Kevin is working at a top Chinese fintech company. He received undergraduate education at the National University of Singapore on Singapore government's SM3 Scholarship. The following transcript is from an interview with Kevin on Singapore government's ASEAN Scholarship. The complete interview can be found here.
Larry: Can you tell us something about your experience in Singapore? After you got the scholarship, you went to Singapore - that experience.
Kevin: I joined the program back in 2001. It was a great opportunity for me to escape from my past experience in China because I did not do as well as I expected in Gaokao. When I first got into the university in China, I did not quite like it there. I was looking for other opportunities, and this opportunity popped up. When I first got to Singapore, I was all excited. It was a new environment.
Khru Niran: Was it difficult for your to get the scholarship?
Kevin: For me not that difficult. I got it myself, right? I do remember they recruited around 50 to 60 students from my university, and only 12 of us got into the program that year.
Larry: So 1 out 5.
Khru Niran: Do you consider yourself smart back then when you got the scholarship?
Kevin: For sure, yes! I was born in the rural area in China. Before university, I stay in my hometown area, and did not venture out a lot to other cities, so going to Singapore was an eye-opener for me, first of all. Second, there was the culture shock. A lot of my classmates from China are from big cities, like Beijing or Shanghai. For them there might be less culture shock, but for me it was a big deal. There are a few things I want to mention. Language-wise, I had learned English in China, but it was more or less on paper for passing exams. We had not really used English a lot in China. When I first went to Singapore, on the bright side, most of the students there could speak a little bit Chinese; but on the other side, I had to learn academically, and realized that my English was not up for the challenge. The second challenge, I think, is even more important. In my past experience in China from primary school to high school, I was always the No. 1 - in the top tiers. I could always perform best among others. However, when I first got to Singapore, they basically picked all the top-tier students from all the big universities in China together in my classroom. All of a sudden, I realized that probably I was not really that special, nor that smart as I had imagined I was in the past. That was a huge shock for me as well. That put a lot of pressure, mostly psychologically, for me. In the end, I had to rely on myself a lot. I had to manage my life. If I had anything, my family was back at home in China. How would I compose myself as an individual, as a young adult there? I had to learn that. Secondly, I had to rely on others a lot. Yes, I was competing with them in exams, but at the same time everyone on the bench felt the same. Probably some of us were a little bit stronger, and some of us knew not that much, but more or less we were on the same level. There was no need for me to prove myself. We were there together at the same starting point from then. Whatever had happened in the past, to be honest, did not count, did not matter. What counted, or what mattered was what I was going to do right then and there.
Larry: Do you consider yourself benefiting from this experience? If you do, what are the top benefits?
Kevin: Definitely! For me it was a life-changing experience. What I can see is that there are a lot of things I am doing right now, a lot of paths that I choose afterwards really come from this experience. First, that was the first time I was put on a challenge whereby I did not have much choice or support from my past. My past had been put behind in China. That was my first time. By basically “surviving” the experience, I sort of proved to myself that I could pull off these things, so what else can’t I do? Culture-wise, culture shock, I confronted that, seen that, managed that, survived that. When I look back, every time I face some challenges either in my career or life, I tend to be more confident in dealing with it. This is the most important thing that this experience has really taught me.
Larry: Now you are working in China. I understand you have not been back to Singapore for two years now, and I imagine you have not been back to the National University of Singapore for more than a decade. What do you miss about the National University of Singapore?
Kevin: I think it is the people. There are a few moments in my memories that actually stay on even up to now. The first moment I can recall is during my pre-university studies - the English Bridging Course - there was a teacher. That was the first Chinese new year I spent there, and she was the kindest soul I had ever seen. She invited all of us to her place, and cooked all the meals for us during the Chinese New Year. That was like... you know, when I was missing my hometown, my family, and all of a sudden, someone there showed her kindness and care for me. That was really something I will remember probably for the rest of my life. That was the first time I found a bond with the local people there. That was the first experience. The second is when I first started studying at the university, all the discussions and activities managed and arranged among ourselves during the orientation, those were the happiest time I had ever had.
