One day, I scheduled a meeting with a lady. It was a casual business meeting so we decided to meet in a cafe, instead of an office. I have never met her before, but we talked on the phone once.
She arrived at the cafe 15 minutes late, with Starbucks cup in hand (the cafe we’re in was not Starbucks), and immediately offered an apology: “Sorry I’m late Suhaimi, I had to drop my daughter off at piano class in TTDI, a bit of traffic on the way here.”
I met her for 10 seconds, and already I picked up several signals:
That she is at least middle class (Starbucks takeaway even though we were meeting at another cafe);
That she lives in a middle-class neighborhood (the kind of neighborhood where parents send their kids to music class. Perhaps one of the neighborhoods in or around TTDI);
That her family is well-off (dropping her daughter in the afternoon means she does not have to keep a 9 to 5 job). Perhaps a high-income spouse, or inheritance, or both;
These are signals. Signals are not perfect. It could be the case, for example, that she used an empty Starbucks cup to fill in Ribena, her favorite beverage; or that she lives in a PPR flat; or that the piano class is free of charge, or really cheap; or that she actually worked desk office job, but that was her day off. But then again, probably not.
The signals were too strong, and Occam’s razor presumes that my initial assumptions were all right on the spot.
(Not to mention the signals I picked up from her middle-class demeanor. I recognize a certain poise common to well-to-do middle-class ladies, even when they dress casually, that cannot be faked by the working class.)
The signals being what they were, it made my job easy. I dealt with her accordingly as I would a middle-class person (even made a correct guess on where she went to school), and the meeting went well, and we both got what we wanted from the meeting.
She did not go out of her way to tell me she’s middle class, but everything around her gave that signal. Signals I was too ready to pick up.
We deal with signals every day. We give out signals, and picked them up, in our daily lives. Signals can be subtle or not so subtle. Signals galore on Instagram and other social media. People can be coy about it, but by sharing their lives online they are really signaling their lifestyle to you, along with their expectation of how you should respond to their show of lifestyle.
Some ways we intentionally or unintentionally signal:
Namedropping. The name of VVIP you know or have met, the events you attended, the school you went to, the companies you worked at. If you mention these in a conversation with the intention of impressing the others, even slightly, then it is a form of signaling.
Using “otherness” as a proxy for good. “This supplement is imported from France and approved by the European Homeopathy Association” (not everything that came out of Europe is a Peugeot or a Volvo. Europe is a huge landmass — some parts are shitholes, even in the developed countries). “Our international school has 80% expatriate teachers” (some of the worst teachers I’ve ever met are these “expats”). Another similar trick is to show oldness. “Established since 1833” — the signal being that the business is good, otherwise it won’t be open this long.
Stereotypes. All stereotypes — racial, class, profession, religious — are forms of signaling. Stereotypes exist for a reason, and though it feels good to be “woke” and judge every human as unique individuals, our biological instinct causes us to treat people as stereotypical members of their groups. Our brains have evolved to be able to make statistical calculations whether bad things are likely to happen, based on the existing information, i.e., the stereotypes.
I am perhaps guilty of using signaling more than most people, seeing that I made a living on a hustle, or, in a more respectable term, on pitching businesses to my clients. I know some of the psychological sales tricks, to appear humble and shy and subdued, and to project signals to clients, rather than saying things outright. Talking straight is sometimes a virtue, but at other times, the situation calls for the opposite: niceties, beating around the bush, unspoken innuendos. In that situation, don’t just say it, signal it.
I cannot believe this. My sense of time is warped up. I still remember clearly what I did on 1st January 2000. I was painting the side door of my parents house. I was 18 at the time, the paint was brown and I can still remember the smell of the fresh paintjob.
That was two decades ago.
2020 is supposed to be the year when we arrive at some sort of techno-utopia, or at least in the Malaysian version of futurology, the year of us joining the ranks of developed countries. We are not there yet. But, to be frank, I couldn’t care less.
