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From studying by candlelight to being a radical teacher, Cheli Tamilselvam Nadarajah’s legacy points to Jesus

On Teacher’s Day, be inspired by the incredible story of Cheli Tamilselvam Nadarajah, fondly known as Mr Cheli, a veteran teacher and chairman of Teachers’ Christian Fellowship of Malaysia. He has been an educator for nearly 40 years and still teaches, mentors and guides youths today.

Cheli Tamilselvam Nadarajah was not born into a family that believed in education. The fifth child in a family of 10 children, he grew up on the rolling hills of Cameron Highlands. Every day was a struggle for Cheli’s family as they were very poor, and at the tender age of nine, he began taking odd jobs to support the family income.

Cheli Tamilselvam Nadarajah grew up on the rolling hills of Cameron Highlands.

Looking back, he remembers weeding and cutting grass for his neighbours for a mere 50 cents to RM1 a day. He was a quiet boy and spent much of his childhood alone in the jungle, playing by himself and hiding away from people.

Growing up in a home without electricity, Cheli studied by candlelight

As a child, Cheli enjoyed school. An avid learner and academically bright, he would borrow school books from his classmates and friends. His home did not have any electricity, so Cheli would complete his homework by candlelight.

“My mother did not believe in school, and this made it very hard for me. I was keen to be in school daily but had to work for my school monthly school fees on my own.”

Fortunately, his school realised his plight and gave him a scholarship for the rest of his secondary school years. With the support, he was able to complete his Lower Certificate of Education (equivalent to Form 3 exams) and Malaysian Certificate of Education (SPM).

“Become a teacher or be disowned.”

However, Cheli had yet to find his purpose and felt deeply unmotivated. After Form 6, the young man was resigned to life and did not believe he would ever experience anything good.

“I started smoking, drinking and engaged in many bad habits. My dad was tired of my issues and managed to get a Teachers’ College Application Form for me and gave me an ultimatum: to apply to be a teacher or to be disowned.”

In 1981, Cheli was accepted into Maktab Perguruan Kota Bharu (MPKB), Kelantan but brought with him the baggage of his past and unhealthy habits. As a result, he was the only trainee teacher to fail his teaching practical course but was given another chance due to his active involvement in co-curricular activities: he was the college’s music and choir leader, hockey captain and part of the football team.

IPG Kota Bharu, formerly known as Maktab Perguruan Kota Bharu is where Cheli obtained his teaching certification. Image Source: Sinar Harian

On a moonlit night when he wanted to end his life, Cheli found Jesus

But the second chance didn’t mean much to Cheli at the time. Aimless and wandering, he became known as a hostile, vulgar person; no other trainee teacher dared to share a room with him. He struggled with insomnia and plagued by a lack of purpose, decided to end his life in June 1983.

“There was a disused mining pool nearby where I lived in Kota Bharu, and I decided to walk there and plunge myself in. On my way there, I found myself crouched on the roadside, sobbing away and wanting to talk to God, but I felt so unworthy and unclean to address Him.”

Sitting by the roadside that night, Cheli begged “whoever You are up there” to give him another chance, and suddenly found himself saying, “I will be a Christian!” That night, he slept soundly for the first time in his life.

In the morning, while cleaning up his filthy room, he came across a Gideon’s Bible.

“I could not explain but I had tears streaming down my cheeks as I began to read the Bible. I decided to go to a church in town and follow Mei (a fellow trainee teacher who would later become his wife) and her friends to the Kota Bharu Assembly of God and on 1 July 1983, I gave my life to Jesus there.”

From an aimless youth to Mr Cheli, a radical teacher with a heart for Malaysia’s next generation

The transformation was immediate and evident. From being the class ‘failure’ of 1982, Cheli rose to become one of the three nominees for the MPKB Best Trainee Teacher Award at the end of 1983. His first posting was to Kapit, Sarawak in January 1984, and since then he’s never looked back.

His journey as a teacher has taken him to many schools, here as Vice-Principal of SMK Sinar Bintang.

