YOUTH is wasted on the young, George Bernard Shaw once said. While this may have held true in his time, it certainly does not hold water today. There are plenty of examples that prove young people today are creative and innovative, striving to make positive contributions to society in the best way they know how.
It is worth noting that it is this generation that gave birth to one of the most prolific entrepreneurs of our time, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who made his millions from an idea that was born in his university dorm room. There are many more like him — Chet Pipkin founded computer accessories company Belkin in his parents’ garage and 22-year-olds Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian started social news website Reddit in university. Want to look a little further back? Bill Gates was in high school when he came up with the idea of Microsoft in 1975, while Briton Hadden and Henry Luce were fresh out of university when they created Time magazine in 1923.
These young people saw a gap that needed to be bridged, and then instead of complaining, went ahead and bridged it. This week, Options is looking at a group of Malaysians who think the same way. Rather than harp on what is wrong with the world, they have tried to change things for the better. Some people are lucky enough to be born into greatness, and some people, like these young Malaysians, are luckier — they have had greatness thrust upon them.
Dzameer Dzulkifli and Keeran Sivarajah
Co-founders, Teach for Malaysia
When Dzameer Dzulkifli and Keeran Sivarajah met at PricewaterhouseCoopers, they immediately bonded over a common dream that they shared to one day be a part of an incredible project called Teach for All. A global initiative, its aim is to ensure all children will be able to receive quality education by building a movement of promising future leaders to address education and equity. The duo left their jobs last year to begin Teach for Malaysia, the local chapter of this movement.
Dzameer explains how Teach for Malaysia works. “New teachers are trained for four to five years and are trained in theory, but there is no coach or mentor in the practical part, which you really need in the early stages. If you’re a journalist or an auditor or an accountant, you’ll always have a manager to support and help you. So Teach for Malaysia recruits top graduates who then immerse themselves in the circumstances that school students face, while helping teachers teach, for a period of two years. We are responsible for the whole value chain, right from the selection of these teaching ‘assistants’ to training them and supporting them while they are in the schools.”
Teach for Malaysia is approved by the Ministry of Education and has been identified in the 10th Malaysia Plan as a key human capital initiative. “There are 50 future leaders who have undergone training and who are now placed in 17 schools across KL, Selangor and Negri Sembilan. This group of 50 were selected from 869 applicants, including graduates from some of the best universities in the world,” Keeran says. These teaching assistants, who would have given up high-paying jobs in the corporate sector for the duration of the programme, are paid a salary by the Ministry of Education.
Although just a few months in, the programme has already begun to bear fruit. Exam results have markedly improved, students are more engaged and parents have also begun to get involved. Keeran is also very proud of the partnerships that Teach for Malaysia has managed to create.
“We’ve worked very closely with the Ministry of Education, we’ve secured funding from them and we’ve secured operational alignment,” he says proudly. “We’ve also received significant financial and professional support from some of the biggest private sector organisations in the country — Khazanah and YTL are huge supporters, while many other companies have also helped out in different ways. Since we are funded by both the government and the private sector, it’s a public-private partnership model and win-win situation for all. Companies love getting involved because of the opportunities it gives their staff, and our ‘teachers’ are like a bridge between the private sector and the teaching profession.”
Dzameer and Keeran have also given up their own high-paying jobs to do this, and I ask them what made them take the plunge. “When a revolution knocks on your door, it’s so hard to say no,” Dzameer says. “You don’t have to do something like the Arab Spring to make a difference — anything that matters, matters.”
Special Officer to Datuk Seri Idris Jala, Prime Minister’s Department
When Izhar Moslim was a university student and chairing Kelab Umno for Australia and New Zealand, he realised one important thing — its members tended to complain an awful lot. Few people, he noticed, were motivated to actually do something. Mostly, they tended to find fault with everything that was wrong with the country, as much as they loved it and wanted to come home.
It was on his final journey back to Malaysia that Izhar realised he needed to find a way to do something for the community, and that too in a way that truly mattered. His search did not take long. “When I heard about Pemandu [Performance Management and Delivery Unit] and Datuk Seri Idris Jala, I knew this was it and where I wanted to be. What Datuk Seri is trying to do… it appealed to me immediately. It’s all about doing, about specific programmes — that’s what I want.”
While waiting for his application to work in Pemandu to be processed — his was among 5,000 — Izhar got a job in Accenture. When he left it to join Pemandu, there was some resistance as his parents couldn’t understand why the bright young man would take a 30% pay cut to move from the private sector to the government. “I told them I wanted to contribute to my country. This is how I felt I could do it,” Izhar says proudly.
Two years on, he couldn’t be prouder of what Pemandu has achieved. “If you look at the GTP [Government Transformation Programme], we’ve seen improvements in reducing crime, bettering urban public transport, reducing corruption, improving rural infrastructure, helping low-income households and improving educational standards. In terms of the economy, you can see that the global economic scene is tough but all the economic indicators are encouraging. It’s been the result of a lot of hard work, not just by us — we are just a catalyst. The people doing the delivering are the hardworking people in the government and in the private sector.”
