The Malaysian dream: From Kota Baru to Oxford to MIT-ASB
by The Star | 31 August 2020 | In The News
MALAYSIA’S independence was achieved with the collective strength of all races and religions. Her continued growth and success will also be defined by the continued empowerment of all. Recently, I spoke to a young Malaysian whom I believe exemplifies the Malaysian dream.
Dreams usually begin with an idea. For Yizhen Fung from Kota Baru, Kelantan, the idea was planted from conversations that she had with friends made online.
“As a teen, I spent a lot of time on online forums. I befriended someone from Hong Kong and we frequently discussed world issues and future goals. I particularly enjoyed listening whenever she talked about her dream of going to Oxford University.”
Slow as the days of dial-up and early broadband were, the Internet was her window to the world and gave her fresh perspectives on life – socially and culturally.
“The ideas planted in my mind through these interactions would somehow lead me to Oxford, and later on, the Asia School of Business in collaboration with MIT”.
Small Town Perspectives
As a Kelantanese native, Yizhen spent her early childhood in Kuala Lumpur, and moved back to her hometown of Kota Baru when her family decided to start their own business there.
For a thirteen-year-old who could not speak a word of the local Kelantan dialect, the culture shock was apparent. At school, Yizhen was the only Chinese girl in her year. She quickly picked up the local dialect, made many friends and immersed herself in Kelantanese Malay culture. Her teachers had to adapt to her too. These adolescent experiences deepened her perspective of religious and cultural diversity.
Kota Baru was a much sleepier town then. Its first Starbucks opened only in 2018. “It was a blessing in disguise. I could focus on my studies”.
One of two students in her school who achieved 10A1s in their SPM examinations, she decided to pursue law but unfortunately, could not secure any scholarship because “policies precluded science stream students from an arts scholarship”.
Undeterred, she enrolled into an A-levels programme at a college in Kuala Lumpur and excelled again. Equipped with her A-levels results and inspired from the conversations she had had with her online friends, Yizhen applied to do the undergraduate law programme at Oxford.
Stepping Towards the Dream
Yizhen recalls her Oxford University admission interview at the Renaissance Hotel in KL.
“I printed out the Wikipedia page on ‘law’ and memorised it. While waiting, I overheard these two girls from a renowned boarding school chattering away about worldly issues. They spoke so eloquently. I was intimidated but also impressed. Despite being Malaysians, our worlds appeared so different”.
Yizhen aced her interview and was offered the opportunity to read law at Brasenose College, University of Oxford. This happy news was compounded by a further stroke of fate. Shortly after, the Government’s Public Services Department (PSD) announced scholarships for students who received an offer from any of the world’s top 5 universities (the scholarship no longer exists). This allowed Yizhen to pursue a pivotal opportunity that she otherwise would have lacked the means to.
City of Dreaming Spires
Yizhen recounts her time in Oxford as both very difficult but also very rewarding.
“Oxford was a hard and fast lesson which made me realize how small I was and how little I knew about the world beyond Malaysia,” she said
Oxford’s emphasis of independence in academic and critical thinking stood out. The professors were constantly pushing academic boundaries but were also willing to provide extra guidance. With high expectations and tight deadlines, Yizhen learned to confront her insecurities and re-frame her mindset.
“In a furnace environment, you either melt or emerge as steel. Progress is most important, rather than ‘perfection’ and knowing when to seek help.”
Off the Beaten Track
Yizhen graduated in 2011 and returned to Malaysia to fulfill her scholarship bond.
Realising early on that legal practice was not her true passion, she spent five years servicing her scholarship bond at a capital market regulator, working first as policymaker and subsequently speechwriter and advisor at the chairman’s office.
Despite the fast-paced career trajectory, she yearned for something more. “While regulators play a noble role in facilitating innovation, the private sector is at the forefront of innovation, disruption and change. I wanted to be a part of that.”
MIT-Asia School of Business
Yizhen decided to go back to school. The MBA program at the Asia School of Business in collaboration with MIT Sloan (ASB), with its campus in Kuala Lumpur, was the perfect solution.
“A dear friend I met many years ago was part of ASB’s inaugural class. I witnessed his transformation first-hand from a self-made entrepreneur to a well-rounded corporate leader. This convinced me to do the MBA.”
Of the 20 months programme, Yizhen spent 8 months abroad, including in Thailand, Vietnam and Hong Kong working on projects across manufacturing, financial services and consumer goods. She also spent 4 weeks taking classes at MIT in Boston. And all this was done together with 46 other classmates from 18 nationalities.
“It was a truly global experience that trained me for an environment of constant change and collaboration.”
Yizhen returned to Malaysia shortly before the Covid pandemic escalated and graduated (virtually) in April 2020, winning both the Dean’s Award for outstanding academic performance and award for Best Action Learning project.
Due to Covid-19, Yizhen had to turn down a job opportunity in Hong Kong. But as one door closes, another opens. She recently started her new role as chief of staff at a Southeast Asian conglomerate that is innovating rapidly for a post-Covid world.
Freedom Enabling Future
In the spirit of Malaysia’s National Day, I asked Yizhen about what independence means to her as a young Malaysian.
As someone whose journey has taken her across cultures and continents, her response was simple: “The freedom to shape one’s own future, irrespective of the background they were born into. Social mobility transforms lives and transcends generations.”
“The most empowering thing about social mobility is that the onus is not on the government alone; we all have a role we can play. I have grown immeasurably from the advice and help received from the countless friends, mentors and colleagues, all of whom were kind, generous and genuinely wanted me to succeed.”
Yizhen’s final reflection, “Above all, be generous with your time and pay the kindness forward as you never know whose lives you might touch next!”
I believe Yizhen’s journey represents what an independent Malaysia has enabled us to achieve, from the opportunities to the possibilities. Malaysia is a still a work in progress, but 63 years on, there is a lot to build on. Happy 63rd National Day!
This article was originally published on The Star