Secrets to Success (Part 2: "It's What You Are?")

I would like to extend my appreciation to Zorroz for contributing the brilliant article, "It's Who You Know." When I read fine work like that I wonder why am I blogging when people like Zorroz should be.

I understand where the wise Z was coming from. Patrick (Nedlands) once offered his take about sending kids to good schools. "It is about the company they grow up with, not the results," he said. He went on explaining in such an environment, kids from humble backgrounds grow up with kids from prestigious families. So, though not guaranteed, there is a likelihood the kids from humble background may leverage on their friendships with the elite kids, who will grow up to become powerful men and women. Therefore the notion, "It's who you know." So, we may be too quick to dismiss kiasu parents who are determine to get their kids into the best possible school at any cost as bandwagoners. Perhaps, there are something that they know, which Zorroz might had just discover. We can simply take a glance across the Singapore Parliament and note the suspicious characters among them who got them very unconvincingly on their own merits:

Grace Fu
Chan Chun Sing
Wong Kan Seng
Tin Pei Ling
Foo Mee Har

Just to name a handful. It's a tall order to convince Singaporeans that "knowing the right people" isn't the key to success.

In this post, I would like to share my own views about this popular notion. The purpose of this is not to dispute Zorroz's view, which probably is irrefutable in the first place because there is truth in it but to offer another perspective to broaden the discussion. 

"It is What You Are"

Let me start off sharing this letter, supposedly penned by someone who graduated from an elite school but had since "fallen from grace." In her letter, she went on to debunk the myths of automatic success in life once the early paths of children were set right. 

Following that, I'll share a personal story about my step-grandfather. He studied in Raffles Institution when he was young and was a classmate of someone we are familiar with, commonly termed by our state media as the "Father of Singapore," Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I could recall how the elders would tease my step-grandfather why he was there gambling half drunk on the Chinese New Year table instead of wishing Singaporeans a happy CNY on television like his ex-classmate did. Though my step-grandfather had a decent career, he was reduced to holding a security guard job before his retirement and eventually died from liver cancer in his 70s with very little to his name.

The reason of sharing these was not to prove that it remains a gambling game even after average parents manage to squeeze their children among the elites but to examine a couple of factors behind the 'success' and 'failure' of such a strategy.

I'll share another personal story of someone I worked with in Singapore. I got to know Raja (not his real name) after my ex-company employed a stand-in safety supervisor after the previous one left the company on bad terms. Raja was a Bangladeshi in his late 20s who spoke good English. As he was the only safety supervisor in the company, I had to work with him in all my remaining projects before I leave for Perth. As such, I got to know Raju better as the days went by.

Raja was just another "Bangalah" that we know in Singapore when he first came to Singapore. Except for his stronger command in English as compared to most of his countrymen, there wasn't anything exceptional about his qualifications or skills. What did Raja do to elevate his "status" from a blue-collar to a white-collared worker? Raja shared his story with me one day over lunch. He told me he had a habit of talking to random strangers, regardless of gender, age or race. One day, he chatted up with a middle age man while sipping his drink overlooking the river at Boat Quay. The men grew comfortable as their casual conversations went by and asked about each other . The middle age man realised Raja was looking for a job and actually offered him to try for a position in his construction company. He turned out to be a managing director of one of the biggest Japanese construction company in Singapore. Raja accepted the offer and worked 4 years for him. By the time he left the company, he was raking in about $4,000 (inc overtime) a month as a site supervisor. It turned out not bad for a "Bangalah" who would otherwise be performing menial work that "Singaporeans do not want to do" for $600-800 a month on construction sites.

What is the moral of the story? It's a must to chat up dirty old men on bridges all the time? No. Let me continue on.

As time went by, I discovered Raja moonlighted on his job with us. With another of his "random chat" he managed to convince the lease owner of the workers dormitory which houses all workers from my company to rent a table space to him at lobby of the workers dorm to sell fruits and phone cards. Raja soon hired another 2 workers (our company workers) to assist him after they knocked off from regular work. Raja would share with me the very slim profit margins of selling phone cards and the surprisingly wide margins of selling fruits. He even got my help a few times to deliver fruits from the wholesale centre at Pasir Panjang to the dormitory when his usual driver played him out. He paid me for my effort so that made me an employee of a Bangladeshi that most Singaporeans do not look up upon. The reason I agreed to help him was that I wanted to gain a deeper insight what happened behind the scenes. 

