Make a living, make a change

Oliver Christopher Gomez | The Edge Malaysia

January 08, 2019 12:00 pm +08

A talented young woman gives up a promising career to become a teacher at a rural public school. She quickly realises that she is in over her head when it turns out that many of her students come from broken homes and even lack basic necessities.

Rather than give up and go back to her old job, she rises to the occasion, looking for creative ways to keep her students engaged in class and interested in their studies. Gradually, she chips away at the apathy and hopelessness, convincing the children to come out of their shells. Eventually, she breaks through the poverty, language and cultural barriers and inspires them to participate in an interschool choral speaking competition.

This heartwarming tale is the plot of a 2017 Malaysian-made movie, Adiwiraku, directed by Eric Ong. It is based on the real life story of Cheryl Ann Fernando, who is on the frontlines of national education policymaking today.

In addition to her role as country director of education non-profit Global School Leaders Malaysia, Fernando was recently appointed to a special 13-member committee to review the national education policy. Formed by Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik, the National Education Policy Review Committee will carry out an in-depth review of the country’s education policy.

In 2013, however, Fernando had just walked away from a promising career in the private sector. She made the fateful decision to become a fellow at Teach for Malaysia. The non-governmental organisation (NGO) takes on high-achieving young Malaysians and sends them to teach in rural and disaffected parts of the country.

Fernando spent three years teaching at SMK Pinang Tunggal in Sungai Petani, Kedah. It was here that she realised what hardship meant. It was also here that she saw the tragic consequences of failing to get a handle on one’s finances.

Many of these children come from broken homes. It is part of a vicious cycle that perpetuates poverty in the community. Youngsters get pregnant and have children before they are ready. The children are then exposed to a potentially volatile upbringing because their parents are young, poor and resentful. As the parents do not always live together, the children end up in single-parent households or living with their grandparents.

This scenario is all too familiar to Fernando as a large number of the students in her former school lived in poverty. So much so that the government could not provide assistance to everyone who needed it.

“It was a very humbling series of lessons for me, just to know that these children struggled even to go to the hospital. We would take them to the clinic if they were very sick and we were really involved in their lives,” says Fernando, who affectionately refers to the students as her children.

Many of these young parents lack a sense of priority, she says. “Some of my children, who received the RM100 assistance one day, would come to school the next day and tell me that their parents had used the money to top up their prepaid credit. I used to be so angry about that!

“It is obvious that you need rice, so why on earth would you top up your mobile phone? It got to a point where the school refused to give cash handouts and instead, bought groceries for some of the households. These instances made me realise just how important it is for children to learn about managing their finances.”

Many of the children were deprived of even the most basic childhood experiences. “I had a student who had never tasted Milo. There were others who had never tasted chicken. And yet, these are the things we all take for granted,” Fernando tells Personal Wealth.

She and another Teach for Malaysia fellow, a woman named Constance, initially used their own money to reward their top performing students with treats. She would also try to help families with groceries whenever she could.

Fernando quickly realised that spending her own money was not sustainable. “The school eventually came up with an additional emergency fund and all the teachers would donate between RM50 and RM100 every month. We used the money to help those who were really in need. We would try to get as many children as possible to continue their schooling. Thanks to the emergency fund, we could give them at least one full meal a day,” she says.

One of Fernando’s biggest challenges was convincing her students that they needed to stay in school. But she was always in two minds about this. The children, most of them in their early teens, had to drop out of school because their families needed money.

“It can be quite selfish for me to tell them to continue their education because the fact is, they needed money immediately. But at the same time, I had to convince them that staying in school would give them better opportunities later on in life,” says Fernando.

“Those who dropped out of school would sell scrap metal, pick up odd jobs around the village or work at a burger stall. They would find a way to make ends meet, but it was so hard for them,” she recalls.

Interestingly, it was at her first job in the private sector that she discovered her calling to be an educator. She started out in public relations and during that time, volunteered to give free tuition to refugees at her local church. “I enjoyed PR and still do, but it can be a real challenge working in the industry. The hours are crazy and I used to be so anxious about wanting to finish so I could rush to church in time for my classes,” says Fernando.

“One day, it dawned on me that I was more excited about teaching in church than I was working at my day job. That was around the time Teach for Malaysia started making a name for itself and I decided to apply in 2013.”

She was part of the NGO’s second cohort.

Fighting perceptions

Today, the 33-year-old is every bit the successful millennial and young parent. She has since moved on from Teach for Malaysia, having been appointed country director of the Malaysian chapter of India-based education non-profit Global School Leaders back in 2016. Together with her husband, who works for another education non-profit, the couple have a 14-month-old daughter.

