dearly look up to. Sure, there are a number of actors whose names I am familiar with, and seeing them on a movie poster would attract my attention, as I have enjoyed the movies they acted in, but I would consider none of them to be someone I genuinely follow. And I haven’t watched the current TV shows or films in a while so I’m not up-to-date on the up-and-coming actors. I was jealous when I heard that my sisters were given ‘Picnic’ and ‘Helping a handicap’ as their topics.

So what I decided to do was to choose someone I know well enough to talk about. Being aware that I would probably be stuck in the examination room for some time, I also had to make sure that I have a lot of things to discuss on for the whole length of time. I decided to bring the discussion to something that I am familiar with, martial arts, and chose Jackie Chan.

During the preparation period, you are allowed to write notes to help you brainstorm for ideas and make a plan on what you are going to talk about but you are not allowed to bring them in with you into the examination room. It is up to you to prepare how you see best. The girl sitting next to me wrote a complete script on ‘Buy Malaysian Product’. I saw people pulling their phones out to do some quick Google searches but that was not allowed during the Malay exam and I didn’t want to risk any penalty so I kept my phone on silent in my bag.

Initially, I did not want to write my notes out because I didn’t write any notes for my Malay test due to the time limit (I didn’t want to waste time writing). However, after realising that there is still plenty of time to spare, I wrote it out anyway because it would make things neater in my head. However instead of a script, I opt for writing a backbone of my presentation with a list of things that I want to talk about, including a general structure and specific words and examples of events that I would like to use.

My notes from the individual test preparation

The reason why I didn’t go for a script was, being someone who did a bit of public speaking back at primary school, I know how hard it is for me to remember my script. However, I still wanted to give my presentation a good flow. The mention of specific events and a simple idea of what to say first would help me show to the evaluator that I know how to present my ideas and support my arguments.

At the same time, I also want to showcase my fluency and my range of vocabulary to the evaluator so I chose specific words related to the industry such as ‘blockbuster’, ‘choreograph’, ‘tenacious’ and ‘craft’ (as in, the craft of acting’).

The reason why I was going into such detail was that I had a pretty intimidating experience with the Malay test so I was trying really hard to prepare myself for any potential problem. However, the English evaluators were very friendly and easy to talk to, and it helped me immensely with keeping to my plan and recalling the details I have prepared beforehand.

Individual component – Test

My turn came, after my sister, Aeshah’s. When I walked into the room, the evaluators smiled and asked me to introduce myself. I told them the topic I was given and started on my presentation. After that, they asked me some questions regarding the topic discussed.

I introduced the topic by sharing how I first knew about Jackie Chan from his comedy movies like ‘The Medallion’ and ‘Shanghai Noon’ as a kid and how my respect for him grew as I began learning martial arts, when I truly began to appreciate, not just his acting skills but his creativity in looking for new ways to present them and his precision in depicting them. I discussed on how passionate and determined he is in perfecting his shots and his stunts, to the point of injuring himself in several occasions. I concluded the presentation by sharing the values I admire in him, and why they do, as well as how I relate them to in my own life.

The evaluators were very engaging throughout the presentation and gave feedback with their facial expressions and by nodding at several different points. They seemed interested in what I have to say and it was very helpful and encouraging as, even though it is technically a presentation, which is a one-way thing, conversations in general requires participation and I believe we simply react better when the listener actually seems like they’re listening.

After I finished my presentation, the first question they asked was, “What about his personal life? What do you think about Jackie Chan as a person?”

I admit, for a split second, I had sirens wailing in my head. For all of my preparations, I thought I had done enough to steer the conversation into areas where I was confident in. However, I quickly regained my senses and admitted frankly that I didn’t know much about his personal life other than the fact that he has done some charity work but I insisted that I pick my favourite actor based on their acting capabilities and how well-versed they are in their craft.

The next question was about my plans for the future and my ambition. Having sat for the Malay exam, this subtopic had also came up so I wasn’t caught by surprise. I briefly talked about what I hope to do, the subject I hope to pursue in university, etc. Then she asked me if there is anything else I’d like to talk about since we still had time so I decided that a discussion on my own martial art lessons wouldn’t be too much of a leap from the earlier topic and it would perhaps give more context and show more coherency.

Before I left, she asked me, “What martial arts are you learning?”

“I’m learning silat, specifically Silat Seni Gayong.”

She laughed, “When you said martial arts, I was thinking Judo or Taekwondo.”

It’s these kinds of exchange that makes the whole process feels like a natural conversation; it was smooth and encouraging and puts me, the examinee, at ease. Being a fluent English speaker, I wasn’t extremely worried about my English test but I still honestly appreciate having her as an evaluator with all of my heart.

Group component – Preparation

For the group component, we were separated into groups of three. Each group was given a setting with a list of choices. Each candidate has to argue for a different choice but we have to conclude on just one. By a stroke of luck, my sisters and I were placed into one group. We had a lot of fun working on the plan and were just generally excited about the prospect of having a somewhat important discussion with just the three of us.

