CAIRO - Mr Aufa Muhammad Sidqee lost his father to kidney failure at the tender age of eight. Growing up, it was his mother who supported him and his three siblings, and pushed him when he felt like giving up.
On Tuesday (Nov 1) evening, he made his mother proud as one of the 45 new Singaporean graduates of Al Azhar University in Cairo.
Mr Aufa marched up on stage and collected his scroll from Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim, in a special graduation ceremony also attended by President Tony Tan Keng Yam.
Dr Tan, who is on his first state visit to Egypt, graced the event as guest of honour.
Al Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world, is a top destination for Singaporeans pursuing Islamic studies. Out of the 292 Singaporean students in Cairo, 240 study there.
Many alumni, on returning home, become leaders in the Muslim community. Some like Mr Aufa, 25, hope to become teachers.
"The art of teaching and sharing is what my mother taught me, and this is what I want to share with others," he said.
He almost did not graduate. In his third year of study, Mr Aufa came down with pneumonia.
He returned to Singapore for medical treatment and had to delay his studies for over a year while he recovered.
His mother, Madam Saudah Haji Shafii, 59, told him it was okay if he did not want to continue.
"He told me he wanted to fulfil his dreams, and go back and study," said Madam Saudah, a social worker.
In a speech to the graduands, Dr Yaacob cited the example of Mr Aufa and valedictorian Nur Diyana Zait, 23, as examples of perseverance.
Ms Diyana scored badly for her Arabic placement test, but worked hard and ended up top of the cohort.
"Sheer determination and grit, as well as a sense of curiosity and a spirit of continual learning are key qualities," said Dr Yaacob, adding that the Muslim community needs "strong and credible" leaders in these uncertain times.
The ceremony was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Cairo. These annual graduation ceremonies have been organised by the Singapore Embassy and Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) since 2010.
Speaking to the media later, Dr Yaacob said these ceremonies are important because they remind graduates they are going home to a multiracial and multi-religious community. It also sends a message to Singaporeans that as Muslim leaders, these graduates will work to preserve Singapore's racial and religious harmony.
"This is an important message to bring back home, to reassure fellow Singaporeans that Malay Muslim Singaporeans are together with them, to ensure that we can preserve what we have achieved in Singapore for the last 50 years," he said.
At a reception for Singaporeans in Cairo held after the ceremony, Dr Tan congratulated the graduands and said they represented "the next generation of leaders for the Muslim community".
Addressing the room of about 300 Singaporeans, Dr Tan also said they were the "window through which many Egyptians learn about Singapore".
"The friendships that you build with Egyptians will help promote mutual understanding, deepen our people-to-people links and make our relations more robust," said Dr Tan.