Idealism in teaching

When you see a need, you can either be apathetic or you can do something about it. Noticing a huge gap between students in good schools and those in under-privileged schools, Dzameer Dzulkifli decided to give up his career at an international consulting firm to co-found an educational NGO that has made a huge difference in the lives of tens of thousands of students.

Dzameer speaks to Savvy about his motivations for starting Teach For Malaysia, the source of his idealism, and what he hopes to achieve in the long run.


How would you describe Teach For Malaysia (TFM)?

I like how a former colleague and good friend, Shie Haur, described Teach For Malaysia. We have the heart of an NGO, the soul of a social enterprise, the brain of a corporation and the tax-exemption status of a charity!

What was it like working for Pricewaterhouse Coopers?

Initially it was challenging, as I did not develop enough soft skills in university. But at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), I had a great manager and mentor who helped me develop those skills and within a year I successfully transitioned from a fresh graduate to a young employee. By my second year in PwC, I was thoroughly enjoying the work environment.

Yet you left that job in order to start a NGO. Where does your idealism come from?

My idealism was probably seeded in my youth ­— reading too many comics and watching too many movies about right and wrong! It was always about doing the right thing. It probably helped that my parents were successful in their careers and therefore didn’t need me to support them financially. To be honest, I’m a bit nervous about starting my own family and providing for them. I suppose having my own kids would be a true test of whether I’m able to remain idealistic.

You once volunteered to teach Mathematics at the UNHCR myanmar Refugee Education Centre in Kuala Lumpur. What prompted you to do that?

The volunteering stint came from a realisation that I did not balance my time at university. My time was split between academics, sports and music, but I still felt something was missing. As I was complaining about this over dinner at my grandmother’s house one day, she “voluntold” me to teach at a centre she was actively involved in.

How much of that played a role in spurring you to create TFM?

Actually, that volunteering experience wasn’t pivotal in the founding of Teach For Malaysia. It was my experience of failing to get into the Teach First programme in the UK that really motivated me to start Teach For Malaysia. I had cruised through my studies by scoring well in exams and didn’t see or feel the need to stretch myself in other areas. The crushing rejection from Teach First was the first spark of self-awareness for me. Later, when Keeran, a colleague in PwC, pushed the idea that we should start Teach For Malaysia, I thought, yes, we should do this!

What do you think can be done to promote more idealism amongst Malaysians?

I believe social impact work cannot be viewed as sacrifice as it would then be unsustainable. Instead it must be perceived as truly a win-win situation for all parties involved. Teach For Malaysia’s focus on leadership development is critical towards driving change in the communities we work in. However, it also helps provide a very clear benefit for the career progression of our alumni as it’s transferable into any other field they choose to pursue after that. Many employers line up to recruit our alumni and this element greatly allays our applicants’ parents’ concern that their child had studied so hard only to “end up as a teacher”!

How many teachers have you recruited so far and how many students have benefitted from TFM?

We’ve recruited over 360 Fellows. As for students, the most conservative estimate is 73,000 as of 2017 but we don’t have enough resources to track all of the students our Fellows have worked with in the classroom.

The middle class are able to send their kids to private schools. Are the poorer students doomed to be disadvantaged because richer students have access to better schools?

There’ll always be a gap and at the moment the gap is very, very large. I do hope in my lifetime that the Teach For Malaysia movement can be a catalyst for a deep systemic and structural reform. We’ve seen London shift from one of the worst performing regions in the UK, 15 years ago, to becoming the best today. Teach First contributed greatly to that large scale transformation. I hope in time the gap in Malaysia will reduce significantly and there’ll be a point when more and more middle class families would find that the public schools do provide quality education and this would further reinforce the virtuous cycle of improvement.

What is the main difference your teachers bring to the students they teach?

This is very hard to say as I don’t like comparing our teachers to existing teachers because we want to work together with the system. However, we recognise the differences in our recruitment, selection and training approaches. Teach For Malaysia’s approach is solely focused on placing teachers in low-income communities. That allows us to be very deliberate in the design and execution of the programme and our teachers are extremely well-supported for the technical and emotional challenges that come along with it.

Teachers who sign up for TFM work for two years. What happens after that?

