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Rewriting Narratives | Learning to Be: Navigating dropout from poly

Updated: Jul 7, 2022

Fatin is one of the ladies from our Pathways Program, Our Beautiful Life @ Hatch, co-organised with Beautiful People in partnership with Infocomm Media Development Authority’s Digital for Life Movement. Find out what it means to find peace in just being. Read Fatin’s story captured on film.

Words by Wing Lum

Photos by Ally

“The fact that I’m only now joining a program like this, is pretty much telling of how long it took to heal from that.”

25-year-old Siti Nur Fatin Binte Musa beamed with tenacious resolve as she shared her life journey up to this point. Though it seems she has now cloaked on a cape of confidence, the path to acceptance didn’t come easy.

We sat on the charcoal polyester sofa with Fatin, her mother, and her 4-year-old niece as we broached the subject of how Fatin has embarked on the road less travelled.

Her niece, blissfully unaware of the ensuing conversation, gleefully nibbles off the chocolate chips from the top of the Raya cookies baked by the mother-daughter duo.

Fatin, her mother, and niece looking at old photos
Walking down memory lane as they revisit old memories through photo albums

Fatin dropped out of polytechnic when she was 20 years old, with only an O-Level certificate to fall back on. She spent the next 5 years in a state of limbo, shut off from friends and sometimes, family. That period has largely been a haze, and she’s revisiting them whole for the first time for our interview.

Certainly, a heavy topic for a light clement Monday morning. We were greeted with light drizzles that dissipated shortly after the sun broke through the clouds.

What was otherwise considered a serene start to the day was soon disrupted by familiar symphonies of buzzing and drilling of cement coming from the opposite block – much like the story Fatin was about to tell.

Growing up

There is a focal point in Fatin’s family home where light from the kitchen and living room meets. Under the arch that connected the living room to the kitchen, a giant corkboard hung on the white-washed wall.

Troves of memories stood frozen in time. Scattered across were nostalgic family mementoes of her family’s leisures, from amusement park rides to the white sandy beaches of Bali. Her late grandparents enjoyed taking the family out on vacations.

Corkboard of photos
An accidental statement furniture for the home

“I was always hyperaware of how big my family was, and I was super proud that I have so many cousins,” Fatin muses, describing her cousins around her age group as “large enough to play soccer at the void deck”.

Before her mother remarried in 2011, Fatin and her two elder brothers were raised by her single mother for 12 years. Fatin’s eldest brother acted as the closest thing to a second parent. “Because he started working first, he was the one that brought us out to eat the things that were too fancy to eat,” she recalls, breaking into a smile.

The early days of Fatin's childhood were often spent accompanying her mother to her various jobs. She found joy in the compact alleys of a 7-Eleven, where her mother worked as a cashier, and in the vastness of the neighbourhood car parks, where she later took on the job as a parking warden.

Even now, Fatin and her mother are pretty much still joined at the hip.

The moments where she found her mother’s presence most resonant, were in her absence. “She had to work that hard just to support and raise all of us, that she was never without a job,” Fatin explains.

Baking with mother
Fatin gets busy every Hari Raya season to help her mother's baking side gig
“I was really protected, I didn’t really sense all the difficulties. Now I’m older, I understand that we’ve always been in kind of a precarious place financially,” she says. “My mom is my role model in terms of her strength and her bravery.”

At this moment, Fatin’s mother chimes in: “For me, what we do is for our children. What matters is they have to study right?”

So, Fatin did her best to follow the path laid out for her, like every Singaporean child.

She chose her polytechnic course based on just one criterion: its association with a stable, well-paid career path. “I just went with it because it was science.”

The events leading up to dropping out of polytechnic

The puzzle pieces started to fall when Fatin was called to meet with one of her lecturers, who told her she was falling behind in class.

The news broke Fatin. But when she turned to her lecturer for compassion and solutions, she found none. “He said that he’s relieved to see me cry because he and some teachers thought that I didn’t care about studies and school,” she recalls. “That just made me cry even more.”

Science equipment
Tools from her old course

The encounter sent her on a downward spiral. Figures who were meant to guide and help her instead chose to judge her. “My teachers were not really the people that I thought they were, to find out they thought of me in that way was super shocking to me,” she added.

To top it off, Fatin was also hitting a rough patch with her friends.

staring out the door
The push to leave school came one reason after another

“I was struggling with school, I couldn’t trust my teachers and I didn’t have people to support me.” Her absenteeism from school slowly became more frequent. Soon, she made the decision to drop out of her polytechnic course.

Building a space to let her journey at her own pace

Fatin’s resignation to reclusiveness was compounded by the uncertainty of what lies ahead. More significantly though, by the trauma of not knowing who she can trust.

Shortly after she left the course, a handful of Fatin’s classmates were up in arms, indignant towards her plight after learning what happened. A wave of regret washed over her for choosing cut-off contact with her friends.

old letters