Secrets to Success (Part 1: "It's Who You Know?")

Road to Success (Part 1: "It's Who You Know?")

1 December 2013, 11:00am

I was helping Angie prepare for an event a few days ago when I came across a little nugget of information that got me to thinking about what matters most. Before I come to that, here is some the background to the story.

Angie was volunteered by my son’s school’s P&C Committee to run a Singapore Noodles stall for their Annual Community Feast. Naturally, she deputized me to be the sous chef, and general sidekick. So I was tasked to find equipment, do the decorations and cough up funding for the project.  I managed to loan a couple of warmers from Shamirah and Grace Tan via FB, some other pots and pans from our dear neighbour Ian and scrounge for the rest of the utensils from deep in the dungeon of our kitchen.  Nix volunteered to help, but I thought there were already enough sacrificial victims so I did not lure him into the trap as well. Stephen volunteered to eat but balked at the $15 ticket; I should have told him there was free beer. But, I digress...

As chairman of the decorations sub-committee (membership: 1) of the Singapore Noodles stall, I designed two posters to depict all the good things about Singapore (no… not durians or char kway teow), but of some of the more celebrated tourist attractions as well as an advertisement of our stall’s offerings. I also thought it would be fun to display some fun facts about the differences between Perth and Singapore. It was whilst researching these facts that I came across this interesting (at least to me) piece of information.
So here I was looking for trivia to highlight the differences between Perth and Singapore, and here’s sample of what I compiled:

Note the difference in size when the entire island of Singapore is superimposed on Perth. Pretty glaring how small the red dot is: Woodlands to Sentosa is just like a drive from Fremantle to Rockingham. Even more interesting are the rest of the trivia I came across:

Stark differences between things like area, population, number of TV channels, and tourism. A factoid that I left out of my poster, lest everyone at the school might have thought I was also a millionaire:

PERTH:            21,900 (2013)
SINGAPORE: 157,000 (2012)  

But the actual nugget of interesting information I learned about was when I was researching about the founders, or the first European visitors to the two cities – in particular, about our famous founding knight : Sir Stamford Raffles.

Every Singaporean knows of Sir Stamford Raffles and how he founded Singapore in 1819. It has been drummed into us since kindy, where we also learned about Majullah SIngapura and the flag.
What, however, history lessons did not teach us in school, (or, maybe they did but I had not paid attention then, haha!) was about Raffles’ life history before he founded Singapore.  So, it was, as it is so easy to wander off on tangents when Googling for information, I came across this Wiki article that described Raffles’ early years:

Early life

Raffles was born on the ship Ann off the coast of Port Morant, Jamaica, to Captain Benjamin Raffles (d. June 1797) and Anne Raffles (née Lyde). His father was a Yorkshireman who had a burgeoning family and little luck in the West Indies trade during the American Revolution, sending the family into debt. The little money the family had went into schooling Raffles. He attended a boarding school. In 1795, at the age of 14, Raffles started working as a clerk in London for the British East India Company, the trading company that shaped many of Britain's overseas conquests.

In 1805 he was sent to what is now Penang in the country of Malaysia, then called the Prince of Wales Island, starting his long association with Southeast Asia. He started with a post under the Honourable Philip Dundas, the Governor of Penang. He was appointed assistant secretary to the new Governor of Penang in 1805.
His knowledge of the Malay language as well as his wit and ability, gained him favour with Lord Minto, Governor-General of India, and he was sent to Malacca. Then, in 1811, after the invasion and annexation of the Kingdom of Holland by France during Napoleon's war, Raffles had no choice but to leave the country. He mounted a military expedition against the Dutch and French in Java, Indonesia.
The British, led by Colonel Gillespie, stormed the fort and captured it within three hours.
The British invasion of Java took a total of forty-five days, during which Raffles was appointed the Lieutenant-Governor by Lord Minto before hostilities formally ceased.

If the wall of text bores you, I have summarised some key points:

  • 1795: Age 14, became a clerk in the East India Company in London
  • 1805: Age 24, became Assistant Secretary to the Governor of Penang
  • 1811: Age 30, became Lieutenant Governor of Java

This dude Raffles was generally uneducated – I mean, starting work at 14 years old – how much studying could he have done by then? I don’t think he even passed the equivalent of PSLE, much less ‘O’ Levels or Uni. But, by the age of 24, he became one of the Governor’s secretaries. A Governor of the British Empire was the equivalent of a Grand Moff of the old Republic... quite the big kahuna. And by the age of 30, he was waging war against the French Empire, and becoming a deputy Grand Moff himself. You know the rest, he discovered Singapore, yadda, yadda…

Yes, I finally come to my point. One does not have to be a scholar to get ahead in this world. It is who you know, not what you know. It has always been that way (eons ago during the era of Raffles and the Pirates of the Caribbean), and it remains true even today. So, why would this interest us, and why would Nix deign to post this essay on his famous blog? Let me elucidate further.

