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The Power of Words

25 Aug 2017


Djohan bin Abdul Rahman, Bishan Park Secondary School, President’s Award for Teachers 2017 Recipient

Words – whether spelled out in a board game, or said in encouragement – have made a difference in the lives of Djohan bin Abdul Rahman’s students.

All Djohan bin Abdul Rahman wanted to do was to find a way to motivate some of his students, who were struggling with family issues and low self-esteem.

He ended up creating something that benefits close to 500 students from over 85 schools each year.

Today, the Hawazi Daipi National Malay Scrabble Competition is a signature event of the MOE Malay Language Learning and Promotion Committee, and it continues to expand. This year, teachers competed alongside students for the first time.

The competition grew out of Djohan’s observation that his students lit up whenever they answered a question correctly, or did well in some assignments. He wanted to find a way to sustain that spark.

He found it in Scrabble, or Sahibba as the Malay-language version is called. He used the game in class, giving his students the satisfaction of forming words correctly, even if they did not win. Seeing how effective it was, he collaborated with Potong Pasir Community Club and MOE to organise the first edition of the competition in 2011.

It was hard work. “It requires a lot of planning and logistics…lots of correspondence with many teachers to explain the format and design of the competition, and getting the necessary logistical support. Whenever there is a competition, it will take few months to prepare... But everything is worth it when you see the students learning.” said Mr Djohan.

Six years on, Djohan is pleased that his efforts are still paying off.

One primary school principal saw some of his students playing the game at recess recently, and bought 15 more sets for the school. He formed an interest group called Sahibba Gang, and they are now practising for next year’s competition.

Djohan remembers how a boy approached him in the street one day. “Remember me?” he asked. Djohan did not, but it turned out that two years earlier, he taught the boy how to spell “mengecas” – Malay for “charge” – during the tournament, and the boy never forgot it.

Incredibly, Scrabble is not the only national competition Djohan has put together to promote the Malay Language and culture.

As far back as 2001, he initiated the National Dikir Barat Competition with the same intent, albeit at the primary school level. And between 2012 and 2014, he worked with The Esplanade to organise and facilitate the Malay Story Telling Competition for lower primary and upper primary students respectively.

Walking The Talk

Beyond all these efforts, Djohan simply wants to convince his students that the path to a better life is through education, and that they are capable of successfully treading that path.

He readily shares his own journey with them: graduating from Vocational and Industrial Training Board (VITB), working as a technician and actor, then applying to be a teacher. He did not have his ‘A’ Level certification at the time, but in a show of amazing grit, he studied for it and his Diploma in Education concurrently.

He believes in lifelong learning.  After teaching for a number of years, he took three years of no-pay leave to pursue a degree in Malay Studies so that he could deepen his knowledge and skills in the teaching and learning of the Malay Language.

“I would like to walk the talk [of lifelong learning]… If I can do it, my students can do it too,” he says.

At least one student has followed in his footsteps. Fatimah, who topped her pre-school teacher training course at ITE, said she made her career choice because she was inspired by the way Djohan taught her.

Going Out of the Way to Help

Another of his student was moved in a far more profound way. She was struggling with her studies and she was even caught in the middle of the night by the police for loitering.

But she had a noble dream: to become a nurse.

When it looked like she would not do well enough to qualify for a nursing course, Djohan intervened. He counselled her and coached her in Malay. He went out of his way to research job placements, collect brochures, and seek out friends who were in the healthcare industry so as to support her in her dream

She eventually overcame the temptation to give up, passed her English and Malay O-levels, and got a place in ITE’s nursing course. As the teacher who had the greatest influence in her life, she gave Djohan the only ticket she received for her graduation ceremony.

Today, she is a registered nurse at the Singapore National Eye Centre, and still contacts Djohan regularly to update him of her professional progress and well-being.

He is like a father figure. He is always ready to help. But like fathers, when you do something wrong, he won’t let you get away with it. – Farisya Elyna Putri Mohamed Saleh, Secondary 4