MALAYSIANS KINI | Growing up as the son of a teacher, it is no surprise that local publisher Zul Fikri Zamir followed his father's footsteps, becoming a physical education and Malay language teacher at a primary school in Wangsa Maju, Kuala Lumpur.
Recalling his childhood days in Tanjung Malim, Perak, the 32-year-old, better known as ZF Zamir, said his family home overlooked the Sultan Idris Education University (UPSI), an institution known for producing teachers.
Zamir shared his love for books as a boy and the hours he would spend at a secondary school library, which his father was in charge of, pouring through classics such as the Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew series.
However, as a teacher in his adulthood, Zamir soon learnt the difficult realities of being an educator in Malaysia.
"The first six months were very traumatic... I was burnt out in the first year because there really wasn't much teaching," he told Malaysiakini in an interview at The Library Cafe in Kuala Lumpur.
It was not for a lack of skills on Zamir's part but he was assigned to two "end classes", where the primary challenge was to teach students basic literacy skills.
Having visited the United Kingdom in his first year as a teacher, Zamir observed the system there and became convinced that changes were needed in Malaysia's education system, prompting him to co-found the NGO Teach for The Needs.
Teach for The Needs was an after-school initiative meant to help his struggling students to pass the UPSR examination.
It had since grown into a project to help underprivileged students, including refugee children from Syria, with a network of volunteers.
But for Zamir, who cited novelist Faisal Tehrani as a mentor, education wasn't just about passing examinations.
In the first book he authored, "Sekolah Bukan Penjara, Universiti Bukan Kilang (Schools are not prisons, universities are not factories), Zamir highlighted some of the main issues plaguing the education system.
He eventually resigned as a teacher, realising that being an educator doesn't necessarily mean having to be within the system.
"Liberated" from the system, Zamir began to pursue several projects, including Thukul Cetak, a publishing house that has published several books that are not typically part of the singular narrative in our schools.
Zamir also worked to improve access to these books, with 16 Wakaf Buku (independent libraries) operating nationwide.
These independent libraries provide books that include more than 90 titles published by Thukul Cetak.
Zamir recently resigned as the chief executive officer of the publishing house as he pursued several other projects, including "Bas Tak Sekolah".
In his own words, Zamir talks about education, reading, book bans and his ongoing initiatives.
EDUCATION IS WHERE MY PASSION IS. In the beginning, it was because I had no other options. I failed to enter matriculation college. When all my friends were flying off (overseas) to study engineering, medicine, the teachers' training college was advertising its degree course for the first batch of students. God has had the right plans for me.
THROUGH TEACHING FOR THE NEEDY, WE DISCOVERED THAT MOST CHILDREN ARE NOT LAZY. Their real problem is, among others, they have a lot of other problems at home. Sometimes when we (volunteer teachers) take them out to eat after extra classes, they will ask if they can stay back. When we try to find out, there was one, for example, who revealed that a grandfather at home would 'disturb' the child.
BY READING AND STUDYING, we learn lessons so as not to repeat mistakes. That’s how I started Thukul Cetak. When the Malay version of the Communist Manifesto, which we published, was seized in Jakarta, people asked why we were being provocative. But we see it as education. The (original) book (by Karl Marx) is studied by universities in America. People see it as a propaganda, that we just want to be rebels, but the biggest part is that we want to educate the society...