Like any other typical 7-year-old starting primary school, I wasn’t exempted from the routine of waking up early for school every morning.
The only difference was that I had to leave Malaysian borders and live my schooling life across the Causeway.
I was born in Penang in 2004 but when I turned 3-years-old, my family moved to Johor Bahru in search of better prospects. Once I hit schooling age, my parents sent me to our neighboring country Singapore to study.
The reason? ‘For a better education’, they told me. Which honestly isn’t surprising for one living in JB.
I was enrolled into Woodlands Primary School since it was close to the Malaysian-Singapore border and on the first day of school, my mother handed me a customized bag for me to keep my passport and access card.
I took the school van and followed the other kids in crossing the borders. However, I was terrified as I didn’t know a single soul there.
Constantly sleep deprived
I entered secondary school when I was 13 and little did I know that this would be when life would begin to take its toll on my mental and physical health.
And almost like a broken record, I was bombarded with the same question from literally everyone I met:
Are you not tired from travelling everyday?
As such, I always looked forward to days where I do not have school so that I could sleep in, such as the weekends. My daily schedule usually looks like this:
4am: Rise and shine
6.30am: Arrive in school
7.15am- 3.30pm: School time
4-6pm: Co-Curricular Activities/ Extra classes
8pm: Home sweet home
8-9pm: Dinner + Shower
9pm: Homework + Study
12am: Lights off
I usually get 4 hours of sleep each day if I’m lucky and would often sleep in class unintentionally. Thankfully, the teachers chose to close an eye and ignore my snoozing.
On days where I did not have any activities after school, I would take a 1-hour nap upon reaching home. However, it came with the risk of me sleeping way beyond the time limit and becoming restless at night.
Woke up at 2am to study for exam
During exam periods, I’d sleep 1 or 2 hours earlier than usual and wake up at 2am to study for the upcoming paper that day.
Oftentimes, people would exclaim, ‘Are you crazy? How do you even survive with 3 hours of sleep a day?’ when they heard of my exam prep routine.
In retrospect, I don’t think I had a certain formula that allowed me to do so and it was simply my body getting used to it.
Failing my English was way more scarier than not having enough sleep. I got busier the older I got, and constantly stayed back at school for trainings and extra classes.
Nevertheless, I’d still try to make use of every free time I had to rest. Since I was the first one to be picked up by the driver every morning, I’d sleep in the van while he took me and the rest to the Singapore Checkpoint. That way, I was able to get approximately 1 hour of sleep reaching school.
Fun fact: Even though it was a van, we can still use the car and motorcycle lane at the Malaysia Checkpoint since we were students, which saved us a lot of time getting through it.
This schedule was a good part of my life from the age of 7 to 16, where I travelled back and forth the Causeway every day, waking up at 4am and reaching home after 8pm.
I grew up in this environment. My dad works in Singapore. All my friends studied in Singapore so my (used to be) lifestyle became a shocker to everyone when I entered college. I thought it was manageable.
Sometimes I felt like giving up. Sometimes I just wanted to skip school and sleep. Academic pressure and the lack of rest drained me both mentally and physically. I constantly felt overwhelmed from time to time and fell sick during term breaks.
Nevertheless, I’m immensely thankful to my parents for giving me the freedom and not putting more stress on me when I was just fighting to build a better future for myself.
Enjoying every moment
I met most of my Malaysian friends studying in Singapore through the van trips we took every morning. There were also lots of Malaysians living in Singapore during my time in secondary school whom I got along pretty well.
How did you persevere through the 10 years?
Good company made my life so much better. They accompanied me through my times on the causeway. Gaming, snacking, simply just chatting about random stuff. We were also best friends with the van drivers and loved gossiping with each other.
I ended school at 12.30pm every Fridays. Since we got off school earlier than the other schools, my friends and I will usually take bus 901 to Causeway Point (Until Thomson-East Coast Line opened) and buy our lunch and bubble tea.
My go-to drink was milk tea with pearls with a 25% sugar level from Liho. Once we reached the Woodlands Checkpoint, we would sit down on the floor despite how dirty it was and had a “feast” while waiting for the van to arrive.
In school, I also had multiple friend groups that supported me in any way possible. They are part of the reason of how I managed to survive.
Another reason why I didn’t want to give up was because I had already come so far to where I was.
Academic pressure is super REAL in Singapore. I didn’t want to throw in the towel as my parents sacrificed a lot for me and my sister to be where we are today.
