Saturday, July 23, 2011

What's After SPM? A whole world awaits

Like most young people, I'm still not sure what I want to do with my life. Most people I think have an inkling of their personality and their interests, but not much of an idea of how to translate this into a vocation, career, or ideally, a calling. This is what makes the book What's After SPM?: 101 Stories, 101 Young Malaysians (edited by Roshan Thiran) so compelling. When I first got the book, I left it on my bedside table when I turned in for the night; my father picked it up, and the next day itself, he bought a few copies for my siblings and cousin. That tells you something about how important this book is, and what kind of niche it fills.

Before I continue, in the interest of full disclosure, I received a copy of this book free of charge in return for agreeing to review it. I was not given any other compensation or instructions. I also happen to know a few of those 101 Malaysians who wrote for the book -- one of whom is my co-blogger here, Kian Ming.

The title of the book is actually a little misleading; some of those who write in it, such as Kian Ming, never sat for SPM. Rather, the point of the book is to give readers a sense of what opportunities lie out there -- what ways there are to fulfill both your personal interests and goals, and simultaneously contribute to society. Each story is a little, sometimes immensely different from the others. In terms of careers, you have doctors, academics, food critics, and students -- and in terms of age, you run a veritable gamut from fresh SPM leavers to freshly minted PhDs like Kian Ming.

Every person writing is at a different stage in life, and pursuing a different life path, which is what makes this book both so useful and so interesting. Even if you would never want to be a fitness trainer or a political scientist, simply understanding how people find their callings -- and how they are continually refining their understanding of what they are called to be -- is so valuable. It does not matter how old you are or where in life you may be. My father, who by right should be beginning to think about how he will spend his retirement years, could not stop talking about the book, recommending it to all his friends. I could not put the book down either.

My personal take away from the book is that we have to embrace some degree of uncertainty about life before finding where we are called to be. Kian Ming's story is actually a good example of this -- he relates how his career as a corporate high flier was suddenly cut short, and how he stumbled around looking for his calling. But I find that almost everyone writing has something similar to share about how they had to cast around before figuring out what was right for them.

The uncertainty of this may sound frightening, but I find it an empowering message for everyone, young or old, because we are in charge of our own destinies. This book is in many ways the perfect antidote for the rigidities of SPM and our general education system, where once you are in the arts or science stream, you are ostensibly set for life. (Science stream people all become engineers or doctors, and arts stream people all become VCD sellers or fishermen, right?) What's After SPM is the perfect way to make a youth think about their future, and encourage them to take responsibility for figuring out who they want to be.

After heaping all this glowing praise on the book, you might think it is flawless. But while it is no doubt a fascinating and useful read, it could do with some improvement. The cover of the book is not terribly distinctive (I couldn't find it in the bookstore and had to ask for assistance when I was buying a copy for a friend), making it hard to stand out on the shelf. The organisation of the book is a simple ordering of each essay by the author's name alphabetically. While this is good for casual reading or flipping through, other organisational schemes might have added more value. Perhaps organising the book roughly by age of author, or type of essay, would have been good.

Probably the most annoying thing for a returning reader is that if you read a fascinating essay by that social entrepreneur or this doctor, and want to find it again, you need to remember the author's name or the essay's title. There is no index of topics covered in the book. This is quite a big oversight, and I hope the editors will address this in a future edition.

In spite of those caveats, I cannot recommend this book more wholeheartedly. Buy it for the primary or secondary school student in your life; buy it for the fresh graduate clueless about his prospects; buy it for the professional with a mid-life crisis; buy it for yourself. At the very least, you will find these stories interesting -- at best, you will have a whole new, fresh perspective on life.

You can get your copy from MPH or Borders. MPH MidValley is hosting the official book launch this August 6; I encourage you to attend and hear from some of the amazing Malaysians behind this project.