Growing up in Kelantan, Shah Farid Rashid was a bright and ambitious student who dreamt of enrolling in MRSM and furthering his studies abroad.
Thanks to his hard work, he was able to achieve this, but there was one thing he hadn’t originally anticipated he would have to learn: Mandarin.
“Coming from a less-privileged background, I did not have many options ever since I was a child, thus I always had to find fun in whatever choice I had,” Shah reasoned.
“So, after SPM, while most of my friends chose to pursue medicine, engineering, and all these cool science courses, I opted for Chinese Language and Literature as I would be getting a full MARA scholarship for it.”
As a new programme, not many were aware of its benefits and viability in the workplace. Plus, Shah didn’t speak a lick of the language, which many consider one of the hardest ones to learn.
Shah even received pessimistic comments from his friends, who doubted his choice. To them, the five-year language course that would lead to being a teacher seemed like a waste of time and energy.
Staying true to his own goals, Shah ignored his friends’ criticisms and decided to challenge himself with the course, seeing something that others didn’t at the time.
Diving right in
Before long, Shah found himself at the Beijing Foreign Studies University in China, where he quickly encountered an obstacle—all the classes were conducted in Mandarin.
Unable to communicate with locals, even daily routines were a big struggle for Shah, who resorted to bringing Chinese friends around as unpaid translators.
But of course, he was never one to back down from challenges, even as a new international student who hadn’t even familiarised himself with the basics. In fact, it only served to motivate him.
Thankfully, Shah was also met with supportive and meticulous teachers who kept the students eager to learn despite the language barrier.
“My teachers sometimes used sign language to convey what they were trying to say,” he recounted. “Another way was to rely on pictures we Googled in class. Then, whenever the teachers wanted to introduce new words, they would show pictures they had on their mobile phones to everyone.”
Outside of school, Shah also looked for part-time jobs, which provided the invaluable experience of mingling with native speakers, thus polishing his Mandarin skills and widening his vocabulary.
Rising under the pressure, he managed to be fluent in both written and spoken Mandarin in just six months.
Sought after by the likes of Google and Xiaomi
During his time abroad, Shah would often be invited as a translator by Malaysian government agencies for exhibitions in China.
These events would lead to representatives across various industries offering Shah their name cards, impressed by Shah’s Mandarin skills.
This ability to speak Mandarin even landed Shah job offers from tech giants such as Xiaomi and Google. According to him, those companies were specifically looking for Malaysian natives with fluency in Malay and Mandarin at the time.
“That was because it was around the time when the smartphones were first introduced in the Malaysian market, and they were actively preparing a feature that allowed translating from Mandarin to the Malay language,” Shah explained.
Even though Malaysia is home to plenty of Mandarin speakers, Shah said that his ability to speak Mainland Mandarin set him apart.
His time in big tech companies further helped Shah strengthen his confidence in using the language and reassured him that his “safety net” was big.
To him, this experience cemented the fact that mastery of Mandarin is beneficial to everyone.
“Mandarin is the key to the door of possibilities and opportunities, and for this very reason, everyone should own the key or at least find it,” he said.
Starting his own institution
As a MARA scholar, it was a requirement for Shah to serve the bond after graduating. However, even though it was an obligation, Shah was genuinely passionate about the role.
“However, when I started working as a Mandarin language teacher at a local education institution, I was faced with a lot of limitations,” he explained. “We had a fixed syllabus in place and the classes were all about passing examinations.”
His frustrations and hopelessness were eventually answered when Shah decided to start his own language centre in 2018—Fasih Mandarin.
Using his own savings to rent out an office space, Shah began designing his own module and learning materials for the Mandarin language.
At the time, Mandarin classes were rising in popularity. Because of that, it only took two days of advertising before all the seats were booked. In fact, there was even a waiting list for Shah’s classes.
“I was stunned because of the positive responses from people in Kuantan, where our very first office was located,” Shah shared. “Imagine waking up one day to dozens of messages on my personal number from people inquiring about the classes!”
The timing of Fasih Mandarin’s opening also coincided with China’s investment in the Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park. Staff at the park received career benefits such as better pay if they spoke the language, something that Fasih Mandarin was able to help some of them achieve.
In fact, Shah believes that most employers these days prefer employees who can speak Mandarin, and those who don’t face many difficulties getting good jobs and better pay in their desired industries.
“Since I started to learn Mandarin with no basics and mastered the language in just six months, I can relate with these people because I had my fair share of struggles,” he expressed.
Understanding their predicament, Shah has found ways to shorten the learning period. A key point is to insert the element of fun into all of their teaching methods and strategies.
Fasih Mandarin’s syllabuses align with the internationally recognised Chinese proficiency examination known as HSK. In fact, Fasih Mandarin has also officially registered as an HSK Test Centre in Malaysia earlier this year.
“Regardless of age, you will still come together and sit down in this kindergarten-like setting, singing songs, conducting activities and interacting with each other, all in Mandarin,” he shared.
At Fasih Mandarin, students range from 4-year-olds to seniors aged 70 and beyond, proving that age shouldn’t be a barrier to learning a language.
A team of non-native speakers
Chinese learning centres in Malaysia certainly aren’t uncommon, but there’s one particular thing that sets Fasih Mandarin apart—its team of all-Bumiputera tutors.
Shah believes these non-native speakers also started learning Mandarin without any basic knowledge of the language, making them more understanding of students’ challenges. This enables the team to design effective teaching approaches.
“At the same time, our trainers are the icon of inspiration for the students to keep going and not give up on their journey of mastering the Mandarin language,” Shah continued.
However, recruiting qualified Mandarin trainers isn’t easy. To counter this, Shah has initiated a scholarship project for Fasih Mandarin’s trainers.
Recipients of the scholarship will receive training to achieve the highest level of Mandarin proficiency and international certification to teach Mandarin as a Foreign Language.
On the topic of scholarships, Fasih Mandarin has also launched a FM Scholarship 2022 project. This will help individuals pursue HSK1 Beginner Mandarin course.
“This project is especially close to my heart because the MARA scholarship I received back in 2009 and the Mandarin language were the two things that completely changed my life for the better,” Shah shared.
A powerhouse for learning Mandarin
From one centre in Kuantan to seven across Malaysia, Fasih Mandarin has now relocated its head office to Kuala Lumpur. It’s also looking to open even more branches and hubs.
Shah also revealed that Fasih Mandarin will be launching a new brand—FMKiDS Montessori.
“Apart from that, we have been collaborating with other private educational institutions to provide a complete Mandarin curriculum and supply Mandarin trainers,” Shah shared.
For instance, Fasih Mandarin are in discussions with Beibu Gulf University China to become a centre for a student preparatory programme that will allow them to study in China.
The founder has certainly come a long way since his schooling days when Mandarin was all but a foreign language to him. But as he often says, “Everyone can fasih Mandarin”.
- Learn more about Fasih Mandarin here.
- Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.
Featured Image Credit: Fasih Mandarin