Due to the more open structure of how the exam seemed to be done in the English exam, we discussed on the possibility of presenting our topics in a different way than how we did it in Malay (which was similar to the individual component where we presented our ideas and the evaluator guided our conversation further). After considering a few options, we decided to present it as a conversation where we would act as if we really were trying to decide on where to go for the holidays.

The topic that we were given was ‘Holiday destination’ and we were given four different places to choose from. We threw around various ideas on how to conduct it and decided that we should all give our arguments on why we wanted to go to our chosen destinations. At the end, the last presenter would give a persuasive argument that convinces the other two to change their minds.

We also decided that the best way for us to present our topic was, each of us talk about something that we can relate to, much like how I decided on Jackie Chan because I could talk about martial arts. Anisah, the animal lover, decided to talk about Rantau Abang with its turtles and how important it is to return to nature. Aeshah, our resident historian, chose Malacca and took a historical approach. Based on these two arguments, I picked Cameron Highlands as my argument, and the final choice, as it is somewhat far from the city and it has an interesting history with the British colonials. I also added a few other things that was aimed at convincing them on why Cameron Highlands is the best destination.

Once we have decided on what to do, each of us develop our own notes on what we are going to say. My writing for the group presentation was a lot more ‘script-focused’ mostly because I wanted to use a lot of imagery (when you try to paint a picture with words) with a mix of metaphors to add more conviction and make it sound more exciting. One of my favourite lines was something close to this:

“Imagine, you are walking up a hill with a basket full of freshly picked strawberries. The cool breeze is tugging at your skirts and tickling your ears. All around you, the trees show you nothing but nature. And at night, you could look up into a dark, starlit sky and watch a meteor shower, each of them falling like fire raining in the sky.”

Obviously, it’s still tricky to remember everything word for word within the time allocated so I was focusing on memorising the order of how I would be saying them (e.g., Daytime: big picture, zooming into senses. Nighttime: country sky, meteor shower, metaphor) and arrange the actual words as I go. I also kept in mind several specific words that I wanted to use so I can show my level of proficiency (but I ended up forgetting half of them and finding different ones as I was speaking).

After we each had with our separate arguments, we tested them out and wrote the final dialogue where my sisters expressed their agreement and what is it about Cameron Highlands that appeals to them. I believe Aeshah talked about how lovely the ambience would be for a retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life. Finally, we tested it out one last time and after that, each of us retreated back into our separate places to absorb our lines.

Group component – Test

By this time, the evaluators had already figured out that we were all sisters so they were amused when we came in as a group. The table was arranged so that we would all sit in a circle with the evaluators sitting on one side and the three of us having one side each, which made our conversation style plan seem more natural. I asked the evaluator if we could simply talk as if we were really discussing it in real life. She said that as long as we’re talking and keeping the ball rolling, anything goes.

We kept our script away from grammatically incorrect English (this includes the use of slang) but we do keep the conversation relaxed and casual so it could have been something you watch on a TV show (albeit, a rather verbose one) or something you may hear if you walk upon the three of us talking. There was lots of turn taking and passing of dialogue but it could basically be divided into two sections; the first being the presentation of ideas and the second being everyone basically going “Oh, that actually does sound lovely!”.

After we were done, we turned to the evaluators and nodded, indicating that we were done and that was it. We weren’t given any questions after that and I’m not sure if it was because we were already taking too much time with our little sketch, or if it was because we were having a conversation and questions would feel a bit out of place, or if it was simply due to the format of the English group test, compared to the individual test or even the Malay group test (which I would talk about in a different post).

Final takes

Of course, this is simply my own personal experience and it may not be the same everywhere but I hope that this would give you a little idea on what would be going on for you when your turn comes. For the 2020 exam, I’m guessing group exams may be a bit different (it is unlikely that you would be sitting in a small circle with social distancing being part of the SOP) but I don’t think it would change that much.

If you think all these crazy things about metaphors and imageries and words you haven’t heard of, don’t be. I have already sat for the A Level English Language exam prior to taking my SPM (it’s a long story) and my proficiency (my ability to use the language) in English is very good and so are my sisters’ as we are brought up bilingual. I understand that it isn’t the case for everyone and I don’t think ULKCP goes that hard on people.

However, what is important for you is that you should try to show your best based on your level of proficiency.

From my understanding of it, there will be marks for grammar, for fluency and for vocabulary and the correct use of words (on top of other things) so whichever it is that you’re strongest at, try to go for that while keeping in mind these other aspects so you wouldn’t lose marks on those.

With all of that in mind:

  • If you don’t know any fancy words, then it’s better to make sure that words that you already know are accurate.
  • Practice your conversational grammar so you don’t just know them when you write.
  • Try to lead the conversation towards an area that you are strong at.
  • Be prepared for questions that may try to address your weakness and see if you can lead it back to somewhere you feel safe. For example, if you always make a mistake when it comes to he or she, try to talk more about yourself in relation to the person so you would use a lot more ‘I’.

And if you mess up on one of the components, don’t worry about it! The two components are basically two unconnected test sessions and they would take your best score from the two. So if you scored 18 on your individual test and 24 on your group test (because you work better when you have a dialogue rather than talking by yourself), the score that would be counted for your SPM is 24.

