If you saw me on the streets, you would deem me an average Malay among the millions of Malaysians. What you would not notice is that unlike many Malays, I have difficulties communicating in our mother tongue. That is right, a Malay who can barely speak Bahasa Malaysia. How exactly I became a novelty in my own country was due to my upbringing. In the past 26 years of my life, 15 were spent outside of Malaysia.
It all started in 1990 when my father took up a job in the Philippines to work with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), a multilateral aid organisation. In such a way, my family and I were whisked off into our new lives in a foreign country. Years passed, and when I graduated from high school, I distinctly remember how proud I felt to be among the 70 graduating students of the International School of Manila, ready to head into the next chapter of our lives.
But while my classmates spoke excitedly about education options in the US or Europe, I simply listened quietly as I knew my path had already been laid out for me. I was to study medicine in Pakistan. Admittedly, I never really questioned this. Being the filial son, I followed my father’s wishes for me to be the doctor of the family.
So, wide-eyed and fresh-faced, I moved to Pakistan to start my medical studies without anticipating the challenges that would await me. As it turned out, my lecturers were corrupt and regularly asked for bribes in return for better grades. Raised in a household where I was taught to do the right thing and stick to my principles, I made the decision to leave Pakistan. I felt the time had finally come for me to head back to where my heart was – Malaysia.
Back in Kuala Lumpur, I sought other medical institutions to attend. But after weeks of trying and countless applications, I was rejected. My parents were devastated, and heartache and arguments soon ensued. Finally, when I sat down with them one dinner, they told me not be discouraged and to pursue what I was really passionate about. Only then did I let my true self speak; I wanted to become a marine biologist.
Consequently, I enrolled at Kolej Universiti Sains dan Teknologi Malaysia, KUSTEM (later upgraded to Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, UMT), to study marine biology in 2005. Despite the language barrier that I had to overcome, my interest in conservation grew stronger. I slowly began to see my role as a guardian of our marine environment after reading, researching, and discussing issues relating to the ecosystem with lecturers.
Fortunately, I also had many other opportunities to explore this newfound calling. Apart from doing a dissertation on sea turtle hatchery management, I even interned with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) on conservation projects for the hawksbill turtle and painted terrapins.
Some of my classmates in UMT had doubts about my success in the conservation field. However, I proved them wrong, especially when I told them that I had already been offered a job to work on coral reef and sea turtle conservation in Pulau Tioman.
When I started working, just being part of the movement that cared for and preserved the marine environment made everyday a blessing. From diving underwater and conducting Reef Check surveys to teaching primary school students about marine issues, the field of marine conservation biology has been a truly rewarding journey for me. Until today, the most memorable experience in my life has been witnessing a turtle nesting.
Besides this, there are many other subfields of marine biology that one can pursue. For example, I have friends who are involved in aquaculture companies that breed fish, while others are in oil and gas companies to monitor the environmental impact of their activities. Some are still involved in the tourism industry, especially as scuba diving instructors, while there are those who have dedicated their future to academic research.
After all that I have gone through, I can assure you that if you fail, there will always be other doors of opportunities waiting to be opened. If you know what you want for yourself, then let your true voice be heard. Follow your passion, so that you can enjoy what life really has to offer. Like I always say:
Life’s a beach, deal with it.
Wan Ahmad Azimi bin Wan Azmin was brought up in the Philippines and Pakistan, and has never sat for any examinations in Malaysia. Upon completing his undergraduate studies at Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, he began his career in marine biology, which feeds his passion for the conservation of marine ecosystems till this day.
Note: The above entry was written in 2010 for What’s After SPM?, published in 2011. This non-for-profit book project is a collaboration between Leaderonomics and a team of young Malaysians. Click here for details on the project and authors.
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