Even as a child, she felt that home could be more dangerous than the streets.
After her mother hit and choked her, child protection officers took Maleha Tarin Moon, then 14 years old, to a residential home, where she hoped to find some peace and stability in her life.
But she was diagnosed with major depressive disorder when she was 14, and hospitalised for anorexia the next year. Snowed in by personal difficulties on multiple fronts, she dropped out of school in Secondary 4.
Going to work, she thought, would put her life back on track. She worked at a bubble tea shop for a year, and then as a classroom assistant in a Sped (special education) school.
But by the time she turned 19, she was restless. Her early exit from the school system gnawed away at her. She wished to go to university as she felt her life was going nowhere.
“My brain was collecting dust,” Maleha, 21, said. “The (Sped) school wasn’t going to give me a higher position than a class assistant. I wanted to find the fastest way to get to university. It would be my ticket out of this life.”
Her friend introduced her to a youth organisation, which set what seemed to her an audacious goal: help her get ready to take the A levels as a private candidate within one year.
Thus commenced 12 months of intensive studying, where five volunteers, including undergraduates and a graduate student, tutored her in biology, maths, geography and literature, and gave her emotional support.
They were part of Impart, an initiative by two men who worked at the Singapore Boys’ Hostel to meet the academic and mentorship needs of at-risk youth in Singapore, especially those who have left correctional or rehabilitation institutions and need help reintegrating into society.
Maleha also managed to get resources such as notes and exam papers from a friend who was studying in junior college.
It was not an easy road, having spent three years out of school. “I have so many videos of me crying,” she said of studying maths, one of her weaker subjects.
She pushed herself to study six hours a day, and then 10 hours closer to the exams.
But just three months to the exams, she completely forgot the maths concepts the volunteer taught her. “My mind was a blank. I was panicking,” said Maleha.
But she never lost sight of her goal. “I kept telling myself this was my last chance. If I failed, I would be nothing. So I didn’t allow myself to give up, that wasn’t even an option in my mind.”
Maleha started from scratch, poring over the materials again to relearn the concepts.
When she collected her results online last month, confusion came first, then elation and triumph followed: She had scored two As, two Bs and two Cs.
“I couldn’t believe it, it was crazy. I could get into psychology,” she said, referring to her dream course.
She said: “I struggled with mental health issues, and know people with conditions like schizophrenia, so I was naturally intrigued by psychology.”
She hopes to become a teacher as she loves working with children, especially troubled ones.
Maleha recounted how, when she was in hospital, she met a seven-year-old girl who had also been abused.
They became fast friends.
“She felt like a little sister to me,” Maleha said. “She would spend lots of time by my bedside since I was not allowed to walk. She would bring her toys to me to play... She was a super affectionate kid, always giving hugs.”
Maleha has since gone back to living with her mother, who is making an effort to treat her better.
Supporting her on her mental health journey are a psychiatrist and psychologist, whom she visits monthly. She is also on medication to manage her condition.
Maleha has also signed up as a volunteer with the education team at Impart that helped her.
In the long run, her dream is to move overseas and further her studies in psychology, so she can become a psychologist.
Mr Joshua Tay, the co-founder of Impart, said she is the first case of a client taking the A levels since the organisation was set up in 2017.
Impart has helped more than 500 youth with their studies, enrichment and mental health.
“We weren’t sure what to expect on results day – no schooling estimates to bank on, no prelims to gauge things with, and no real experience to lean on,” he said. “A volunteer had done up a safety plan with her to manage her emotions in the event that things didn’t turn out well.”
But when the results came out, he and the volunteers celebrated with her.
“Youth facing adversity have so much more to show,” he said. “Impart has always believed it to be so, and we’re proud to see Maleha and her volunteers reify these beliefs.
“Little moments of engagements, faithfully stretched out over time, are now shaping larger narratives of change.”
- Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
- Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
- Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
- Institute of Mental Health's Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222
- Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.