Closing the chapter which took 15 years – From “Beng”​ to B.Eng

This is what started the chase. 15 years ago, I wrote an essay talking about how I eventually enter University. I was quite a naughty boy at that time, having “toughen up” from a series of getting beaten up in school. I was really just trying to be funny when I wrote it. It surprised me when my teacher wrote back, with half a page of red ink. I thought he was going to give me a good scolding. But instead, he encouraged me. How many of those who knew me at that time would even think that it is possible? I was ranked the last out of 205 students in the entire cohort, frequently getting into trouble in school, caned for three out of five years during my time in secondary school. I was the “ah beng”. When I was asked to stand up in the assembly to recognize my effort for being part of the choir for recording my school song, people pointed at me and laughed. “Hahaha, ah beng can sing ah?” Am I proud of this history? Not really. But this is where I started and it is an undeniable fact of my life. So I do share it from time to time because many things that I do, my ideology and perspective, my knowledge and insights on bullying and youths, and my detestation for secret societies, is driven by that experience that I had.

Somehow along the way, I found myself slowly progressing toward my goal – to be a graduate. I once thought of making a statement by having two full sleeves of tattoos, then swinging my arms to the stage to collect my certificate, just to prove a point – you can be badass and educated. I am sick of people treating academically inclined students better just because they are better at studying. And I wanted to prove that it is no big deal to have a degree. Of course, today, I have outgrown this. But I am still all about making statements and proving a point. And I will take years, decades if I have to. So today, as I receive my final results, something that will determine if I successfully graduate, I thought of sharing some thoughts, as usual.

The outcome doesn’t matter

I wanted to post my thoughts much earlier before my results came out. But I thought I might have to wait until I have something for my readers because so many people are so obsessed with an outcome. So why does the outcome not matter? Because it is not up to us. We can only determine the day-to-day process, that we put in our best shot every day. Results are up to God, destiny, fate, luck; whatever you call it. You can spend your life constructing a building, but at the end, it collapses due to an earthquake. Does it mean that you have wasted your life? We choose to pursue the things that we want to pursue because it is worth pursuing. No one can make sure that one will succeed when we embark on something. Does that mean we stop trying? No. Like what Steve Jobs said, you can only connect the dots looking backward. You can’t connect it looking forward. So I trust my gut that I am on the right path even when the odds seem stacked against me and even when people may disagree, as many as there may be.

What is life really about and what does this degree mean to me?

Life, to me, is more than just earning a paycheck. A paycheck is important, no doubt. If today, I had spent these extra six years at someone else’s expense, then it would be wrong of me to blindly pursue what I want to pursue. But I did not. I paid for my own education, used my own time, and kept up with my responsibilities, even if it means I have to work on a remote island for 5 days a week, ending my day after 11pm and waking up at 5am, studying in a tent for a bit after my students sleep, yet maintaining the same amount of courses that are run by any other Instructor as well as an evaluation of above 97 percent for all the courses that I conduct. Or to stay in the hospital with my kid for more than 7 months, sleeping on the hospital floor at times while finishing my last few semesters, upkeeping my responsibility as a father and a husband, and fulfilling my financial obligations for my child’s medical needs without borrowing a cent from anyone else including family. Of course, all these could not have been done if I didn’t have a wife that pulls her own weight, sometimes, even more, people who are willing to support us as and when they can, as well as an organization and colleagues that supported me to take leave when I really have to, in order to pursue my degree and take care of my family. This brings me back to my original point – How much of your success is really because of you yourself? To these people, I am thankful. Really. Because I would not have lasted so long without them.

There are also some who think that I have persisted for so long because the degree is very important to me. To be honest, not really. If I am someone who is overly concerned with rank, titles, and decorations, I would not have left OCS when I did not see the meaning back when I didn’t have a better idea, being young and idealistic. Ranks, titles, and paper qualifications are nice. But it must be backed by something. So if the degree is not important, what is? Self-actualization is important. Striving for excellence is important. Fulfilling what you said you will do to the best of your ability is important. Knowledge is important. Perseverance is important. Making the most out of an opportunity that has been given is important. The degree is nice. It opens more doors. But without a deeper meaning behind why you do what you do, the end product doesn’t matter. Anyway, there are plenty of people with degrees. And also many who don’t have one and do well in life. So what’s the big deal?