As an educator, he faced many challenges but the biggest was the lack of leadership, clarity and room for innovation in schools. “There was very little room for creativity and critical feedback. I often found myself being pushed aside for my ideas, innovation and creativity. There were also hundreds of things we could not do and very little space for encouraging teachers to do good things. But I thank God for making me a radical.”

Cheli stuck to his innovative teaching methods, and his persistence paid off. In 1993, he received his first Excellent Service Award and a year later, the Innovative Teacher of the Year Award. He went on to receive a MOE Scholarship Award and four more Excellent Service Awards, with the last given in 2019.

Cheli, radical teacher and passionate educator, with his awards. Image Source: Essential Education

Beyond the classroom, Cheli and Mei’s Reading Bus NGO has impacted over 40,000 students

But this passionate educator isn’t just confined to the four walls of a school building. In 2009, Cheli and Mei started The Reading Bus Club, an NGO that has provided books to over 40,000 children in rural communities1.

It all started when Science and Mathematics began to be taught in English. As school dropout rates climbed, Cheli and Mei brought simple English books to Kampung Pasir Ulu, Sarawak (on the border of Kalimantan, with no water or electricity). He brought eight of his students from KL with him on the trip.

When they returned home, he asked his students to share their thoughts. One boy, who had been quiet, said, “We have everything, yet we have nothing. We have a proper place to eat and sleep and in the end, we are so unhappy. The children there don’t have proper beds and even slippers, yet they are happy.”1

Cheli saw that real transformation was taking place in his students’ lives, and from there Reading Bus was born. Today, Reading Bus reaches rural communities in Sarawak, West Malaysia and Cambodia (Reading Tuk-Tuk), where children are receiving books and English lessons.

Cheli at the launch of the 10th Reading Tuk Tuk in Cambodia in 2014. Image Source: The Reading Bus Club

“Teaching is definitely a calling by the Master. It is God’s call for me to share His love in schools.” – Cheli

On 12 May 2020, Cheli retired from public service but has not stopped. He is currently the Campus Principal of R.E.A.L Schools, Cheras Campus. He firmly believes that schools are where God has called him to be, as a teacher and mentor.

“Over the almost 40 years of service, the Lord has given me the privilege of leading an average of about 25 students to Christ each year. I have the privilege of discipling around five students and teachers each year.”

To other Christian teachers in Malaysia, be encouraged that you are not alone

Cheli (back row, middle) with other Christian teachers in Malaysia.

Cheli is also the chairman of Teachers’ Christian Fellowship of Malaysia (TCF Malaysia), a grassroots organisation founded in 1981 that seeks to help Christian teachers become who God intended when He called each one into the profession.

TCF Malaysia organises seminars, camps, retreats, and conferences where teachers can find encouragement and support in their journey. Cheli believes this support is critical.

“Be encouraged to know that you [teachers] are not alone in this quest to be a Light of the world and Salt of the earth in schools. There are a few thousand Christian teachers in Malaysia who remain faithful in the call to teach, and we have Jesus, the Master Teacher Himself who sees, feels, knows, and understands our needs and struggles.”

After nearly forty years, Cheli shows no signs of stopping

Education is more than teaching, it’s journeying with the students. Cheli with Form 6 students at Desa Mahkota College.

For this passionate educator and fervent Christian, his life philosophy is to work hard with all his heart. He advocates for a mentorship approach where students feel they are heard, encouraged and valued in their journey.

To Cheli, history has clearly shown that teachers who made the biggest differences have been those who cared and loved much. At 62, he declares with certainty that his faith in Jesus is the anchor of his life.

For today and the years ahead, he holds tightly to Jeremiah 31:16: Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears: for your work will be rewarded, declares the Lord.

Asked what he hopes to be remembered for, Cheli says, “I just want to hear the Master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

God continues to be faithful: Cheli and Mei with their two sons and daughters-in-law.

1. Meet Cheli Nadarajah – award-winning educator with a passion for good deeds, 2020, Essential Education
2. Touching the lives of thousands through English, 2021, The Star

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