Ah it has finally come the time I wrote this piece, unfortunately there’s so much to do at work that I had to cut short my ambition (from 2 days to 2 hours). Hope it will still be a substantial read for you, especially you who are those who have been supportive of me living a life of independence and purpose.
Today is Jan 7, 2008. About this time exactly 10 years back (1998), 4 of us from Catholic High School boarded a train from KL together. Our families were all there, sending us off, as it is customary to do so. But more so because this will be the first time any of us left home to further our studies. One of them is our doctor friend Pek Yong, whose famous quote I carried to heart till this day:
There is no looking back, this is our one way ticket to Singapore.
Well, ironically, all the other 3 have since left, two of which returned to IMU after realizing that competing for NUS for medicine is very tough, while the other sought out a path in actuarial science in the states. I was the only one left.
Malaysia, together with most of Asia, has just suffered from the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. There wasn’t much scholarships for even Malays to go overseas that year, forget Chinese (it wasn’t as "equal" as it was since 2000). In addition, my SPM results weren’t so great, 7A1s to boast to nobody especially in this age of 18A1s. Therefore, the "one way ticket", an ASEAN scholarship by the government of Singapore to pursue A-Levels was too good to be true. Little did I know of course, that this bond free scholarship is simply part of a larger scheme of things, a scheme to suck in the ever drying up pool of Malaysian Chinese to Singapore to fulfill the demand for "Foreign Talent".
Everything turned out smoothly, at a price of course. With some sheer determination and dumb luck, I manage to turn a failing grade in English (General Paper) into an A2 eventually – even as that kind of score was never bestowed upon me in JC. My Hwa Chong GP teacher Mr. Barry Woolhead tried to help my prelim grades by finding my highest ever comprehension score and my highest composition score, put them together and made it a C3, just so that I stand a better chance in getting into the US schools that I applied for. I lived the life of what I was never meant to be, a "top student" active in ECA (extra curricular activities) and a huge potential for clinching the prize of an overseas scholarship to study in US for free. Some say, everything is impossible in Singapore due to its strict laws; however, it turned out that everything was possible for me.
But at what price? Ong Jiin Joo as a world citizen has been a movie 10 years in the making. I still longed to be a musician professionally, although that seems ever so bleak now. The path that started 10 years ago in HCJC, being part of the geeky "Computing" class of 98S31, and subsequently degrees in Computer Science (CS) from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and Stanford University drove me to this point where I’m known only for 3 things: technology, technology and technology. Professionally, this bodes very well for employers. Having ample US experience, hands on as well as a breath in various domain demands makes me the perfect candidate for driving technology businesses, so much so that I felt compelled to take a break and learn more about the government (I have transitioned from tech jobs in Amazon and SCS into the civil service in IDA about 2 months back). None of these are steps taken to reach my end goal.
Hold on, I have an end goal? Deep inside I realize that there is a fire that’s keeping me going, but how sure am I that I’m just not in the rat race like everyone else? Back in JC, I remember numerous days in the library together with a gang of my "comrades" Malaysians, whose fate and decisions are very similar to mine: excel or die. It’s not just "adapting" to the Singaporean system, but to "transcend" it, to stop being the bottom of the class. We saw people coming and leaving due to poor SPM grades; we saw some being put on probation after being irrationally addicted to some computer games and promptly failing their promotional exams; we saw high flyers in school missing the mark in the ultimate test, the A-Levels examinations, their dreams shattered, whatever it might be. Is this a rat race? University life was similar, even though less stressed, with our academic advisor like Mark Stehlik often disapproving our desire to complete the degree in 3 years instead of 4. "You guys from Singapore are crazy." Not us, it’s the rat king.
I remember writing this down many times during my short stay in Seattle, that I want to get out of this rut and do what I want. Yeah – do what I want is like a catch phrase of the day. Everybody is told that they shouldn’t just work for others for life, they should do their own gig and live life freely. People sold financial freedom schemes by playing on this fear of being caught in the race to the top, where the best are rewarded, the worst are evicted, and the rest vanishing into oblivion.
I started blogging way before the word blog was coined. In fact this article is fashioned after a very similar one which I’ve since archived and moved to blogging on WordPress. Entitled Written on a plane, it was written on my first flight in my life, from Malaysia to Singapore to Frankfurt to New York to Pittsburgh. It contains the feeling on the head end of the 10 year journey, full of anticipation and appreciation of life, eager to rid myself of the irony that I put in place myself (that I have to one say return to Singapore and face the penalty) and even going against some of the fundamental principles that has been with me for a long time.
One of these fundamental principles, or lofty goals depending on how you see it, is to conquer the world. Figuratively of course, I’m hardly Hitler-ish. The urge to stop doing what everyone wants me to do has been the most dangerous and the most noble of all goals. Practically, it means stop studying / working and start doing what matters. My thoughts during high school centered around irrational stuff like busking daily on the streets, taking up night gigs in the bars and perhaps do some charting (err.. orchestration is a nicer word)for musical groups. In the middle of the university years, that would have translated to starting up my next .com company (amid the .com bust and the unforgettable September that has clouded American thinking ever since). When I came back to Singapore, that has slowly materialize into a fly by night business to provide for school bands as well as a number of freelance work for web sites and other back end job, and a number of grassroots related work. Either way, it’s a start, conquering the world has been somewhat suppressed due to the rational need of a job, to serve the bond, to fund property and car, and of course, the search for romance.
Another of this fundamental principles, or lofty goals, is to change the world, especially the world that’s closer to me. That has somewhat materialize over the past 10 years into a passion to be in a civil society for Malaysia, to practice active citizenry even though I’m in a foreign land. It wasn’t that hard to dream up ideas like running around basketball courts to pledge allegiance, as Yew Nam will, very willingly tell you the story again if asked. It’s much harder to see how you can play your role in the attempt to get a particular problem solved, especially when most problems are intractable. My effort of being a student leader, lending my credibility to the country in the eyes of many of my peers overseas, have somewhat been suppressed again, not just by the day-to-day chores, but also the position that I’m in, an employee to the competitor kingdom.