I’ll be writing on the Malay ULKCP experience next (which, for me, was a lot scarier). If you have your own experience that you wish to share in the comment section down below, feel free to do so. If you have any question regarding my experience and how that may relate to your test, you could also ask me that and I would try to help you if I can as well.

I hope this lengthy string of words would help you and good luck in your oral exams!

Emotion and Intention

An act is a decision made
As each intent is a choice

Everything I do is an active action
Not a reaction dictated by law

The responsibility rests on me
The consequence is of my doing

I decide on my conduct
I blame no other for my fortune

One lesson that I remember and treasure from my dear father was the importance of intention. Compared to his other reminders, it’s not often that he told me to ‘jaga niat’ (be sure of your intention) but it is something that resonated with me even as an impetuous teenager.

Frustration and impatience are two of my weakness that often lead me to do things that I would seriously question retrospectively. Every now and then I like to sit down and think about cause and effect, sometimes pertaining to my own thoughts and action. And most of the things that I do that I feel ashamed to admit would stem from a sense of long harboured frustration and a general sense of impatience at the way things unfold.

Have you ever done something that you don’t particularly feel good about, big or small, if you strip all the context surrounding it? Perhaps you heard your mother calling for you but you ignored it, just this once, because she had believed in your brother in an argument and punished you unfairly? Or perhaps you throw out that reusable plastic bag because everyone else is throwing them anyway and your single action means nothing in the large scheme of things? Or maybe you use your authority over someone, who you believe have hurt you, to make them suffer the same pain you do?

Looking in from the wider perspective without actually living in the same body and mind, all of these reasons may sound petty or insufficient. However, when your heart is full of the emotion at the injustice thrown in your face or when your head is too full of thoughts that you can’t be bothered to pay attention to small inconveniences, a lot of options that seemed unthinkable before, now seems absolutely justified.

There are also times when my frustration and impatience can manifest into apathy, fear or lethargy. I would be lying if I say that I never look back at the things that I have loved and lost and, not knowing how to deal with it, I would shut that part of me down and refuse to do anything related to it. Or even look at daunting tasks ahead and thought that had the past been different, things would be a lot easier; and then have it drain all my energy.

It is during these times that I am most vulnerable to follow the whispers of indignation and begin to blur the lines between emotion and action.

Your actions are always preceded by intention and yes, more often than not, it is emotion that guides said intention but guide is all it does. It is your ‘Aql, your sense of reason, that sets the intention. And although some of us are born with a stronger reign over our emotions, every sane person has been blessed with the gift of reasoning – every single one.

I am far, far from being the kind of person I hope to be but Insya Allah, this little reminder would help me to remember the responsibility that I have over my actions, my intentions and my thoughts.

Eczema And My Right Hand


My right hand, two days after my last SPM paper – November, 2019. Sometimes an outbreak can happen when you really need to use your hand and there’s nothing you could do about it but to trudge on.

Like the majority of people in the world, I am right-handed. This means that my right hand is my dominant hand, the hand that steadily pours water from a large jug, the hand that holds the broom when I sweep the floor, the hand that reaches out to turn the knob whenever I reach a closed door. I’ve trained my right hand to do so many tricks, big and small, ever since I was old enough to grip an item in my hand that I can now perform a variety of them without a conscious thought. I can write my name without pondering over the shape of an ‘A’ or cut vegetables without wondering how to hold a knife.

And because being right-handed is the norm, there had never been a need for me to learn otherwise. I wasn’t taught to write, use a saw or open jars with my left hand. And I would have been perfectly fine not knowing how to if I didn’t develop dyshidrotic eczema on my right hand.

Dyshidrotic eczema is a skin condition where itchy, and sometimes painful, blisters develop on your palms, fingers, and/ or the soles of your feet, usually for around two to four weeks. Often, the skin could swell or dry out and crust over which makes it vulnerable to cracking, even tearing the skin altogether into a cut. I would have to constantly keep my fingers slightly curled or I might accidentally stretch it too far and tear something. At times, the wound or the blisters could get infected and that could increase the duration of a flare up. Sometimes you could have a number of flare ups in a row and you end up having it for a few months straight.

I would consider mine to be comparatively less intrusive as mine is limited to the fingers of my right hand, and very rarely, the base of my palm. My left hand and feet are completely free of it and I don’t have to worry about not being able to walk or unable to hold anything at all. At the same time, whenever my dyshidrotic eczema flares up, I would rekindle my admiration towards ambidextrous people, those who, either by force or by choice, have developed the ability to do a wide range of actions on both hands.

One thing that I’ve never noticed until I had my first outbreak in my mid teens, was how much I completely relied on my right hand. It is only when I am forced to perform the simple everyday task with my left hand, would I realise how strong, dextrous and well coordinated my right hand is. I could sweep the floor of the whole house and the only complaint I’ll make is how much I dislike sweeping but when I have to do it with my left hand, the dining area is enough to make my wrist feels like I’ve just returned from a workout. Wiping the table takes twice as long or I’ll miss patches of splashed soup and dried rice. And I wouldn’t even think about which hand I’m using to twist a jar cover open until I’ve split another thick, hard and crusted skin.

