Wednesday 27 May 2009
She’s gotta have it
CATATAN HATI NIK NUR MADIHAH by Nik Nur Madihah with Ummu Hani Abu Hassan (Hijjaz Records Publishing, 2009, 126 pages)
Nik Nur Madihah binti Nik Mohd Kamal of Kelantan achieved national fame when she became the first student to score 20 As in her SPM. So naturally I wanted to find out what a huge nerd she is. (Yes, I’m terribly jealous, not that you can tell.)
We can already guess how hard she studied, but what immedately strikes us is how poor her family was. The only time her mother laid hands on her was when she’d spent RM1 on snacks, an unseemly luxury. Her father, a fisherman, brought home less than RM500 a month, and would get even less if the weather wasn’t kind.
Madihah decided early on to fast every Monday and Thursday; it helped her to save a few sen and also emulated what the holy prophet did. It was a good decision: academic brilliance is, as she soon finds out, right next to godliness.
In this short memoir (she’s only 18, what did you expect?), she speaks of her life and dreams. Although their dress sense could not be more dissimilar, she reminded me a bit of Xandria Ooi, whose book we discussed earlier. They are both goal-oriented young women who spend lots of time honouring their parents.
The more demure of the two, however, displays no discernible sense of humour. Can a teenager really be so serious? There are no references at all to playing, having a laugh with friends, or to cute Kelantan boys. (It’s probably not a coincidence that the only subject in which she scored an A2, rather than A1, was Biology).
She was of course a model student, although not a ‘model’ in the Xandria Ooi sense. Times have obviously changed: back in my day, someone who always sat in the front row and asked questions every five minutes (as one of her teachers says) would be just asking to get beaten up at recess. But no, everyone seems to love her, because they see her as a chance for their school to once again get in the news, like when her senior got 18As.
Similarly, a student with the creepy habit of going to the staff room every day just to ask if her teachers are doing all right (which is what she did) might get called all sorts of names, none of them particularly godly. But hey, they probably do these things differently in all-girl religious schools. (Five out of her 20 subjects are related to Islam or the Arab language.)
She’s driven and disciplined, sure, but was there a price to pay? She’d never left Kelantan until after SPM, because her father didn’t want her exposed to ‘pengaruh tidak sihat’ (unhealthy influences). He also had this habit of surreptitiously following her after school to make sure she wasn’t heading to tempat tak elok (improper places): charming! And one of the tips she gives to become successful in life is ‘selalu bersenyum sesama Muslim’ (always smile to fellow Muslims). So if she meets you and scowls, it’s nothing personal: it’s probably your religion.
She seems to exist in an entirely Islamist enclave and doesn’t seem to have met a single non-Muslim. (Even this book was sponsored by a nasyid group: nasyid seems to be the only music she digs). By analogy, I can imagine children in vernacular schools going through a similar parallel existence. Without having to resort to the 1Malaysia slogan, is this really what we want the next generation to become?
If Madihah didn’t exst, we would have invented her. She’s the logical product of not only our record-breaking desires and emphasis on paper qualifications but something even darker: our increasing communitarianism, in which each self-righteous group keeps requiring new heroes. Until we break out of these bad habits, we will remain dumb no matter what the Exam Board tells us.
(Malay Mail, 27 May)