A regular kid with ambitions
If you ask me, Ahmad (not his real name) is a typical teen. Young people play computer games. Ahmad plays for a few hours daily. Young people love listening to music. Ahmad has a free Spotify account (with all the ads). Young people like hoodies with earbuds. I think it is a fad because it makes no sense to wear a hoodie in Malaysia’s warm climate. But Ahmad wears a black hoodie, with one Airpod-like earbud in one ear and over-the-ear headphones on his neck. The earbuds are fake Airpods and one is missing. Young people like the latest mobile phones. Ahmad probably has a hand-me-down cracked Android 9 phone.
I think Ahmad is an introvert. He typically gives you one-word answers. But he opened up to me because I told him I’m a computer geek (of sorts). Ahmad likes computers. He has one at home. There are some computer games he’d love to play, e.g. Call of Duty, but cannot. His computer’s CPU and graphics card cannot support the game. (Side note: A 3-year-old computer should meet the minimal requirement of Call of Duty. His computer must be old.)
That’s what it’s like to be from a low income B10 family (more on the category below). They stretch everything they have for as long as possible. They live with “hand-me-downs” from donations or unwanted items. Within their external constraints, they enjoy everything passed down, and accessible for free or on trial. They are content (or try to be) with whatever feature or time constraints or advertisements are added in the free or trial products.
Ahmad has aspirations. He wants to be a computer programmer. There are free online computer programming courses, e.g. Code Academy. But he doesn’t know where to start, or even how to start. There is an initial chasm of confusing technical jargon to overcome. His school doesn’t offer any computer classes. Let’s not forget, most online courses are conducted in English. That’s another barrier to overcome.
Definition of poverty in Malaysia
The term “B40” is often used to describe the low income segment of our Malaysian society. The media call them “poor people”. “B40” means the Bottom 40%. These are the families that have a household income of RM4,849 per month or less (based on the 2020 classification). Under B40, there are sub-classifications like B40 (RM3,700-RM4,849 per month), B30 (RM3,170 – RM3,969 per month), B20 (RM2,500-RM3,169 per month) and B10 (less than RM2,500 per month – Ahmad’s family is categorized here).
Naturally, the categorization is monitored and revised every year. To low incomes families, inflation and the ever-increasing cost of living make every progressing year a bigger struggle.
On top of “B40”, you also have “M40” for the Middle 40% and the “T20” for the Top 20%. Simply by looking at the high cost of living, most T20 families live in Kuala Lumpur, where the Median family household income per month is RM10,549 and the Mean is RM13,257.
Both parents of B40 families typically work long laborious hours. The children fend for themselves during their absence. Whatever amount earned is channeled back to the family – food, utility bills, and transportation. But for some, even an affordable housing rental can also be a struggle. These parents are encumbered by external constraints as well as internal constraints. They probably grew up in a low income family too with adverse childhood experiences. They struggle with feelings of low aspirations, discouragement, and a lack of control over their circumstances. Poverty traps are real among poor people. Living standards remain quite stagnant from one generation to another.
The B40 parents hope things would be better for their children and their living standards would improve. Isn’t that what all parents wish for? That is why B40 parents send their kids to school.
Our country does have development economics to help the underprivileged. Part of the economic development program is to ensure every Malaysian child attends school. Many schools provide help with textbooks and other essentials for learning. They also have a supplemental nutrition assistance program. Food aid in school is a good idea but what about the weekends or when the school is closed for holidays?
Most parents acknowledge the importance of school. That is why in 2020, the country has a 97.2% completion rate of lower secondary (up to Form 3). But the completion rate for higher secondary is less encouraging at 63.1%.
Fresh university graduates (if they reach that level) have other sets of issues. The young people graduating seem to either have trouble finding jobs or do not have the necessary skills for the job.
There are a lot of talks that associate hope with education. Why is that? Our school systems are filled with internal challenges and external constraints. It is a complicated problem and well beyond our scope. But does education provide hope? What does hope even mean?
Hope: Ambiguous Wish or Aspirational Want?
Professor Bruce Wydick of the University of San Francisco wrote about hope as an essential element in transforming extreme poverty. In an article at Christianity Today, he defines 2 types of hope – Wishful hope and Aspirational hope.