At the wholesale centre, I witnessed how professional Raja looked while selecting his fruits from stall to stall. He even gave me a few tips how to select good fruits and shared tricks how fruit wholesalers perform to 'ripen' their fruits. He told me he learnt lessons the hard way but he soon found a profitable way to run his little fruit business. A few months before I left Singapore, he tried to rope me in as a partner to set up a fruit juice stall in the heart of Serangoon but I politely declined because I already set my mind on leaving. We have lost contact and I do not know what happened to Raja since. What he goes on to achieve is anyone's guess.

If we considered the story of the lady and my step-grandfather, who rooted from elite schools and rubbed shoulders with the future rich and famous yet their paths diverged sharply thereafter, and the story of a nameless underdog who knew nobody in a foreign land and manage to crawl his way to bigger things, perhaps there is something, something innate, the aptitude of a person - that is perhaps more critical behind how their later life shapes up.

No child is born the same. No one says life is fair. Take our Prime Minister for instance, despite unlimited resources to nurture him, ended up with leading capabilities left very much to be desired. If he was a child of an average Singapore family forcefully integrated with the kids in an elite school, he may end up working as a head of department level job somewhere at best, dying of cancer in his 40s. 

I believe every parent should be observant and identify certain characteristics of a child who will be likely to fit in, network and shine  if he is put under a certain kind of environment. For such an arrangement, the child will excel in his natural habitat, likely to rub shoulders the right way with the elite kids and be happy throughout the process. There will be no stopping a great from achieving greatness. Put another child who appreciates the flowers to numbers through it, he'll be miserable to no end and achieve nothing to his parents' expectations. It was what Raja was that helped him to knew who he knew to overachieve. It was what Lee Hsien Loong wasn't behind his under-achievements despite his massive headstart. I'll end this with my statement of persuasion.

"It's not what you know, not who you know but what you are."

Thank you for reading.


  1. Looks like there are many truths:
    who you know...
    what you know...
    what you are...
    even, karma, luck, feng shui and coincidences
    ... all plays a part to some degree....

    I think he'll carve out his own niche, whichever school he goes to... at least he's fully enjoying his primary school years now... :d

    1. I second that... to many factors play into "success/failure".

      I thought one of the blessings of living in first world countries with stronger social-security networks is that "success" or "failure", life can still be pretty decent. So why worry?

    2. Oops, I meant "TOO many factors..."

  2. Wow! Interesting insight. No wonder my brother shifted house hoping to get his son enroll onto a famous school next year in Pri 1.

  3. Ultimately I believe that education does matter, but it is not the only factor.

    You have to study in a school that motivates you to do so. We all have distractions when we are teenagers: girls, food, computer games, sports, movies, hanging out with friends..... and girls again. Where got time to fit in studying? Unless everyone of your friends are studying of course.

    Frankly I think Aussie high school situation are havoc and chaotic if you don't choose the right school and education is probably the best even level playing field for allcomers. Even the private university like Bond University cannot accept your son if the marks are too low....

    Anyway it is partly true that life is about who you know, mainly friends.

    How many of us got jobs or contracts because someone you know tells you the opportunity is available? Sure the friends may not be the decision maker on whether you get the job or contract but without the info you may very missed the chance to start with.

    The Bangladeshi man wasn't just lucky; he actually made his own fortune and opportunities just like our forefathers, scrapping around any small chance to self improve. Sure many Bangladeshi compatriots will think this is because he is more educated and speaks better English, but hey even then he is more successful than some Singaporeans in many ways (even though they are better educated with excellent English). Many SGs has lost the instinct to piah and chong.....

    Luck plays a part for sure, but very little in most cases. The ability to see opportunities beyond the obvious, and the courage to risk what you have to take the chance is ultimately the gamechanger.

  4. Wealth is not the only way to measure a person worth or success. A person can have a lot of wealth but if he only has fake relationships and worries all the time, he is not as happy as the person who has only some wealth but has true relationships, friends, contentment.