When I was younger, I had a strange need to be (what I thought as) independent, flexible and versatile. I wanted to be able to fully function on my own even if I am limited by circumstances or if things were to change. I would train myself to do odd things like carrying heavy things to and fro, turning the door knob with my toes without spilling the filled mug in each hand or placing a number of objects precariously over my head as I walk around with my hands full. I wanted to be the epitome of a jack of all trades to the most extreme level I could take it for the sake of independence, should I be forced into such a position where I only had myself to rely on.

And yet, I thought of big things like not being able to use both hands or not having anyone stronger to help me lift things up. I didn’t think about the completely natural way I whip air into my eggs for a baking project, dig a large hole with a trowel in my garden or gently pouring compost tea out of a bucket and how utterly useless my left hand is in such tasks.

And the thought of my naïve worries and attempts is frustrating, amusing , humbling and illuminating all at the same time.

Because, really, no matter how hard we try to cover all of our weaknesses, we’ll always be limited in some way or fashion in some aspects of our life. It is simply our nature as humans to be limited. It doesn’t mean that we should just give up and say “I just can’t” but we also don’t have to scramble about higgledy-piggledy trying to do the impossible. We should just take a step back from all the messier parts of life and really consider what matters–how we should develop our strength to support it and work around our weakness as to not damage it. And then carefully and mindfully, try all we could to reach our end goal while appreciating the gifts we are blessed with, even we can’t really see them.

Some people say that there is no light without darkness. I don’t fully agree with that but as a once avid stargazer, I do know that it is only in darkness we could see the stars. When the sun’s blazing rays stretch from horizon to horizon, it is impossible to catch even a glimpse of the little diamonds in the sky. We know that they are still there like we know that gravity would pull us down when we jump but it’s only when night comes and the city lights dim that we pull back the curtains and gasp at the beauty of a star speckled sky.

As for me, I still truly admire anyone who has taken the time and effort to switch back and forth between two hands but I still am very, very grateful for the amazing things my right hand can pull of and the tiny amount of work my left hand could manage. And whenever another round of blisters start popping up, I’ll try to take it as a reminder and a prompt to discover all the wonders I’ve been blessed with and praise Allah with a heart full of gratefulness.

And just try not to be too upset when my finger burns and I have to sweep the floor again.

My Path Into Literary Nonfiction

Literary nonfiction, also called creative nonfiction, is a type of writing where one uses literary techniques to depict real life events. Basically, you’re writing something that really happened in the same way you would write a story.

If I am asked to state one writing exercise that has helped me the most in developing my writing, specifically narrative writing, ‘literary nonfiction’ would probably be my pick. While I had always had a knack for writing essays or articles as a kid, my teachers and dear mother were always advising me to stay away from anything fiction — an advice I have never listened to.

Stories are dear to me. The worlds and lives of the imaginary have been my companion even before I could read. As a child, I used to stay up late in bed, reading under my blankets past my bedtime. Like most young bookworms, one of my biggest dreams back then was to become a novelist and produce my own work of fiction someday. While my own classmates enjoyed reading my little story snippets, I did not get the recognition of being a writing prodigy from those whose opinions I value. It did frustrate me but I wasn’t about to simply turn back and give up.

With determination bordering on stubbornness, I continued to work on my stories, though never finishing any long form project of my own. When I had some time to spare, you might find me hidden behind doors or locked inside my room, just scribbling a few paragraphs down. Most of them are too short to be even considered a decent short story and reading back now, almost all of them were terrible literary work.

My poor mother tried to teach me how to write descriptive writing. She would tell me again and again the story of how her own English high school teacher, had asked her students to describe an ocean and the only adjective they could think of was ‘blue’. My mother then continued by explaining how vividly her teacher had described the ocean. Somehow, the lessons did not reach me as my idea of description only extended to the most basic of forms and I colour in the rest with pure imagination.

I had an overactive imagination as a child (I probably still do), and before I could dissect my own emotions and experience in depth, I never needed an abundance of words to truly experience something. Whatever the story doesn’t expressly say, I fill in with my own imagination and ideas.

It also did not help that I was a bit of a dreamy child, prone to daydreaming when an idea strikes and detaching myself from the real world around me. And whenever I look back to a memory of an event, I rarely have crystal clear images of what happened. Rather, I remember the ambience and my own feelings and thoughts as the events unfold; things that most books for children do not express in detail.

My first introduction to writing truths with literary techniques was through Awang Goneng’s book ‘Growing Up in Trengganu’. Having been trained by my mother in public speaking and the importance of using emphatic intonation, I was forced to really inspect the words I was repeating again and again to express them as authentically as possible. My favourite chapter was ‘Nasi On The Apor’ with its life-like imagery that did not simply recreate the sentiments of the moment, but awakened all of my senses — something quite new to me. Despite having to spend so much time repeating the same words, it became a joy instead of a chore to revisit Mak Som as her fingers danced among the many ingredients that constitutes a ‘nasi dagang’ with the fragrant steam curling around her.