A wishful hope is like “I hope for good weather” or “I hope they pick me for their team”. You are longing for something to come to pass that is outside of your control or influence. It is ambiguous because you don’t know how it will happen but you still wish for it.
In contrast, aspirational hope relies on human agency. For example, “I hope to complete reading this book” is something that is within your abilities. “I hope to do well in exams” is dependent on how well you prepare. Aspirational hope not only wants something but has the plan to achieve desired outcomes. It might fail but at least they know the road to get there.
Why is there hope through education?
We live in a knowledge economy. Education (both formal and informal learning) plays a monumental role in our lives, regardless if we are an employee or an entrepreneur. A complete education is more than just acquiring hard skills. It is also about soft skills, e.g. grit and persistence, learning to overcome internal constraints, working with others, etc.
Hard and Soft skills
Going to school is one way of acquiring the hard skills that are deemed important. You simply progress through the system as you age, going from Standard 1 to 6, and then Form 1 to 5 (or 6). The cost of a university education can be significant. But there are merit-based and need-based scholarship grants and low-interest study loans available. After getting a degree, you sign up for interviews, present your qualifications, and hope to get a decent-paying job. You get to improve your living standards.
But sadly, students are often left to figure out soft skills on their own. If they are fortunate, they might meet a dedicated teacher that would coach soft skills. But these type of teachers is a dying breed. Purists would argue this is the responsibility of parents. I concur. But given the circumstances, you cannot blame them for prioritizing food on the table.
A clear road map
Education (beyond textbook knowledge) is a clear road map. It has uncharted pitfalls, winding roads, and challenges that will make you fail. With guidance and support, education provides aspirational hope. A good education has causal effects on getting out of poverty traps. There are (though not enough) young people from low income families who have taken this path to get out of extreme poverty and successfully improved their living standards.
So this is a proven plan with a visible success rate (albeit low because of other reasons). There are other ways to fight poverty in the world and education is one path.
Enter Impian Kencana
Let’s face it, economic development programs alone will not eradicate poverty. Apart from the government, there are other organizations that help fight poverty. Amongst them is a non-profit organization (registered under the Registrar of Societies) called Impian Kencana. Its objective is to “eradicate poverty in Malaysia by coaching teenagers from challenging backgrounds with key skills“.
As of this writing, Google translates the name as “Dream of Dating“. “Impian” means dream. “Kencana”, unfortunately, is translated as a date. Hence “Dream of Dating”. But a synonym of “Kencana” is also gold. So the name is intended to mean “a Golden Dream”.
An origin inspired by hope
The organization was started by Ang Chiew Teng, who also grew up in a low income B40 family. With 3 other siblings, she grew up with her share of adverse childhood experiences and food aid. Her parents divorced when she was 12. Her dad drove a taxi to support the family. She started working at 14 as a data entry clerk for a computer company. School breaks meant more opportunities to pick up RM50-150 per day setting up logistics for concerts, manning booths at events, promoting products, distributing flyers, etc. At 16 (the legally employable age), she worked at Old Town White Coffee. Later, she secured a scholarship and was the first to graduate from a university in her family.
Impian Kencana focuses on education. Teaching is a big part of Ms. Ang’s life. Teachers teach what they learned in their training, e.g. science, math, etc. But a good teacher also teaches life lessons. Perhaps the single most significant lesson in her life is this – Hard skills are necessary to get hired. But there are bigger internal constraints in the mindset of young people. Soft skills will help them strive in the job when faced with challenges, work well with others, solve real-life problems, and thrive regardless of circumstances.
Drawing from personal lessons, Impian Kencana eradicates poverty by empowering young people with hard and soft skills. It is not enough to give them head knowledge. Growing up with lower living standards stigmatizes the mind to think they are never good enough. Their hearts need to be trained to break away from the “forever hopeless” mindset.
That is why the Impian Kencana 10-week program is broken into 3 parts – Character Building, Knowledge Building, and Solution Building.
Our world today glamorizes talent. It is true, some people are bestowed with a natural inclination towards certain abilities, e.g. music, sports, etc. However, many people ignore that talent alone is not sufficient to make that individual a subject matter expert. To reach the world-class level, you need coaching, encouragement, and lots and lots of practice.