So close yet so far
It was my O- Level year when Covid-19 hit in 2020. Everything went smoothly in the early quarter of 2020 but as the pandemic worsened, things started to go downhill.
A 14-day Movement Control Order (MCO) was implemented in Malaysia from 18- 31 March 2020. I remembered getting all excited upon hearing the news as that meant I would be enjoying a two week break.
I mean…it’s only a two week lockdown. right?”
To my surprise, the two weeks eventually turned into months, eventually turning my happiness turned into anxiety. The number of Covid-19 cases kept increasing and the reopening of the Malaysian borders seemed unlikely.
I attended all my classes virtually and my subject teachers were more than willing to go the extra mile and set up his/her computer at the back of the class for other Malaysian students to join in. This went on until Singapore went into Circuit Breakdown (CB), its version of the Movement Control Order (MCO).
We started having Home-Based Learning (HBL). For the first time in weeks, I felt relieved as I was going in the same pace as my other peers in school. I do not need to worry about not being able to catch up.
As a Malaysian with a Singapore Permanent Residence, I had it easier than all my other friends who were stuck in Malaysia. Some of my juniors transferred to an international school in Johor Bahru and it honestly broke my heart.
My father made the decision to leave Malaysia and move to Singapore in May 2020 since we didn’t see any hope in the borders reopening. The thoughts of leaving my life and family members behind frightened me and I cried for days.
On 24 May, 2020, I left my house for the first time in 3 months. I said goodbye to my mum and youngest sister and embarked on another journey. While I had my my dad and second sister with me, it still felt different.
Upon reaching Singapore, we started our two-week quarantine and life on the city-island.
‘I’m not a banana!’
After graduating secondary school in 2020, I’d decided to return to Malaysia instead of furthering my studies in Singapore as I want to complete my Degree in another country.
In 2021 May, I started my new journey in a College located in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, specializing in Radio, TV & Film as a “transition route”.
Everyone in my class were surprised, how is a 17-year old in college?
I am the youngest in my entire class.
Explaining my background story and how I ended up here whenever I met someone new is my daily routine.
Oh, so you are Singaporean… You must be a banana.
This is one question I got asked frequently. I can even recite my reply in my sleep.
No I’m not a Singaporean and I’m not a banana.
Although English is mainly used and widely spoken in Singapore, we still need to learn our mother tongue in school. Lots of my friends thought that I spoke English at home but I don’t. In fact, Mandarin is actually my first language.
Wah, you study abroad leh. You must be rich!
To be honest, being a Singapore PR (permanent resident) actually reduces a lot of study expenses as I don’t have to pay thousands of dollars just to take national exams. My school fees were also quite low compared to foreign students. Plus, I get to enjoy citizen prices and benefits for certain activities or events.
If I could do it all over again, I would
I was actually given the choice to return back to Penang or continue my education in Singapore half way thru my primary school education.
But you still came back. It’s such a waste, you should’ve continued studying in Singapore.
Personally, I don’t see it as a ‘waste’ but rather another opportunity to live in my home country with a different worldview.
Yes, It can be exhausting trying to juggle my studies and entire life with little to no sleep everyday. The feeling of queuing up for hours in a packed building just for the machine to break down when you reach your turn. Or taking the 40-minute walk after seeing no buses.
I spent most of my childhood and teenage years on the causeway but I do not regret a single bit. Growing up in these circumstances allowed me to step out of my comfort zone and be independent and ultimately shaped me into who I am today.
There were certainly drawbacks though. One of the biggest issues I faced was having no sense of a national identity. Being a Malaysian but spending 80% of my time in Singapore caused me to not be able to relate to my Malaysian friends and family members.
There are lots of similarities between Malaysia and Singapore culturally but nevertheless, they are still two very different countries, which finally dawned on me when I returned to Malaysia.
Listening to my friends chat about their favorite Astro shows when I grew up with Mediacorp Channel.
Calling McDonald’s ‘Macs’ instead of ‘Mekdi’
Adding “sia” at the end of every sentence I speak.
Sometimes, I even find it shameful to be able to recite the entire Singapore national anthem word by word but not Negaraku.
It is what it is I guess.
Exclusive Story by WeirdKaya – If reproduction is deemed necessary, we kindly request that proper credit is given to WeirdKaya and backlink to our original article. Kindly acknowledge the efforts of our editors in sourcing and conducting interviews. Plus, it is crucial to consider the sentiments of the individuals featured in the article. We recommend reaching out to them, if feasible, to ensure factual accuracy and to prevent any potential dissemination of misleading information.