Faizal Abdul Aziz
First Class Honours graduate

Hi Faizal! Congratulations! I heard that you got first class honours and a near perfect GPA. You were on the Dean’s list every semester. You were one of four students across five disciplines who were admitted into the NUS-University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (NUS-UNC Chapel Hill) Joint Degree Programme. You have been awarded many bursaries and scholarships, such as the Ooi Jin Bee Scholarship and the Shaw Foundation Scholarship. Tell me more about the recent awards that you received.

I received two awards – one was the Lee Kuan Yew Gold Medal for being the best student who achieved a Bachelor of Arts in FASS and the other one was the National University of Singapore Geographical Society Gold Model for being the best student in geography in the department. I got them based on my cumulative average points. I think I was just lucky.

Was it difficult to attain this success? A part of it may be luck. But I sense that there is more to it.

I guess so. I would say that when I was doing it, it was difficult. Every semester, I would struggle. But I hate being that person who falls behind in class. I wanted to be the first one to engage with the subject matter. So in class, whenever the professors asked us to participate, I could not stand it when no one speaks. I would always want to speak. I always put myself out there from the onset. I believe that, if I don’t talk in the first 5 to ten minutes of the class, I won’t speak for the rest of the class. That’s what I noticed. So I would push myself to engage and participate.

Do you do all your readings then?

Of course that meant that I had to do my readings before hand. However, it’s really impossible to complete the readings. So I had a strategy – I didn’t really work hard but I made sure that I worked smart. I tried to get into the psyche of the prof. I tried to see how the prof works and give back what the prof wants. I feel that university, or maybe education in general, is about understanding the person who is marking your work. Even at work now! It’s very much about understanding your boss. You need to know what they want. Then, you can work backwards.

I do a lot of background checks. If the prof has an interest in a certain subject matter and his area of research is focused on a particular region, I try to concentrate on those readings. For the other readings, I would just focus on the start and end and try to draw conclusions. From year 1 to 4, I realized that the readings and subject matters were repeating themselves. This repetition strengthened my knowledge. Whenever I wanted to learn something, I made sure that I knew it well so that I could apply this to whatever projects that I did.

Let’s say, in year 1 I studied about Indonesia. So in Year 2, when I had a project about transportation, I drew on the resources in year 1 and focused on transportation in Indonesia. And then in year 3, when the prof wanted us to talk about family, I talked about the culture in Indonesia and how they perceive family. You get what I mean? You start with the base and just keep building on it. If you observe my projects throughout my school years, there is consistency even across modules. For example, I had a theatre studies module and a geography module. They are completely different, right? But I tried to connect them together. In year 3, I studied about how a particular movie was very post-modernist in its approach. In year 4, I studied about post-modernism in geography. As a result, the style of my geography essay followed the style of the film; it was about pushing boundaries and puncturing expectations, exactly what post-modernism is about. That’s how I studied.

That’s cool! How about year one then? What pool of resources could you base your papers on?

-grin- I drew upon my other experiences. Before I entered uni, I was working in retail. In year 1, one of the topics was on globalization. So I did research on the globalization of this retail shop where I worked. I always use my personal experiences. If you already have an interest in it, you would have more passion about it. I love exploring such creative angles. I don’t want to use examples that were given in lecture notes. 400 other students would be using them, right? I would go on YouTube to find examples and use them instead.

One of my geography modules was about landscapes in Singapore. When you mention landscapes, you’d think about the physical landscapes. People talked about how the urban landscape has changed. That’s very predictable. I am very unconventional. I don’t want to conform. I think that’s very boring. So I convinced my group mates to explore something more abstract – the Singapore landscape from the point of view of how National Day songs have changed over time. In the 1960s, they were about progress and industrialization. As you move forward, it’s all about harmony and multiculturalism. The songs and music videos show how our social fabric, which is a kind of landscape, has changed over time. I’m not saying this strategy is correct or that it’s necessarily a good thing. But it’s something that has been working for me. That’s why I stick to it.

What were your greatest challenges in school?

In primary school and secondary school, I was in madrasah (Islamic religious school). The challenge then was to be able to hafal (memorize) and understand. The challenge was to know all your stuff despite the heavy work load. That trained me for the years to come. I can retain information better. I’m used to making connections to better memorize things. It helps me even now. I just have to tap on the skills I learnt back then.

For a while, I wanted to be an Ustaz (religious teacher). But then I felt that it wasn’t for me. I wanted to switch to a secular secondary school but they told me that I would have to be put in Normal Technical. I was already behind everyone else because I was from madrasah. I couldn’t waste more time taking N’ levels. So I decided to take O’ levels as a private candidate. I took 9 subjects because I was so afraid that I wouldn’t be able to make it.

