10 S'poreans who show us that the 'A' Levels aren’t everything in life

May these ten stories inspire you on your life after 'A' levels.

Weixiang Lim| March 01, 05:10 PM

“Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but ... life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” - The late Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Novelist and 1982 Nobel Prize winner in Literature.

From 2010 to 2013, I was the civics tutor of a graduating class at a Junior College. On 'A' levels results day, the students I empathized strongly with are not the ones who have excelled, but the ones who have tried their best but failed to make the cut. Some of them were so devastated that they wandered about lost for a while.

It's my hope that this collection of ten Singaporean stories will help young Singaporeans see beyond their 'A' levels results this Monday. Take hope from these people - they were like you many years ago, but look where they are now.

1. Tay Kay Chin, 48, Part-timer lecturer at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information at Nanyang Technological University (NTU)

Tay Kay Chin

"In my younger years, all I wanted was to be a fighter pilot, and so I thought I should just go to a poly, get a diploma and be done with education. But swayed by my brother, my family insisted I follow the JC route. I hated my three years in JC and quite naturally I did poorly at the A levels, even on my second attempt."

"Thankfully, I realised early in late teens that photography, which I picked up in secondary school, is what I love. After National Service, I dabbled a little in advertising before joining Lianhe Zaobao (联合晚报) as a newspaper photographer."

"Then with a $30,000 loan from SPH (Singapore Press Holdings), I went on to study photojournalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where I won three scholarships, including the prestigious Kodak Professional Photography scholarship. They really helped to pay for part of my education overseas."

"I completed my education and returned to Singapore to serve out my bond with SPH and spent seven years with The Straits Times, rising to become head of the photo department. After that I returned to the USA and became a newspaper presentation editor in Washington state."

"Then tired of being away from home, I came back to Singapore.”

“My most important advice? Don’t always listen to others. Learn to follow your heart."

2. Derek Tan, 34, Physiotherapist at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and a proud father of two.

Derek Tan

"I managed to get a full cert my first time round, but the Elephants and Dogs got me nowhere."

"I decided to sit for the A levels again when I was in National Service. It was hard work juggling NS and taking the A levels again, but I really had something to prove, not to anyone, but to myself. I did well enough to qualify for the Science Faculty in NUS."

"But by then I had already decided my interest lay in helping people so I enrolled for the Physiotherapy course in Nanyang Polytechnic after NS."

3. Alf Chern, 34 kickass Photojournalist with The Straits Times.

Alf Chern

"I was a late bloomer."

"I screwed up my A levels. Failed Math. Was rejected by NUS thrice."

"Dejected I enrolled into Ngee Ann Poly, studied film and graduated top of the cohort which allowed me to enroll in NTU's Wee Kim Wee School of Communications where I finally graduated with a degree but most importantly I discovered photography there, and joined The Straits Times as a photojournalist after I graduated."

Check out Alf’s excellent piece on the Naval Diver Unit (NDU) here.

4. Gracia, 27, Primary School teacher


"My life-long dream has always been to be a teacher. I almost gave that up because NIE (National Institute of Education) refused to accept me into its degree programme."

"I actually attempted suicide, but thankfully I wasn't successful. Looking back, I feel so foolish."

"Eventually after a stint doing relief teaching, I applied successfully for NIE's diploma course and two years into the course I was given the opportunity to cross over into the degree programme."

"It's OK to take detours in life. Most importantly, never give up on hope."

5. Derrick, 34, Editorial Quality Manager at McGraw Hill Financials


"I did poorly for the A levels, and after being cut from pilot training, I really thought I would be a shop floor worker all my life."

"But I pulled myself together and studied really hard in SIM (Singapore Institute of Management) and with my first year's results managed to apply successfully to the accountancy program at the University of Sydney."

"I have worked as an auditor at two of the big four accountancy firms - KPMG and then PWC, before moving on to JP Morgan where many of my colleagues were Ivy League graduates."

"I don't think I am fantastic but I know I have made a difference in every job I have held."

