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KYUEM delegation at TAYMUN 2014!

I used to have horrible stage fright: I would be so deathly terrified of walking up to a stage and opening my mouth that I would go to great lengths to avoid it. I turned down all my teachers’ suggestions that I participate in story-telling competitions and poem recitals in primary school, and singing and dancing on stage was just out of the question.

It wasn’t until late in secondary school that I realized sometimes, I would get this sudden urge to say things – that I actually had things that I wanted to express. The written word was my weapon, so I delved into this world of literature and writing, and I discovered the pen can sometimes be mightier than the mouth. I used to think by writing my thoughts down (or more frequently, clickety-clack on the keyboard), I was being forced to consider and reconsider them properly and thus engage in a more coherent and correct form of expression.

Sure, I could have all the clarity and accuracy I wanted in black and white on a piece of paper, but these 4 months at KYUEM has shown me how much I enjoy the chaotic world of speech. There’s a certain beauty in the spontaneity of speaking, the wit and humor in retorts and responses, the occasional slip of the tongue, and most importantly, the fast-paced two-dimensional exchange of ideas. In writing, we spend days writing 800-word essays and publish them, and by the time a reply gets back to us, the urgency of debate is lost. Speaking puts you on the spot and forces you to listen, interpret, analyze and articulate your response all in the frame of a few seconds, which is what I experienced and strangely…got into it.

Last month, I joined the first (of many more) debating workshops. where some of my debating friends had invited a seasoned debater to come and coach us after classes on Thursday and Friday. On my first day I apologetically told him that I was completely new to debating and that I had no prior experience, and for the rest of the night I tried to listen and understand what he was saying. I didn’t get much, really, and I felt quite out of place in the entire setting. I returned reluctantly for the second session on Friday. “OK, we’re gonna do what I call ‘speech therapy': you come out, give a speech, and I’ll tell you what you should work on.” Well, shit.

I worked on my topic for ten minutes and came up with a short speech about voting rights. I started to speak, and because it was so short, I ran out of words a minute later. “…and that’s all I have,” I said apologetically. Then he told me that it was actually pretty good. Encouraged, I returned for the subsequent workshops and found myself actually debating about strange topics like self-immolation. It was a whole new experience, and despite the discomfort, I grew to like it more and more.

This weekend I traveled up to Kuala Lumpur for the annual Taylor’s Model United Nations Conference (TAYMUN 2014). I represented China in the Disarmament and International Security Council (DISEC), where the topic of discussion was about foreign military intervention and the leakage of classified information. I’m pretty sure that this is the first time China has ever been so quiet about such topics, but I was again, nervous about speaking out even though I had done quite a bit of research into the debate. I gave a short speech and raised a few points of information, but I wish I had spoke out more and ignored this silly apprehension of mine.

If I could say one thing about my first semester, I’d say I’m grateful to have opportunities like these to push me out of my comfort zone, and good friends to share the experience with. Here’s to more debates and more diplomacy at model UN!

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Biology class picture!

December leaves me standing at the end of my first semester in college. Back in May I wrote a post trying to articulate my ambivalence about choosing a subject to further my studies in, and I think it’s time to ask myself – have I come far since then? Over the past few months and many unpublished drafts, I’ve tried to string this web of tangled thoughts into coherent pieces of language to no avail. But one thing I can be sure of is this: I like Biology.

Over the past few months in college, I’ve found myself gradually falling in love with the subject. I’m lucky enough to have an incredible, incredible Biology teacher who makes me look forward to class every day. He makes us venture beyond the confines of the syllabus to explain facts and figures presented in the coursebook, making sure we understand the motivation and reasons they must be true. He uses stories and scenarios coupled with wit and humor to drive points across, and I often find myself so immersed in these tales that they stay with me long after class ends.

I still can’t fully explain it, but I find Biology so, so amazing. It excites me to learn about the DNA replication mechanism – how it unwinds (catalyzed by topoisomerase), unzips (catalyzed by DNA helicase), how nucleotides are activated, how the base pairs bond to each other (hydrogen bonding), how the sugar-phosphate backbones are bonded (DNA polymerase III). My teacher even went beyond that – we learned about the leading and lagging strands, Okazaki fragments, the 10-base RNA primer. I truly felt that I was learning Biology and discovering more about the natural world, and I experience this over and over again, through the chapters about mitosis, molecular biology, even basic cell structure.

