Friday, March 13, 2015

Whiplash! $60,000 in 13 years

If you haven’t already seen “Whiplash”, the movie about a kid grinding his way seeking to earn the respect of his teacher, I recommend it.

How far can you push yourself?

Watching this movie reminds me a part of my life where I was won a 60K AUD (50K USD) scholarship from a state University in Australia.  Now you must be thinking how is this related to Whiplash?  You see, in Whiplash the kid was really competing not with others, not with his teacher, but himself.  Except mine was a lot longer than a 2 hour movie.  It’s a 13 year journey through time and space.  The journey called education, and the journey of oneself.

Year 1 - 6 Primary School

When I was much younger I wasn’t very studious.  In fact I played most of the time.  Studying, oh who needs it, was my motto of the times.  Class rankings aren’t for me.  Comic books, toys, video games, drawing, those were my joys.  Also I did like to sew, and still remember how to.  And even though I didn’t study as much as I could have, I was still a pretty decent student.  I was frequently ranked right in the middle of all students overall.  During my primary school leaving examination, I scored an A, 2 Bs and a C.  I scored a B in Math!  A small miracle, considering that I failed in all my tests for the rest of the year.  Not that bad, but I could have done much better.  I was assigned, according to the academic rules of Singapore, to the “normal” stream, whereby I had to study 5 years instead of 4 in secondary school.  The “express” stream requires you to study 4 years.  So another year of studying, not such a big deal to many, but a big deal to me.  Another year is huge.  A year of life, hell no am I going to waste that time.

Year 7 - Secondary 1 Normal

So what did I do?  Bucked up of course.  You see, life is changeable, malleable, but only if you change your mindset.  A fatalistic attitude (“It’s fated”, “I have no choice”, “It’s not my fault”, “It’s too hard”, “My boss is an ass”, “It’s the Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Islamists”, etc.) will turn you into a victim.  You will be swallowed up by other forces and you’ll end up in a place that you don’t intend to be.  So, sorry fate, but f*** you, I’m going to make my own path.  And so I did, at the old mature age of 12.  You have to score an average of above 70% for the year for all subjects, if you wanted to be promoted to the express stream.  Now you’re thinking “Hey that’s easy”.  No not really.  Not taking a swipe at western education, but the truth is Asian standards are higher, much higher.  I had a girl from NZ study in our class for less than a year and she couldn’t take it and had to change schools.  The education system in Singapore is challenging, no one re-uses test questions, or test papers.  There is no “one sure thing” that will be out in an exam.  Not one.  But I did what I had to do, I pulled my socks up and actually made an attempt to do well.  Each of us had to take 8 subjects each, 9 if you include PE.  At the end of secondary 1, only a handful of us were promoted.  This turned out to be 2.5% of all the students studying in the normal stream.  I was in the so-called worst class out of the 4 normal classes, and I did it.  I sure was happy, saving a year of time.  For time is the greatest asset that one can have.  But that’s not the only thing I did after that.

Year 8 - Secondary 2 Express

Year 8 is the year where you get streamed, again.  If you wanted to study pure sciences (physics, chemistry and biology), which I did, you have to be one of the best in the school, and competed for that I did.  At the end of the year I was promoted to the best class in the school, this time along with 2 other girls in a class of 40.  Of course this also meant that certain students in the best class had to be kicked out to other classes.  Overall the top 14.2% of students ended up in the best class.

Year 9 - Secondary 3 Express - Pure Sciences

The overall count in my class for Secondary 3 ended up being (wait for it…)… 31 girls and 9 boys!  Why is the ratio so skewed?  Fact is girls are smarter.  Just saying.  But I had gone from the worst class, to the best class in 3 years.  The odds of this are 0.355% in my case from going from worst to the best.  No other student had done what I did.  I’m sure some students disliked me, in fact I know some of them did.  You know when you’re successful is when others get jealous of you.

Year 10 - Secondary 4 Express - Pure Sciences

It gets better in the last year of secondary school.  Eventually I graduated with an L1R5 of 12 with 5 distinctions out of 8 'O' Levels.  These are pretty good results.  Note that the best you can score is a 6, the lower the better.  But instead of going to Junior College which is the usual route that most students take in the express stream I chose the polytechnic route, which has far lax requirements, normally reserved for the “less clever” or “less bright”.  Simplifying the system, junior colleges typically except students scoring 20 or lower taking into account 6 subjects.  Whereas polytechnics typically accept 20 or higher, and you take into account only 5 subjects, termed L1R4.  My score for polytechnic was 9.  The friends that I knew, some of who scored much worse than I did were all lining up to go to Junior College, which I spent some time in but didn’t like it that much, and I didn’t.  My mum cried thinking that’s the line for me, I’m going to end up on the pavement now, one hand holding a bottle of alcohol, the other hand covering my face.

