Growing Up

Two days ago, it was the 9th of August. The day we commemorate Singapore’s independence.

I still recall in those days when I was studying in St. Andrew’s Junior School (thumbnail image for Woodsville Campus), the day before National Day was always a joyous affair – no lessons (Physical Education (PE) or otherwise) and most importantly, we ended school after half a day of singing and merrymaking.

(Celebrating National Day 2012 with Grandma)

The annual routine was straightforward enough – grandma would fetch me to school and then wait patiently in the old and dilapidated canteen of the Woodsville Campus while she caught up with the stallholders who had long became her good friends. After the official dismissal and lugging a heavy backpack upon my pudgy frame, I trod warily down the flight of stairs to look for grandma. Despite the canteen being dingy, I always knew how to spot my grandma for she would sit faithfully behind a table with a green-colour plate of Char Kway Teow (stir-fried black sauce rice noodles).

The serving of grub was of course intended for her beloved grandson whom she thought would be badly starved after half a day’s work of singing, “Count on me Singapore”.  Yet upon tucking in, I would always frown and rebelliously push back the plate of noodles to her and complain that it was either too dry or spicy and I didn’t want to eat it. So poor grandma had to apologize to the uncle behind the wok and get the noodles fried again, sometimes at the expense of getting told off. All for the sake of keeping her grandson fed and contented.

As far as I can recall, my grandparents and my parents gave me almost all I had wanted as a child without undue or unreasonable expectations of who I needed to be or what I had to achieve to make them happy. Instead, I had often gone all out to study hard and get good grades because they always seem so elated when I returned home with glowing results on my report card. After all in those days, getting good grades was a mere function of memorization and regurgitation.

(The Singapore Education System – a pressure cooker?)

Growing up for me was a no-brainer – you do the work, get the results, make the cut and then proceed to the next higher rung. This was the modus operandi for me through 6 years of primary school, 4 years of secondary school and 2 years of Junior College.

It was only until I served my National Service (NS) and in the luxury of time (not freedom), it dawned upon me that 12 years of life had gone by and I had not really known what I truly wanted in life even though I had a place to study Accountancy at the Singapore Management University (SMU). When I spoke to my peers who likewise hailed from the JC batch, almost all were offered a place in the 3 public universities of Singapore.

But when I asked them, “Why do you choose to study (choice of program)?”

I had the impression most of us never really saw the need to question or contemplate that deeply… so long we secured the “tried and tested” academic routes of Medicine, Law, Accountancy, Business, Finance, IT, Engineering and the likes. After all, we were all striving for the same Singaporean dream.

It was like this security blanket we thought we have rightfully earned that will keep us warm and covered and sound asleep until the next phase of life comes welcoming us with unknown elements and rules.

University – Taking flight

(SMU students looking ever so positive)

The promise from SMU was that of metamorphosis and I am quite certain I got nothing less than that. The grueling 15 weeks academic routine of projects, mid-term tests, class participation and final exams meant that you either have copious amounts of discipline, independence and focus in your DNA or that you are awfully gifted to pull off some erudition magic. The demands of university were starkly different from that I had ever experienced – we had to think, reason and make numerous tough decisions. Life didn’t quite present itself to me on a platter like it did previously.

To make things worse (or better), there were a thousand and one activities going on outside of class like CCAs, overseas and local exchanges, internships, community service projects, bashes, competitions, industry talks, CEO forums and the list goes on.

University was a bustling place and time to be in and it was thrilling in a sense that there was never a moment of stagnancy though one can argue that you can’t afford to have it, anyway. But the truth was you are almost at full liberty to engineer your academic stint and lifestyle and are supported to do so with the advice from staff and seniors and also with the myriad grants, awards and scholarships. It really boils down to how much you want to make out of these 3 or 4 years. The more industrious ones whom I knew really milked it all and to explain their spirit with a new acronym I’ve just come across – You Only Live Once (YOLO). YOLO indeed.

To me, one facet of our lives that really stands out for us 20-somethings living in this generation compared with our parents in their 50s and 60s from the baby boomer generation is our ability and tendency to take flight, quite literally. My Dad always tell me reminiscently during our kopi sessions that he is always amazed at how my generation gets to travel so far and frequently.

“You all are really very lucky”,

has become his pet phrase whenever my siblings and I inform him for our intention to travel. While it was a luxury for our parents to travel by plane or ship a couple of decades ago, it is almost incredible how traveling has become a norm for most of us now.