Among my conversations with my father this year, a large amount of them were about medicine and whether I should become a doctor. I also remember there was once I told him how I was, at once, fascinated and horrified by cancer, and how I thought I would be happy doing research in it. Sometime in September, we started on our first day of molecular biology. The introductory page on the coursebook mentioned the ‘relatively large number of Nobel prizes awarded in this field’, and I read, with interest, about the Nobel awarded for the discovery of DNA, as my teacher ran a background narration of the Meselson-Stahl experiment on the DNA replication mechanism in 1958.

I couldn’t help, then, but wonder if I could one day be able to contribute to the human race just as these scientists have. For all my thoughts about ‘doing something extraordinary’, perhaps the most extraordinary thing I can do, the one with the most seismic impact, would be to help save lives – not only during my lifetime but for centuries after. I can’t remember what my father said in response to my comment, but I do remember him saying how much he liked this line in my scholarship application essay: “I want to make an impact that is measurable and lasting, and I will be able to do that by becoming a…”

It’s been two months since we battled our battles and adventured our adventures in the beautiful, beautiful land of Cape Town, where we attended the 55th International Mathematical Olympiad.

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Team Malaysia at the University of Cape Town.

It was one of the best times of my life, and I have so many memories that I want to relive. The camaraderie of pre-departure camp (and even more during the trip to South Africa). The intense two days of competition. Shivering together in the cold winter night. Watching penguins waddle up the beach as we looked out at the sea. Visiting the southernmost tip of South Africa and the Cape of Good Hope. Climbing up to the lighthouse at Cape Point where the six of us watched silently as the waves crashed into the cape. Bonding tightly with the team over food, long conversations and math.

Luckily, I can relive all that through the pictures we took at Cape Town! For the next few weeks, I’m planning to write our story, the IMO 2014 story, bit by bit, until the entire journey has been written down.

To start things off, I’ve written a math post for this year’s IMO, walking through the competition from a mathematical perspective – follow the link below to the pdf. Happy reading!

IMO 2014 – Justin’s math

 

IMO 2014 the star

 

The full article on The Star: http://www.thestar.com.my/News/Nation/2014/07/16/Maths-wizard-helps-capture-gold-in-fourth-attempt/

 

IMO 2014 result

 

Full results on imo-official: http://www.imo-official.org/team_r.aspx?code=MAS&year=2014

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We did it. 

We:

- broke the Malaysian points record for the 5th straight year, 129 points

- broke the Malaysian rank record for the 5th straight year, rank 23

- won the second and third gold medals in Malaysian history

- won the youngest bronze medal in Malaysian history, Zi Song12 years

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Jetlagged, emotional, overwhelmed, surreal. I will write a complete series of posts chronicling the 2014 Malaysian IMO team in the coming weeks.

#5 Colombian sunset the day before we left

#5 Colombian sunset the day before we left

One of my favorite memories: lying on a beach as the waves gently lap upon the pale white sand, leaving their cascading footprints and swirling back and forth; swallowing sand, then swallowed back into the sea. This is the night: stars shine brightly down on our bodies as we rest in silence, bodies exhausted after a weeks’ worth of adventure in Colombia, minds fatigued, thinking about the plane tomorrow that will rotate the world and bring us three thousand miles away from this secret paradise we managed to find. The stars are beautiful tonight.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a magnificent display of stars: shimmering against a backdrop of black (which was in turn masking who knows how many galaxies and planets, but even the ones we can see are beautiful enough) and a curiously round moon. Where I come from, the sky is a dark canvas that does not twinkle, and there really isn’t much reason to lift up your head to look up, save for the times when we decide to light it up with fireworks and explosions, but those are still not stars.

One by one our eyes closed, hearts synchronized to the rhythmic crashing of the waves, and at that moment it felt as if all of the frustrations and worry that rage within our minds had just been magically waved away, and all the damage that we once thought was irreparable was now undone. There are people who say that stars are illusions, that they have been dead for millions of years by the time their light enters our eyes. But perhaps we can take solace that in the beautiful chaos of the universe, what we have is now, and what we see now can sometimes be so beautiful that this moment…is all that matters.

Three weeks ago, I attended an interview program at the Central Bank of Malaysia for a scholarship. The program was structured in a format similar to an audition: prospective scholars go through various group sessions, and the lucky ones are shortlisted for the actual interview on the last day. On the eve of the last day, I was informed that I was, in fact, shortlisted, and I was obligated to attend the final interview.

That night I called my mother. I was halfway through a monologue about how nervous I was for the impending interview when my voice cracked and I broke down in tears. My mother paused for a second over the static waves and got my sister in Australia to talk to me on Skype. Then she told my father, who was on a conference in Melaka, to give me a call.

The truth is that I have no idea what I want to do with my life.