We don’t need flying cars. Spare me the smart refrigerators, robot maids and instant delivery drones. We don’t need more automation. Is life all about maximizing efficiency? What’s next? A robo-AI data-driven smart machine to decide how much Vitamin D that I should ingest a day to the nearest 0.1 micrograms, and nanorobots to deliver them into my esophagus? Where does it all stop? Do we really need 10 thousand TV shows and films and 100 million songs at our fingertips? Can we do without being bombarded by commercials every 5 minutes of our waking hours? No, can’t do. It would be boring.
While we’re at it, why not play advertisement to fetuses? People already play Mozart to babies in the womb, why not go a step ahead and play ads instead to prep them to be future little consumers? Teach the unborn that Coke will “Refresh your Spirit” and make them “Feel the Moment”. That’s a startup idea.
Repeat after me:
the more technology the better,
the internet is supposed to be in all things,
everything needs to be upgraded,
everything around us is a startup idea,
and to be a consumer is the ultimate purpose of life.
Let Big Tech run the world, they will make it paradise on Earth.
For 2020, my wishes are for the world to be less ridiculous, for people to stop optimizing things that do not need to be optimized, for people to just sit down and take a breath and unplug and relax, for people to love others more and judge others less, for people to not have fear of missing out, and for people to discover, once again, how to be damn human beings.
Too many things happened, no need to bore you with the details of my personal and professional life.
But one event I cannot but recall.
My personal 9/11.
My mother passed away on 11 September 2019, after a very brief illness. It was the worst day of my life. Losing your mother at any age is not something you get over easily.
I took solace in the fact that all her family members were present at her deathbed (including my wife who got leave from her overseas military mission), that her illness was brief (she did not suffer for long — she collapsed one evening, and passed on the next day) and that nothing but good things were said about her after her death.
I still miss her every single day, but life goes on.
If your mother is still alive: call her, tell her you love her, ask her what she wants (and get it for her) and ask for her forgiveness. Do these regularly.
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 compassion and force of character. My two years in the school molded me all the way to 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 issue 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 at representing 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 I graduated 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 working on my personal project and 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 tiny 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.” It is an open-for-all, come-in-the-gate-is-open type of mathematics event. The 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. From my interactions with mathematical educators from around the world, I got to learn about 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. 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 genuinely 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.
Today I celebrated my 37th birthday. I specifically asked friends and family for no gift or cake. If you want to give something, a birthday wish on Whatsapp suffices.
My professor once remarked in class that major milestones in life happen during the “square years”, which means the years which are perfect squares. For those who couldn’t recall school math, perfect squares are the numbers that can be written as N x N, where N is an integer. For example:
1 x 1 = 1,
2 x 2 = 4,
3 x 3 = 9,
4 x 4 = 16,
so 1, 4, 9, 16, and so on, are perfect squares.
Life can be divided into stages based on the perfect squares.
0 to 1: Baby.
1 to 4: Kids develop intelligence. They absorb learning data from their environment, just like an AI machine (except they don’t need billions of data sets). At this stage, kids develop a “picture” of the world via their senses.
4 to 9: The end of toddlerhood. Kids this age start to develop their own internal logic and constantly ask questions. Often rambunctious creatures with their own unique personalities.
9 to 16: Reign of Hormones. Puberty, sexual discovery, and development of sexual reproduction ability.
16 to 25: Early adulthood. Basically, impostors who have no idea what they are doing. Some get married.
25 to 36: Finally, they have some ideas.
36 to 49: By now, people are supposed to have adulting all figured out. Some indications of aging will appear but still considered young.
49 to 64: The new young.
64 to 81: The new middle-aged.
81 to 100: The new golden years.
100 to 121: Old.
Note: This is not a scientific theory. I made all of these up.
Three months ago, I signed up for a class on EdX. This is an MIT statistics class called 18.6501x: Fundamentals of Statistics. Despite the name, this is not an intro class, but rather intermediate-level.
I have never been a competent stats guy; I knew a bit about the topic from an intro to stats class that I took (at the actual ‘Tute campus) many years ago, and from dealing with Mickey Mouse-level statistics problems in my line of work.