About 30 per cent continue as full-time teachers for the Ministry of Education, 37% continue working in the broader education and social sector, while the others are in a range of roles across Corporate Malaysia or pursuing further studies.

How much of TFM’s funding comes from the government, how much from the private sector’s CSR programmes and from public donations?

Currently 20 per cent is from the government, 77 per cent from private sector and 3 per cent from individuals who support our programme. We’ve been lucky to have some long-term supporters like Yayasan Hasanah, YTL, UBS, Jeffrey Cheah Foundation, Yayasan DayaDiri and many more. We are also finding that many individual Malaysians are extremely generous by donating RM50 or RM100 a month to help us. So, we just have to figure out how to get the word out to many more people just like any commercial sector that wants to generate growth.

How long do you see yourself doing this?

Teach For Malaysia specifically? I would say between 10 to 15 years in total. I’ve just completed eight years. In the long run, I still do see myself in education and specifically in public sector education but the civil service at the moment doesn’t have opportunities for those from the private sector to join. So I will either have to try to influence that or explore other possibilities in creating a role to support and drive education reforms.

Do you have time for hobbies?

I think it’s of the utmost importance to have a healthy work-life balance to encourage high-performance in the workplace. I make enough time for my wife, parents, siblings and close friends. I also deliberately have a balance of action and creative orientated hobbies. Currently that’s CrossFit and gardening.


The accidental baker

She was a graphic designer by training and only baked for fun. But when her friends and family kept telling her how much they loved her cakes and encouraged her to make a career out of it, Aishah Nordin made the decision to add artisanal baker to her name.

She started by promoting her cakes via Facebook and selling mainly to friends but things picked up very quickly and she eventually quit her graphic design job to open a cake business called That Last Slice. That was in 2009. She hasn’t looked back since.

Aishah talks to SAVVY about the importance of cake design, her new interest in pastries and her plans for the future of her company.


Did you ever formally study baking?

No, I didn’t. I studied graphic design and baked just for fun. That’s why I call myself an accidental baker. It was just a hobby for me but I was able to make a really nice chocolate cake that impressed everybody. My chocolate cake was so popular that whenever we had family gatherings, I was asked to make it. One day my aunt told me to start a brand and bake professionally.


Was your chocolate cake your first breakthrough product?

Actually no, it was the Red Velvet cake. Do you recall about eight years ago there was this Red Velvet craze in Malaysia? I just got a recipe off the Internet, modified it a bit to suit the local palate and it became a hit.


You’re a self-taught baker. Do you think classes aren’t necessary?

I do think classes are necessary for certain things. I never took baking classes because I could figure things out myself when it came to baking. But I have been taking classes for Macarons and French Pastries. Cakes are pretty easy to learn how to do. You can watch a YouTube video and learn from there. But pastries are far more technical and complex. They require proper training to do well. You’ve got to get the technique right.


Do you also like cooking?

You may be surprised to hear this but actually I don’t have any passion for cooking. Of course I cook for my kids and I do actually enjoy watching some cooking shows like MasterChef, but I don’t have a strong desire to cook professionally.


Why is that?

I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s because I have a husband who’s a good cook and my mother is a good cook too. So, I don’t really have a need to cook well!


How important is cake design?

It’s very important. It’s not enough for the cake to taste good. It’s got to look good too so it can appeal to customers.


Would you say the taste-design ration is 50:50?

No, perhaps more like 40:60. That’s not to say I think that’s how it should be. But that’s how it is. Consumers care a lot about looks. People do judge a book by its cover. And they judge a cake by its design. I put a lot of effort into my cake designs. I don’t like doing super complex or fancy designs though. I prefer the clean and elegant look that’s pleasing to the eye. That’s not so easy to do though.


Does your background in graphic design help in any way?

As a graphic designer, you’re trained to look at aesthetics, to have a good balance of colours and forms. I guess I subconsciously apply that to my cake designs as well.


Do you use social media to promote your cakes?

I do. It’s mainly on Instagram. I’ve got more followers on that than on Facebook. I guess cakes are more visual and people like looking at pretty cakes.


Do you go online a lot?

Yes, I follow a few famous bakers who share their recipes and techniques. It’s always important to continue learning new things.


Do you have a lot of regular customers?

