“As a child, I would wave at passing planes in the sky.

“When I learned how to use Photoshop, I would edit my photo so that I would be in a pilot’s uniform, sitting in a pilot’s seat. I became obsessed with becoming a pilot.”

Ravivarma Muniandy (Varma) is an ordinary youth with a childhood dream. Being a pilot was all he wanted to be, and he worked hard to become a top-performing student in Malaysia. Yet, it was not a dream within his reach.

“I realised I needed a lot of money to become a pilot and my family couldn’t afford it. So I decided to do a Diploma in aircraft engineering instead. But the cost was also high, and I couldn’t get any scholarships.”

Without additional help, he had to put his dreams on the sideline and leave school.

At the age of 18, he left home for Singapore, bound for what he thought would be a desk job to earn a living. Instead, he braved the sun to tend to grass pitches and clean floors by day, and worked at a bar by night.

“I was so broken up inside and I couldn’t accept the fact.”

But the city of hopelessness was also the place that gave hope. Today, the dejected youth of old is no more. With some help from his Singapore boss, a university professor and the LEaRN and STEP programmes at the National University of Singapore, Varma regained his confidence, passion and positive attitude.

“Six years ago, I never imagined I would come back to Singapore and study at one of the top universities in the world, under scholarships. That really changed me into who I am today.”

Varma at the National University of Singapore (NUS) for Temasek Foundation’s LEaRN programme and STEP programmes

 

Supported by Temasek Foundation, the LEaRN programme offers outstanding students bond-free scholarships for a semester exchange across universities in Asia. Designed to enhance their leadership capabilities, the programme also supports the development of regional connections, interpersonal networks and social responsibility for the community.

Similarly, the STEP programme supports a series of youth exchange programmes that bring together like-minded youths across Asia to learn, bond and build friendships over interests such as sustainability, leadership and more.

Varma’s future today was set in motion back in the fields he tended to in tiny Singapore. Two months into his job, his boss learned of his academic achievements and encouraged him to return to his studies. “He was very kind to pay my salary in advance,” recalled Varma.

Upon his return to Malaysia, he was offered a Diploma course in IT programming. After graduating, he realised his strengths were in the field of media and communication and enrolled for undergraduate studies at the National University of Malaysia.

It was there that he met Associate Professor Dr. Abdul Latiff, who encouraged him to join the LEaRN and STEP programmes in Singapore, to broaden his worldview.

“I never thought I would get chosen for the scholarship. When the letter came the first person I called was Dr. Latiff and I cried.”

Varma returned to Singapore as a scholar in 2019, six years after his stint as a gardener. For his first trip back, he was a student leader at the STEP Youth Ecosperity Dialogue, an annual five-day student programme. Running parallel to the Ecosperity Week presented by Temasek, the dialogue seeks to provide a platform to connect youth leaders of tomorrow with corporate leaders and their peers to create a sustainable future. 

Building friendships and new cultural networks with other participants on the LEaRN and STEP programmes

 

Even though he was excited for the chance to recreate positive memories in Singapore, Varma couldn’t shake the feeling that he didn’t belong.

“I was a student on scholarship for a short stint, and I was looking at all those kids over there who are studying full time.

“But when Temasek Foundation brought all STEP programme students together at gatherings and meetings, I found other people like me. The local students also really helped me to feel a sense of belonging.

“Then I also had to deal with another type of insecurity. We had to make presentations as part of the programme, and I felt so uncomfortable; the audience comprised some of the brightest minds from all over the world. What could I bring to the table?” 

Making multiple presentations gave him the chance to hone his skills. As he got better, his confidence grew; he now saw that he could contribute, that he had something to offer.

In addition, he got the chance to learn from others on the programme, gleaning ideas to expand his worldview. “The dialogue helped me to understand that I was capable of doing more to be part of the solution. Sustainability isn’t an extra thing to do; it’s a part of our lifestyle.”

A few months later, he returned to Singapore for the LEaRN programme.

Raising funds and giving back to the community as part of the LEaRN programme

 

With community engagement being a key pillar of the LEaRN programme, Varma got involved in several community service programmes, including Dining in the Dark, an experience for sighted people to walk in the shoes of the visually handicapped. It inspired him to bring the concept to Malaysia after he graduates this year, to share his “eye-opening” experience with sighted people.

Varma’s journey may seem like a series of small gains and losses. But the sum of these small changes in mindset and knowledge inspire action – from reducing individual impact on the environment to encouraging empathy for others. These, in turn, add up to make bigger changes a reality, most of all in himself.

“I realise now how restricted my worldview was when I was 18. It was only through the LEaRN and STEP programmes that I was exposed to new people, interests, cultures and ideas.

“I left with a broader perspective, built emotional connections with friends from different cultures and learned about the many, many other choices I can make. Better still, I now have the confidence to explore these choices and create a better future.”

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