The class is part of the MIT Micromasters Program in Statistics and Data Science, which comprises a sequence of classes in statistics, programming and data analytics, and if you can finish them all, you’ll get a “micromaster” degree, whatever that means. I want to get on the big data bandwagon too!
The class is challenging but well-designed. The prerequisites are linear algebra, basic statistics and general competency with calculus-level mathematics. I’ve forgotten more mathematics than I remember (a function of disuse and aging) but fortunately, I still find the prerequisites familiar ground. I aced the first few sections (parametric models, confidence level, hypothesis testing) until I got to the challenging parts toward the end (Bayesian, linear regression, generalized linear model) which kept me up during late hours on some days.
The workload is quite substantial; I spent about 6 hours a week on the course videos, exercises, and homework problems. The homework problems can be quite tricky.
Alhamdulillah, after a grueling final exam which I took last week, I finally completed the course.
Perhaps the actual MIT kids taking the real-life version of the course would find the final paper really easy, but I am not as sharp as I once was, so I am a bit proud of my achievement. I admit that I don’t care so much about finding the right answers as I do about understanding how to get the answers (the hallmark of non-college-aged students), so any problem that requires a full-page of mathematical calculations, I skipped.
I got my final results today. Either I am not an old dog yet, or you can actually teach this old dog new tricks, I do not know which, but I actually learnt something from the class, and I am happy to kind of aced it in the process!
Please excuse my slight brag — I haven’t taken any college class proper since I graduated 15 years ago and I felt slightly giddy when I got the final results in my email.
Some may ask, how do I keep my motivation to finish the class while working full-time and raising a family? The answer is quite simple. I have weak internal motivation. But, EdX has an option where you can get an online official certificate. This costs US$300 per course, and although I am not poor, that is still a lot of money for me. Once I signed up for the certificate and paid, there is no way for me to not finish.
The Kangaroo Math Competition is an international mathematics competition that was founded by Andre Deledicq in 1991. It is one of the largest academic competitions in the world, with more than 6 million participants annually. Currently, it is organized under the aegis of Association Kangourou sans Frontières (AKSF) which is based in Paris.
Kangourou sans Frontières is an international association founded in France, which is formed by maths lovers from all over the world. Motivated by the importance of mathematics in the modern world, their passion is to spread the joy of mathematics, support mathematical education in school and promote a positive perception of mathematics in society. The main activity of Kangourou sans Frontières is designing the annual Kangaroo Mathematics Competition. Mathematical problems in multiple-choice form are offered to children of all school levels. The questions are not standard textbook problems and come from a large variety of topics. Besides inspiring ideas, perseverance and creativity, they require imagination, basic computational skills, logical thinking and other problem solving strategies. Often there are small stories, surprising questions and results, which encourage discussions with friends and family. The organisation of the competition in the individual countries is up to the members of Kangourou sans Frontières.
Malaysia started joining AKSF in 2012 when I was invited to the AGM that took place in Cyprus. I heard about AKSF for the first time through a good friend, the late Dr. Buras Boljiev, who was already a member. I then applied to the AKSF Board and got promptly approved and invited to attend the AGM (the fact that I’ve been involved in the mathematics competition scene for many years through the IMO seems to help). After the Cyprus meeting, Malaysia was accepted as a provisional member, and 3 years later, after running three successful Kangaroo contests, Malaysia was awarded full membership in the AKSF.
Currently, I am the national representative to the AKSF, but I have not been attending the annual meeting since 2017 due to various work and personal commitments. My team members Faiz Ismail and Aidel Salleh attended the two most recent meetings on my behalf.
The Kangaroo competition takes place simultaneously among all participating countries, on the third Thursday of March every year. As the date usually coincides with the Malaysian mid-term school holidays, we normally schedule the Kangaroo to take place one week after the global Kangaroo dates.
The Kangaroo contest is decentralized, meaning that there is no venue where all the students take it at the same time. Instead, the contests are organized separately at all participating schools in Malaysia, each invigilated by a teacher.
The Kangaroo contest has been growing rapidly in Malaysia; from 10,000 participants in the first edition in 2013 to more than 40,000 participants in 2019, representing more than 1600 schools around the country. All types of schools participate — national / national-type schools, private schools, international schools, matriculation colleges, even tuition centers, and individual candidates.
