ITE's top-class students

SINGAPORE - He was doing well in his studies. He was consistently in the top 10 in his class and was receiving a bursary given to the top 25 per cent of his cohort.

But after Primary Four, the boy decided to drop out of school.

Not because he had lost interest in his studies - he wanted to take care of his depressed mother.

Though just 10, he just could not bear to see her slip further into depression.

A decade later, Madam Zalinah Abdul Gani, 42, was beaming with pride yesterday. The youngest of her three children, Mr Muhammad Asyraf Chumino, had just graduated with the Sng Yew Chong Gold Medal, which is awarded to top Institute of Technical Education (ITE) graduates.

A Building and Construction Authority (BCA) scholar, Mr Asyraf had a near perfect score of 3.9 for his Nitec in Facility Technology (Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration).

The 20-year-old is soft-spoken, but his demeanour belies his steely resolve and fierce love for his mother.

His father's death from cancer, when he was just two in 1996, devastated his mum. The loss of her husband sent Madam Zalinah on a downward spiral into severe depression in the ensuing years.

Three years later, she had to give up her job. As her health deteriorated, she often had to rest in bed at home. She even found it difficult to walk long distances.


It pained Mr Asyraf and his siblings, sister Fairuz, now 24, and brother Abdul, 22, to see her like this.

Despite their tender years, they had to take over household chores, including shopping for groceries and cooking, and tended to their mother's needs.

Mr Asyraf was inseparable from his mother.

His brother, Mr Abdul, said: "He would just be crying by my mother's bed and trying to comfort her by saying, 'Everything's going to be okay, I won't leave you'."

Mr Asyraf's desire to be with his mother at every moment, coupled with his reluctance to see her sent to an institution, meant he skipped school just to be with her.

"It was just logical to sacrifice my education for my mother," he said.

Initially, he explained his increasingly frequent absences from school by feigning sickness. At home, he would tell Madam Zalinah that he had no classes.

His family tried to discourage him from doing so, Mr Abdul said, and recalls "angrily dragging" his brother to school.

While Madam Zalinah was sad that her son was missing out on school, there was no way she could stop him in her condition.

"He would just insist on taking care of me. He cooked porridge and made Milo for me every day" she tearfully recalled.

Eventually, his former teacher and principal accepted the situation after numerous home visits and an explanation by Mr Asyraf's aunt. They were supportive and sympathetic, said Madam Zalinah.

With everyone's reluctant blessing, Mr Asyraf dropped out of school.

Mr Abdul said: "He was just so confident and stubborn in his decision. We did not see the point in dragging him to school when all he wanted was to care for our mother."

But Mr Asyraf was secretly concerned about missing out on his education.

Mr Abdul, chanced upon a diary entry by his then 14-year-old brother.

He said: "When I was taking my O Levels, he wrote that he wished he was doing the same, and he did not know what the future was going to be like for him. I almost cried when I read that."

But Mr Asyraf's decision to be with his mum helped her to recover. Their nightly walks lifted her spirits and she was determined to recover so he could return to school as soon as possible.

About two years later, she was taken off her anti-depressant medication.

As soon as her condition was stable, Mr Asyraf returned to school at the age of 15. He topped his cohort in Northlight School in 2011. Today he has no regrets missing out of four years of school.

"I made the right decision to take care of my mother. I lost my father and did not want to lose my mother as well," he said.

She made it through tough times at home

Her father suffered a stroke that left him in the intensive care unit for three months.

After they sold their flat to settle the medical bills, Miss Cheryl Yeo's family had to move into five different homes in the span of a year.

All this happened during her time as a Higher Nitec student at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) (College West), but the 20-year-old did not allow these difficulties to affect her studies.

Accompanied by her parents yesterday, she received the Tay Eng Soon Scholarship Award at the ITE Headquarters in Ang Mo Kio. She graduated with a higher Nitec in passenger service in May after getting a Nitec in tourism in 2012.

Recalling what she went through, Miss Yeo said: "I burst into tears when I saw my dad because there were so many tubes inserted into him.

"It was really a shock and we didn't know what to do and we worried over the hospital bills as well."

Her parents were divorced when she was two, but remained on good terms.

Miss Yeo, her older sister and her younger brother have lived with their mother since then.

Her mother, a pub supervisor, struggled to make ends meet and eventually had to sell their four-room flat in Yishun.

Before they could get a new flat, the four of them had to put up in the homes of friends and relatives, often sharing just one room.

Miss Yeo said: "It was a challenge because I had to constantly pack and unpack and it was also hard to find a place to study." But she did not give up and her efforts paid off.

She scored a GPA of 3.89 and is now a first-year student at Singapore Polytechnic, pursuing a diploma in tourism and resort management. The Section Head of Passenger Services at ITE, Ms Stephanie Low, praised Miss Yeo for being a motivated and hardworking student.

She said: "Despite going through hard times at home, she concealed it well and did not allow it to affect her conduct or attendance. She attended every single class."

Miss Yeo has been passionate about service since her secondary school days and was commended with an extra mile award during her five-month internship at Changi Airport, which ended in March.


Said Miss Yeo: "I love meeting new people and talking to them because they have so many stories to share. I get to meet people from all over the world and it is really a privilege to serve them."

The bubbly young woman added that she plans to further her studies in university so she can help her family have a better future. Her father, taxi driver Christopher Yeo, 50, said: "The last two years have been tough for them because I haven't been able to provide for the family.

"Seeing her parents suffering, she wanted to work hard so that she can make life better for all of us."

Miss Yeo credits her mother for being a pillar of support.

Madam Daphne Tan, 50, said: "I'm very proud of her. She always did her best. I never had to tell her to study and she handled everything well, without any complaints even when she had to travel very far to school."

Miss Yeo said: "I understand my mother's situation, she is the sole breadwinner and she places us first even if she had to eat less. Complaining would just make her sad.

"She really made a lot of sacrifices for us and I will be giving the money from my scholarship to her."

Age no barrier

Housewife Liaw Lay Kian, 52, and service operation engineer Lim Hock Tee, 55, did not let their age stop them from taking up an Institute of Technical Education course.

Madam Liaw found a passion for palliative care after caring for her bedridden father-in-law for 16 years, and her husband who died of colorectal cancer.

She joined the Nitec in Nursing course at ITE and studied with classmates who were younger than her adult daughters.

Mr Lim Hock Tee joined the Higher Nitec in Technology course to years ago to encourage his son to further his studies.

His son, then 19, was deciding between furthering his studies or joining the workforce after completing his Nitec.

Yesterday, Madam Liaw received the Tay Eng Soon Gold Medal, which is awarded to the top graduates.

She graduated with a GPA of 3.94.

Although his son eventually decided to do his National Service, Mr Lim continued with his studies and was awarded the Singapore Labour Foundation Gold Medal, achieving a GPA of 3.8.

This article was first published on June 25, 2014.
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