The book itself was a collection of sights and memories from an age long gone, the era of my parents’ childhood back in their homestate ‘Trengganu’. Most of the passages would fit descriptive writing instead of a narrative one but now I understood the lesson my mother tried to teach. And being a story lover by heart, it did not take me long to take Little Women’s Jo’s advice to heart: “Write about what you know” — and what do I know more than the tales that of my own life?

So I began writing journal entries with a newbie’s idea of a literary flair but something interesting began to happen without me noticing. Being a dreamy, sentimental young teenager means that I had more than enough emotions bubbling within me especially in these situations I thought worthy enough to be forever locked in ink.

Instead of having to create unlikely scenarios and odd afterthoughts to add drama to a story that has no direction, I know deep within why the story matters to me. I know the exact direction towards which I wish to lead my readers and the message I wish to embed within the tale because they are the reason why the event matters so much to me.

I unconsciously began to hone the ability to pick the parts that serve the larger narrative and that had improved my stories tenfold. It may still appear and feel like a story written like a naïve kid, but it’s a kid who writes to make a statement instead of one who doesn’t really know why she’s saying anything.

So if you have a problem with creating appropriate dramatic tension in your writing despite having lots of potential within, try looking back into a recent but particularly poignant moment of your life and see what you could come up with. Don’t try to make it the best work ever written but a photograph in words that captures all of your dizzying highs and lows. Be open, be honest and be authentic.

It’s a long process that requires repetition as all exercises do but you’ll may be surprised at the words you pen down when you embark on your own journey into literary nonfiction.

Why Do Kids Put Beans Up Their Noses? A Thought on Impulse and Introspection

It is a widely known fact that if you tell a child not to put beans up their nose, almost without fail, they will come running back to you in pain because now they have a bean stuck inside their nose. It is something to lament about when discussing the frustrating trials of childrearing or to be laughed about when reflecting on how ridiculous we all once were when we were young. Despite how readily we accept it, we rarely take the mental effort to ride down their train of thought a little deeper and really ponder on why we do it.

I personally have never put beans or anything up my nose as far as I could recall and I was scared of quite a number of unfamiliar things. My mother often retell us the story of me wailing in fear when a distant cousin tried to give me sweets. However, my father did call me ‘Miss Opposite’ when he discovered that anything forbidden was an object of interest to me, and the way my father trained me not climb up ladders was to tell me to climb one.

I have a pretty clear memory of myself around the age of three or four and being solemnly told by my father not to go anywhere near the flame of a candle. The very moment I found myself out of my parent’s sight, I reached out for the nearest thing I could find and shoved it into the bright, dancing light. Within (what felt like) seconds, the side of the comb that touched the flame began turning black and the tip began to sag. That horrified me enough to immediately throw it out of a window and decided never to touch fire again.

Nevertheless, what interests me most about the memory now is that I remembered pretty well the line of thoughts that motivated me into doing what I did; and one thing they had in common was the thirst to know something that I clearly do not. Why was I told not to play with flames? What will happen if I do? Why are candles always put on high places? What does it feel like to touch a fire? And my curiousity was peaked when it was blended with the thrill and indignation of the forbidden.

However, at the same time, I was too young to be truly aware of why I do the things I do and if my parents were to find out (they somehow didn’t) and ask me why did I play with fire when I was told not to, I may honestly answer ‘I don’t know’. My mother’s reminder ‘think before you do something’ had been ringing in my ears ever since I could remember but I was a lot older before I truly understood what it even meant, and that was years before I understood the wisdom behind it and somewhat tried to act on it. I just acted on automatic and it just happened to be fuelled by wonder and a self-righteous belief that I could do anything.

Of course, it isn’t the same for all children. While an unquenchable thirst for information and experience is common in a lot of children, some children are quicker to break rules because they simply wanted a reaction from the people who told them not to. Other quieter kids may surprise you when they suddenly ignore an unbreakable law; simply because they feel like they understand the wisdom behind all forbidden acts except for this particular one, and see it unnecessary to obey. On the other hand, some children are just oblivious to clearly laid down rules, as they are to a lot of on-goings of the world around them, since they view things from a different perspective.

But what is true for the majority of them is that they were mostly unaware of the inner workings of their mind. Introspection is a skill that takes age and wisdom to cultivate and at the age when kids are at their wildest, they were focusing more on observing and experiencing than they are at understanding why they do the things they do.

And to be fair, as wise as we all claim to be, we are still in the mercy of our ‘automated’ self to various degrees. Those of us with a better ability to introspect, either by nature or by practicing mindfulness, may have stronger awareness of the purpose behind their actions but for the most of us, we rely on habits when running our regular everyday lives. We don’t think about why we decide to chew every morsel of meal we feed ourselves or the why we hold pens in the way we do. That’s why watching your step is as good an advice to a toddler as it is to an adult.

