Ujian Penilaian Surat Rasmi
October 17, 2010

The following article was published in The Star on October 17, 2010.

So, do you know the answer?” she asks.

Perhaps the curious look on my face isn’t good enough to hide my confusion. Well I have been staring at the same question for a good seven minutes now. It’s getting obvious that I’m as clueless as a clown at a bachelor’s party.

It’s my sister Sarah. She’s sitting for the UPSR and I’m trying to help her out with Science, my favourite subject in primary school. Partly because I got to perform surgery on frogs. But mainly because it wasn’t in the exam.

That’s right. In 1995, we only had four subjects for UPSR: Pemahaman (grammar), Penulisan (writing), English and Math. In fact, we were the last batch to have four subjects. The following year, the Education Ministry felt that five was a nicer number and included Science – which made our juniors in school hate us more than they already did.

On hindsight, clearly we had it easier back then. Plus, questions were only in one language. Students these days have to wrestle through Maths and Science in English and Bahasa. It’s a miracle that the English paper questions aren’t translated into Bahasa as well.

But that’s me talking today, at 27. When I was 12, UPSR was all that mattered. It was the biggest deal, after comics. Doing well in that exam would take me to the top of the world. Flunking it was an unimaginable disaster.

I was under intense pressure. Imagine Messi at the World Cup, Phelps at the Olympics, or even Mawi at Akademi Fantasia 3. So much hope was placed on me by my parents. And the expectations of teachers I had to meet. I couldn’t bear the pain of letting anyone down.

UPSR was my first big test in life. The starting point that led to other milestones such as going to college, getting a job, paying taxes, getting married and paying more taxes. It was a bridge that I needed to cross before I could make the transition from blue to green school pants. A hurdle I had to leap over into the world of secondary schooling, where things seemed a lot cooler.

So there I was in front of the school gate on the morning of UPSR Day 1. Standing still amidst the swarm of Year 6 students making their way into the compound. Anxiety was in the air; it was nerve-wrecking.

Even the school gardener seemed dramatic, as if he was trimming the trees in slow motion ... before I realised that it was his actual speed, being 70.

The sun was shining brightly, silhouetting a shadow that followed me as I made my way into SRK Sri Subang Jaya, Selangor, my battleground for the day. I threw a glance back at my parents at the gate as they witnessed their first child make the walk. Probably his biggest since the day he took his first step.

From a distance, I saw a ray of hope in their eyes. The same ray I saw after our solat hajat (prayers) the night before. It was only appropriate that I reciprocate with a smile, and a raised eyebrow inspired by The Rock ... to signal my confidence.

I was ready.

The first paper was Pemahaman, designed to test the student’s understanding of word usage. I breezed through the multiple-choice paper. Years of watching Malay-translated Japanese cartoons finally paid off.

Penulisan was tricky. As a subjective paper, there were a million ways of approaching it.

The possibilities were endless, not to mention that your results depend on the mood of the person marking the paper. In other words, you don’t want your paper ending up in the hands of a mother with three kids running around, while the husband watches football on TV. Make one error, and you’re doomed.

The question I chose required the student to write a letter to inform his/her class teacher that he/she wouldn’t be able to attend school as he/she needed to take care of his/her brother.

The following is a reenactment of my thoughts at the time. You can read it in the voice of Morgan Freeman.

“Right. So they want me to write a letter to Puan Rosnani and tell her I can’t come to school because my brother can’t take care of himself. Now is this letter surat rasmi (formal) or tidak rasmi (informal)? It’s not like we don’t know each other. I go cycling with her son all the time. I’ll just write her an informal letter.”

Which turned out to be a letter I should never have written.

Walking out of the exam hall, murmurs began to creep into my ear. Everyone was talking about the questions, especially the letter, and especially how easy it was, and especially, about how it should be formal, and how wrong I was.

The world, as I knew it, came to an end. Evident enough, when the results came out, I had to settle for a B.

Which wasn’t too bad considering how dire my grades were in college later on.

“Do you know the answer?” she asks, again.

I’m back in the living room with my sister’s Science workbook. Images from my UPSR days vanish into thin air. I gaze at the ceiling, momentarily reflecting on her question. Then I look at her to give my thoroughly pat answer.

“Google it.”


my favourite psrt was the 70-yr old gardener in slo-mo. another excllent piece.

honest to god - do a book. these and your tweets.

I settled for a B for my penulisan too. I didn't read the instruction after the first karangan and used all the papers I have drawing new logo for KRU, the love of my life then. I realized my mistakes too late, leaving me only 5 minutes to write my surat rasmi in half torn erased paper.

We didn't have google back then!

I think kids today are so lucky that they have all these information at their fingertip.

The only setback is that I think they tend to be more mature than their age and not enjoyed their childhood as much as we did last time.

Still, I would love to have Google in my time. Haha.

Haha...you were so adorable as a school boy!

Kids these days have it tougher and as a teacher, I see the pain and pressure translating into unnecessary anxiety, unrealistic dependence on last minute tips. Some of my boys who perpetually perform badly begin to give up by their 34564th ujian percubaan.

Such a sad thing to happen to 12-year olds~

agree with kudo! u shud write a book!! i'll be the second one to buy, after judd of course. yaya got it for free right?

come on. pls. write a book.

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Photography by Azalia Suhaimi

  • Asrif, b. 1983
  • Subang Jaya, Malaysia
  • asrifomar[@]gmail[.]com
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