"I believe that as long as you are determined and willing to work hard, you can pick yourself up and catch up even if you fall at one hurdle."

6. Anil Sandhu, 33, Lawyer at Kertar & Co

Anil Sandhu

"I had a torrid 3 years in JC. I never gained any confidence because the tests and exams were always unrealistically difficult. I ended up with C, D, & E for my A levels."

"I was lucky that my parents could afford to send me to Australia where I initially attended the Australian National University in Canberra, majoring in Science. The educational environment in Australia was liberating for me. It gave me the time to appreciate the content and room to be creative, and I finished close to the top of class in my first year, which allowed me to apply to law school in Adelaide."

"I graduated within the top 10% of my cohort in Law School and returned to Singapore to practice."

"Sometimes, you just need a different environment for you to bloom."

7. Sherilyn Tan, 22, studying in SIM while supporting herself financially.

Sherilyn Tan

"To be honest, I was really quite lost after my A levels. I got an 'A' for my General Paper which I am proud of, but did badly for my other subjects."

"I worked part-time for a while before enrolling myself in UOL's Business course at SIM."

"I am self sufficient now from giving tuition and no longer get money from my parents. I also teach at Pertapis Girls' Home."

"Compared to 2 years ago, I am more confident about my future."

"I can't say I am successful in life right now, but I know I will get there one day."

8. Mohamed Abdullah, 35, Pilot with Tiger Airways


"Flying was always one of my aspirations growing up. but those plans were shelved after I was rejected by the RSAF when I applied to be a fighter pilot after JC."

"My A level results were not good enough for me to be accepted into NUS or NTU so I went to SIM and enrolled to study Infosystems Management."

"While I was working as an operations manager in a freight forwarding company, I found out from some friends who were pilots that I need not be an RSAF pilot to fly a commercial jet. So I applied to SIA's pilot trainee programme but was rejected at the final interview stage."

"I was demoralised, but was still determined to try again. I signed up for a one year part-time Diploma in Aviation at MOE-accredited Dimensions School, and that helped me to move on to ST's new pilot training school in Australia."

"I took out loans from my wife (then girlfriend) and my family members in order to go to Australia to learn how to fly. I passed out from pilot school as the best trainee in 2008, when the global economy was in turmoil and the airlines were not hiring."

"I had to go back to work in Barclays Bank and then as a manager at a pizzeria, all the time applying for positions at the various airlines, before Tiger Airways finally accepted me in 2011. But even then, I had to fork out more money for training. It was only in December 2011, after spending more than $240,000 that I finally stepped into the cockpit of an airplane."

"It was a long and convoluted journey, but I am glad I finally got to where I am."

"I think it's very important to have drive and never give up on your dreams."

9. Ding Yifei, 33, Sports Conditioning Coach and spent 4 years with the Football Association of Singapore as Fitness and Conditioning Trainer to the National Team.

Ding Yifei

"To be honest, I was really lost after the 'A' levels. The only affordable option for me then was to pursue accountancy through the ACCA Exams. But after completing the level 1 papers, I decided it wasn't my cup of tea."

"Having been a fervent sportsman in school, I followed my interest and pursued a sports science degree at Edith Cowan University's branch in Singapore and finally found my niche"

"Results aren't everything. Sometimes you need to go a big round to find your niche."

10. JJ Chuah, 32, Economics teacher in a Junior College.

JJ Chuah

"I did poorly for my 'A' levels. In fact, my Economics grade was a D because I just wasn't interested in the subject then."

"After 'A' levels, I applied to the University of Western Australia hoping to read Accountancy, but was rejected because of my poor grades. They offered me Economics instead which I accepted."

"Something wonderful happened. I actually fell in love with the subject and scored straight As in all my economics modules."

"I completed my studies and returned to Singapore to work as a financial trader but after a while, I realised I needed to do something more meaningful which is why I chose to become a teacher."

"Looking back, going to Australia was a blessing in disguise because I found my passion and also met my wife there.

All photos by Lim Weixiang.

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