I do and they’re extremely important to me because they’re very loyal. They’ll try whatever new things I introduce. Because I care about them and want to do my best for them, in a way it helps to push me towards becoming a better and more creative baker.


Do you supply cakes to any F&B outlets?

Not many but I do supply to two cafes who buy regularly from me.


Would you ever consider opening your own cake shop?

No. If I were to open a cake shop, I’d have to think about offering savouries too. You can’t just offer dessert. That involves operating a hot kitchen. And I don’t particularly fancy cooking anyway. So, this isn’t something I want to get into.


Are you considered a home baker?

I started out as one but am not one anymore these days. I have a proper baking studio where I do my work and it’s also there that I conduct my baking classes.


Do you enjoy teaching?

I do. In fact one of the reasons I got a studio set up was so I could teach in a professional setting. But at the same time, I wanted the studio to have a very casual, home feel so I didn’t go for a shop lot. I also didn’t want an office-like environment. I made it up to look almost like a home.


What are your students like?

I have a whole mix: stay-at-home-mums, hobbyists, home bakers — mostly women but some men too.


Are there trends in baking?

Yes. There was the Red Velvet trend which I mentioned. Then there was the cupcake trend, the macaron trend, the crepes trend and so on. Now, what’s popular is something called the Unicorn Cake. I don’t do that though. It’s too cartoony for me!


Where do you see your business heading?

I want to make a name for myself in teaching. Not just cakes but pastries too. I also like the idea of providing consultancy services to restaurants and cafes that wish to revamp their dessert menus. It’d be a good challenge. And there are not many people doing that.


Adapt and adjust

One of the most important skill-sets to have is the ability to adapt and adjust to changes in the marketplace. Advancements in technology have rendered certain industries obsolete in very quick time and will continue to do so with many industries.

One guy who understood this for some time now is Andy Lim, who started out in graphic design before morphing into a web designer and subsequently taking the plunge and going into a completely different profession as a photographer.

Lim talks to SAVVY about the process of making that career change, the challenges that go with it and the importance of continuous learning so that you can continue to adapt to survive when the time comes for you change yet again.


You began your career as a graphic designer. What made you decide to move into web design?

My first job was in the advertising industry but when the dotcom boom happened, I joined a technology company to satisfy my curiosity with the Internet. It was while I was there that I honed my web design skills. Web design was a natural progression from graphic design. It utilised part of the skills I’d already mastered yet had this online element which was new and exciting. I really liked the idea that my work would be visible to the world.


What would you say characterised your design sensibilities?

My design sensibilities were largely shaped during my time in the advertising world doing graphic design. It was then that I had the chance to work with some very talented designers who today are established designers with successful businesses of their own. My role at that time was focused on corporate identity design, and I learnt to design from the pencil sketch and not the computer as my starting point.


In your time as a web designer, you did hand-coding. As a designer, you’re probably a right-brained person. Is it challenging for a right brained person to learn programming?

I was familiar with standard web design software like Dreamweaver, which was easy to use but I found that I’d have more control if I hand-coded. It took a lot of practise, believe me, but eventually I did learn how to hand-code from scratch. And this paved the way for me to achieve the next skill level which was integrating static HTML code with dynamic scripts. At that time, these included ASP from Microsoft and CFM from Cold Fusion. This all sounds very technical and it is but I had to learn it.


At some point in your career you switched to photography. How did that come about?

I had long dabbled in travel and landscape photography, which was a hobby. One day a friend asked me if I could take his wedding photos, and it turned out quite well. That gave me the confidence to do wedding photography as a part-time endeavour.

Was it difficult psychologically to make the switch from web design to photography?

When I first started charging for photography work, I still had a full-time salaried job. I did the photography on the side. So, there wasn’t a sudden leap from one profession to another. It was only when the tech company I was working with went through tough times that I had to seriously think about what I was going to do next. Do I go on with web design, which was starting to get commoditised because of the rise of many template-based services or should I throw myself into photography? I decided to be bold and become a professional photographer.


Did you take courses to equip yourself to become a professional photographer?

I was already doing wedding photography and clients were happy with my work when I made the change. So, I felt confident that I could do it just leveraging on my skill sets at the time. Of course there were areas that needed improvement but as I shot more and more weddings, I got better and better at it. And that allowed me to charge higher rates.