The philosophy of Kangaroo is to create a fun and engaging way for students to develop their problem-solving abilities in mathematics, as well as popularizing the subject among schoolchildren in Malaysia. The contest is designed to emphasize the fun and educational aspect of mathematical problem solving, not the competitive aspect (though we award medals to the winners). It is not similar to “math olympiad” type contests where the goal is to outperform other students to get to the next level.
There is no “second round” in the global Kangaroo contest — students are supposed to be awarded based on their performance and are to be congratulated for their efforts through mathematical activities and conferences that bring together students and teachers for the sake of their love of mathematics. However, Malaysian students being competitive as they are, there were lots of demands for a further level of competition among the Kangaroo winners. We experimented with the concept for the first time in 2019, to a positive response.
The Kangaroo Malaysia paper is quite special in that it is the only quadrilingual mathematics paper in the country. It is provided in Bahasa Melayu, English, Mandarin, and Tamil (for Tamil primary school students only).
The competition is divided into 6 categories:
Pre-Ecolier (Year 1-2)
Ecolier (Year 3-4)
Benjamin (Year 5-6)
Cadet (Form 1-2)
Junior (Form 3-4)
Student (Form 5-6, or equivalent).
The names of the categories follow the original categories from the French competition. The Malaysian Kangaroo paper doesn’t differ much from the original papers provided by AKSF; only the languages are different. Even the names in the paper (mostly European names, since the problems were proposed by European composers) are left intact and did not get changed into Malaysianized names.
What makes the Kangaroo contest special is that it is part of something bigger, not merely an academic quiz or contest with no overarching objective. Kangaroo is a global grassroots movement to promote mathematics education, with the contest being the flagship program (it attracts close to 7 million participants every year). There are many mathematics programs such as summer camps, conferences, and exchange programs that are organized by member countries, as a follow up to the contest. The main idea of Kangaroo is to make children around the world love mathematics.
The Kangaroo is endorsed by the Ministry of Education, and participants are eligible for PAJSK marks, which are awarded to national school students for co-curricular activities. We are glad that the Ministry has collaborated with Kangaroo Malaysia to bring the Kangaroo objectives closer to being realized.
The next Kangaroo Malaysia contest will take place on 26 March 2020. To get more info, and to participate, visit our official website http://kangaroomath.com.my/
Even defining what education is seems intractable.
We agree that schools, and people who are in them — students, teachers, and school admins — and the activities that take place in the classroom during the times when the classroom operates are essential parts of “education”. To this, we can include everything that has to do with schools and schooling: co-curricular / extracurricular activities, after-school programs, sports, and physical education, soft skills, sahsiah, discipline, civic-mindedness, and so on.
Beyond that, defining what education is is a bit dicey.
We can sprawl the definition into all directions until “education” covers everything under the sun. But it helps no one to talk in generalities. To avoid the banal, we have to be specific. When I refer to education, what I mean the education process as practiced in schools (the other types, while important, should be discussed separately).
Education is simple: impart knowledge, passion, skills, hopes, dreams, life lessons, and everything you deem good to your students, so they can be complete human beings. Simple, but not easy.
Everything in education should be geared towards achieving this objective. Insofar as anything helps reach this goal, it is useful. Otherwise, it is just a distraction. And that includes technology.
Do watch this video on the past technologies that were supposed to “revolutionize” education:
(Spoiler alert: All of them failed.)
The takeaway from the video is: do not buy the hype.
The current top comment for the video on Youtube:
I have been teaching for 48 years & what past students have always said about me was: Thank you for caring about me, for making me feel important, for making me feel special, getting me excited, motivated & inspired, about what you were teaching. How I was always enthusiastic & excited about what I was teaching, & how I took an INTEREST in them. One student I taught thanked me for giving him a condolence card when his dog got run over it made him want to do the best he could do in my class because I gave him my personal time to buy the card and then to write words that helped ease the pain of his loss. It’s because of all of the above that I believe technology will never take over from teachers. However, technology used in conjunction with the good teacher’s (as outlined above) teaching a big fat YES. At 73 I am continually developing my expertise with technology so I can, where appropriate, incorporate with my teaching. I am so excited about teaching next year in my 74th year & 49th year of teaching in this wonderful and rewarding profession.