Larry: I have another question related to what you mentioned previously because you are very confident. I know your life story and experience, so I can second that. There are a lot of students from relatively conservative cultures like Thailand. They are not completely confident of their abilities, so when such an opportunity is presented to them, they hesitate. What would you say to them?
Kevin: Before I respond to that, I would like to go back to the previous question you asked about what I miss most about the NUS. I think what I want to say is after everything, I can guarantee you that you will be a more open-minded person than ever before. I think it is such a game-changing experience in that sense. Ever from then, whenever I make a decision in my life or career, I can always find something that, probably in the past, I would never venture into. Just to give you some examples. For my past work experience, I joined quite a few companies from different industries. In my first job, I was a self-taught computer artist. I joined a design company, and worked there for a year. First of all, I did not study computer science or design at university, but that was something I wanted to try. I joined the company, stayed for a year, and proved myself. My manager even wanted to retain me with more salaries. In the end, I decided this was something I had enjoyed a lot, but I wanted to experience something more, so I joined another company in the financial industry. Ever since then, for every decision I have made, it always put me back on my face that it is actually the experience that I had in the program that has shown me that every time I open my mind a little bit, life will always put a lot of more opportunities in front of me. This is true from my own experience and also a lot of my classmates’ experiences. I think that is another reason why this experience is very important to me. Back to your question, how would I respond to someone who is more hesitant to choose this path. I am not here to try to convince everyone because each one will have a choice in his life. I am sure every choice you make, you will always make the best of choices. But, what I want to tell you is that if you do choose this path, the multi-cultural experience, the open-mindedness at this stage of your life, will be mind blowing, and ten years from now, you look back and think about this experience, I guarantee you you will thank yourself for making this choice.
Niran: That is a really good answer. But to the Chinese, the Singapore culture is very similar. A majority of the population are ethnic Chinese, but to the Thai people or ASEAN people, Singapore culture is a foreign culture and very different. If I take the scholarship and study at a university in Singapore, besides the academic knowledge that I will acquire there, I also learn the culture. Is it applicable to other parts of the world?
Kevin: Let me put it this way. You put different people in the same institution, do they get different things out of it? It means that no matter the situation, it is what you decide to do that matters. When someone is placed in a different country with different cultures, how is he going to react to that? I think that matters. I know a lot of people from China and other countries whose parents sent them to Singapore to study there, but in the end those kids stay together within their groups. They do not venture out to have friends locally or learn about other cultures from other countries, how do you expect them to know what culture shock is? How are they going to know how to deal with different cultures? Every time you venture into a new situation or environment, it is what you decide to do that really matters and make a difference for your own future. For this program, the good thing is that there are a lot of things built into it. When you first arrive and study English, you will probably stay in your own groups. Culture-wise, you probably stay with Thai people. But when you join the university and stay on campus, you have to join a lot of local activities, projects with other people from other countries. Sometimes, to be honest, when you are living in this particular country, you have to force yourself to break out of your comfort zone to interact with people from other countries as well. This experience is universal and applicable to any other situations. From my experience, yes, Singapore is probably a foreign country. In my work experience for the past few years, I have been visiting countries, such as Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan, India, etc. Every time I venture into a different country, the first thing I think is not how challenging or difficult it will be for me; it is how exciting I am going to experience a different culture. Why? Because the Singapore experience has taught me you can always learn something from other countries and cultures as long as you have an open mind. That experience is applicable to people of all countries.
Larry: Brilliant! I think my message to ASEAN students is the same. If you decide to do it, in 10 to 20 years, you are going to see that this is a decision that you will not regret. This decision is going to help you go through all the difficult times, and it is going to bring you all the benefits you cannot foresee right now. Thank you for your time, Kevin, and we are looking forward to talking to you again.
Kevin: Thank you. See you again.