How did you market yourself as a photographer when you were starting out?

I started off with a blog on my personal website ( and eventually moved it to my photographer website ( Social media didn’t exist at that time so there was no Facebook Page or Instagram for me to use. I just put my portfolio on my website and relied on word of mouth for business.


You’ve carved a niche for yourself for Indian weddings. How did that come about?

One of the guests at a church wedding which I photographed asked me if I could shoot his upcoming Indian wedding. He knew I had no prior experience in Indian weddings but said that they had faith in me. I guess they must have seen my portfolio on my website. That’s why it’s important to showcase your work.


Isn’t photography a cut-throat business with many new photographers coming in and undercutting everyone else’s rates?

Yes, price cutting is rampant but I believe in setting myself apart with a consistently high standard of work and a narrower niche. So, I don’t compete on price alone although I try to be competitively priced, of course. But I’m definitely not the cheapest photographer you’ll find in the market.


If someone wanted to get into either web design or wedding photography, what advice would you give them?

Many are already jumping onto the bandwagon no matter what advice you offer. But many will eventually burn out by undercharging and overworking. My only advice is to charge what your time and effort are worth.


When looking at how the economy is changing and how the nature of jobs and employment is changing, do you think a career change is something many people will have to contend with whether they like it or not?

It may not be as drastic as a career change entirely, but it could mean changing the way we currently work in our industry. For example, I have shifted from being purely focused on stills photography to offering videography services as well.


How important is video to wedding photography?

Video is expected in a wedding package these days so I do offer it although I don’t do the video shooting myself. I’ve built up a dependable team that takes this responsibility off my shoulders, letting me concentrate on what I do best — stills photography. If there’s one thing I learned about business, it’s that you can’t do everything yourself.


What’s the most important thing for someone to future proof themselves?

We all need to be adaptable and flexible when it comes to future-proofing ourselves. Don’t rule out industries that you may not have a lot of experience in. Everybody starts from somewhere and we can all start doing something new, even if it’s on a part-time basis.


How important is the Internet to you?

The Internet is essential for doing research and marketing my business. Most of the websites I follow are related to marketing. I believe that I have reached a plateau in terms of learning technical skills in photography, but I never stop learning about marketing.


If you could go back in time to when you just finished secondary school, what career choices would you have made and why?

I wouldn’t change a thing. But as a parent I wish to equip my children with the tools and attitude to learn business skills regardless of what area they choose to go into. Business skills are essential in any industry.


Laksa specialist

WHAT do you do when you have specialty knowledge in a particular area and want to share that knowledge wide and far? You can publish a book on it! And that’s exactly what former engineer-turned-cooking instructor Nazlina Hussin did.

The Fierce Aunty’s No-Nonsense Guide To The Perfect Laksa is without doubt the most comprehensive book ever published on laksa, that very uniquely Malaysian dish that all communities love.

Nazlina talks to SAVVY about how she moved from engineering to cooking, how the laksa book came to being, and her plans for the future which naturally involves food.


How did an electronics engineer end up being a cooking school instructor?

After graduating with my electronics engineering degree from the University of Manchester, I came back to Penang to work in the engineering line. I then went into entrepreneurship when an opportunity to open a scuba diving school in the East Coast came up and I did that for eight years. When I finally returned to Penang, I found it difficult to get back into engineering because I was already older and thus needed a higher salary. But the companies didn’t want that. They preferred to hire younger engineers who were cheaper. I started a food website called Pickles and Spices ( which attracted a lot of attention, locally and abroad. One thing led to another and I ended up running cooking classes.


How did you start your cooking classes?

My very first foray into teaching cooking was with Tropical Spice Garden. I worked with them for one and a half years. It was a kind of partnership where I shared revenue with them. After that I got a contract with Eastern & Oriental Hotel to do cooking activities to entertain their guests and that lasted for a year and a half too. It was only after that that I began my own cooking school.


How did you attract students at first?

Then and now, it’s my website that brings me students. I don’t advertise much. People find me through organic search. A lot of my students are tourists — people who come to visit Penang and want to have a different, more immersive experience than just sight-seeing. They want to try their hand at traditional Malay cooking. I teach them real cooking but I also make it fun and enjoyable too.