Pandai is “clever” in the Malay language. Someone who is pandai is implied to have intelligence, and a bit of cunning (as opposed to being intelligent only, which is normally labeled as pintar instead of pandai).
To be called a budak pandai (clever kid) is perhaps the highest possible praise a child can get, alongside being called a budak baik (good kid).
Pandai is the name of the educational app which has been developed by Aidan Group in 2019, and have since then spun off as its own company.
The Pandai app will be in the market in January 2020.
The History of Pandai: The Aidan Years
In 2007, I and four other friends, who have known each other since our school years, founded Aidan Group. At the time, we were 25 years old. I was a junior analyst in Khazanah Nasional, the investment arm of the Malaysian government. I worked at Khazanah in the mornings and laid down the groundwork for what would be Aidan in the evenings. In April 2007, when Aidan was ready for business, I resigned from Khazanah and promptly started work in Aidan the very next day.
The other co-founders are Akmal, Alif, Iznan, and Khairul. They are still with Aidan, except for Alif, who left 2015 to pursue other vocations.
Since 2007, the Aidan Group and the companies under it (AidanTech and ArdentEdu) have been growing steadily but slowly. From no staff at all — just the 5 founders in one small room — we have grown to be a company with 80 people on the payroll as of the end of 2019.
There are two major operating companies under the Aidan Group: AidanTech and ArdentEdu.
AidanTech is a major player in the government IT industry. They provide IT services to a large number of ministries, agencies, institutions, commissions, and all types of organizations in the Malaysian government bureaucracy. AidanTech also serves a sizable number of clients in the private sector, but they operate mainly in the public sector. Some of the technologies developed by AidanTech have spun off as separate SaaS (software as a service) companies, which continue to grow on their own.
Among the flagship programs of AidanTech is the ConFIG annual conference, which brings together a huge number of IT officers from government organizations, for several days of networking and technology updates. Akmal and Khairul run AidanTech, until recently.
ArdentEdu is an educational program provider. When I tell people I run an educational company, people assumed that I run tuition centers, or go around to schools giving motivational talks. For many years, those are the only two types of educational business prominent in the market. We did neither. ArdentEdu focuses on STEM — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — with a strong emphasis on the M, to reflect my background in mathematics.
ArdentEdu started off by developing modules on science and mathematics, and conducting STEM programs at schools. Over the years, the offerings of ArdentEdu have diversified, and we now rake in revenues of several million RM a year. I am proud to say that Iznan and I, with support from our team members which have been changing throughout the years, have built ArdentEdu from scratch, from “jual air liur”, to the respectable education company it now is.
Although ArdentEdu might not be well-known as a brand (a decision which is intentional), some of our programs have become quite popular. For example, our Kangaroo Math Competition, started in 2013, now has an enrollment of more than 40,000 students, which covers 15% of schools in Malaysia. The Kangaroo has become somewhat of a beloved brand with devoted enthusiasts among Malaysian students and teachers.
The “STEM boom” that started at around 2012 was quite beneficial to ArdentEdu; since then many companies have set up shop to sell STEM materials (toys, robots, mini-computers, coding classes, etc.) and the public is now familiar with these types of STEM-oriented education business and so we don’t have to explain ourselves at length anymore when people ask us what is our business; people do not automatically assume we do motivational talks or tuition classes anymore.
In short, in the first 10 years, the Aidan founders have grown a company organically from scratch, through the startup bootstrap model and no external funding, and we have since placed Aidan as a respectable, mid-sized player in the govtech (AidanTech) and education (ArdentEdu) industries in Malaysia.
However, like any entrepreneur, things are never enough.
The Pain of Growth
We wanted to grow more.
