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Pivot, change, adjust

“Our lives are defined by opportunities, even the ones we miss.” -- Eric Roth

 
1992

It was the year I took the PSLE. Some might say I was in one of the top notch primary schools in today's terms. But it came from humble beginnings, being located in Holland Village.


I had been fortunate and always front-running in the cohort of the best performing students. My childhood dream was to be a doctor and I had aimed for a score of over 260. That would surely propel me into the best secondary schools.


But when the results were released, I had a score of 237, a decent grade no doubt for many at that time, but still fell incredibly short of what I had hoped for.


I could not qualify for any of the schools that I had shortlisted. I remembered walking along the road to the bus stop just outside the school as my mum and I re-evaluated my secondary school options.


I ended up going to a school that I had never heard of. Having said that, those four years were one of the most transformational periods of my life. Excellent teachers and numerous outdoors expeditions shaped me into a highly athletic, all-rounded and resilient person that good grades alone could not achieve.


 
1996

On the morning of my English 'O' levels, I came down with an extremely bad case of food poisoning. I was immediately sent to the hospital via a taxi in a wheelchair. I vaguely remembered the nurse putting me on a drip as I gradually passed out.


I did a triple science route as part of the pre-requisites to study medicine, and had nine subjects under my belt. English was just one of them. However, failing or skipping the English papers meant that you had to re-take the entire year of school again, regardless of the other eight subjects. Everything was on the line here.


When I had woken up, I remembered very clearly it was 8:25am and a man was seated just across the bed where I was. The school had been informed of my circumstances and sent an invigilator to the ward.


I ended up taking my English papers nearly an hour behind every one else, in a slightly woozy state and with a thick hypodermic needle stuck in my right arm. Although it had just been a simple bout of food poisoning, I was put under observation for a week.


Ironic as it was, I scored an 'A' for all the papers that I sat for during my time in the hospital. But I still fell short of the requirements for entry into the top five junior colleges.



 
1999

I did well enough for my 'A's to do nearly any course I wanted in university except for medicine. I eventually gave it up when I traded biology for athletics, which I later obtained school colors for. I was even offered a prestigious government teaching scholarship to study at some of the most reputable universities in the US. The catch was that I had to dedicate six years of my life to the public education sector upon graduation.


Later on during my national service, they had once again offered to send me overseas to a prestigious military college in Japan in exchange for six years in the army. I declined again, mostly because I didn't like the idea of being bonded. Besides, I felt that there were much more job opportunities beyond civil service after four years of studying in a university.


I wanted to be an engineer - at least that's what I remembered one of my teachers in junior college said then, "Go study engineering, it will always be in demand". So I enrolled in Computer Engineering, believing that it would lead me to the holy grail of all professions.



 
2006

Studying engineering in university proved to be much more difficult than I had thought. I was toeing the red line and nearly got booted out. But my life changed forever when I decided to spend a year living and working overseas in China.


I had been introduced to the glittery world of business and finance. Everything that I had looked forward to in an engineering career had basically been undone during those twelve months in Shanghai. I convinced myself that I wanted to be in banking, specifically investment banking.


My entry into KPMG Corporate Finance marked the day that I would renounce my engineering career forever.


Based in Raffles Place, I was excited to be in the league of young and aspiring fresh graduates, eagerly looking forward to make that eventual transition into a bulge bracket bank with a five-figure monthly salary. But I missed that boat when the 2008 financial crisis struck, crippling the hiring plans of the large investment banks across the globe.


In the twist of fate, I managed to join a mid-market Korean securities house. I clocked my mileage, put in the hours and late nights, adhering to the rites of passage, before subsequently moving on to BNP Paribas and Standard Chartered Bank as part of a larger and more institutionalised corporate finance set up.



 
2010

Investment banking turned out to be a jealous and selfish bitch, demanding your personal and social time more than anything else.


I had worked up to sixteen-hour work days, eighty-hour work weeks, pulling all-nighters, even on weekends and holidays. I was simply trading time for money, as one of my colleagues had put it at that point of time:


Wake up, drink coffee, generate pitch books, run financial models, update trading comps, get yelled at by seniors, rinse and repeat.


Over the years, I had received several offers to jump ship, some of those include buy-side and corporate development roles that promised a more sustainable lifestyle and decent pay check.


But all this time inside my head was a voice that kept saying, "just stick to the plan, put up with this for a few years and then leave."



 
2016

Leaving banking and building a business from scratch was one of the best decisions I had made, and possibly one of the most liberating things that I had ever done for my career.


But nothing could prepare me for what was to come: Waking up every day without reporting to a boss at the office, learning the ropes of HR, operations, finance, legal and sales all at the same time, the disappointment of repeated client rejections, but most of all, the anxiety of watching your bank account being depleted month after month.


No one would be able to understand how difficult the process was without having gone through this experience first-hand.


Entrepreneurship would basically test your limits and push you to the breaking point, again and again. Just picture a baby trying to force a square peg through a round hole. Under any situation, no matter how hopeless it seemed, your mind would always try to find a solution. It's good mental training and personal development.


A lot of people say that money shouldn't be the reason why you start a business. It should always be about purpose, solving a pain point in the industry, making a better product, or offering a better service to the world. I never explicitly admitted it but what mostly drove me to do it was the naive disillusion that I could make lots of money, in a relatively short time.


Later on, I realised that employees are in fact the richest people in the world. They will all be slaves but they are still rich.


 
2021

It felt surreal when I left Singapore. It had been an indefinite job posting and I had initially planned to return possibly after two years. I am into my fourth year now and residing in Hong Kong today feels so much different from it was three years ago. A part of it feels like a home and a sanctuary.


Sometimes I think about how life would be like had I not accepted that offer to be based overseas.


Paterson Walk, CWB... where I currently stay.


 

I was watching a documentary about a hawker on CNA earlier on, stuck with me:


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