Even at times when we are fuelled by emotions, most of us are rarely aware by the state and cause of our emotions and we simply act without consciously making the decision to bend to our sentiments. We are often more aware of our conscious drive and purpose and use that as an excuse to validate what we do; as sitting down and reflecting upon it may cause that uncomfortable awareness of our cognitive dissonance.

When I myself feel frustrated about the little nuisance that goes on around me, more often than not, I recognise the fact that I feel frustrated but I would also say that I have things under control. For instance, it feels wrong to be angry at your friend who had to miss your monthly meet-up, which you had been looking forward to all week, due to an impromptu meeting.

However, when night comes and I have time to reflect, I realised that all of the misfortune I had throughout the day are simply daily occurrences that somehow takes more attention. It is just that today, I could not blame my friend for the cancellation as it wasn’t her fault. And without being aware of it, I had pinned my anger to everything else that I could just so I could release the pressure that I had bottled up inside.

Like the kid who didn’t know why she thrusted the comb into the flame, I wasn’t aware of the actual cause to why I was angry at the stranger who accidentally bumped into me as we were boarding the train. I simply was.

And unless we want to be like the kids who put beans up their noses, we have to try a little harder to really ask ourselves why we make the decisions we do and what do we really want to make out of our lives. If we don’t have control over our own ‘mature’ impulses, it’s going to be quite an ordeal to teach our own children the lesson that would last them a lifetime.

My Tinking Philosophy


Every knitter tinks at least once in their life. Some people, like my sister, are more careful and conscious when knitting and they could finish a good number of tink-less projects. I, on the other hand, spend far too much time tinking that I would like to admit.

Tinking in terms of knitting is basically ‘un-knit-ting’, removing the stitches you have lovingly tucked onto your needle because of a mistake (it is knit written backwards). Sometimes you miscount your stitches and realise that you should have purled instead of knitted or maybe you’re repeating the pattern for a particular row when you should have move on to the next step.

The most frustrating thing about tinking for me is that I am not a fast knitter and having to tink means that I am negating those precious minutes I spent wrapping my needle with yarns. It’s especially dejecting when I’m in the middle of a cable stitch, which takes even longer as I slip stitches onto a different needle or when I did not realise my mistake until I’m already a number of rows down. In my previous project, I have already done a cast off before I realised that I dropped a few stitches a number of rows down and if I don’t fix it, the whole rose could unravel.

It is not a secret that I am a generally careless person. I’ve sent in Maths homework where I got all the answers wrong because I added instead of subtracted back in my primary school days. I have accidentally poured water from my double boiler into my butter when I was melting it to bake a cake (a feat my mother thought impossible). And although I try to count my stitches and check my work at every row, I still tink at least once in every project, often times more especially in larger work.

However, I also do a lot of pattern-free projects where I experiment and improvise as I go along. With those projects, tinking is pretty much unavoidable as I try different ratios of knits and increase to get a flat circle or where should I make a decrease that would give the finished work a cleaner look. And interestingly, tinking in those projects do not feel like a regretted mistake because for every row I have to tink, I am learning something new.

When following a pattern, all I do is making sure that I get my work done exactly as the instructions are written so I would end up with the same product. A mistake is a problem that I would have to fix, a delay that I would have to extend. So my mind is focused on perfection, on keeping count on the stitches and rows, on making sure that I do a slip slip knit and not a knit two together, and so on.

When I am starting fresh from the start, I have no guide to tell me what to do, no pictures to give me an expectation. Every single stitch I make is a trial run and there is no wrong step because everything I do would produce a particular effect that one day I may put into good use. I rarely find myself getting disappointed over a failure because there is absolutely nothing to fail. Every knit is an opportunity and every purl teaches a lesson.

This dichotomy exists in other interests in my life too. My love for some areas in Mathematics is often hampered by the need to answer questions accurately and quickly in a cold and uncompromising exam setting. I enjoy trying out Maths puzzles even though I couldn’t solve most of them because each one of them could open my mind to a new way of thought that I hadn’t even considered before. When someone explain to me the answer of a geometry question I got completely stumped on and pointed out the relationship of different angles that I haven’t noticed, it’s like learning a new word in a different language or learn something about a culture I never knew existed.

However life does demand a certain amount of ‘perfection’. We don’t pat a faulty traffic light and tell it ‘That’s okay, you tried your best”, when it caused a massive pile up that took away lives. We don’t pardon a surgeon who mistook an artery for a vein and say “You’ll get it right next time!”. We don’t give the engineer whose mismanagement caused a radioactive disaster another project to supervise because everyone makes mistakes. We don’t do all that because the consequences of such mistakes are catastrophic and must be avoided at all costs.

At the same time, that faulty traffic light might shed light on human psychology and how we place trust on certain cues even though we are otherwise capable of watching the traffic ourselves. The surgeon’s fumble could enlighten us on the particular weakness of medical machinery and the engineer’s oversight illuminated flaws on the current plant design that might have otherwise be used elsewhere throughout the world. And if all of these mistakes are hidden behind closed doors, these lessons could never be learnt.