For more than two years, we (the four of us Aidan founders) debated where to bring our companies next. Should we spend capital and start a new company outside the industries we are in? Just because? There were talks on starting a trading firm, a manufacturing company, even buying factories with dwindling outputs, just to turn them around. We entertained ideas on entering the food business, the travel business, even trading commodities. Though most ideas we floated were silly, it was a good exercise in perspective, to examine our strengths and limitations.
We talked to numerous people in various industries, just to get an idea on which industry is ripe for entry, and where we should venture into next. We had several day-long retreats to discuss these issues, and had countless discussions over lunch, coffee, or anytime we happen to meet. Since 2017, we were restless, wanting to make a move, but not knowing what to do.
Things came to head during Ramadan (about May, if I remember correctly) of 2019, when we have had enough discussions and debates and proposals and ideas. We had to decide how to move. We forced ourselves to decide.
And the solution couldn’t have been more simple. In fact, it had been right in front of us since the beginning.
Pandai as Aidan 2.0
We decided to scale our original businesses. (Yawn.)
By scaling, we do not mean making it bigger or with more reach. We meant scaling in a slightly different way. Let me explain.
AidanTech has worked long enough in the govtech industry with a track record that established their credibility in this sector. This was achieved by sheer grit and hard work; no hanky-panky, no coffee with puan pengarah, and no cable-fication needed. And we had a large team behind us. From serving a large number of government clients, we had developed our own technological asset and knowledge base aligned to the latest developments in govtech.
This is factor X.
ArdentEdu, on the other hand, has been at the forefront of education trends since its founding in 2007. Before STEM became the media buzzword, we had organized more than 60 math and science camps annually, and have introduced problem-solving modules way before HOTS is introduced in the national education standards. When the ministry wanted to introduce Computational Thinking in schools, ArdentEdu was appointed to study the best practices in 7 countries (US, UK, Australia, Singapore, Denmark, Estonia, and Finland) to report to the government. This we did with much alacrity and in 2015 we visited all countries and later in the year Iznan presented our findings to the DG of Education. The findings became a basis for the Asas Sains Komputer and Sains Komputer subjects that were introduced in 2017. After countless committees and panel meetings later, ArdentEdu has become more than a program organizer or a STEM toyseller; we are now involved directly in educational policy.
This is factor Y.
The two factors add up well: X + Y, our competence in building a technological system (mainly for the government) through AidanTech, paired with our experience and deep knowledge in the education sector through ArdentEdu, suggests that the way forward is in education technology.
Edutech (some called it edtech) is the way Aidan will move forward.
So we settled on the industry. Still, edutech can mean a hundred different things to a hundred different people. Kahoot is edutech. Byju’s in India is an edutech company valued at 5.5 billion USD. EdX and Coursera are edutech. The highly hyped but ultimately meh AR and VR technologies are edutech. Heck, our own dead Frog VLE was edutech.
So what is the way to go?
The only right answer is — whatever the market wants.
Not what the smart kids want. Not what the rich parents want. Not what tech speakers want. Not what VCs and investors talk about. It should be what the majority of educational users and customers in Malaysia wants. The market, as we define it, is the majority.
In Malaysia, the majority of educational users are teachers and students. However, the actual customers are the parents, since they are the ones forking the money.
The majority are students who go to government schools. There are 5 million of them. Although the elites and the middle class make the most noise in the educational discourse in Malaysia, the fact remains that most Malaysian kids still attend government schools. (This, despite whatever complaints they have about the education system. In a sense, this is not our problem. Our problem is to provide the users and customers with what they need. Fixing the education system is the job for the higher authorities.)
First Things First
So, our first step is market research.
Learn what the market wants, converge to an idea, develop several permutations of that idea, bounce off the idea (and all its possible permutations) with potential customers, and validate them with real data.
We found that there is no shortage of people who are willing to give their opinion on education. Everybody and their grandaunts want to talk about education and the shortcomings of the education system. We learned to filter out those who are simply ranting about the education system, and focus on listening to teachers and students (the younger the better — young kids are clear in their preferences), about what they want, and what they need and what they are willing to pay.
And once we have identified the idea we set forth to validate them.