In a 1993 paper entitled “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance“, Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer concluded that a person needs to amass 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become really good at something. That is equivalent to 4 hours of practice, 5 days per week, every week, for 9.6 years. If you want to be a math expert, find a good teacher, and spend 4 hours studying and practicing math per day, every weekday, for 9.6 years. Do the same for piano or violin lessons and you will play like the pros. That is a significant amount of dedication but now you know why the experts are experts. They simply work very hard.
Such dedication is typically seen in sportsmen (women) and musicians. And yet they never succeed alone. Behind the scene are dedicated parents and coaches, pushing the child beyond perceived limits. Do you now see why character-building has causal effects on success? What more for young people with lower living standards?
At the core of Impian Kencana’s program is to teach Grit. This is based on Angela Duckworth’s book called “Grit: The Power of Presence and Perseverance“. The program teaches the importance of showing up, pushing yourself to attain small wins, drawing hope, and having the perseverance to strive for larger goals.
Quite honestly, I think this is severely lacking in ALL schools and absent in many homes – both high and low incomes families.
Learning business technology may still be an optional subject in schools, but it is a mandatory life skill. You need to learn to operate a computer, send emails, create documents and calculate using spreadsheets. Even if your job doesn’t require it, these are tools to manage your life effectively.
The 10-week Impian Kencana program provides refurbished laptops and teaches basic Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Canva to their students. These children are allowed to keep the laptops for the duration of the program. These laptops are about 4-5 years old but they serve the purpose of allowing the kids to learn.
Character building teaches the kids to persevere and practice. Business technology is a hard skill and tool they will need to use to solve problems. But what about identifying problems and creating solutions?
Problem-solving is a soft skill and a mindset sorely missing in our very consumer-minded society. But ask any successful entrepreneur, all businesses are about solving a specific problem for a profitable price. Ask any successful professional. Employers pay them salaries based on the magnitude and monetary value of the problem they solve. CEOs get paid more because they solve bigger and more expensive problems.
Design thinking is a non-linear and iterative process that has 5 phases – Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. This is a common methodology for identifying and defining problems. It also provides the framework to ideate, prototype, and test the solution.
Here are some services and products that used design thinking: Airbnb, Netflix, Uber Eats, Braun/Oral-B electric toothbrush, Bank of America’s Keep the Change, Pillpack online pharmacy, etc.
At the workshop, the young people are asked to identify a problem they encounter, and apply design thinking principles to solve it. In the end, they are asked to give a presentation on their case study. This is a small step to teach these young people to be problem solvers, either as future entrepreneurs or employees. If they acquire skills, and problem solve and add value to their work (beyond the repetitive work in a manufacturing line), they can earn higher profits or salaries.
Google Workspace in the 2022 program
Mustard Tree Technologies was recently involved in the Impian Kencana program. We shared our expertise in Google Workspace (Doc, Slides, and Sheets). To make things interesting, the young people were given a case study of setting up a Nasi Lemak Gerai (stall).
Their task was to write the recipe for preparing Nasi Lemak using Google Docs. They also had to design promotional flyers using Google Slides. Finally, they had to create a basic costing analysis using Google Sheets. The average participant’s age was 14. The youngest was 10.
The Google Docs session was a little mundane as their task was to copy a given recipe. However, the young people erupted with cheers when they explored animations inside Google Slides.
It is never easy to introduce Google Sheets. Some mothers joined the Sheets class too. The younger kids would struggle with concepts like costing, spreadsheet cell references, and formula calculation. But it was an eye-opener for the mothers, as we even talked about acceptable net profit for a nasi lemak business.
There are other ways to fight poverty in the world and education is just one path. This is a path that provides aspirational hope to low income families, where parents are trying to get their kids out of poverty traps. But head knowledge or hard skills are insufficient. We are dealing with more than just external constraints. The internal constraints, i.e. mindset, must be overcome as that is often the main stumbling block.
Other emerging work by various organizations and governmental programs exists. Impian Kencana is a non-profit that has joined the ranks. They are barely 2 years old. But they are trying to do a bit more; they are trying to provide aspirational hope. This hope that they offer is within one’s agency.
As with all non-profit organizations, Impian Kencana needs support – financial support, volunteers, and mentors for the kids. They cannot help all young people from low income families or even all the participants of their program. But hopefully, they can inspire young people like Ahmad, show them a path that they can take, and give them aspirational hope.
To Ms. Ang and her team, thank you for sharing this experience.