Mistakes, like most things in life, comes with a bit of good and a bit of bad and the severity of either would depend on the particular situation. They should be avoided, of course, but when one does occur, it shouldn’t be treated like a complete loss. We’re always offered lessons wherever we go and whatever we do and at every turn the worst thing that you could do is say “That’s it,” and give up–because when you do, you will close your eyes and your mind to something new and beautiful that was crafted just for you.

And so whether it’s the thousandth time I drop my stitch or get a lumpy hexagon instead of a flat circle or deface the stockinette stitch with a big ugly purl, I’ll still tink my way back and try to see what the lesson might be before moving on and keep my fingers knitting.

A Lesson From A Tree

I stood by my herb bed and looked up. The moringa tree that I’ve moved there two years ago was now more than twice my height, a testament to the length of time I had neglected my garden. What used to be a row of chili, eggplants, lemon grass and various smaller herbs was now a thick mass of ‘kadok’ and ‘belalai gajah’. Lemon grass leaves both dead and alive were tumbling everywhere like a wild mess of tangled hair. Amongst them were vines, which I do not recognise, climbing whatever they could grasp and pulling them down with their weight.

And of course, there was the moringa tree, towering over the whole place like a misplaced giant among dwarves. The thick and sturdy trunk stretched up into the sky to where I couldn’t reach if I wanted to fetch some of its leaves. Moringas are not hard to care for once they’ve gotten themselves securely rooted. They could withstand the lack of water when I forget to give them their drink so unlike many of the other plants that did not survive my absence, my moringas persevered.

In the past, I would trim down my trees at least once a year to allow for an easier harvest and to avoid having its roots digging in too deep so I could easily move them around. However, with my exams taking place last year and my months-long eczema breakout, my garden was slowly being transformed into a mini forest and as the number of days grow, so did the difficulty of the restoration project. And instead of taking the sensible and rational route of early intervention, I let the tides of sorrow crept onto me.

One of my biggest frustrations is how passionately I launch myself into things that I truly love and yet in the end, they somehow die away into nothingness. Some of them happen because of chances and circumstances but many, many more are lost by my own hands, either by neglect, fear, frustration or lethargy. Often times I find myself letting my own bitterness contaminate the sweet taste of pure fervor, and the satisfying scent that accompanies the exhaustion after a day’s work had soured into a musty odour of fatigue. Little by little, I lost sight of the sparkles that comes with tiny victories and saw only the mountains I have yet to climb–and I couldn’t find it within me to take another step.

However, every now and then my zeal would return and at a whim, I would pack my backpack and step back out into the blizzard with the intense wish to gain back all that I have lost. The medals in my trophy cabinet back at home assured me that I have done it before and I could do it again–but the assurance last only for a moment. Fixing a mistake is often harder than starting anew and while you may lose the height of your skills, the memories of them stay, mocking you in your face. It doesn’t take long for me to doubt everything that I do and sometimes everything that I am; because if this present me is nothing like the person I was–then who am I?

But for now, I pushed all of those thoughts from my head and I had one clear objective. This tree is too big for my herb bed and I am going to move it to a more suitable home,  some place where it would be given all the opportunity to grow and bring us the first of the much loved drumstick fruit. I sawed the tree down to a manageable height and kept the leaves for my mother. I pulled the mess of ‘kadok’ and ‘belalai gajah’ for our ‘ulam’ until there is nothing on the ground but the trunk of the tree and the roots beneath. And with a rusty trowel in one hand, I thrusted it into the Earth and started digging.

As it is my habit when I work in the garden, I began talking to the plant, apologising for my neglect and telling it that I am trying to get back into the swing. I told it about how the last time I felt I couldn’t do something turned out okay in the end and although I don’t really feel it, I think it’s a sign that I need to pick myself up and move on. I thanked it for waiting for me even though I don’t deserve it. The tree never said much but it lets me talk nevertheless.

The day was not hot. The sun hid behind clouds and our mango tree provided me a lovely shade from the dimmed sun rays. Nonetheless, my lack of physical activities in the recent months had started to make itself known. Although the moisture within the soil couldn’t be more perfect (not too dry and not too wet), I started to feel tired after going past half a foot down. It didn’t help that the deeper I go, the harder it was to navigate through the root and avoid the sharp edges of the sides of the bed which was covered in tiny stones. So I grasped the trunk tightly in my arms and gave it a gentle but strong tug. It didn’t give.

Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. I know that, I whispered, as I continued to dig. Say what I want about my own inner conflict, I made the decision to leave my garden and I have to make amends.

But, my dearest, my sweet, could you please help me out a bit?

I paused to look up at its leaves. The little green circles danced prettily as the wind blew, breaking its perfect mosaic for but a few moments. No, I gulped and pressed on. No, the tree had done more than I had done. It too had its struggle when the ground was dry and the moths fly by. I wasn’t the only lonely one. 

Relationships go both ways, do they not? But love, would you please, please lend me a bit of a hand?

The trunk did not answer.

Ah, you are just as stone hearted as I. Then so be it.

My hands are now red and a few of the cracks on my fingers which were about to heal had burst back open as they pressed on the hard edge of my trowel. The small bits of concrete jutting out from the inside of the bed are scratching me every other minute and the roots showed now signs of tapering off. My back was aching and I couldn’t find a comfortable position. I had forgotten how to whisper, or the fact that I have neighbours, and they could probably hear me having a full blown one-sided argument with a tree.