But.. in an alternate universe... that could have been me!

She simply could not accept the fact that I chose polytechnic when I could have easily chosen Junior College, deemed "the correct route" to choose if one wants to go to university.

My mother's reaction

So what happened next, well shortly after admitting into polytechnic, my mum made an appointment with a Junior College and had me go listen to an hour of blabbering by the principle criticising me for the great decisions that I've made, but then said she would accept me if there were enough computers in the lab.  Thankfully there weren't enough computers.  I've never been more grateful.  And thank God for that.  I stuck with polytechnic.

Year 11 to 13 Polytechnic

The truth is, I excelled in polytechnic, and I had a far better and more enjoyable time learning and doing practical things compared to the academic word spew in Junior College.  I gave assignment presentations in my lecturer’s seat.  No one had done that before.  I was the top student in Math out of the entire standard, a long way from failing in primary school.  And no school uniforms, no strict rules, it was freedom!  I got to go to Australia to work for a brief period of time.  And I graduated with numerous distinctions.  A distinction in polytechnic is only awarded to the top 5% of A grades.  So you only not had to get an A, you had to be at the top of As.  But even so, I was not the perfect student, no, I had to do detention once, fell asleep plenty of times in class, and even skipped classes.  But I made sure when it’s crunch time to try my best.

3 years later

After serving some time in the military, I applied for the state university in Queensland, Australia.  Aptly named “The University of Queensland”.  I had been there once prior in 2000 having written lessons for university students as part of work experience during my final year of polytechnic.  A few months before I was discharged I was informed via email that I had won a $60,0000 scholarship, effectively covering all of my school fees.

But first let’s go back in time, half a year before I was scheduled to be discharged, I applied for the local university.  Note that I was never going to ever study locally, but again my mum wanted me to apply or some reason or another.  And of course the local university rejected me, in fact they wanted me to appeal.  For what reason, only heaven knows.  Perhaps having Junior College grades were more important.  But boy was I glad NOT to be admitted into a local university.

Now fast forward to the night I found out I won a scholarship.

Free.  International.  Education.  Sixty.  Thousand.  Dollars.

It’s pretty hard to beat.  One of the best days of my life.  It’s a journey 13 years in the making.  13 years equates to 6 years of primary school, 4 years of secondary school and 3 years of polytechnic.  All those years of discipline have paid off.  From a kid who had seen the worst students, to being in the best of students.  From seeing his mum cry because she thought he had no hope, to seeing his mum cry again because he was leaving the country.  Winning $60,000, in 2004 monetary figures.  What would you give for that?

Scholarship ceremony in 2004 with Head of School

The rest as they say is history.  Since then I’ve lived in 3 continents, started a business and sold to Fortune companies, been interviewed over national radio, have my products included in books, travelled to 29+ countries, and life is still going on!

So in conclusion…

To parents, don’t ever think your children are “doomed” simply because they picked a route that you wouldn’t pick.  Life is all about one’s mindset.  Two persons can be enrolled in the same school, born to the same parents, live under the same house, yet turn out very differently.  It matters not what school your child goes to.  A beggar will never turn out to be a millionaire, because the beggar is exactly where they are according to their mindset.  Those who take positive action are the ones who will make progress and change the world.  Those who “accept” will merely be victims.  Encourage your children to be open minded and to have self-belief.

To students of all ages, no matter what position you’re in, you can always make a change and be better.  Forget about what your friends are doing, do what you believe is important to you.  Far too often I’ve seen students study what their parents want them to, or what their friends want them to, look… who is going to live your life?  Your parents?  You only need to do two things.  Set goals.  Try your best.  And life will handle the rest.  Forget about what others think, frankly you just don’t have time for the average person’s opinion.

To everyone else, anything in life is possible, provided you can change your mindset.  I have no political connections, and my parents are the typical ordinary working class.  I went to neighbourhood schools.  I was never given any kind of monetary award even when I did well in school and had to earn, save and scrimp every cent.  I didn’t grow up in a wealthy country.  Back in the 80s Singapore was still a third world country (even though it was rising rapidly) with a population of only two and a half million or so.  Those were the times I lived in.  Often it matters not what others believe, but what you believe in yourself.  The fact is most people in life are average, and to lead a life better than average, you have to do what others do *not* do.

If I, an ordinary person can do it, so can you.  With an open mind, everything is possible.  With self belief, your actions will make you do the impossible.  Take action and believe.

I know plenty of people read this blog, so comment below if this inspires you.


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