Most recently in Singapore, the PSLE results had been released, and MOE decided not to publish the T-scores so as to even the playing fields for all the schools, because PM Lee Hsien Loong says all schools are equal, and one can get as good an education at a neighbourhood school as, say, in Raffles Institution.  Then, came along the VP of Jurong West Secondary who called LHL’s bluff and asked if any of the ivory tower residents sent their kids to neighbourhood schools.  Then comes along the typical Kiasu Parents, who sets up a site to monitor PSLE scores on the black market, anyway.

So, their aim is to get their kids into the best secondary schools in Singapore, the equivalent of senior high schools in Perth. But why? Why does it matter if the kids get into the best schools? Yes, it will definitely give them an edge in doing well in examinations (it has been discussed to death that the top schools get the best facilities and the best teachers, so they definitely will edge out the neighbourhood schools in exam scores). But so what? We have seen that history has shown that one does not really need to be the smartest and the brightest to achieve the finest in life.  Oh, sure, a good education and great exam marks may propel you into good jobs. Then again, we have such a huge flood of scholars that many end up driving taxis to make a living.

I think, even more important than the good grades that one can achieve at top school are the potential friendships and networking one can develop there. Think about it, all the rich and powerful send their kids to the top schools, because they can afford it; and the top schools also attract the best and the brightest kids. Imagine your own kids mingling and cliquing with that gang. Even if your own kids may not end up being the top in class at the schools, they may end up making lifelong friends with the rich and famous. As Raffles proved so long ago, if your wit and abilities grant you favour with the connected, you can be sure your stars will align and shine your pathway into the future.

When I came to Perth last year, part of the reason was to escape the rat race in Singapore, and give my kids the opportunity to have a balanced school life and allow them to enjoy their childhood. I was determined not to fall into the kiasu trap of getting them into the best schools; instead to find them places in less popular, and hence, less competitive schools, because… at the end of year 12, they still get into the same courses in Uni, no matter what high schools they attend.

But, from SingaPerth FB, and from talking to other Asian parents, and recently immigrating Singaporean families to Perth, it seems that many of them had not lost the inbred kiasuism developed in Singapore. Coming to Perth, they still hanker to pay ridiculous property prices to land a house in Bullcreek, Willeton or Rossmoyne so that their kids can get into the popular senior high schools of Rossmoyne or Willeton. These two schools, in addition to Shenton College, Churchlands SHS, Applecross SHS and Mt Lawley SHS, form the top few public high schools in Perth. There is another high school called Perth Modern School that a child can only get in if he is gifted, or comes up tops in selection exams. I shudder at the intense competition the kids will have to experience in studying there. It would be just like it was in Singapore. I certainly would not wish that on my son, who in a couple of years, would also attend high school.

And then… I had an epiphany. What if, it is not the competitive studies and exam cramming I should worry about for my son? I was missing the wood for the trees. I should think about how people like Raffles and Wong Kan Seng and various other tycoons got to their station in life – certainly not by being the top in class, or even finishing Uni – but, by making the right friends and networking. Then, where should one go to network with these future greats. Then, it hit me – you still need to attend the Rossmoynes, the Willetons and the Perth Modern Schools to hobnob with the future leaders. One cannot escape the inevitable. To reach the pinnacle quickly, one has to swim with the flow, otherwise you would be left behind like the flotsam of an ebbing tide.

So, now, for all my ideas of relaxing in Perth, I am stuck in a quandary. However I feel about not being a kiasu parent, I still want the best for my child, and even if not to participate in cramming for his studies, it would do him well to mix with the “right” crowd. Heck, one day he could even become secretary to Colin Barnett.


  1. My suggestion to ambitious parents who wish to climb the social hierarchy through their children, consider what flaneurose wrote about the sense of "otherness" that never goes away.

    I too experience it and I wonder how it affects my social choices/behaviour.

  2. Zorroz

    Firstly I know someone who will be looking for a new job maybe for election 2016 since Mr Pushparani is unlikely going to stay as VP of Jurong West SS for long....

    Secondly I don't think you should aspire for your son to be secretary to the Premier; why aim so low and Barnett is not going to hang around for long.

    Thirdly, there are good reasons to try to chose good schools for ur kids since there are many public school where the classes are simply hopeless (literacy rates a shocker at year 10). Sure there are also good public school but not many and they may not be near your home.

    Lastly, the examples you listed involved white people at the time when education is a privilege premium and not a universal right. Your son is always going to be seen as a foreigner in most Australian community no matter what his accent sound like and his education is from. Furthermore Australians like to chop down tall poppies (except sportsman) so in order for your son to achieve success, he got to stand taller than the rest of the Caucasian-philic Australian society.

    Not a racist comment and sure there are plenty of white trash around town but nevertheless a frank dissertation of the situation

  3. Singaporeans should not have fought for independence from uk 50 years ago and then they do not need to try so hard to get out now. We were all sold a big fat lie.

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