When Izhar joined Pemandu two years ago, the then 26-year-old was the second youngest there among a staff force of 30, which today stands at 100. While he is proud of the achievements that have been made, Izhar is well aware that the journey is far from over. “Yes, we have made a lot of difference,” he says optimistically. “But there’s still a lot to be done. Exciting times ahead, for sure.”
Chew Hoong Ling
Organ donation activist, founder of Voice of Women
Chew Hoong Ling has an interesting résumé — when she isn’t being a professional emcee and trainer, she’s an organ donation activist. “Yes, lah, I know it’s not a very sexy cause to champion, but someone has to do it,” she says. “So why not me?”
Chew first read about organ donation as a 13-year-old. “I was reading a booklet about organ and blood donation,” she begins. “I knew about blood donation, but not organ donation. And no one else knew about it either. Anyway, there was a particular story in the booklet about the joy of giving, written by a monk. In the story, the monk said that the joy of giving someone life is a much higher, bigger joy than giving money.”
When she pledged to be an organ donor as a young girl, Chew promised herself that if the opportunity came for her to be a live donor she would do it. That calling came in 2009, when Chew donated part of her liver. She shows me the scar, beaming with pride. “From then on, I wanted to be an organ donation activist,” she smiles.
According to Chew, there are only 190,000 Malaysians who have pledged to donate their organs, which is barely 0.65% of the population. And despite all the pledging and campaigns to raise awareness, the organs of only 47 people were donated after death in 2010. There are many factors for this low number, but on several occasions it was because family members objected at the last minute.
“People need to tell their families how much they want to do this, and family members must also keep in mind that when organs are donated the donors are always treated with the utmost respect,” Chew explains. “It’s still very hard to talk about these things so I am trying to take the discussions out of hospitals and put them in kopitiams so it isn’t so scary.”
Although Chew has been appointed to the Public Awareness Action Committee for Organ and Tissue Donation under the Ministry of Health, she also does her advocacy work through Voice of Women, an association she founded that provides a platform for other young women who want to contribute to society.
“I have seen so many young women who want to make a change, but they don’t know where to start,” she explains. “They also don’t gel with available youth movements for a variety of reasons. Even I was looking around for a moderate organisation relating to women, and I couldn’t really find one so that’s why I started out on my own. It wasn’t easy, but it’s a great place for young women to come together and support each other to do things they believe in.”
Through Voice of Women, Chew managed to convince Sunlight Radio Taxi to get 100 taxi drivers to fly green ribbons and give out flyers to passengers to promote organ donation. Through the association, other women have also come forward to do other meaningful activities for various sections of the community. “I’m giving women a chance to really do something with Voice of Women,” Chew says. “And it’s not just giving them a voice, but also a chance to walk the talk.”
Muhammad Zhariff Afandi
Founder, The Zhariff Initiative
For such a young man, Muhammad Zhariff Afandi has an incredibly impressive résumé. Although just 31, he has assembled a slew of awards and achievements (including the prestigious Perdana Leadership Award), has worked several different jobs and has a comprehensive academic backing to boot. Articulate and charming, Zhariff is so fascinating that it takes a while to notice that he doesn’t have arms — he types, pours me tea and thoughtfully rubs his chin with his foot.
That barely matters when you take into account how accomplished he is. A social entrepreneur, Zhariff does personal development and coaching as well as runs community development programmes and provides corporate social responsibility consulting under the banner of The Zhariff Initiative.
Zhariff was first involved in social and community action work as a college student. The 2005 Asian tsunami was a turning point for him, as what was meant to be a two-week volunteer programme in Aceh became a nine-month stint. “Being in Aceh changed my outlook and was my life-defining moment — I knew that my calling revolved around social and community action,” he recalls.
He went back to university in Australia, taking up courses that would help him set up the kind of social venture he had in mind. Upon returning to Malaysia, Zhariff acquired work experience with the Pride Foundation and Denai Alam Recreation Club, a community-driven riding and recreation centre that provides for less affluent members of society and underprivileged children.
“It gave me the experience I needed to strike out on my own,” Zhariff adds. “Initially I wanted to set up an NGO, but that can get a little frustrating because a lot tends to revolve around funding. I also didn’t want to be cuckolded into just one cause, like NGOs tend to do. To me, a social venture seemed more competitive and more today, so to speak.”
The Zhariff Initiative has become quite popular on the youth circuit, and Zhariff is very proud that it has come to the point where he doesn’t have to explain himself as much anymore. “These days, I walk into a room and I don’t need to explain what The Zhariff Initiative does. I love what I do, especially the platform I’ve created for young people to do things for the community.”
This story appeared in The Edge on May 21, 2012.