Your background is engineering. How did you learn cooking?

Well, initially it was from my mum. You could say I was her forced helper but later I learned from the Internet, watching YouTube and so on. I was always curious about food, about what goes inside a recipe. I recall even at the age of 10 asking my mother to buy me minced meat because I wanted to learn how to make my own burger.


Did you do a lot of cooking as a student abroad?

I did but back then I was actually more interested in baking. At one point, I even secretly harboured a dream of becoming a baker someday. I’d bake bread, pizza, cakes, biscuits, you name it.


Do you still bake these days?

Not so much anymore. It’s more convenient just to buy stuff as there are lots of good bakeries around. Besides, I hate cleaning up after baking!


What made you decide to do a book on laksa?

I’ve always liked laksa and I’m very familiar with the different forms of laksa out there. What motivated me to do it was my students who asked for it. At first I wasn’t convinced a book on laksa would work but there were a lot of requests. It’s something that was gestating for about three and a half years before I finally did something about it.


Did you do a lot of research?

I did quite thorough and extensive research because I wanted it to be as authentic as possible. I didn’t want to fake it. So, I visited a lot of states to see what the laksa there were really like.


Did you do much of the work yourself?

Yes, I did the writing myself. I also did the food styling and I directed the photography. I wanted to make sure it turned out exactly as I had envisioned it.


Where do you think laksa originated from?

It’s very hard to say because Chinese people cook laksa but there are a lot of Malay versions of it too. My personal theory is that it came from Thailand because it’s spicy and sourish, which is a common characteristic of Thai food. But there’s no direct equivalent of laksa in Thailand so it must have been a dish influenced by Thai cooking rather than something imported.


In Penang where you’re from, there are two types of asam laksa — the Chinese version and the Malay version. What are the differences between the two?

The Chinese one uses more prawn paste and involves a lot more ingredients. The Malay one is very simple with just onion, chilli and fish paste as the core ingredients.


What’s your favourite version of laksa?

I like Laksa Terengganu the most. There are two types, the white kind and the red kind. I prefer the red one, which involves the use of curry powder of a specific brand: “Rose” brand. You can’t call it Laksa Terengganu unless you use that brand of curry powder! It’s very fragrant and not too fishy.


With so many different forms of laksa out there — some of which bear no resemblance to the others — is there any common denominator?

Most forms of laksa use torch ginger but even that’s not true for all. Laksa Sarawak, for example, doesn’t use torch ginger. Vietnamese mint can be found in most laksa as well.


Does every state have its own form of laksa?

Many do but not all. Sabah and Negeri Sembilan don’t seem to have any native forms of laksa, or at least I’ve not heard of any. Guess what. Selangor also doesn’t seem to have its own form of laksa!


What’s next?

I want to do a second edition of the book. The first one is only 112 pages and I had to limit the amount of content I put in there. But there are so many more things I want to share. I want it to be the ultimate guide to laksa and I want it to be perfect in every way.


Planning to do anything digital?

A lot people asked me to do a video channel on YouTube. Then, of course there are e-books that can be done and phone apps too. Actually what I need is a digital strategist to help me with this because I don’t really have time to think about it much. I teach cooking five days a week. But I’m interested in exploring all these digital opportunities. I got my start by doing a website, remember?


Jewellery and Law Entrepreneur

It wasn’t actually her plan to do anything with fashion accessories or law. In fact, June Low studied accounting. However, she caught the e-commerce bug and decided to give it a try. Later, when she spotted a brand new opportunity to venture into the legal field, she latched onto it despite having no legal background. “This is Blue Ocean territory,” she says, adding: “So, it’s a chance to really make a difference.”

Low talks to Savvy about how she made that leap from jewellery to law, her plans to deliver a host of digital 

You studied accounting but didn’t pursue a career in it. Why not?

I graduated with a degree in accountancy but didn’t finish my accounting professional paper, ACCA. I saw a huge opportunity in e-commerce and I felt I couldn’t waste any precious time or else I’d lose out. So I dropped out to pursue my first business venture, an online fashion accessories shop called A Fashion Story. Building an online jewellery store is a dream come true for every girl and I got to live it. It’s still running today, doing steady business, more or less on autopilot.