Closure

Since my last exam, I wrote many times, reflected back, and I even made a video to share my thoughts. Eventually, I decided to do away with all of it. I am glad I did not share the earlier posts. Because the narrative has changed a few times, from chest-beating to justifying and finally, to this, a much more collected and peaceful frame of mind, at least as compared to the earlier ones. During this period of time, I reflected back on the journey. Some incidences still make me very angry. It is easy to tell one to let things go. But when injustice, humiliation, mockery, betrayal, and contempt had been thrown in your face, when people pointed to your nose and tell you are you are inferior, mediocre, or even worthless, when people walk over you like you doesn’t matter; it is not so easy to practice what one preaches. Thankfully, over the past few weeks, I became emotionally ready to let it all go. Whether these people deserve forgiveness I do not know, but I think I deserve the peace. I am also thankful that some of these people gave me that opportunity to close up. Some even admitted their mistakes, something that I did not expect. Whether they do or not, it doesn’t really matter. It is the past and I am ready to move on. As I age, I try not to get into conflicts with people. But it is naïve to think that as long as you are nice, people will be nice. So I adopt the same philosophy as the SAF – To prevent conflict and aggression through diplomacy and deterrence, and should that fail, to secure a swift and decisive victory. I really hope that I do not have to go through all these again. I hope to be friends with as many people as I can be.

Me as a person

I have never been someone who is easy to understand. I took an unconventional path and I have made some unconventional decisions. I seem weird sometimes, doing things that are out of the norm. Sometimes when people first meet me, they don’t like me. While I want to be accepted and popular, I never concern myself too much in this aspect. It feels sad at times, but I believe that with time, people will understand me. And if they actually spend some effort to understand why I do some of the things that I do, while they themselves may not do it, I am sure they wouldn’t think that I am crazy or whatsoever. Those who judge me before they know me, why should I be concerned with their opinion because clearly, they don’t think very deeply, judging someone without knowing them well in the first place? I willing to change, but it should not be because of other’s opinions of me, but because it is the right thing to do. So the more important question is: What is the right thing to do? I remember there was this guy who hated me from polytechnic. I know about it and I didn’t really address it. Until one day, we work together and had a conversation. I asked him why he didn’t like me. And he said that it is because I copied other people’s slides. He said there is simply no way that I can do up these slides in the timeframe given. Then I asked him if he actually considered that I reuse these templates with all the nice animations? That was when he realized that all the hatred he had for me is unfounded. Finally, I told him that I know he didn’t like me. But I was not bothered by it. I asked if he knows why. He asked me why. I said it is because I know that given time, he will not. I know deep inside that I don’t conduct myself maliciously. I do not harm others. So why should they hate me? And if they hate me because of their own preferences, likings, or other lame reasons, then why should I be bothered? As long as I conduct myself with the right morals and principles, I think I should do okay. That my philosophy of how I conduct myself.

So why (the hell) did I take so long?

I entered NTU after making a total of 9 applications for NUS/NTU/SMU over three years. During Polytechnic, I could have focused entirely on achieving a high GPA. I did not want to. I wanted to score well enough to enter University but to have an all-rounded education. Honestly, I really don’t care so much about GPA. I have never exercised my SU option in University, something which I think is lame. So during poly, I aimed for the bare minimum to enter University, which at that point in time was commonly known to be at 3.5. Unfortunately, I slipped and only obtained 3.48 (close enough, haha). Meanwhile, I was very active in polytechnic, winning a few competitions, went for three overseas exchanges, etc. So long story short, Computer Engineering became my only offer, which is not exactly my first choice. I know that it is going to be tough. I didn’t even have an A math background and maths is not exactly my forte. But if I did not take it up, it would mean that I have given up before I even try. So I decided to try. At the same time, I also believe that being in University is more than just obtaining a degree. True enough, there were opportunities along the way which I seized, and that perhaps inevitably delayed my graduation. One such opportunity is dating my wife. If I had focused on my studies entirely, perhaps I would have graduated earlier. But am I willing to make that trade-off? No. Perhaps one thing that I have learned is that I am more of a risk-taker. But boy, that was quite a close shave.

