Dr. Wan Rizal went from being in the Normal stream in Secondary School to a Senior Lecturer at Republic Polytechnic. He is currently a senior lecturer at Republic Polytechnic, School of Sports, Health and Leisure, where he teaches Heath & Wellness, Human Motor Control, and Learning as well as Sports Coaching. Dr. Rizal also volunteers as the Chairman of the Al-Islah Mosque and is active in community work as he strongly believes in giving back to the community.
Assalamualaikum! Tell me more about yourself.
I’d like to think that I’m a simple person. My life revolves around my family and volunteer work. Every other free time is spent on reading and writing. But the truth is, we live in a dynamic world, so each one of us is actually complex. The multiple interactions we face shape us on a daily basis. I believe in being a good person and doing good. To me, that means trying to keep good relations, doing community work and just being an honest and hardworking person. At the end of the day, these are the traits that I would like to see in my children and hopefully, I could be a model for them to replicate.
I am passionate about my subject area: Complexity Sciences in Human Motor Control and Learning. Yes, I know it sounds boring. -Laugh- It started off when I began teaching and coaching 15 years ago. Central to teaching and coaching is understanding how skills are acquired. I was fascinated by how a student learns and achieves mastery in a certain skill. Unfortunately, many of the theories out there are not applicable to the practical settings. Additionally, many of the assessments currently available are focused on performance. My work looks into the inherent nature and behavior that reflects a person’s decision-making skills. I find these attributes more meaningful and describes a learner beyond performance scores.
Tell me about your educational journey. What interested you in pursuing a Ph.D.?
The Singapore education system places students in the Express, Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical) course, according to how they perform at the Primary School Leaving Examinations. I was from the normal stream in secondary school and went to Temasek Polytechnic to do my Diploma in Electronics. I was not an outstanding student, and like many of my peers, all I wanted to do was pass each module. However, I was very active and passionate in sports. That led me to my career as a PE teacher. While undergoing the PE course at the National Institute of Education, I had to take modules like Human Anatomy, Psychology, Physiology, and Biomechanics. I found them interesting and had a marked improvement in grades. I ended up with a Diploma with Merit. I was determined to return and do a degree in a similar field after a few years. In 2009, at the age of 31, I graduated with a BSc (Physical Education) 2nd Upper Honors. I was hungry to learn more, so I decided to apply for MSc the following year. Alhamdulillah (Praise be to Allah), I was accepted to the course. The highlight was the possibility to switch to the Ph.D. program after 1.5 years. Eventually, at 33, I started the Ph.D. program and was awarded the NTU research scholarship. It took me 4 years before I submitted the thesis for examination. 2 weeks short of being 38, I completed the oral defence successfully without amendments. It’s been an extremely long journey…Not bad for a normal-stream kid eh?
What difficulties did you face? How did you overcome your challenges?
I will be lying if I say that the journey was smooth. In my area of work, a lot of data processing was involved. Apart from the four months of data collection, the first two years was solely focused on processing and analyzing the data. I even had to learn a new programming language, so that I could analyze unique datasets. That early phase was asphyxiating since I had to juggle family as well as volunteering commitments. There were days when I couldn’t help but cry. There were times I just wanted to quit and get back to work…get back to my comfort zone. Alhamdulillah (Praise be to Allah), I had strong support from my wife and parents as well as my Ph.D. supervisor who kept me going. Interestingly, I found that the activities in fundraising for the mosque to be therapeutic – keeping myself balanced and in touch with the community. Or else, I would be fixed in front of the laptop, crunching data monotonously every day!
What’s the most beautiful moment you’ve experienced in your life? Tell us in detail why it left such an indelible impression on you. How did you feel?
It has to be the first time I prayed in Al-Islah mosque. I vividly remember the days when the plot of land was just another empty field, and how much collective effort over the years was needed to make that project a success. The emotional rush was immense; I just can’t explain it. Interestingly, the mosque’s completion is closely pegged to my academic accomplishment, which is the Ph.D. MUIS had advertised for members for a mosque building committee but few applied. They were still looking for key appointment holders. Although I was a Punggol resident, I was apprehensive as I had the Ph.D. in mind. However, I asked my grandmother for her opinion. She indicated that she wanted me to be involved. It was merely a nod, but it was a strong affirmation. A couple of days later, she passed on, just before I started the Ph.D. program. In many ways, I would not have been involved in community work had it not been for that defining moment. A few months after, I was invited for a discussion with the MUIS staff. In late 2010, I was appointed as the Chairman for the mosque building committee.
Who inspires you the most? Why?
My late grandmother, whom I lived with for 28 years. Her love and care for her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren was exemplary. What sets her apart was her strength and determination (she raised seven kids on her own) as well as her faith and conviction to Allah. She reads the Quran all the time, something I need to do more often.
What’s your favorite verse from the Quran and why?
My favorite surah is Ar-Rahman. My favorite verse is “So which of the favors of your Lord would you deny?”. It is repeated 57 times throughout the surah. It reminds me of the many blessings bestowed unto us. To me, the Ph.D. is just one example. It is a gift, and I believe I should continue to benefit others with it.
What do you want to say to people who are going through difficulties in their Ph.D. journey?
Do not isolate yourself. Turn to the people close to you for help, even if they don’t understand your subject matter. Set up work networks so that you can consistently share ideas and thoughts. Finally, do some volunteer work to keep yourself rooted in the community.
What is your hope for your community?
I hope that more people would break the glass ceiling that we collectively perceive. I hope more normal people like me could step forward and become a domain expert in their area. It’s not necessary to get a Ph.D. but it is necessary to be the best in what we do.
Any last words?
There is no substitute for hard work.