Somehow, I managed to get into a JC. Back then, I hardly spoke English. I only spoke broken English during lessons. You know how the teachers would saman (fine) you for speaking English in Malay class in secular schools? Well, it was the same in our English class in madrasah. We all got fined. The only English words we spoke would probably be “Eh teacher” and then we slipped back to Malay. It took super long for me to translate in my head. I think things have changed now in the madrasah. I met someone from my alma mater and was impressed. His English was perfect. But that was a struggle, the language thing. Somehow, I made it. I believe God had a plan for me and helped me sail through it.

Alhamdulillah. Your command of English is excellent now, though! How did that happen?

In JC 1, my thoughts were in Malay. By the time I was in JC2, that had changed. I even spoke to my Malay teacher in English. I think it’s because I was put into an environment where everyone spoke English. I can still speak pasar malay (literally translated as ‘market Malay’, used to refer to the use of the Malay language in an informal way) though.

When I found out that I was the top student, I made sure that I wrote my answers down before speaking. My friends were quite impressed. I even used words like ‘prihatin’. -Laugh- You know, when you see top Malay students on berita and they start speaking in English? The older generation would say, “Melayu tapi Melayu pon tak betol.” They are very ruthless right? I told myself I cannot be like that -laugh- Wait people say, “macam gini melayu jadik top student?”. (Loosely translated to “Is that really the command of the Malay language of a top student?”)

Who did you look up to as a student?

I mostly looked up to my peers. They are real people, not celebrities. They are just like me. If they can do it, why can’t I? When I saw a senior doing very well, I tried to align myself with him. If he studied a certain way, I would imitate it. I visualized what I want to achieve and copied how he achieved it. In secondary school, I hung out with this guy who got first all the time. I always tried to compete with him. Before every exam, I would call him. I would ask him if he had studied yet. I would keep asking him what he studied. That helped.

In uni, I met a girl who did research on Yasmin Ahmad’s play. She got featured in Berita Harian because she won an award. The title of the article was something like ‘Pelajar Melayu Dapat Kepujian Kelas Pertama’ (‘Malay Student gets First Class Honours’). I photocopied the newspaper article and put it up. Every day, I told myself that that’s going to be me. I’m going to get that first class honours. And I did in the end!

Alhamdulillah! Do you see yourself as a role model now?

The thing is that I think of role models as people who have already established themselves. They somehow have this recipe for success. I personally don’t see myself as a role model to anyone. I don’t fit the description of a role model. I don’t encourage people to look up to me. That’s why I was a bit reluctant when the press kept wanting to interview me. I’m like the poster boy; the madrasah boy who crossed over. I understand that you can motivate people that way. But I’m also very scared that people will see it the wrong way. You’re supposed to idealize your prophet and I’m just another human being. The areas that I am good at may not be what you are good at. The areas that you are good at may not be what I am good at. The sad thing is that society only sees what I achieved as something good but not so much for other things. For example, when I attend performances, I really admire people who can play instruments like the piano. But people don’t seem to see the value in this. They’d ask if you’re smart. But that’s a useful skill! You can still achieve a lot of things if people value it.

Any last words?

I think visualizing success really works. When I was taking my O’ levels, my tutor told me to write down my target L1R5. Every week, I would write down all my subjects and write A1 beside alllll of them. A1, A1, A1. If I dig at home, I think I probably still have these stacks of paper somewhere. Allll A1. -laugh- Years later, when I was in the police force, I went to a friend’s house. His mom had all these cut-outs of top students pasted on his mirror. After I saw that, I started my own. A lot of people do this. I think it works. My friend’s mom now have all my photos on the fridge. My friend was like, “Eh I’m so jealous. Even I didn’t make it to my mom’s fridge”. And I made it to her fridge! -laugh-

But still, things that work for me may not work for you. I cling on to this – things shouldn’t be harder than they have to be. Life is not supposed to be hard. You’re supposed to take it easy. If you can do something and it makes you happy, you’re probably doing it right. Of course, you may complain sometimes. But if you wake up and you still feel you want it, then it’s good. Like what Paulo Coelho says – when you want something, the whole universe conspires for you to achieve it. I believe in that.

When you make dua enough, you will always get what is good for you. You may get it in a different form, which you may not realise. I always tell myself, if it’s my rezeki, then I’ll get it. If I don’t, God probably has a reason He didn’t. Because of that, I always feel at ease and happy. So just try everything in your power. You can tawakkal after that. -smile-