By Hannah Khaw:
The Malaysia Public Policy Competition 2013 (MPPC) was nothing short of a miracle that played out just as dramatically as one of those Hollywood-underdog-movies. I want to capture my experiences in words before I forget it all, hence this post.I really hope that you get the pun in this post’s title because I always believe that good puns should be appreciated haha (phases? faces? yay I love puns!). But more importantly, I believe that we wouldn’t have made it through the MPPC without the help of many, many people who invested in us along the way. And this is why I’ve titled this post accordingly — at every phase of the competition, there were different faces who helped tide us through. So as you read this post, I hope that in some way, you ‘meet’ these people and begin to understand why I say that we didn’t walk this journey alone!

Pre-MPPC: #teamOKM

Prior to the Malaysia Public Policy Competition (MPPC), I hardly had high expectations about surviving the first round, let alone winning. In fact, hardly anyone did, including my extremely cute parents:

Dad: Eh Hannah so you’re going for some policy competition right?
Mum: Yeah she’s going to get kicked out in the first round because everyone else is so smart. So we can plan on picking her up early

And I could perfectly understand why. My ragtag team, the Power Pundits, consisted of three IB kids (Eleasha, Kar Yern and I), and one UCL kid (Alethea) whom we’d never even met before. We were the only pre-U team in a competition saturated with high flyers from the likes of Oxford, Harvard, LSE, Columbia, King’s College, etc (so scary!). And we had little idea of what public policy entailed.

Yes, Powerpuff Girls filters. Credits to Kar Yern.

So I began looking around for people who’d talk to my team about public policy. Through some correspondence with my uncle, my team eventually managed to fix a meeting with Dr Ong Kian Ming.

Personally, I think that our meeting with OKM was one of the most significant points in our MPPC journey. He gave us lots of practical pointers and advice —but more importantly, I believe that his down-to-earth manner and humility touched and inspired the four of us. There was once when he received the phone call in the middle of a discussion, and he just said to the guy on the line: “Sorry Datuk, I’m in a meeting now, will call you in an hour.” (We’re also sorry, Datuk! :P)
Needless to say, by the end of the meeting, we were all #teamOKM-ing all the way for the rest of the competition — and making him proud became one of our motivation points.

The Quarterfinals: Of Projectors and Really Bad Slides

The MPPC worked like this: Each team had to formulate a policy pertaining to the theme of brain drain, present it, and be judged. Looks simple enough — but in reality, it was rather hellish.

My team started discussing our policy in earnest late in the afternoon, yet we had hardly anything to show by the time we went to see Jon Yong (our superduperamazing mentor). It was only at 2am that we agreed on a rough structure of our policy, by which time eyebags started drooping exponentially and people started babbling utter rubbish in drowsiness and Eleasha actually stopped smiling for once and Kar Yern started eating many sandwiches and Alethea looked like she was going to die and I hung upside-down on the couch to keep blood flowing to my head.

By the time the sun began to rise, Eleasha and I were still tapping away at the keyboard, editing the slides. And what we eventually learnt was that wooziness generally doesn’t provide for good editing, because…

… we unknowingly deleted the two most crucial slides that contained our policy.

Also, because we had such limited time to prepare, Kar Yern didn’t quite have time to finish the graphics. So half of our presentation had relatively decent graphics; and the other half was just regular black and white.

From this (haha very unprofessional caption, but at least we had nice pink triangles) …


… to this 😛

To add to our already-bad condition, we turned up slightly late for the quarterfinals the next morning. We didn’t think that being late would amount to anything much — but when we arrived breathless and panting in the holding room, we were told: “As a penalty for being late, you can’t use the projector.” A very very nice committee member named Zhuangwen tried to get us out of our mess, but when it proved futile, we just thanked the organizing team for penalizing us and went on with life.

So soon enough, we finally, finally stepped into our presentation room sans two policy slides, sans a projector, and sans the thumbdrive containing our presentation. On hindsight, it was the most disastrous first impression we could have possibly given the judges! 😛 Because we couldn’t use the projector, all three judges had to squint at the slides from one laptop, and Kar Yern had to kneel at their feet to press the button for the slides hahaha how subservient.

But we presented anyway. For your benefit, here’s a brief summary of my team’s policy:

– The big idea: Tackle brain drain by increasing female representation in the Malaysian workforce

– Reason:

  1. There’s a lot of untapped potential in this country with regard to women. Roughly 60% of students enrolled in tertiary education are women; but Malaysia only has a 47% female labor force participation. And 67.1% of women who are not actively seeking work cite family commitments as a reason for this. We figured that if we could help women to strike a balance between work and family commitments, we can bring more of this existing talent back into the workforce.
  2. Studies show that companies with more women in the board of directors tend to outperform those with less women! 😀

– Approaches:

  1. Incentivizing the establishment of childcare centers at workplaces
  2. Tax deductions for companies that achieve 30% women representation ranging from mid-to-senior management to the Board of Directors
After we presented the policy, the judges (Dr Eduardo Araral, Mallory and Dr Amir) engaged us in a Q&A session. On hindsight, this was the fabulous-est Q&A session I experienced throughout the entire competition! Dr Eduardo, especially, engaged us very well — and it felt more like a lively and enjoyable conversation than anything else. Instead of poking holes in our arguments, he took pains to give us suggestions as to how we could improve our policy as a whole. And after the competition, we even received some insider information that he was our #1 supporter throughout. So, so incredibly overwhelming.
After all the teams finished presenting, we gathered at the auditorium where the results would be announced (we were late again and had to run there haha). And to cut the story short, we made it through as a Tier 1 team!
Needless to say, we were pretty happy, and of course we talked about how darn astounding it was that we got in despite our horrendous slides and non-usage of a projector…. And then Eleasha got an epiphany.

