Singapore’s 3rd Enabling Masterplan (2017 – 2021), which guides the development of a more inclusive society, reported that about 2.1 per cent or approximately 9,660 of the total student population had sensory or physical impairment, autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability1.
Students with a learning disability often face difficulty with basic cognitive processes such as listening, thinking, speaking, reading, writing or performing mathematical calculations. As such, having a specialised educator who is attuned to the needs of these students could enhance their learning process in a school setting.
For 39-year-old Nor Ashraf Samsudin, his passion in working with children compelled him to work with children with dyslexia after graduating from university. After more than a decade of gaining valuable experience in the field of special education, he decided to grab the opportunity to deepen his skills and knowledge in Melbourne, Australia. He made the move in November 2018 with his wife and three children, and is now a Special Education Consultant at SPELD Victoria.
The Karyawan team spoke to Ashraf recently to find out more about his calling and experience in relocation.
Q: What made you join the special education industry? How did you come to specialise in the field you’re in today?
Ashraf: Through my own positive experiences volunteering with non-profit organisations while in university, I decided to work with the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS) where I interacted with children who are seen as the underdogs in school and helped them realise their potential.
I graduated with a degree in life sciences which gave me a good grounding in the sciences behind dyslexia and literacy and numeracy acquisition. When I joined DAS, they had everyone undergo specialised training leading up to a double diploma in dyslexia studies, and teaching and training. I subsequently received a scholarship from DAS to pursue my Master of Education degree from Monash University in 2015 and two years later, I pursued a specialist diploma in career counselling from Republic Polytechnic.
Q: How long were you with DAS, before deciding to move to Australia and take up your current position?
Ashraf: I was with the DAS for 14 years; first as an educational therapist, teaching students with dyslexia. I held multiple portfolios from centre management, and parent and teacher training, to raising awareness through public engagement talks whilst still holding my teaching portfolio. Then, I was blessed to have been appointed the Director of Specialised Educational Services during the last five years of my time there. I oversaw the development of new programmes for DAS ranging from math, preschool, and speech and drama.
Q: What motivated you to move abroad, particularly to Australia?
Ashraf: We moved to Australia sometime at the end of 2018 after I’d secured my current appointment through the connections that I have with the organisation. For myself and my wife, Marinah, it gave us the opportunity to recalibrate our lives to have a better balance between religion, family and work. We have three daughters aged 12, 9 and 3. The primary reason for our move is for my children to experience a different education system, which would allow them to have a better balance between school, enjoying their childhood and enhancing their character development.
From what I observe, Victoria, the state where my family is living in, would be able to provide this. The emphasis here is on thinking and presentation skills, and less on rote learning. I observed that the children are less stressed here and have the opportunity to enjoy their childhood a bit more. Having said that, parental involvement is still important to keep them on task and sharp in school.
Q: Is special education a growing field of specialisation in Australia compared to Singapore?
Ashraf: Specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia tend to be on the fringes of special needs education as the condition is hidden with no visible physical distinguishing features. Support in Singapore is ahead of Australia in this area as the government puts in a lot more resources to address this area in schools and organisations.
In Victoria, this field is slowly growing in prominence. With falling Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores, resources and funding is slowly being made available for teacher training to support students who are struggling with reading and writing. I would say it is an opportune time to be in the field here as the conversation around specific learning disabilities is growing.
Q: What does your typical work week look like?
Ashraf: My work week would vary depending on whether I have training to conduct. The work would sometimes require me to travel to the regional areas of Victoria to raise awareness amongst teachers and parents. There would be opportunities to bring my family along especially if the training falls during the holidays. Those days would typically have me start work at 8.30 am and end at about 3.30 pm. On days without any training, I would be busy following up on administrative work, having meetings, and researching on new topics to present. Such days would typically go from 8.00 am to about 4.00 pm.
Q: What are some differences in the working culture of Australia compared to Singapore?
Ashraf: There is a lot that goes into the culture at a workplace and it varies from organisation to organisation. Mine is one that is very family-friendly, and our Chief Executive Officer is flexible with my working hours. My colleagues are also generally nice and polite, and we try to support one another as much as we can. Although we are always kept busy, I find it a joy to go to work every day.