My child, the reason why I couldn’t go out was because of my eczema. Well, partly anyway. And if you don’t make way any time soon, I’m going to hurt it and that could cause another outbreak. Yes, patience, I know. I am trying to be patient but patience would not stop my hand from breaking. Do you want me to just saw your roots off?

The trunk stared me down.

Fine. Fine. Fine. You were patient, I will be patient too.

I groaned and went back in with the thinnest of patience. My hand was now shaking with a mix of exhaustion and frustration. I was covered in soil from head to toe and I no longer cared about keeping my hand safe. I stabbed the trowel into the ground again and again and again and the dirt that got into the cracks of my skin were now practically cemented with sweat and bits of blood. I was now a foot in from when I started. I placed my hand between the two main roots and tugged with all my might but I couldn’t move it even a bit. And I was starting to feel like a fool for even trying.

Please, I am trying to be better. I want to be better, I really do but it’s already so hard. Just the idea of it all seems so insurmountable. If I can’t even pull you out, my sweet, what can I do?

The trunk stayed quiet.

I was now desperate. I had done nothing today other than digging this hole and I have nothing to show for it. The sun would be setting soon and the roots showed no sign of thinning. I looked around at my garden in its horrendous state and asked myself if I have anything to show for all that I have done in my life. I just wanted to stop.

Then I paused and looked back at the tree. Something clicked at the back of my head and I eyed it tentatively.

Are you… are you trying to teach me a lesson on perseverance?

I waited for an answer which did not come. I turned to the pile of unearthed soil and back into the hole in the bed. The way I see it, I only have three choices. I could just leave the whole thing be and probably let the tree die now that I’ve upset it so much. I could push all the Earth back in but that would only get me back to where I started.

Or of course, I could keep going. I know that somehow, in the end, I would get to tip of the roots. Even if I have to use a stone as a makeshift shovel, I could theoretically get it done eventually. The tricky circumstances, the need for time and my own doubts are obstacles I need to overcome all my life, whatever the struggle. Whether the problem is restarting a garden, finishing a book draft or just pulling out a tree, I still have to face problems from within and without, and I have to learn to wait.

Okay. Well, I guess I’ll take it then.

With that I went back in, this time quietly, as I reflected on the things that I already know deep inside and even discussed about in my head but which are now being repeated to me. I thought of the many tiny knolls I succeeded to climb because I went on despite the obstacles. Silat routines, NaNoWriMo challenges, artworks, school achievements and public presentations. Even little things that I am proud to have done but never shared because they seem so insignificantly small. But I did them.

And so with the hole nearly two feet deep, I hugged the trunk of the tree, took a deep breath and gave it a sharp tug. Finally it gave way and I had in my hand another medal to add to my cabinet. I grinned at it and thought I could feel it grinning back.

Was my tree really teaching me a lesson on perseverance? You tell me.


Finding The Spark

There is a gas stove that is about my age sitting in our kitchen and it had been faithfully serving us for well over twenty years. As is expected with its age, the stove is hardly perfect. The flame on one of the hobs would simply die out if you try to lower the heat while I haven’t seen the spark of another kicking the gas alight for more than ten years.

The biggest hob is the most troublesome of the functioning three as there are days when the gas simply refuses the light and you need a match to get it started. And if you’re pressed for time or simply lacking on motivation, it’s just too much trouble to hunt for a matchbox or a candle to catch the fire from another hob just to get it started.

And like its peer, I have days when I wake up with a roaring spirit brimming on exuberance and I work on the chores or projects of the day with a singing heart. Ideas after ideas are lighting the bulbs in my head as I pick a few to be my passion projects and label the others as ‘to-be-considered’. Every step is rewarded with a sense of purpose and quiet satisfaction. Every thought is treated as a possibility and I turn the house upside-down with my “let’s do this NOW!”

But sometimes I wake up to a dark, bluish tint as the world is enshrouded in cumulonimbus clouds. Without the sun to light up the flowers in my garden, my eyes catch only the weeds that pop out of nooks and crevices. All around me, I can only see shadows of quenched dreams, failed expeditions and love lost. The knolls I skipped over everyday become imposing mountains that laugh in my face. And the fire, the fire that used to burn so brightly, now fizzles away in the rain.

But just because the knob on the gas stove wouldn’t work, it doesn’t mean that my only choice is to buy my meal. There is always the lighter or the matchstick. There are two more smaller hobs that I could use with a little tweak of the recipe. There’s also the oven and the rice cooker if I’m feeling more adventurous. All I need is a bit of determination.

And although it is harder when the raincloud filter is in my own eyes, it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t do anything simply because it is too dark for me to see. Just because I am blinded to the light, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. Even in the bleakest of nights, we are reminded of the bright sun by the gentle glow it lends to the moon. And with eyes so dark that I forget the images of my own sight, I can still find that spark to relight my fire as long as I have my faith to fuel my heart.