The Pandai App Story: Part III

I’m in the mood for nostalgia.

Let me take a break from the story of the Pandai idea (which will resume in Part IV) with a personal reminiscence.

Warning: This is a lengthy write-up. There is a point to all this, which I will mention at the end. This is written exclusively from my point of view. This is my own personal answer to “Why Pandai?”. This write-up does not represent the perspectives of my co-founders, who have interesting stories of their own.

 

The evolution of an idea: A personal story

Let me take you back 22 years ago.

In 1998, I was a student at MRSM Jasin, Melaka (now known as MRSM Tun Ghafar Baba, after the former Deputy Prime Minister who passed away in 2006).

Khairul and Akmal, my future business partners at Aidan and Pandai, were my batchmates at MRSM Jasin.

MRSM Jasin back then was (and still is) one of the top schools in Malaysia in terms of academic performance. Back then, the school had perhaps the finest collection of high school teachers than could be assembled this part of the world, and I only exaggerate slightly. I love my teachers at MRSM Jasin. The teachers during my time showed such force of character, with much compassion, that my two years in the school molded me all the way to my adulthood. Until today I regularly visit my teachers (I make it a point to visit MRSM Jasin once a year) and I try to make them understand how grateful I am for my experience there.

The only complaint I might have had was that it was a single-race school, so I did not have much interaction with non-Malay students.

In 1998, while in Form 4, I was selected to represent MRSM Jasin in a national mathematics contest, called the Olimpiad Matematik Kebangsaan, or OMK. OMK is the oldest and most prestigious math contest in Malaysia, and I wasn’t prepared for it when my name was submitted by my teacher. I believed that I have a slightly above average proficiency in school mathematics, but OMK was a totally new ballgame. Since this was a national-level contest, the OMK problems were designed to be beyond the normal curriculum, and solving them requires a healthy dose of creativity, rigor, and problem-solving ability.

Let me make a long story short, and fast forward from here so I can get to the point.

A few weeks later, I was announced as a winner of the OMK. I placed 2nd nationally, although I got a perfect score (the first place was won by Ong Shien Jin, who also got a perfect score, and who later went on to study at MIT and Harvard, and who remains a good friend until today).

After I won the OMK, I was invited to train with the national math team — who knew such a thing existed? — for a shot to represent Malaysia internationally. That was when I first heard about the International Mathematical Olympiad, or IMO, the prestigious annual math contest that was founded in 1959, and is the de facto “Olympics” of competitive mathematics. The IMO is a contest for pre-university students, and each country can only send 6 participants to the contest that takes place every summer in different cities.

I made the IMO team in 1999, 2000, and 2001. If I remember correctly — memory a bit hazy nowadays — I went to Bucharest (Romania), Taejon (Korea) and Washington DC (USA) for these IMOs. I was coached by Prof. Abu Osman, a brilliant mathematician who is a demanding taskmaster yet at times a kindly father figure to me.

My involvement in IMO eased my transition somewhat into tertiary education. I received scholarship offers as well as offers from various universities in the US. I decided on MIT and to major in mathematics. I enrolled in the fall of 2001 and received my scroll four years later.

After my graduation from MIT, I decided to reject all job interview calls and promptly returned to KL, so I can spend time with my parents from whom I have been away for four years. I spent my days at home writing a manuscript, a kind of problem-solving guide for students who are into competitive mathematics. After being jobless for 6 months and feeling kinda bored with my personal project and with playing GTA: Vice City every single day, I decided to take a job at Khazanah. But my real passion was still mathematics education.

I left Khazanah after a year to focus on mathematics education. I started off small, conducting math programs here and there under the ArdentEdu brand. I taught tuition classes. I took up any invitation to give a talk or conduct a workshop on mathematics. Basically, anything to keep afloat (I didn’t have any savings at this point).

However, the big break came soon. In 2007, ArdentEdu was approached by a state government to conduct a statewide STEM development program, focusing on top schools and top students in the state. We quickly assembled a team and closed a deal worth half a million RM with the state government. This was a princely sum of money back then. I was 25 years old, just started a new company, with a very small office (more like broom closet), with no savings at all. To close a deal this size was nothing short of divine intervention. I stopped double-guessing my decision to resign from my corporate job and jumped headlong to pursue my true calling.

At the same time, I was heavily involved with the IMO. Since I was one of the few former IMO participants from Malaysia with a math degree, I was appointed by the Ministry of Education to be the head coach of the Malaysian IMO team, the position I held until very recently. I went to all IMOs from 2007 to 2015, and that brought me close to the international competitive mathematics community.

There are two major math competitions in the world: IMO and Kangaroo Math. Both are different in focus. IMO is the “Olympics”, meant for the elite math kids, who are going to study at the top math departments in the world and become future beautiful minds. IMO is extremely competitive; only 6 students from each country are allowed to participate in it. On the other hand, if IMO is the “Olympics”, then the Kangaroo is more like “Hari Sukan Negara”, an open-for-all, come-in-the-gate-is-open type of mathematics event which objective is not really to find champion mathletes, but to encourage students at all levels to love mathematics more. IMO involves about 600 students a year, but Kangaroo participants number about 6 million a year. IMO for the geniuses, Kangaroo for the masses.

I was (and still is) deeply involved in both IMO and Kangaroo, in IMO as a national team coach and in Kangaroo as the national director. Through my participation in both contests, I became active in the international mathematics education community, and from my interactions with mathematical educators from around the world, I got to learn about the mathematics curricula and standards in other countries.

I also became active in other international organizations that deal with math education such as the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, a US-based organization serving US math teachers, but whose annual conference is a huge event attracting 10,000 participants), ICMI (International Commission on Mathematical Instruction), WFNMC (World Federation of National Mathematics Competitions, of which I am the current rep for Asia), and others.

 

What is the point of telling you all this?

The point is: I do not dabble.

I don’t do dabble.

Whatever my professional activity is, it is not dabbling. I only dabble in hobbies, like collecting postcards and doing NYT crossword puzzles (both of which are my actual hobbies, by the way). But not in my work. Work is destiny. You only live once — so work is a serious matter.

Pandai is an idea whose root was planted 22 years ago. It is more than an interest of mine. It is my lifelong passion and my professional destiny. I have spent almost my whole adult life thinking and contemplating and working on mathematics education, and in this field, I consider myself a lifelong learner and a perpetual rank amateur.

The Pandai idea is a natural progression of the lifelong passion I have of mathematics education. Simply put, my whole professional schtick is all about making people love mathematics more. And to make learning mathematics sucks less.

(By extension, my interest in mathematics education also coincides with that of science education, both of which can be thought of to be under the umbrella of STEM education, which, in turn, is under the bigger and more inclusive umbrella of school-level education.)

So, that is why we decided to work on education technology with Pandai. It comes from a lifelong passion.

When I say “I am passionate about education”, I truly mean it and I am not merely engaging in cliché.

I did not just decide one day to resign from my day job to write an app. Anyone can write an app. Pandai is not an accidental idea. It is a logical culmination of my work at ArdentEdu for the past 13 years, as well as my work in the mathematical education community, which I consider my professional raison d’etre.

I am going to work hard on Pandai.

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