A bus ride may seem commonplace for many people but for Chai Duwei, a bus ride represents some of his most memorable moments.
To the master's degree student in Public Policy at the National University of Singapore (NUS), a bus ride can be transformative, educational, and nostalgic, depending on one's perception.
At seven years old, Duwei would pack his belongings after school to catch a bus from Johor Bahru to Kuala Lumpur. At Puduraya, he would then take a taxi to the hospital where his mother was undergoing tests and receiving treatment. That was his weekend routine.
“The moment my mother was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease, life had enrolled me into a crash course of independence and resilience. Due to her illness, my mother became physically weak and dependent on treatment,” said Duwei.
Duwei's mother was an entrepreneurial single mother who pioneered a full-service boutique business for mid-range and luxury pens. After spending a large part of her professional life in Singapore working for luxury pen retailers, she went back to Johor Bahru to start her business.
“It was not easy for me as a child to see someone so full of life and drive to suddenly stop being herself. I know it was not easy for her as well, and I made it my mission to make things easy for her,” he said.
While still in primary school, apart from his weekly bus rides, Duwei learned how to manage a household, budget expenses, travel across state lines alone, administer medicine, and become a pillar of strength for his mother, who cared for him alone after her divorce from his father.
The pair later moved to Kuala Lumpur so his mother would be able to receive treatment more frequently.
“We can't choose the circumstances in life we find ourselves in, but we can change how we look at them. We can complain and ask why this is happening, get sucked in a whirlpool of blame and shame, or we can look at the bright side. My situation has enabled me to bond with my mother strongly. For some time, it felt like it was the two of us against the world,” said Duwei.
The now 30-year-old said that in hindsight, his challenging experience gave him an invaluable advantage over peers his age as it made him more mature, critical and pragmatic faster.
“My mother's life made me realise how important it is for people to have a strong support system, especially those living in difficulty. And I made it my life's passion for improving the framework of support from a community point of view,” he added.
He tried his best to manage his studies at school while caring for the household and scored 5As and 5Bs in his Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examinations. Subsequently, Duwei achieved impressive results for his Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran Malaysia (STPM) examinations. This opened the door for him to study for a law degree at Universiti Malaya (UM).
It was at this time when he saw a newspaper clipping on a scholarship opportunity by Perbadanan Insurans Deposit Malaysia (PIDM) by chance.
“I applied for the PIDM scholarship and went for the interview. There, I met people from PIDM who inspired me to pursue my dreams, polish my interpersonal skills and most importantly, made me feel worthy and capable,” said Duwei.
“With the scholarship, I was able to pay my tuition fee in full. My mother and I lived a frugal life. We were dependent on her savings, relatives’ contributions and a monthly allowance of RM300 from the Welfare Department. PIDM's support was extremely helpful and allowed me to rely less on part-time jobs and spend more time with her.”
Duwei recalled his fond memories of spending time at PIDM's office attending workshops and networking sessions with the scholarship's alumni. The experience has grown his connections, deepened his understanding of the legal and financial industry, and paved the way for more opportunities.
Little did he know that the scholarship would extend beyond monetary and professional aid, as he made life-long connections and mentors, who became one of his biggest supporters during the most challenging moment of his life.
While undergoing a student exchange programme in the United States of America, Duwei's mother passed away after more than a decade-long battle with her auto-immune disease. At that point, she relied on a concentrated oxygen supply to breathe and was under the care of their relatives in Kuala Lumpur.
“I remember thinking that it must be difficult for her to let me go for a six-months programme abroad. I asked her for blessings, and she granted them to me without hesitation and did her best to show me that she was strong and I should not worry about her condition at all.”
Duwei still remembers his mother’s words the day he asked for her blessing, “Go and broaden your horizons.”
Her condition worsened. A week before her passing, Duwei asked his mother if he should return home.
“She told me to continue and complete my programme as she was fine and will be waiting for me.”
“A week later, I received a call from my relative saying that my mom had passed. The mentors I made in PIDM, Yam Poh (Lim Yam Poh is the Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel at PIDM), was one of my biggest pillars of strength at that point. Together with the other wonderful people I met at PIDM, she helped connect me to people who helped me when I had to apply to be an administrator for my mother's estate.”
“When I think about it, PIDM was not duty-bound to go above and beyond to support me. But they did, and they were so humane in the way they interact with all scholars, not just me, that we all feel special in our respective ways,” he added.
After completing his degree, Duwei served in a law firm before pursuing his passion for arts and culture as a policy and research manager with a government agency. Realising that he has found his calling in policy-making, Duwei applied to NUS with a scholarship from a private foundation.
Set to graduate in three months, Duwei, living abroad throughout the pandemic, said he couldn't wait to come back and serve the country as a policymaker.
“I am only scratching the surface of the horizon. My mother's dream for me is as high as the open sky, and I intend to achieve it in her honour.”