ASEAN Scholar Takes a Different Path


I am not quite the typical “brain” of the term brain drain.

I was born and bred in KL. I had a pretty regular childhood, attending a Chinese primary school, and later a public secondary school in my neighbourhood.

I did pretty well in my SPM, and with this I obtained an ASEAN Scholarship from the Education Ministry of Singapore to attend two years of junior college there. This turned out to be my first of many steps venturing beyond the shores of Malaysia.

I was randomly placed in one of the top institutions in Singapore – Raffles Junior College. It was indeed quite humbling to be a small fish in this huge and competitive pond.

In retrospective, the exposure I gained was invaluable. I learned about perspectives, and the skills of a critical mind. I also learned that many truths that I took for granted in Malaysia were not necessarily as black and white as it was portrayed.

Most people assume that getting the ASEAN scholarship is like getting a free ticket on this golden highway to prosperity and success. I knew at the end of my two years that I did not wish to stay in Singapore. There is something rigid and regulated about the way their society functions that I do not seem to fit into. And my young, naïve, “patriotic” self back then refused to even consider permanent residency.

After junior college, I was feeling extremely burnt out. I made a decision to take a gap year.

I had grown up wanting to become a doctor. My grades were not premium enough to compete with my schoolmates for a spot in the National University of Singapore. Even if I managed to squeeze in, the competition for scholarships are even fiercer.

Ironically, I did not qualify for public universities in Malaysia as I “left” for Singapore. The best way for me to afford private medical school, to the tune of half a million Ringgit-Malaysia, was by securing a scholarship, an attempt in which I did not succeed. I could have persevered on with the blessings of my family, but I decided to give up on this dream, so my family would not be stuck with a huge financial burden.

So I spent a year embarking on a few adventures, including a Raleigh expedition to Sabah, and a solo backpacking trip to Nepal. In between, I started working in a local outdoor adventure company called Nomad Adventure.

My job description included leading trips in whitewater rafting, rock climbing and high ropes courses; organizing wilderness adventure races and urban events; facilitating groups ranging from school adventure programs to corporate team building. My office could be Sungai Kampar in Perak this weekend, or Georgetown, Penang the next weekend. The job was dynamic and exciting.

So I made the radical decision to delay university and stay on the job. As far as I was concerned, I was having a lot of fun and learning a lot of practical knowledge that I might not necessarily gain in university. Naturally, this decision was a cause of consternation on one extreme, and jealousy on the other.

Family, teachers and friends debated with me this choice of wasting away my academic potential to “play” at work. Then there were jealous friends stuck in uninspiring routines of university lectures and assignments. But this was a risky move that I have never regretted taking.

After two years of work, I concluded that this was what I wanted to do, and started looking for professional training to become an outdoor instructor. I completed an eight month internship in Outward Bound Australia, culminating in a professional certificate in outdoor recreation and education.

In the last three years, I have since worked as an outdoor educator in Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia and the USA. I have now worked in two separate Outward Bound schools, leading and facilitating wilderness expeditions in remote corners of these countries.

Most recently I completed a summer camp stint in Michigan. I had the opportunity to lead a kayaking expedition in the remote waters of Lake Huron. This experience showed me that outdoor education cuts across countries and culture.

Since September 2012, I have been back in Malaysia. The reasons for my return are practical. For one, working visas are very difficult to obtain, especially in an unconventional profession like mine. Secondly, the harsh reality is that in order to fulfill immigration laws of these countries that offer opportunities in outdoor education, I need a degree. Malaysia ultimately still offers the cheapest tertiary education options.

I am currently in my first semester of an undergraduate Psychology program in a local private university.

Five years ago, I could not have imagined the kind of person that I have become today. It is very hard for me to predict where this journey will lead me, seeing as this is a rarely trodden path. I suppose what I am ultimately looking for is a place that matches my values and gives me the opportunity to fulfill my potential.

Will this be in Malaysia, or someplace else? And so my adventure continues.

Tham Pei Ting, 26, tends to end up on paths less traveled. For the past three years, she has gallivanted across various countries, calling the natural outdoors her home and office as an outdoor education specialist. She is currently attending university in Kuala Lumpur. Click here for a photoblog of her travels. You can reach Pei Ting at [email protected]

5 comments on “ASEAN Scholar Takes a Different Path

  1. Good on you for listening to your heart and withstanding the outside pressure. Your work sounds so much more interesting than your typical accountants or engineers. Good luck with your chosen path!

  2. Selamat Pagi ;-) I admire your drive to follow the non-traditional yet very exciting and enlightening path! If you ever did decide to become an MD one day and follow your original calling, you’ll have a wider and richer array of life experiences to draw from.

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