According to her, our projector penalty was actually a blessing in disguise. Because the judges had to squint at one small laptop screen, they couldn’t actually see the full extent of our terrible slides! That lightbulb moment set off quite a lot of laughter. But unfortunately for us, this prolonged and hysterical laughter attracted the attention of one particular videographer. He secretly sidled behind us, mounted the video camera on a tripod, and filmed our cackling for the longest time ever. Sigh goodbye dignity T__T

Semifinal Prep: Of a Missing Mentor and the Redemption of Slides

As we began prepping for the semis, we were told that Jon Yong wouldn’t be around to mentor us that night. It came as a bummer because by then, we’d already bequeathed the #bestmentorever title to him — and who wouldn’t want their official #bestmentorever to be around during one of the most crucial periods of the competition?

Why you no come at night? :'(

But things started looking up after awhile. We were assigned to another mentor, Huey Yuin — and this was one of the best things that happened to us throughout the MPPC. (More on that later!) We met up at Starbucks and were subsequently joined by a whole lot of other helpful people who just chipped in thoughts and ideas on their own accord:

– Jonathan Muk: (“data data data where is your data”)
– Ian: (“This is a really sick policy, but all the same, I’m the devil’s advocate”)
– and of course, Huey Yuin herself: (sips ubiquitous green tea latte haha)

After our discussion, the Power Pundits headed off to continue work. We refined our policy as needed, and also did some repair work to our horrendous slides. By around 2am, Eleasha began to nag us to ‘go to bed soon in order to get at least 3 hours of sleep’. But at that same time, Huey Yuin texted and asked if she could come over to run through things with us. To be very honest, we were quite reluctant to do so as we were dead tired — but we agreed anyway.

And thank goodness we did.

Huey Yuin brought Jian Wei along with her (BNM represent!). In the span of one hour, I learnt far more about creating effective presentations from them than I’d ever learnt in my life. It was such an eye-opener that, well, it literally kept my tired eyes very wide open. Our on-the-job lessons included pointers on slide titles, the benefits of being OCD, graphical approaches, and the evilness of bullet points. By the end of it all, I distinctly remember telling myself: “Even if we don’t make it to the finals, this alone has made MPPC worth it.”

Huey Yuin and Jian Wei left after awhile, and spurred on by this new understanding of how good presentations work, we abandoned our plans to sleep. Here I’d just like to add that Kar Yern did a brilliant job with the slides, and we would have most certainly died without him. 🙂

The Semifinals: A Magic Number Five

A miracle happened the next morning: Our team turned up at the presentation venue on time! It was an amazing feat, considering that we’d never been on time for anything. (Kar Yern overslept until 12pm on the first day; and also, as you already know, our whole team was late for the quarterfinals. So I was extremely proud of this achievement :’) Hahaha)

We presented our policy to a new set of judges — this time with a projector, and also with all our policy slides intact. Things went smoothly and we had quite a bit of fun with the judges. After all, I mean, Alethea even had the chance to debunk Confucius’ philosophies during the Q&A 😛

However, the problem now lay with factors beyond our control. We’d been placed in the same group as a brilliant team, Otak. (They were, incidentally, our BFFs throughout the competition, not just because they were really fun — but also because we got stuck with them in every round!). And out of the three teams in each group, only one would make it through to the finals.

Hello bestfriendsforever 🙂

After the semis, we waited an uncharacteristically long time for the results to be announced. But a committee member then made an interesting announcement: Instead of having four finalist teams, a last-minute change meant that there would be five teams in the finals this year. And when the team names were released…

… we were in — along with our BFFs, Otak!

It was only much later that I found out the reason for the super long wait + the extra team allocation for the finals. Apparently the judges really couldn’t decide between Otak and the Power Pundits; and the best way to remedy the situation was to just let both of us in haha. So thank you sponsors for allocating extra prize money to create a fifth finalist spot 😛

Finals Prep: Of Fickle-Minded Policymakers and a Pressure Cooker

The Power Pundits went into overdrive preparing for the finals. All at once, we started debating about how we should go about refining our policy — it was pretty heated at times, but nothing ever got got too out of hand because we loved each other too much to fight! The following kind of summarizes the different stages of our discussion from start to end (and see, I used a graphical approach. Jian Wei, Huey Yuin and the MPPC in general have taught me well):

As you can see, Kar Yern, Alethea, Eleasha and I stuck by our original policy of the two pronged childcare-and-tax approach. This was a decision that took lots of discipline to maintain, simply because so many people threw so many good ideas at us for us to consider. But at the end of the day, we figured that what had brought us so far was what would bring us further — so we focused on refining what we already had.