What made you shift to doing a law start up?

Building up A Fashion Story has been a great journey for me. I learnt how to solve various operational issues from top to bottom. I decided to focus on EasyLaw when I realised it was a bigger opportunity for me. E-commerce is a crowded field but there are not many start-ups involved with law. Legal technology is Blue Ocean territory which means the opportunity for growth is bigger.


Was there anything you learnt from running A Fashion Story that’s applicable to EasyLaw?

I’d say digital marketing, branding and business planning are all transferable skills that are as applicable to EasyLaw as they were to A Fashion Story.


How did you manage to build a legal tech business considering that you’re not a lawyer?

I’m not a lawyer but I personally know many friends who are lawyers. My own brother is a lawyer. I am the founder but I also have several partners in this business. So, I’m not doing it alone.


What does the EasyLaw app do?

Currently, the main feature is a tool to help lawyers and property investors calculate legal fees, stamp duties and real property gains tax for property transactions. Lawyers tend to do calculations manually, for example by using spreadsheets. Our app allows them to do the calculations faster, with just a few clicks. We also have a directory of commissioners for oaths. When used with your phone’s GPS, it can help you find commissioners for oaths nearest to you. Another handy feature is “Top 10 Malaysian Statutes”, which lawyers can use to quickly look up statutes wherever they are. The alternative is to carry physical books around. With EasyLaw, you have it on your phone.

The app is free for now. What business models do you have in mind?

As of now the app is still free. We want to keep it free for the time being to remove any barriers to adoption by lawyers and property investors alike. Monetisation can come later when we introduce premium features. For now, we’re pushing for greater adoption of our app.


Can you give an example of a premium feature?

We’re working on an online land search service. Traditionally, conveyancing lawyers throughout Malaysia need to engage runners to handle different land office dealings such as land search, application of state consent or Memorandum of Transfer. These land office dealings are pain points for lawyers especially when the property transactions are inter-state ones. Our upcoming “Easy LandSearch” function will allow them to submit their land search requests online and we’ll handle the tasks for them.


How do you market your app and how many downloads have you had?

We promote the app through digital marketing. That’s where my experience with A Fashion World comes in handy. The products are different but marketing is marketing. Good word of mouth also helps to drive adoption. So far we’ve had over 15,000 downloads since we started six months ago. It’s very encouraging.


You’ve also set up an office in Singapore. Is the Singapore app different and will you be launching apps for different countries in the region?

We have an office in Singapore and our app for Singapore is in development. Due to the different laws there, it has to be different and we’ll be launching it soon. As of now, Malaysia and Singapore will be our main focus. Once both markets are mature, we could expand to other countries in the region. Legal tech is still relatively new in Southeast Asia so there are good opportunities to be had regionally. But we’ve got to take it one step at a time.


How do you hope to change and impact the industry?

As mentioned earlier, technology adoption in the legal industry is significantly slower than in many other industries. There’s a big technology gap in the legal industry. Our team is made up of entrepreneurs, programmers and legal advisors. We know the pain points of lawyers and we can build the technology solutions to address those pain points.


How would you compare your life as CEO of A Fashion Story to your life as MD of EasyLaw?

A Fashion Story was totally within my comfort zone. Everything was predictable because e-commerce wasn’t something completely new. It’s basically a trading business done online. EasyLaw however, is virgin territory. Even when I look at legal tech in the US and UK, which is very advanced, much of it is web-based. What we’re doing is app-based which is quite new. So there’s a lot to learn. It’s very exciting though.


Do you think you’ll be doing other businesses in the future or is this it?

I can see myself focusing on EasyLaw for the next five to 10 years. Of course we don’t know what the future has in store for us but my personal goal is to make a great impact and I think I can do this through EasyLaw.


Is making “a great impact” what motivates you the most?

I’m very passionate about inspiring young people through my entrepreneurial journey — especially as a female entrepreneur. Society has certain perceptions of what women can do. If I had stuck to A Fashion Story only, people would say, “It’s a jewellery business, very suitable for a lady to do”. But they won’t expect a female entrepreneur to make a lasting impact on a sector like law. If I succeed, I think other women will be encouraged to pursue whatever it is they want to do.