So what did I do with these extra 6 years took?

This is the part I hated the most. Because it sounds like I am justifying. Maybe I am. In an ideal world, we will never have to justify what we do and people will just accept us for who we are. Unfortunately, I have stakeholders to answer to. Whether this is acceptable or not, I don’t know. But here’s what I did with the time:

• I accumulated 5 years of full-time working experience in three different arena – private, public, entrepreneurial.

• I completed a double minor in Psychology and Entrepreneurship, with a total of 165 AUs, more than what a double degree finishes in 4 years.

• I set up a social enterprise from scratch and grew the team from 1 to 10. Got it accredited by raiSE, received an offer to sell it at the end of the endeavor. Produced a short film on youth delinquency in Singapore with my team, helped an individual resolve being bullied in school, coached a few undergrads on their presentation including a double degree undergraduate who wrote me a testimonial. Worked with several agencies for a handful of short projects as well.

• Pass out as an OBS instructor. Selected through a continual assessment that took 3 days 2 nights wearing jeans and combat boots because I thought it was a leisure camp. Passed my assessment on the first attempt after 8 months of training involving many subcomponents such as heights, kayaking, risk assessment, facilitation, navigation, MOI, etc.

• Maintain a rating of above 97 percent for both course quality and instructor quality while taking 3 full-time modules in Uni including FYP with my wife pregnant. Ran the same amount of courses as compared to other Instructor my batch.

• Finished my last few semesters sleeping in the hospital for more than 7 months with my kid who was critically ill. Maintains an AA credit rating and did not borrow any money from anyone including family despite going on no-pay leave to cope with my family commitment and studies.

• Got married, bought my first car, my first apartment with my wife, hosted my wedding all using my own money. Funded almost all of my education expenses.

• Completed ACTA, Basic Sport Science, Sport Theory Level 1, obtained class 2B, class 2A, security license, PDVL license, completed ethical hacking course, nature education course, life coaching course, M9, M9A certifications with my own time and money.

• Quit smoking after smoking for more than 11 years and have stayed smoke-free for 7 years.

• Went back to complete my NS disruption. Finished with both conduct and performance of outstanding.

• Work several part-time jobs while studying, and at a point in time, two part-time jobs. Promoted twice in a year to become a student supervisor in the NTU call center. Also one of the highest fundraisers at that time.

• Completed my internship in the top 20 of fortune 500, selected for a partially sponsored overseas internship program to UK after a series of selections (but did not attend as the sponsorship was not enough to cover my expenses). Entered Drew and Napier, one of the top law firms in Singapore as an executive.

• Co-led for Huawei Seed for the Future program (2 weeks all-expense-paid exchange to China). Led Common Purpose Global Leaders Experience program. Facilitator for Common Purpose Young Leaders and SMU Uni-Y event. Hosted more than 30 EY partners for their regional leadership tour, sat as one of the panelists for MOE scholar forum, invited to Republic Polytechnic to give a talk on “Thriving in RP” for the second time. Went back to my secondary school to give a career talk and was featured on the school website. Participated in Catherine Lim’s workshop on writing.

• Wrote my first book on my journey as an Instructor, about to be sent for printing. And recently, started a social initiative to upcycle used dialysate bag (sgrepeated.com) and promote organ donation (donatenotcremate.com).

• And finally, with some luck, completed my degree in computer engineering, a major in what I think is very challenging, in a University currently ranked #12 in the world

So what did I screw up?

For one, I did not exactly perform very well during my internship. My first job at a top law firm also did not turn out well. I have a mediocre GPA. In fact, there are many things which I could have done better.

So where does that leave me?

Honestly, I don’t know. Whether I did well or not really depends on who is judging. At the end of the day, I cannot make the decisions that I have to make yesterday with the wisdom that I only have today. And the wisdom that I have today, is through the decisions I made yesterday.

With that, I closed this chapter.

From “Beng” to B.Eng,

Benjamin Alexander Chua

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