The moments leading up to the final were intense. Personally, I don’t particularly love speaking to large crowds; much less large crowds made up of a whole collection of illustrious people. I really don’t. I’m the sort of person who would far prefer to sit down quietly and do the thinking/research/writing aspects of policy formulation more than anything else.

So you can imagine what a pressure cooker the pre-final preparation was for me. It got so crappy to the point that I had to excuse myself for quite a long ‘toilet break’, which, as you may have guessed, was hardly a toilet break at all, as opposed to a cracking-under-pressure-break haha. Eleasha (being one of the most wonderful people I know) followed me and we shared quite a nice dying session. But beyond dying, we also prayed together — and in all honesty, that lifted a whole lot of pressure off me. This was one of those moments that reminded me the reason why our team had such fantastic chemistry. It was because we were more than teammates. We were friends. (yay every story needs a cheesy moment!)

The Finals: Of Tight Shirts and the Powerpuff Girls

Five teams presented in the finals — Otak, UT Mara, Fortius, BLTQ and us, the Power Pundits. However, as much I’d like to say that I paid perfect attention to every single presentation, I’d have to admit that I didn’t. Reason being the fact that my bro was sending me whatsapp-messages-of-brotherly-support… which brings me to quite a fascinating side-story. So here goes:

Right from the very beginning, my bro had always told me, “If you ever get into the finals, call me and I’ll come and hold a ‘Go Baby Go’ sign for you.” Obviously that didn’t happen, but other equally interesting things did.

When my team got into the finals, I called the bro and he rushed over from church immediately. Unfortunately, he was denied entry at the venue because he was wearing a T-shirt instead of formal clothes. But that didn’t deter him. Instead, he sped off to Sunway Pyramid, zipped into the first store he saw (Giordano haha), grabbed a shirt off the rack without checking its size or price, swiped his card, and sped back in time for the finals.

Later on, someone pointed out that the shirt still had the tag hanging on it. Upon closer examination, two interesting observations were made:
1) It was an S-size shirt! Which was hilarious because the bro is actually a chunky L-size piece of meat
2) It cost RM150 haha. But he justified it a few days later upon checking his financial docs, saying, “It was actually RM135. I got a discount.”
Beyond the shadow of a doubt, the most dedicated brother in the world
Although it was a small gesture, the bro’s support gave me courage to do my best. (It does mean a lot when you’re the underdog, and someone whom you really look up to tells you, ‘go beat em’.)
But back to the main story. The Power Pundits were scheduled to present right after a tea break. So Alethea, Eleasha, Kar Yern and I used this break to carry out our 11-second-group-hug ritual (one of the organizers told us that hugging people for 10 seconds increases dopamine levels; so we added an extra second to that just for good measure). That helped to get rid of the jitters. Furthermore, Chen Chow took the trouble to encourage us right before we stepped onto the stage; and Jon Yong was always there with his reassuring presence — and truly, it was little gestures such as these that made all the difference.
Chen Chow and Fatpig on the extreme left; Jon Yong on the extreme right
So, after hours and hours of work, two sleepless nights, and a lot of stress… we presented our policy. Fittingly enough, the Power Pundits turned up in color-coordinated clothes: Red, blue, green, white. Blossom, Bubbles, Buttercup, Professor Utonium. Hardly anyone noticed that 😉
Bubbles, Blossom, Buttercup, Professor Utonium
And as always, I quite enjoyed the Q&A session. One of my better moments came as a result of Datuk Saifuddin’s question (all paraphrased, because I cannot remember what was said verbatim):
Datuk Saifuddin: If Datuk Seri Najib has already implemented the 30% women representation guideline, then what’s the point of your policy? If implementation is the problem, then why not just replace the ministers on top with better people… like the four of you?
Me: … Thank you for your job offer!

Hahaha of course I followed up with a proper answer to that question after that. But anyway, we wrapped up our presentation by answering a few more questions — and we were done. It was truly wonderful being in the team I was in, seeing that no one really minded whether we won or not. There was kind of a sense of ‘oh heck, we’ve come this far, we don’t expect to win, no one expects us to win, so let’s just sit back and relax now that we’re done’.

But of course, if we could win, then we wouldn’t have minded that too (chuckles). So the announcement of the final results was pretty exciting for us. The team placings were announced from fifth placing upwards — and by the time the second-placed team was revealed (it was Otak, by the way — so happy for them!), we knew we’d ended up where we’d never imagined we’d be.

I distinctly remember each team member’s reaction to our win. Kar Yern’s arms grew inhumanly long and he smothered us all in a giant group hug. Eleasha went into elegant state of princessy disbelief. Alethea cackled unstoppably (which was really a lot more hilarious than it appears now in writing!). As for me, everyone squished me from all corners, so I just remember mumbling, “I’m surrounded by crazy people.”

And indeed, I was surrounded by crazy people, in a crazy competition, in a crazy experience of underdog victory.

Note: All photo credits to Dan Khaw 🙂

Categories: MPPC 2013

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