Q: What have been the highlights and challenges throughout your time as a special education consultant in Australia? What are some of your fulfilling achievements to date?
Ashraf: It has really been an enjoyable experience. Being in a country where services in this field are limited, you can really see that the teachers and parents here are all hungry for knowledge. I really feel appreciated for the work that I do by the people that I train and feel very content with the fact that the knowledge that I have shared will benefit the children and community.
Initially, the challenge was to get around the communication barrier that exists. Although everyone speaks English, there are some differences in accents and how we express ourselves. It took me a couple of months to adapt but it has been great since then!
For me, one of the more notable achievements I have had is being the first and only Melbourne-based presenter for a UK evidence-based phonics programme called Sounds-Write. There are only a handful of us here in Australia who are qualified to deliver this programme and I feel blessed to be a part of this team.
I am also part of a committee that is looking into setting up our very first Islamic grammar school in Melbourne. This is a very exciting project initiated by the Malay/Muslim community here as we look to establish a school that is based on our effective Singaporean school system, positive education, and rooted in Islamic ethos. We aspire to nurture future leaders who would become our ambassadors in Islam wherever they go.
Q: What are some challenges faced as a Malay/Muslim in Australia? Is there a large Singaporean Malay/Muslim community in Australia?
Ashraf: Muslims are a minority in this largely Christian country. Even amongst Muslims, who would largely comprise people from the Middle East, we (the Malays) still represent a small minority. Despite this, the local Australians are generally pleasant and inclusive, and they make us feel accepted very quickly.
The challenge for our community is actually to not lose our own identity through the generations. It is very easy for us to lose the use of the Malay language and our unique Malay culture. There is a fairly large Singaporean/Malaysian community in Melbourne as compared to other parts of Australia, settling in the western, southern and northern parts of the state. Each region would organise their own activities to keep the community vibrant and cohesive. Singapore is blessed to have self-help Malay/Muslim organisations like AMP, MENDAKI and Malay Youth Literary Association (4PM) to organise activities and provide a wide range of services for the community. The organisations still do provide us plenty of opportunities to be actively involved in growing and being a part of the community.
Q: What are some of the adjustments you and your family have had to make since moving to Australia?
Ashraf: Being away from our extended family and relatives is the biggest adjustment. Our hearts and minds do go out to them as we are tight-knit.
The other adjustment is the weather. There are times where we get to experience four seasons in a single day! It would go from a scorching 42 degrees in the early afternoons to suddenly, a cool 10 degrees in the evenings.
I have also learnt to be more grateful for the close proximity of local convenience stores and late closing times for shops, which we enjoyed in Singapore.
Q: What are your future plans? Do you plan to return to Singapore one day?
Ashraf: Singapore will always be my home and I will never rule out a return. My goal for now is to essentially help my organisation, schools and the community to succeed, and in the longer run, be in a position to shape the educational landscape here in Victoria through the work that I do. That may sound like an ambitious goal but I reckon it’s an achievable one looking at the opportunities made available to me at present.
Q: What advice do you have for Malay/Muslims looking to work overseas, especially those who are bringing their family with them? Would you recommend it?
Ashraf: Yes, I would recommend it. The experience is invaluable and you generally become more independent as things are very much less accessible and available here. Do plenty of research especially if you are bringing your family. It is easy to only see the good in what a country has to offer when you are on holiday. But have conversations with the people who have migrated to the country to better understand the process, and most importantly, the negatives you may encounter before deciding if this is for you.
For myself and my family, I considered the quality and availability of good education, healthcare and social support, economic stability and ease in finding work before deciding on the move. It can be particularly challenging finding your first job if you do not have any contacts, as employers typically look for workers with experience working in Australia. ⬛
1 Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports. 3rd Enabling Masterplan 2017-2021: Caring Nation, Inclusive Society, 2016. Available at: https://www.ncss.gov.sg/ncss/media/ncss-documents-and-forms/em3-final_report_20161219.pdf
Ruzaidah Md Rasid is a Senior Executive Officer with the Corporate Communications department of AMP Singapore. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and a Diploma in Islamic Studies.