When I went down to Tanjong Katong Secondary School to meet Mohamed Nazrul Shah Mohamed Noor on Monday (Jan. 13) morning, I wasn't expecting to see four women.
And I certainly didn't expect 16-year-old Nazrul to appear as confident, optimistic and vibrant as he did.
He was practically glowing, which was odd given the fact that it was the day the O-Level results were to be released — and when I met him and his family, he hadn't yet learned how he did.
Nazrul showed no signs of stress or apprehension.
But it was far from just that.
Before coming here to meet him, I was already aware of the topline details of what he went through in the past year.
Yet there he was, smiling at me with the most genuine expression I've ever received from a stranger.
Naturally, I wondered how he could look — and really seem to be — so happy.
His answer was simple: Family.
Hence, the four women by his side — his mother, Jamaliah Mustaffa, and his three older sisters, Nurul Nadiah, Nurul Natasha and Nurul Nasriah.
I can see right away, as they pose for this picture, where Nazrul's sincerity and kindness comes from. Their lovely, infectious smiles, however, reveal a quiet strength, behind which you would have to look very carefully to find the pain they all went through together losing the family patriarch less than six months ago.
Father passed away one month prior to O-levels
In September 2019, just a month before his O-Level exams, Nazrul's father succumbed to kidney cancer, which he battled for more than seven months.
Nazrul tells me he was right by his father's side, in the Tan Tock Seng hospital ward, as he watched his dad slip away.
"It was very saddening... heartbreaking."
But of course, he wasn't alone. The women in his life were there, just like how they were right there with him on this big day.
Even though I only met them for about an hour and a half, I knew that the bond this family had was like no other.
Nazrul's mother explains:
"I think that’s one thing about my husband. He likes to maintain relations.
He always stressed the importance of family and he reminded his children that because each of us are individual persons, we have to learn to compromise and to give in to each other in order to maintain this bond, which he really cherished."
That being said, no support system can prevent every instance of pain and anguish. There were moments, Nazrul says, when everything became too overwhelming for him.
"There were times where in the middle of the night, I’ll be alone in my room, then I would cry to myself and break down.
He also broke down in class once, but because he was seated at the back in his class his teacher didn't notice.
One of his close friends noticed, though, and gave him comfort.
Balanced school and hospital visits
Naturally, Nazrul's father's battle with cancer took centre stage in a year he was supposed to be focused on studying hard for the most important exams of his life.
Around the time he was to take his preliminary examinations, Nazrul recalls his almost-daily routine as being:
- ending school at 4pm,
- going for tuition till 7pm, and
- rushing to the hospital to be with his dad until about 10pm.
Studying in the hospital became the norm for him. He would bring his school homework and papers there to revise.
"I didn't want to let it affect me too much because I know if I can do well for my prelims, then I would have a huge motivation to do better for O-Levels. So I tried my best not to let it affect me. That's also what my father would've wanted."
All this rushing around with little rest was of course stressful and tiring, what with him arriving home late and waking up early for school the next day, but he made it a point to attend school and tuition no matter how tempted he felt to skip classes at times.
But this tenacity certainly stems from his parents, who often stressed to him and all his sisters the importance of education.
"Even though my husband was hospitalised, I still insisted that he go to school and only visit after school," says Jamaliah.
Being the filial son that he is, Nazrul obeyed.
He credits his sisters for pulling through that tough period, though, pointing out that they helped him a lot — fetching him to and from school and classes and the hospital whenever they could.
If they didn't have time to pick him up, they would even book Grab rides for him to the hospital.
"I'm very grateful for them sticking by my side throughout this entire time."
Unfortunately, Nazrul performed quite poorly in his prelims.
He scored an L1R5 of about 20 points — much higher than the 15 he was targeting.
But he doesn't blame this on what was happening in his life.
"I would like to think that whatever I did for prelims was the best I could do at the time. I feel like I shouldn’t push the blame to anything, because everything happens for a reason. And if God wills it for my results to be like that, then that’s how it’s supposed to be. I have to just accept it."
Father's words kept him going
He continued to work hard and push on for his O-Levels.
Apart from the help and support from his mother and sisters, Nazrul says he was particularly motivated by his father's words of advice and encouragement.
He tells me there is one saying his father often repeated: "Everything happens for a reason."
It's simple, but it's one that Nazrul holds most dear.
"Everything happens for a reason, because God has a greater plan for all of us. My dad was very religious. He was just... he was something else."
By this point in our conversation, his sisters and mother were breaking down into quiet sobs.
But Nazrul is still wearing that sweet, genuine smile on his face.
This is something I would come to notice after a while — each time he speaks about his late father, his face lights up.
He seems proud to talk about the man who raised him, to show him off to anyone willing to listen.
"My father was a very respected man. Somehow, everyone that he met, even though it may be for the first time, he would leave an impression on them either with his advice or his words. He was a very wise person. He always knew what to say.
There was never a moment where he said, 'I don’t know'. And he would always do what’s best for us, with his constant lectures on the car ride on the way to school with each and every one of us."
The sniffles and sobs from his sisters slowly become louder, but Nazrul's smile only grows wider.
"Even after his days in the hospital he still put up a strong front, he never showed that he was scared or sad. He trusted in us and in God a lot. He would be very bubbly even up to the end."
Nazrul says he continues to cling to his father's words even after he is gone.
When it was time for him to sit for his O-Level papers, he recalled all the past occasions his father comforted and advised him ahead of his previous exams.
Of course he can only imagine what his father would say to him now, but he suspects it would be along the lines of "What’s done is done. Next time, do better, learn from your mistakes, and prepare more."
Achieved 12 points L1R5 for O-Levels
Turns out, his father's words helped him more than he expected in the end.
Nazrul attained 12 points for his L1R5 score, with five distinctions out of the seven subjects he took.
Although he exceeded his own expectations, the achiever in Nazrul still tells me he feels he could have done better.
But one thing's for sure, his family is very proud of him — not just because of his better-than-expected results, but the journey he came through in this very important academic year.
One of his sisters tells me:
"He has come a long way. We are all proud of him. There's still a long way to go for him, but we are very thankful and we all feel very blessed to have him."
Aims to study psychology in the future
Nazrul aims to study psychology at Temasek Polytechnic.
He hopes to work as a therapist so he can help people with mental illnesses.
"I feel like they shouldn’t be alone in times of need, and I know my story — my father passing away — might not be as big as someone facing depression or something like that.
So I always feel like I want to play my part in making other people feel better about themselves, and to better the lives of other people so that they know that it’s worth it. They’re worth something."
Nazrul tells me that in the past year, he learnt that he is stronger than he ever thought he could be.
He certainly never expected, after all, that he would be able to study properly for his O-Levels while dealing with the pain and loss from his father's passing.
"I learned that people are stronger in times of crisis, in times of need. That’s when their true colours show. And I also learned the value of family.
Like how we should always stick together, be there for each other. Even the small things like fetching me from school, it means a lot. Just very thankful to have such a great family with me."
In this moment, I can't help but wonder what it would be like if his father was there to see him on this special day.
It is also at this moment that Nazrul's emotions finally get the better of him — mine too, really.
With tear-stained eyes and a shaky voice, he tells me this:
"I want him to feel proud of me. I want to thank him for everything he has taught me up to this point.
I don’t think I would have been able to do anything if it weren’t for him. He would always say something that would make me feel better.
And I can just only imagine what he would say now. He would tell me that I’ve done my best, that he’ll always be proud of whatever I do, and that I’m the son he always wanted to have."
Mature, strong, and resilient, it's safe to say that his father would be proud indeed.
Top photos by Syahindah Ishak.