Rewriting Narratives | Learning to Be: Navigating dropout from poly
“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 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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
“I remember during the earlier part of the past 5 years, I refused to go out with my family. Because Singapore is very small, I was scared of running into them or seeing them around,” she shares.
When asked if she would jump on the opportunity to reconnect now, Fatin says that maybe it’s not time yet. “It was hard. ‘What are you doing now, are you studying or working..’ that will come up. But during those five years, I had nothing to say about myself,” she says.
“There was a lot of anxiety and embarrassment because I felt left behind by my peers. I try not to compare myself to them, but I felt very lost because I didn’t know what opportunities there were to get back.”
While the road ahead then seemed bleak, Fatin found a silver lining in her family’s support in the most unexpected of places. For instance, her birth father and eldest brother took it upon themselves to handle the technical administrative matters in school.
Her family also never pressured her to return to school or find a job during her downtime. That’s when she realised the unconditional quality of their affection towards her. “The way they didn’t change and still supported me when I needed it the most, made me think about the fact that they have always been with me,” she says.
Fatin’s mother likened her approach to parenting to an analogy: “You fly a kite, you cannot just keep pulling. What if they don’t come back? You make them fly, and you still have to hold them back.”
In spite of the events that have unfolded, Fatin’s mother counts her blessings in being able to keep Fatin within her sight.
This was also the first time the mother-daughter duo caught glimpses of each other’s vulnerability. Amidst the candid sharing, there was a welcoming stillness in the air.
It was as though these unsaid words have always been implicitly understood by the duo.
Hitting the resume button
Citing her mantra for 2022 as fake it until you make it, Fatin found a new attitude in approaching life. This was triggered by the birth of her niece and nephew.
“Taking care of this little child, I have to be more active, funny, tolerant and responsible too,” Fatin started hyping herself to think positive. Over time, she started to embody that belief.
As she pondered about the future, Fatin wanted to make sure that she gave the events that have happened proper closure. Mid-2021, she sought professional mental health support but faced difficulties finding accessible and sustainable options.
Fatin’s family was referred to a Family Service Centre after her step-father lost his job when COVID-19 hit. That’s where she got in touch with a counsellor who helped her process her grief and work towards the next chapter of her life.
“She’s constantly prompting me about what I want to do and where I want to go. This helps me know that I am going to do something about it. With her, there’s someone I have to answer to.”
Time and sufficient space to navigate at her own pace turned out to be the most effective remedy in her healing journey. “After the five years, I think I’ve already suffered the worst of it - I was just a dropout. So that was the lowest already, I don't really care about reputation anymore.”
“I don’t have to catch up to everyone. I can be content with what I’m doing, or the choices that I’ve made.”
The start of a Beautiful Life @ Hatch
Through the counsellor, Fatin was eventually referred to My Beautiful Life @ Hatch (MBL@Hatch), a digital marketing pathways program co-organised by Hatch and Beautiful People in partnership with IMDA’s Digital for Life Movement.
She was sold by single-liner on MBL@Hatch’s program poster: The program was specially catered to young women who come from unconventional walks of life.
Women from all walks of life gathered at MBL@Hatch
“The fact that it fit me so well made me expect people who are similar to me. I think being around people who are like me would be a very comforting experience.”
Still, it has been five years since Fatin immersed herself in a school setting. The idea of opening up and meeting new people daunted her.
“(I was) worried about what if they don’t like me, what if I don’t make any friends, what if I became a loner,” she recalls the thoughts racing through her mind, anxious about how the experience might turn out.
Sharing the culture they want to build in the classroom
“Anything I can control, I’ll prepare. My clothes, my things. I even set my alarm 3 hours early,” says Fatin, determined to ready herself ahead of the program, the best that she could.
The day before orientation, Fatin rallied her mother and her niece on an expedition to map out the route to the destination. She was adamant not to leave any possible mishaps that might happen to chance.
Her companions gave her extra courage whenever she needs it
The trio “hiked to the classroom”, Fatin giggled as she glanced at her companions sitting across her who complained about the sweltering heat that day. Her eyes spelt gratitude for their enthusiasm in an effort to ease her nerves.
Beautiful people in a Beautiful Life
On 9 May 2022, Fatin and her peers congregated for the first time in the experiential learning spaces of Bold At Work, located at a tranquil corner of Jurong East near Chinese Garden.
At the time of our interview, they are seven weeks into their 10-week training. Short as it may be, the girls have built an exceptional camaraderie with one another.
“They are so wholesome and so supportive. They will help anyone that they see is in trouble,” Fatin shares. “Whenever someone is looking down, everyone swarms toward that person to make sure she’s okay.”
The class also frequently breaks into TikTok dances and mini karaoke sessions in between breaks, something that Fatin looks forwards to though she calls it “chaos”. Even though they see each other 5 days a week, the girls take initiative to plan outings to spend more time together.
“They exceeded my expectations.”
Something that Fatin appreciated about the Hatch team was their understanding that everyone works at different paces.
“The trainers are quick to catch up on everyone’s little fears, anxieties and habits. Whenever someone has a question but they don’t want to speak out, they can sense it and they will go to each person individually and ask,” Fatin shares.
Trainers tailored their approach to each student and frequently explored different ways to help them bridge their understanding of concepts that might be difficult to grasp.
Understanding also manifested in the form of compassion. Some of Fatin’s classmates have had to take time off from the program due to personal reasons, and the Hatch team was committed to working out alternative arrangements with them.
“That’s unimaginable in traditional education institutions. It’s harder to approach your teachers whenever you have an unconventional reason. You have to produce an MC (medical certificate) if you’re sick, or hit a certain attendance quota to pass a course,” Fatin says.
“In Hatch, they already know our struggles, so it’s easier to start that conversation.”
The next chapter
Fatin’s mother tells me that Fatin has been coming home later than usual, joining her classmates in impromptu food and shopping trips after class.
“Now she has this program, she can go out to see the world, even if it’s just crossing the road,” laughs Fatin’s mother, referencing how the classrooms are conveniently located a 10-minute walk from their family home.
But for Fatin, her heart will always be where her family is.
“I want a lot of freedom and flexibility to spend a lot of time with my family,” she shares. Her biggest motivation now is to take care of her family. “I want to be around them. I have to earn a lot so that I can keep them around me, maybe buy a big house so that everyone can stay together.”
Whenever she’s asked about her past now, Fatin has a renewed sense of confidence to own her narrative. Being in the program has validated her journey to healing, no matter how many detours it took for her to get here.
“It’s good to know that I’m not so hurt by it anymore. I finally made some sort of progress,” Fatin says.
As the interview drew to a close near the 3-hour mark, Fatin’s niece yawns, tugging her sleeve and murmuring: “Why so long?” Fatin gently pats her niece’s head patiently and says: “I have a lot of stories to tell”.
I asked if she had the chance to extend the same grace to her younger self, what would she tell her.
Fatin says: “It’s okay to take the time to heal yourself and learn slowly. Everything will turn out okay in the end, because I went through whatever I went through, and I’m here.”