In this 10 years, I’ve missed out a lot on my family. In any case the defining thing about my last 10 years is really that I’ve been officially staying away from home, coming home mainly as an 8 star hotel. In this 10 years, I’ve had 1 grandpa, 2 uncles and 1 aunt pass away, 3 weddings, a crop of university degrees from cousins as family gatherings now revolve around which employer pays higher more than which is a better school.
The shifting expectations is also something very hard to stomach. My parents have evidently went anxious on the fact that I’m still single and have tried to match make me (thank you ma..). Even my brother came to Singapore to work, perhaps figuring out that the ever appreciating SGD is a better remuneration of his unwavering loyalty to his company (Deloitte). Friends whom expected more from me (e.g. why aren’t you working for Google!?) gave snide remarks on my petty appointments while others whom have been critical at my appearance cringe at my feeble attempt to change my hairstyle recently.
Lest we forget, I’m a musician at heart.
I’m not just saying this, I mean it. Perhaps not like the kind of "I love you" which you’re suppose to mean it to the bone, but I really mean that I don’t mind spending the rest of my simple life playing music. But living with expectations means dampening the dream (the adults who are more adult then me, the young adult, calls it "striking a balance between work and hobby"). I have to spend more and more time to go after other people’s goals. In a way, it is wrong. Even people say it is wrong. "Why are you finding a girlfriend for your mother?" "Why don’t you just break bond and go back to the states?" "Why are you wasting time playing in an orchestra that doesn’t pay you?"
My one way ticket has expired. It’s time to go back.
Buying another one way ticket
It is 2008. It’s time to look for another one way ticket. I still have 3 years and 10 months in my contract, but it’s never too early too look. After all, come September, one of the more testing criteria of the contract will come into effect and I’ll have to face it squarely. If no one wants to take a step back and give way, I guess the need for a one way ticket will have to kick into place.
However, deciding where to head next in the coming 10 years will be much harder. When you’re 18, growing up in a middle class family in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, the decision is fairly easy – get a good education and a good job. But when you’re 28 and you cannot operate at the level of which you know you can make a difference in the middle of a tightly knitted bureaucracy whose charter is to keep a constantly threatened island afloat, the decision is much harder.
It is harder because now, there are more expectations. I guess that’s what they mean when they say adults have more responsibilities. For example, if I choose to go back to the land of possibilities, it would only mean that I have to bit the financial bullet and leave my family to a far away place again. If I choose to go back to where I come from, it would then mean that I’m not prudent with my career options and drive it to a "dead end", whatever it may be. If I choose to settle, then there are internal principles that I have to sacrifice, as that means I’ll have to live my life a traitor of sorts.
2008 – New Happy Year
Will 2008 bring all the promised happiness to my soul, as much as the Beijing Olympics to the Chinese? Will everyone be happy?
A small brush this morning with Wen Ho brought about another revealing thought. We miscommunicated our intent for him and his wife to take my car back during Chinese New Year. But at the heart of it, he was worried that he had offended me as I expressed disappointment over the fact that he pulled out (as he wasn’t comfortable with other strangers in the car), while I was worried that he would be totally disappointed when indeed, he got offended by strangers (my brother and his friend) in the car.
Take that to a larger scale. 10 years ago, I just graduated from CHS, a place that I pumped my ego so high that could practically live without regard of anyone’s feelings. The liberation allowed me to carry out many things. I would revolt against any attempt to control my thoughts (for example, that of my parent’s eagerness to keep me focused on studies while I was dreaming away on the next piece of music I’m about to write) by typically a huge expression of my emotions (crying was nostalgically the best method). Today though, I can’t do that. I can’t even raise my voice without people telling me that I’ve raised my voice, and I’ve been a person who didn’t care for the other person’s feelings.
Are you sure you’ll be happy talking to a emotionally neutral person like me now? Or you’d rather know whether I’m happy or sad, jovial or in disapproval? If I cared so much about how you feel, am I really doing you any good? Broken communication due to the lack of sharing, to me, is worst that suppressing a feeling.
It is with this empowering emotional drive that I’ve resolve to blog even more this year. The medium has matured, and so has my posting style. Most importantly, as I go through these few trying months, I want to reflect on your experiences. Share with me, scold me, scald me, criticize me and help me in making my decision to choose my next one way ticket. Show me how to balance expectations and dreams, and show me how to elevate to a different working plane, to walk a trajectory that allows for shooting for the stars.
The older I get, the more I reflect out loud. There isn’t any hidden agenda or something. I’m the real thing.
This special entry is written for a very special group of people whom I’ve met exactly 10 years ago too, that includes the bulk of you from HCJC, be it ASEAN, Band, 98S31, and others. As I didn’t manage to share a large part of it with you after JC, but I hope you know that I still make my every step count, and your presence in my life have made the initial absence of a biological family bearable, if not interesting.
As I look forward to the next 10 years, still away from home, I see opportunities abound, but with more and more stones sling onto my shoulder. I promise myself to stay alive, but that would sometimes mean removing these accumulated baggage that will stop me. I’ll keep on going, and I’ll go strong.
And I hope that’s the same with you, whether you’re married and trying to deal with the genesis of your own family, or a rising star in your office, or at your own version of crossroads / quarter life crisis, or simply bored – I hope you will look forward to the next 10 years of your life with purpose.
And to everyone: Live on. Buy a one way ticket, and make the most out of it. Be real, be emotional, and be true to your heart.