Meet Cheli Nadarajah – award-winning educator with a passion for good deeds

The best kind of educator is one who believes intrinsically that a good education is not only the right of every child but needs to be imparted with enthusiasm, empathy and an eye on the future.

Photo: REAL Schools

Cheli Nadarajah is best known for his Reading Bus NGO which has now given books to 40,000 children in rural areas all over Malaysia. Started in 2009, the Reading Bus Project has reached out of the confines of Sarawak and West Malaysia to Cambodia, which now has the Reading Tuk-Tuk Club bringing books and English language lessons to children. 

Two months after retirement from an illustrious 36-year career and five Excellence Service Awards from the government, Cheli returned to work. Get to know this passionate educator as he takes up the reins at REAL Schools Cheras.

You retired from SMK Menjalara in May 2020 and started at REAL Schools Cheras in July 2020. Didn’t you want to take a break?

The MCO gave me an extended rest period. I had almost four months of rest and this was the most meaningful break I have had since I started teaching in 1984.


Why did you decide to join REAL and did you feel you were going against some of your ideal by joining a private school?

In the beginning, when the offer was made, I did feel that this would go against my ideals of helping the poor and marginalised. However, what Dr Goh (Dr Goh Chee Leong, CEO of REAL Education) said resonated so much with my dreams and knowing Dr Goh’s heart for education, I realised this could be an opportunity for me to multiply myself in the lives of the students by imparting to them my vision and passion for the marginalised.

REAL is actually quite far from where I live but I believe in Dr Goh’s vision to prepare children for the future and one thing that was very clear to me was that REAL wasn’t about profit, but about developing students in a holistic way. And initially, I only knew of the three REAL Schools. Only later did I realise that it was such a large organisation (REAL is under the Prestigion K12 Education Group that is in 111 locations and has over 20,000 students).


What do you feel makes REAL different from other international and private schools?

REAL has a clear vision to provide top-class education at affordable rates and this has proven to be true with excellent academic results, and many experienced teachers who have taught for more than 15 years. And it is the only institution that is preparing children to face the future with real world skills. 


What are some of the initiatives the school is running which will make a significant impact on the lives of the students, academically and otherwise?

Our Real World curriculum is something unique as we aspire to equip each child for the real world in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times. REAL is committed to seeing every child being prepared for the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR).

I have started the REAL CHANGERS under the Reading Bus Club (with our Cheras campus actively nurturing, giving and engaging in real societies). The members are going to run basic English literacy programmes with children in orang asli and underprivileged communities. This will be an ongoing project created and developed in Cheras.

Tell us more about your Excellence Service Awards and what excellence really means to you.  Your wife has also won Excellence awards. How do you practise this in your personal life or when you were bringing your children up?

I am one of the very few civil servants in the nation who has been awarded the Excellence Service Awards (Anugerah Perkhidmatan Cemerlang) a record number of five times. I was also blessed in 1994 with the Innovative Teacher of the Year Award for Sarawak and was awarded the Ministry of Education Scholarship to pursue my studies at Otago University.

Only about 5% of civil servants get this award which is based on an annual appraisal. My philosophy in life is to work hard with all my heart. My children know without a doubt that their mother and I walk the talk and see for themselves the truth that we share in our lives.


What is it like being on campus at Hulu Langat?

The scenery and surrounds of REAL Schools Cheras is amazing. Every morning as I take my walk around the campus, I get a chance to enjoy the fresh air and wonderful views of the hills.


To really get to know Cheli Nadarajah is to understand what drives him and this anecdote summarises the person and educator he is.

When the Ministry of Education introduced the teaching of Science and Maths in English, the dropout rate really skyrocketed. My wife and I took books from the Ladybird Reading series to the villages and our first visit was to Kampung Pasir Ulu, Sarawak with eight of my students. This was almost at the border to Kalimantan – there was no water or electricity, and we slept on the floor.

The next day when we came back to KL, I asked the students to give me their thoughts. One boy was very, very quiet.  He 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”. I began to see a transformation in the eight students and decided that I would do this for as long as I could. It was a life-changing transformation for me and my students.

Asked if there was a way to distil the essence of a transforming education, Cheli said that students see what teachers and educators do and know if they are really cared for by these mentors. He strongly advocates ‘affective intervention strategies’ such as caring, listening, encouraging, journeying and being there for students. Throughout history, the teachers who have made the biggest difference are those who have cared and loved much.

Find out more about REAL Schools Cheras or their other schools in Shah Alam and Johor at or call Dorothy Chen (010 256 1477) or Alan Ng (018 201 23211) for more information and to have all your queries answered.

Tags: Profile, REAL School, Feature, Primary, Secondary
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