Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Cow Beh Cow Bu

Study Hard and Graudate, Otherwise Kena Rotan! But After That… How?

RACHEL AJ LEE: “Mummy, I’m going to be a doctor when I grow up!” I declared loudly while playing with the toy stethoscope, pretending to listen to my own heartbeat.

As with all Chinese parents, my mother nodded approvingly at my then-chosen profession. I never knew how that idea came to me, but I knew that it pleased my parents to hear it.

How little did I know.

“If you don’t study hard, you’re going to wash plates like this man here!” she gestured at the weather-beaten man scrubbing plates arduously at the hawker centre. I gulped and almost choked on my spoonful of rice. I was genuinely afraid. I definitely didn’t want to wash plates at the hawker centre for the rest of my life.

In my primary school mind, the emphasis of doing well in school had already been ingrained. I had to do well or risk being caned if my grades fell below a certain mark – a standard set out by my parents. I was well acquainted with that rattan cane. I was even more acquainted with the red welts that would surface after. I hated it. Fear and pain propelled me forward. So I studied as hard as I could, the image of the man scrubbing dishes at the back of my mind, and eventually made it to a reputable secondary school.

36 points.

“My life here is over. There is no way I can be a vet anymore,” I sobbed in my mother’s car, clutching my prelims result slip. My lofty dreams of becoming a doctor had given way to that of becoming a veterinarian after I discovered my affinity and love for animals.

Instead, I had a C6 for every subject in my L1R5 score.

36 points. I couldn’t go to a reputable junior college, much less a polytechnic, which was also frowned upon in my family by the way. No one in my generation has ever gone to polytechnic, and my parents sure didn’t want to “lose face”. How could I ever compare to the brilliant President’s Scholar cousin of mine?

But I was one of the lucky ones. I was shipped off to Melbourne for a year of college and subsequently, three years of an undergraduate degree. While in Australia, I learnt that while my heart was set on becoming a vet, it was not meant to be. Extra classes in physics and chemistry only confused and befuddled me further. I never made it.

Still, I could never understand why Singapore schools would set exam papers until they are notoriously difficult. What are schools trying to prove? For the record, I ended up with a L1R5 score of 12 at the actual O levels. I could have actually made it to a junior college if I stayed in Singapore.

Writing though, was a totally different ball game. I always knew I was good in English. It was an essay about my grandmother’s passing that helped me realised that I could pen long essays that struck a chord with the reader. It was through real-life experiences that my stories came out better.

My internal compass seemed to be pointing in a singular direction now, prior to its wild spinning years before. Ink continued to flow smoothly.

I studied whatever subjects – mainly history, English and criminal psychology – interested me in university. Not giving a second thought to a job, or what I was going to do for the rest of my life. Upon graduation, I was hauled home to start a job hunt immediately. There was no celebration, graduation trip or even any indication that I now had paper qualifications. I thought that once school was over, my parents couldn’t nag at me anymore.

Yet, it took me eight long months to find a job. It wasn’t because I wasn’t looking, but it was probably because of my obscure degree. I also didn’t know what I wanted to do. Without any formal guidance, I had no idea what it was I was going to do with my life. During the eight months I worked part-time at NUS, helping out with mundane tasks such as filing and data entering.

There I was, a degree holder, nothing more than a glorified secretary.

My mother didn’t let me forget that my parents had paid for my degree and I was expected to eventually repay them. I particularly remember one bad night, where she yelled at me for being lazy and I was a good-for-nothing. Do all Asian parents berate their children in an attempt to push them to strive harder? Why were my mother’s words so harsh, unfeeling and at times, brutal? Self-doubts began to trickle in, dripping into the growing pool of uncertainty. Was I really a good for nothing? What was I doing?

I continued writing, channelling the hopelessness, pain and desperation into the pages of my battered journal.

“You learn pretty fast! I’m very amazed,” M enthused. M was my ex-colleague from my first job. I beamed. Compliments are difficult to come by in this society, so I was going to take what I could get. That first job put me on a tiny dirt road that, at least, looked like it was going somewhere (something to do with English) for the very first time. I could see the dawn on the horizon, albeit faraway, as I trudged slowly along my gravelled path. Till today, I am extremely grateful for my first boss, J, who accepted my weird degree and took me under her wing.

At this point however, I was still drifting. Like a piece of driftwood in the vast ocean, just floating and existing, without any idea of what was it I wanted to do with my life and future still. But I pressed on.

Growing up in Singapore involves a very heavy-handed brainwashing session that begins the very first time we, as children, utter our first letters and numbers. We were indoctrinated that doctors, lawyers and accountants were highly-esteemed professions, while cooks, waiters and hawkers were jobs that people “fell” into because they were not good at their studies. Excelling at academics in this country is paramount.

My brother and I excel at the Humanities, yet we’re terrible at Science. Even now, whenever my mother gets upset with us, there will be a subconscious comment about us not ever being able to ever earn big bucks. Maybe it was a slip of the tongue, or maybe she meant it. It’s not her fault though – being not so academically inclined in such a merit-driven society can make it extremely tough to survive.

But I will always remain thankful. For my mother’s foresight to send me overseas to study where I thrived in the Australian system, and for her fierce love and gruff words of concern.

I dug my toes into the sand and inhaled the salty air deeply. I had never felt more alive. I closed my eyes, took a long drag from my cigarette and coughed. Ach, who am I kidding. This body of mine is not built for smoking. I stubbed it out, stuck it in my empty Coca-Cola can and adjusted my fake Ray Bans to block out the harsh sunlight.

I was miles away from home. But while reclining in that rickety beachside lounger in Vietnam, I knew. At that moment, I knew exactly who and what I wanted to be.

I have never forgotten how that epiphany in Vietnam made me feel. The realisation of what I wanted to do with my life was oddly comforting, like someone had reached into my brain and turned the light on.

At my second job, I took a further leap down the same path but it wasn’t long before I hit a roadblock. My thirst for knowledge increases daily but my progress is limited. I am kept there because I am good at what I do, and it is where I am needed, despite my incessant requests for more work because I want to build and expand my portfolio. Why is it that companies can never seem to appreciate their workers? It’s common in Singapore to hear people telling me that in order to get a promotion or a pay rise, I have to company hop. Or risk being stuck.

But I will not be defeated. I will slowly pave my way around this roadblock, absorbing and learning as much as I can to reach my eventual dream – to be a travel writer, and maybe editor. I want to traverse the globe and write about far-flung places, to explore other cultures, and live life to the very fullest. I want to collect experiences, not things.

Screenwriter Shonda Rhimes once said, “Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.”

This story was written by Rachel AJ Lee. You can follow Rachel on Instagram @rachelljz.
Have a story to share? Send it to us at



Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Copyright © 2023 Redwire Singapore