Fernando says there is a perception that working for a non-profit, almost by default, means financial insecurity. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“Look, non-profits do pay their staff. Of course, you do not earn as much as a corporate high flier, but my husband and I draw decent salaries. And really, it is just a matter of prioritising and managing your expenses,” she says.

The couple is just emerging out of their costly first year as parents. Their finances are stabilising because as Fernando puts it, their child no longer needs six diaper changes a day. “But my goodness, day care is so expensive! My daughter goes to a babysitter and that costs at least RM1,000 a month,” she adds.

“Neither of us are particularly spendthrift. We live quite a simple lifestyle. We drive one car and go to places together as much as we can. I think we live like this because we have seen extreme poverty in Malaysia. I know how poor my former students were — we cannot un-see these things.

“In truth, we are not struggling by any means. I have seen difficult upbringings and we are very comfortable by comparison.”

As an added measure to keep expenses in check, Fernando and her husband tend to buy more books for their daughter. “She has just one doll and I sometimes feel bad about it,” she jokes.

“But as a result, my daughter has grown to be very creative in the way she entertains herself,” she adds.

A voracious reader herself, Fernando says she has managed to keep her daughter interested in her books and a small collection of toys, rather than electronics, for now.

Ever the millennial, she regularly uses Instagram. “I do use Instagram, but most of my posts are about my work with the Global School Leaders Malaysia or my daughter because she is so cute!” she quips.

Although Fernando worries about the impact that technology may have on her daughter, she is enthusiastic about the positive effect that it has had on herself. “To be honest, it was technology that first allowed me to talk about my experiences as a Teach for Malaysia fellow [she had a regular column on a local news website]. It was also through the internet that the directors of the movie Adiwiraku found me and decided to make the movie,” she says.

Fernando is also concerned that social media gives young and impressionable users a skewed view of their friends and peers. “Success on social media is so ‘manufactured’. We never see the behind-the-scenes work and we end up feeling discouraged when someone appears to be very successful or popular on social media,” she says.

To keep up with the Joneses, young users end up spending money they do not necessarily have. “I would want young people to ask themselves if they are spending money to create an image of themselves on social media for other people. I think this is a particularly important consideration for young people to have at the back of their mind,” says Fernando.

Wealth and family

Fernando credits her parents for her most formative impressions about money and wealth. Born to a regular, middle-class household in urban Kuala Lumpur, her parents are prudent spenders with big hearts.

“My mother has always been big on charity and helping other people. She is probably the most selfless person I know. She thinks of other people and if someone needs help, she would be there for them,” she says.

“It is just money. You can always make more of it. But helping someone else will always leave the biggest impact,” her mother would tell her.

Her father is one of 13 siblings, so sharing and generosity comes very naturally to him. “My dad always gives money to people who solicit donations in restaurants. Although I did not always know if these solicitations were honest, my dad would give at least RM10,” says Fernando.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she has a very altruistic outlook on wealth. “I have never subscribed to the idea of wealth being purely a material consideration. I think I have always seen it in terms of the positive impact that one creates,” she says.

“What can you do in your own capacity and how many lives can you improve as a result? It is something that I have always thought about.”

There was a point in her life, however, when her finances threatened to go off the rails a little. “I recall when I first started out in my corporate job, I fell into the trap of buying a lot of things for myself. I am a middle child and my parents were very careful with their finances, so my older sister’s clothes, books and so on were passed down to me. I always felt it was unfair,” Fernando recalls.

“Eventually, however, I realised that if I wanted to have a family, I should be more careful with my finances. That was what prompted me to rein in my spending.”

Using technology to teach

Fernando tells Personal Wealth that Global School Leaders Malaysia is breaking new ground in the public school system. “For the last two years, we have been working with the principals of various Sentul-based schools. We provide them with training on how to use technology to improve their management of the school system and to better track the progress of teachers,” she says.

“This model actually started out of the India School Leadership Institute in Delhi. It saw very promising results when young people were empowered to train school principals [in the use of technology for improving educational outcomes]. This was so successful that it decided to bring the programme to Malaysia. I was hired to set up the operations and engage with the government to start running the programme.”

In two short years, Fernando and her small team have already achieved some impressive outcomes. “We have a cohort of 24 schools and about 55 school leaders involved. To be honest, I started the initiative in Malaysia with no expectations at all and the first year was supposed to be a trial run,” she says.

“However, the school principals did very well. It was really encouraging for us that they were very responsive to our workshops and were willing to implement the changes that we suggested.”