(En route Camino de Santiago)

Take for example, my friend Chris, has walked the Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James when he was only 21 years old. He recalls fondly how he has connected with a couple of baby boomers who were likewise fulfilling their “spiritual calling”. And yes, he funded his trip entirely on his own.

I count myself pretty fortunate as well to have traveled to Cambodia and Philippines to serve in community projects and also, India and Hong Kong for youth summits and competitions. All of the sponsoring organizations were generous to provide me with a round-trip plane ticket, all-expense paid in-country itinerary and even additional stipends so I could do some shopping! Later, I traveled to Seoul for my overseas exchange and Shanghai for post-exchange holidays. To check off one of my items on my bucket list, I flew to Vietnam on a shoestring and traveled solo for over two weeks. Most recently, I also traveled within Europe (Italy, France and London) for my graduation trip with my girlfriend.

The irony that always strikes me about traveling is that the more I take flight out of this island, the more I get rooted to Singapore and reaffirm what it means to be a Singaporean. While you never really get to truly and fully experience life as a local when you’re overseas, you do get to notice on a superficial level the differences and similarities in the infrastructure, culture, society, politics, economy and way of life. At times, I take away lessons and perspectives that I hope can make this island state of ours even better. On others, I heave a huge sigh of relief when I realize how much in bliss I am when I compare what I’ve at home with what I’m experiencing then in a foreign land.

Whether it’s being amazed and inspired by a mass student demonstration at my university in Seoul for the advocacy of minimum wages for cleaners or grudgingly carrying my backpack to the front upon my girlfriend’s orders because it’s unsafe to do so otherwise along the train platforms in Rome or chilling with a bottle of beer in my hand facing the streets of Saigon a la the French way of dining; I know there’s still nowhere else that feels quite like home than Singapore.

 (Unsung – The Invisible Workforce Behind This City)

It is this intense sense of familiarity and belonging that goes deeper down the superficiality of the language we speak or the lifestyle choices we make. It is this ambivalence that sits with you when you get so irate at how your fellow countrymen can be so impatient or selfish on our public transportation system at one instance and yet be so deeply moved and hopeful when you see a group of youths voluntarily reach out to the foreign workers to bridge the widening socio-cultural gulf that exists within our society (video above). It is this feeling and knowing that you’re invested with a stake in this country that keeps you reading the numerous Facebook notes and blog commentaries during the elections and staying up till the wee hours to find out the election results. And of course, to be concerned about the big and small affairs that happen in our country post-elections.

Yet, I know all of these may not be the case for all Singaporeans and realistically speaking, it needn’t and wouldn’t be so. But at least, all these strikes home for me and I am thankful for having groups of friend whose hearts have Singapore share this same common sweet spot and are aware and active in making Singapore better.

Society of Hard Knocks – Stepping Out

(Hosting my School Commencement Ceremony 2012)

It wasn’t too long ago that my peers and I have graduated and had our Commencement Ceremony. Most of my friends are gainfully employed (at Big4 accounting firms, FMCG and consulting companies or banks) or striking out on their entrepreneurial ventures while a couple are still hunting for jobs, no thanks to the abysmal job market.

As a fresh graduate, I often hear my “seniors” welcome me with the saying, “Welcome to the real world”. This makes me wonder if I had been living in a lesser reality for the past four years in college. Though over time, I realize what makes up this “reality” is the stepping out in this world fraught with more uncertainty, changes and challenges.

Just couple of days ago, I sat in for an American Chamber talk on ‘Maximizing the value on on-job learning’ and the attendees were the HR heads of organizations like UPS, Mercer and Clifford Chance. The one overall theme I took away was that organizations have been increasingly focusing significant amount of resources on talent development for what they call the ‘high potentials’ (or high pos, in short) or typically the top 1-5% of the workforce and relying on them to effect organizational change from the top.

To make it more complex, the playing field has become a whole lot more competitive in Singapore with many foreign entrants who are hungrier, smarter and savvier.

What does it mean for young Singaporean graduates? It is not just sufficient to survive, put the minimum on the table and “show your face” for the 9 hours. The challenge is to be visible and competent enough in displaying what is expected as a ‘High Po’ – to ship work of great value, to display the capability of understanding and appreciating organizational goals and challenges from multiple perspectives and to lead and rally teams with strong alignment and conviction… and what have you.

Sounds like a tough call?

You bet and not making it through without a couple of hard knocks, of course.

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