When filling out the scholarship application, I chose the default option when you’re a straight-A student and don’t know what to do: medicine. I didn’t think much about it until the night before I had to interview for it, and I suddenly realized that I didn’t have answers for ‘why do you want to study medicine?’ or ‘why medicine and not nursing?’ among others. I panicked, because how was I going to answer to four interview panels about how I’m a trainwreck on a messy path of life, floating without direction?

Over that weekend I mingled with the other potential scholars, and I was truly impressed by their intelligence and eloquence. They spoke well and held engaging conversations about interesting topics, but what most impressed me was the drive and vision some of these people had. You get to meet kids who want to do computer science at Carnegie Mellon, people well-versed in political happenings and want to do PPE for their degree…and people who are truly passionate about medicine. I admire them for being fortunate enough to have decided what they are becoming and will become, and I couldn’t help but feel, all at once, lost and disillusioned.

It was with this boiling pot of emotion that I made the call to my mother and broke down. Why didn’t I know what I wanted to be?

When I had calmed down and become more level-headed, we called my sister in Australia, asking her why she decided to become a doctor. I had a long talk with her, in which we talked about the different aspects of medicine, before deciding which parts I liked and didn’t like. I realized that there were actually a few things about medicine I did like – for instance, the academic nature of it, based on the fact that there is so vastly much to learn about the human body. I also liked the dynamic nature of the profession and the fact the research is constantly changing our approach to health. After that, I called my father and talked about life as an actual doctor. We talked about the stress and responsibility of being a doctor. I then realized that I also liked the personal connection between a doctor and a patient. By the time I hung up the phone, it was past midnight.

The following day I woke up with a level head, and I knew what I was going to say. I was going to be brutally honest.

As a result of this policy…my interviews were kind of unorthodox. I saw this coming: interviews are supposed to evaluate a candidate’s ability and passion towards an intended field of study, but this wasn’t applicable in my case. I was asked multiple times, that ‘you’re good at math, why not do math?’ to which I replied ‘actually, I might do math!’ I feel like I learned more about myself than they learned about me. It was more like a Confucian learning experience than an interview, more of a conversation than a Q&A session. I told them that I was just so curious about so many things, that I haven’t learned enough to know my direction in the future.

Why was I being asked to decide on my future?

I find it strange that as 17-year-olds we’re asked to summarize our futures in a word. I will become a ‘doctor’ or a ‘lawyer’, or god forbid, an ‘art historian’. In this world, ‘direction’ means putting yourself down in black and white while three quarters of your life still lie ahead of you. But isn’t being lost an inherently beautiful thing? There are a million shades of color that I can paint my days with, and so many things in this palette of futures seem so amazing. I want to be a cancer researcher. I want to be a pianist in an orchestra. I want to be a storyteller. The beautiful thing is that in my mind… all of these futures are possible.

These past few weeks (and at this rate, the next few weeks) have been ridiculous.

It all started when I got my SPM results. There was a little ceremony during the revealing of the results, and my name was the first called. It went like this ‘first up is Justin L-” and I get up (great, straight A’s) “who achieved straight A+ in t-” – holy crap. I walked up to the stage all giddy.

As we ran through the 38 names, the chatter at the back of the stage was already turning to scholarships and bursaries, a subject that by now has become slightly sour after all these weeks of applications. The 3 of us who had nine pluses felt great, because we would get the bursary by the ministry. There were so many questions: IB or A-levels? July intake or March?

There was a lot of confusion in the whole delirium, and things got worse when I couldn’t register for the bursary the next day. I woke up after a tip from a friend, put in my IC, clicked submit, only to be greeted by an error. After many phone calls that turned futile, I gave up and proceeded to apply for other scholarships.

I was back in KL at the office when I got the call. An email arrived shortly after, confirming the news. I was in the top 50.

nationalscholarThe ceremony was held last Monday at Kuala Lumpur. In this picture I’m holding the offer letter for the national scholarship, which was presented to us by the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia. When it was my turn, I walked up to the stage and offered my hand, but he looked at me and said ‘amboi tingginya, berapa kaki?’ I lost my composure for a while, but managed a weak ‘enam’ before turning for the cameras.

After the ceremony, I had a long talk with my father and we made some decisions: I will not be going to Sunway College as planned, but will instead enroll in another college for A-Levels, under the national scholarship program. It’s called Kolej Yayasan UEM, in Lembah Beringin. I visited the college last Saturday, and I actually really liked it: it is literally in the middle of the forest, but I really like the feeling of being part of their community.

As for me, I’ve finally settled back in Kluang after spending so long in the capital – I’m going to take a deep breath for these next few months, and just go where the wind takes me. Perhaps it’s actually good for me to slow down and rest for a while. :)

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