I attended a small kindergarten run by a church in Balestier Road during my pre-school days. My recollection of it, vague as it is, was that class was sometimes bewildering, often fun, but always exciting. I caught grasshoppers with my friends in the garden, made Humpty-Dumpty with egg shells, and helped my teachers in the kitchen. Oh yes, we learnt our ABCs and 123s too.
Halfway through the year, however, the kindergarten closed and I had to move to another one. The new school made us wear this uncomfortable white and blue uniform (with a tie to boot) and it had this fearsome looking sign with a red lightning. It was my first encounter with the PAP. My new friends were nice but the teachers kept making us say 'A for Apple, B for Boy, C for Cat' over and over. I began to hate school.
I was resigned to the fact that I was not university material. Every step of the way, the system kept telling me I was not good enough. I nearly signed on as an Inspector after I completed my National Service with the police force. But something in me told me not to settle.
After working as a private tutor for a year and with the little that I had saved (and some help from my elder sister), I decided to – on a wing and a prayer – go to the United States to pursue my tertiary education. I had enough funds for one year.
In 1983, I arrived at Mansfield University, a small university in the state of Pennsylvania. After I settled in, I decided to major in psychology. There I found myself. I blossomed academically – getting on the President's List (reserved for students with straight As) every semester and graduating summa cum laude with a perfect 4.0 grade point average.
I traveled with my professors to attend conferences in the region; took Honors classes across the spectrum of disciplines including music, photography and French; and got involved in the town's community work. It was truly a renaissance in my own little universe.
I was learning; after more than 20 years in school, I was finally learning again. I found myself reminiscing about that little kindergarten at Balestier Road.
Outside the classroom, I was elected president of the international students' organisation and “pumped iron” at the gym in between classes. I even found time to train for a sprint triathlon.
During the summer breaks, I worked as an odd-jobs maintenance guy with the University, doing everything from hauling furniture to digging holes for football posts to mowing the lawn. I was paid the minimum wage of $3.25 an hour then (Americans are now fighting for $15 an hour).
It was hard work, my hands were calloused, my feet blistered and bones dog-tired from the day's work. But I never felt more alive and I never felt prouder because it was money I earned through my own good, honest sweat. With a daily staple of Kraft's Mac n Cheese, Ramen noodles, and Wonder Bread, one could save quite a bit too.
It got to the point when even the town's newspaper took an interest in what I was doing and it wrote a little feature on me.
In my senior year, my major professor told me something that no one had told me before – that he saw potential in me and that I had to believe in myself if I wanted to further my studies. He encouraged me to apply for the PhD programme and challenged me to discover my mind.
I took his advice and wrote to a Professor Walter Isaac (photo at the top) who was doing work as a research and clinical neuropsychologist that I had found particularly exciting at the University of Georgia. He beckoned and I headed for the charming college town of Athens, Georgia.
But tough as it was, I never felt that the work was tedious because I was passionate about what I was doing. The laboratory work was no different even though it swallowed up all my waking hours. During the winter, I would just sleep on my table in the lab because it was too cold to ride home at night on my motor-bike (which I had purchased for $50 from someone who lived in a shack down the road. It ran well except for one small problem, the ignition key didn't work. No matter, I could kick-start the thing with a push and a short run.)
This was about the time I met a lady who stopped me in my tracks. I summoned up enough courage to talk to her even though she was from Taiwan and I could speak Mandarin as well as I could speak Swahili. But after many "uhms" and "ahs", I managed to ask her out on a date. I borrowed a second helmet and cautiously asked her if she minded riding pillion. She said she didn't. We ended up watching Good Morning Vietnam starring (the late) Robin Williams. We went for pizza after the movie. She paid for dinner based, I think, on two considerations: One, she was on a scholarship and, two, she saw me struggling with my wallet.
I worked part-time as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. Juggling between trying to master the concepts of Chi-Square and F distributions in my statistics class during the day while taking orders for kung pao chicken and chow mein at night proved to be quite a challenge. I was so tired one night when a customer asked for a refill of his Coke, I grabbed a pitcher and proceeded to fill the glass up. It turned out to be soy sauce.
But the tips were good and they allowed me to pay rent, buy groceries and put a little away for a car – I was tired of slipping and sliding on my bike during the winter months when the roads sometimes iced up.
Again during my second year, I was awarded a teaching assistantship which paid me a stipend. I hadn't exactly hit the jackpot but I did a celebratory jig nonetheless when I heard the news. It was the first time in my adult life that I was going to be able to afford to buy something beyond food.
I bought a real car this time, a used Chevy Impala, from another Singaporean student there. That year, Mei and I drove to Atlanta for the New Year's Eve celebrations. Along the way, we stopped at a Chinese restaurant for dim sum. I remember feeling the strange feeling of being able to pay for the tips instead of working for one.
I returned to Singapore in 1990 and joined the Department of Social Science and Psychology at the NUS as a teaching fellow. I was not accepted as full-fledged Lecturer until one year later because – here we go again – the university felt that my A-level results were not good enough.
And then I joined the SDP.
By relating my little but eventful journey of my educational experience, I hope some of you find a little something in it to help you along – especially those of you who are still finding your way. If you're tired, take a little rest. Then get up and get on with your quest. If you're having doubts about yourself, here's my advice: Don't. You cannot soar on the wings of doubt.
Don't let our education system tell you you're not good enough.