Once belittled by lecturer, S'porean ITE dropout worked his way up to become engineer with MNC

Stories of Us: Koh Wei Xiang was never good at his studies. Here's how he turned the odds around by cultivating an interest in IT, despite walking down an unconventional educational path.

Ashley Tan | February 20, 2021, 01:03 PM

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Koh Wei Xiang's life has been defined by several turning points.

His was perhaps an unconventional adolescence, marked by fights, a less than stellar track record in school, and an unstable family background.

At what was probably his lowest point in his life, where he was nearly expelled from his secondary school, Koh says that his "whole family gave up on me already".

These ups and downs haven't affected his prospects and outlook on life though, and Koh has managed to, in his words, make a "180-degree change" since then.

And through sheer hard work and grit, the 26-year-old has worked his way through private studies and various jobs to become an automation engineer at a multi-national Information Technology (IT) company.

Photo by Ashley Tan

Was never interested in academics

Koh arrives for our interview at a Starbucks outlet smartly dressed in a formal button-up and slacks.

He starts off by introducing himself a tad stiffly, but slowly loosens up as he delves into his childhood, smattering his speech with various Chinese and Hokkien phrases.

"Since young I didn't like to talk much, I didn't know how to be vocal," he says.

Even in primary school, academics were not his forte. Koh recalls feeling blasé towards school subjects and being more interested in "playing around". As such, his results were merely borderline.

This carefree nature extended throughout his formative years, until the PSLE served as Koh's first rude awakening.

"I thought I could make it (into the Express stream)," Koh said of the first big examination in every Singaporean student's life. This was despite the fact that he had hardly studied — "I was a very egotistic kid. I was like aiyah, very easy one."

It turned out that Koh had scraped a score of 135 to 145 (he can't recall the specific grade), allowing him to only enter the Normal Technical stream.

At the time, the true consequences of how his grades would affect his education journey and future escaped him; all he could focus on was the scolding he would receive from his aunt back home.

Koh jokes about how the trip to his primary school to pick up his PSLE result with his older cousin was full of talk and laughter, and the subsequent trip home that of silence.

His house did not feel like a home

Koh's apathy towards his studies could perhaps have stemmed from his unstable home situation. Because of his parents' hectic schedules as hawkers, Koh was shuffled between several relatives households as he was growing up.

These impermanent circumstances, which continued till he was older, left him feeling like a boat unmoored, bereft of support and a proper home.

"Living in another person's place, you just feel like you don't belong here. The feeling is just not nice."

And while his relationship with his guardian, his aunt, was not bad per se, it was tenuous.

He was forbidden from leaving his house to hang out with friends, for fear that he would cause trouble outside. To Koh, the house (tellingly, he did not refer to it as a "home" during our conversation) was a "jail" at worse, and a "hotel" at best.

Koh's sister, who is four years older, was his main confidante and figure of support. The times where his sister would bring him out against his aunt's better judgment to meet her friends were his only periods of solace.

Nearly expelled from secondary school after a fight

Things went downhill in secondary school, where Koh picked up a reputation for being the cohort's "notorious black sheep".

Teachers and other classmates paid him no heed and school fights became a commonplace occurrence, even though, as Koh jokingly maintains, he doesn't go out of his way to look for trouble but "trouble finds me instead".

Koh's shenanigans all came to head at 15, when he took part in a brutal fight which left the other party severely injured.

Sitting outside the principal's office in tears, having received a verbal lashing from the discipline master and on the verge of expulsion, he recounts that it was at this moment that he knew he was, in his words, truly "f*cked".

"[I knew] I'm really in deep sh*t ah, because I whacked the guy until..." he pauses to collect himself. "I mean he didn't die la but he was quite injured."

A turning point

Miraculously, the school did not expel him. But the experience was a wake-up call for Koh:

"I'm already in Normal Technical, technically the lowest in the whole academic system. I really don't want to fail Normal Tech, because I don't want to be the worst and what is worse than being the worst of the worst?"

With just a year left to the N-Levels, Koh decided to turn his life around. It was not an easy journey, but Koh credits two people for supporting him along the way.

The first was his school counsellor who, in a bid to boost his morale, gave him a "lucky" S$1 coin she had kept with her (and which he still keeps in his wallet to this day):

"She said: 'Hope that this lucky coin will help you go through this path.'"

Her words gave him hope, he says.

Photo courtesy of Koh Wei Xiang

The second person whom Koh is indebted to is his sister who encouraged him to chiong for the N-Levels with the help of the Ten Year Series assessment books.

The ever-loving sister even said to him: "If you finish your Ten Year Series and still cannot pass, I will take care of you for the rest of your life!"

"She confirm don't want to take care of me for the rest of my life, [so] of course I got to work!" Koh laughs.

Koh and his older sister. Photo courtesy of Koh Wei Xiang

Koh burned the midnight oil to hit the books for the remaining year in secondary school. And while he realised that although his disinterest in academic subjects remained, he did enjoy gaining new knowledge.

His hard work eventually paid off.

He clinched mostly 'A's and 'B's for his N-Level, earning him a spot in the top one per cent of N-Level students nationwide, and the top N-level student in his school.

Developed an interest in tech

While Koh was undeniably happy about his results, the rippling effects of his past misdeeds in school had finally reached him in the present.

Although he was the top N-Level student, Koh's school did not give him the award because of his disciplinary record. The honour went to another student instead.

The incident put a slight damper on his spirits but as Koh says now, everything has consequences:

"Don't do anything bad because it will come [back] to you. No matter how hard you work it won't delete what you've done before."

Moving on, Koh chose to skip the Normal Academic stream and pursue a diploma in IT.

For Koh, it was clear since several years ago that his interests lay in technology.

He first picked apart a secondhand iPhone at the age of 13, satisfying his curiousity with what made the phone tick (or beep). Over time, he also tried his hand at building a computer from scratch — with parts bought from Sim Lim Square — as well as an eight-legged hexabot.

Koh enrolled in an ITE diploma course in 2011. For once, his life seemed to be on track. However, he soon learned that things don't always work out the way one expects.

"If you like to study, then why are you here?"

Koh dropped out of ITE a mere two days after enrolling.

He recalls how he and his classmates waited several hours on the second day of school for a lecturer to start lessons.

Upon entering the class, however, the first thing the lecturer said was, "Ok I don't want to waste so much time. Who here likes to study?"

Nobody raised their hands.

The lecturer then apparently went on to say:

"If you like to study, then why are you here?"

The implication was clear to Koh: ITE students don't (or can't) study.

The lecturer's words sent Koh reeling.

"Everything start to crumble in my heart," he says.

Flushed with anger, Koh whipped out his N-Level certificate, walked up to the teacher, and slapped it across the man's face.

Koh then stormed out of the class and announced that he would be quitting the course.

"I don't know what kind of balls I have la, but I know that this is not the place for me. I am someone who [is] easily influenced. I don't want to go back again. I don't have anything in mind [at the moment] but I just know I need to get out of here."

Scrimping and saving to pay for university

The encounter with the ITE lecturer left him stewing over his next course of action — he wanted to continue studying but ITE was not an option for him.

On the same day, Koh made the swift decision to attend private school.

It was a "big leap", he says, and a "tough" eight months studying for a diploma in IT at MDIS. By the time he was 17 and armed with an IT diploma, Koh started working full time.

His first job was that of a technician repairing phones at a shop in Funan.

And while the pay was average for a diploma holder, and all Koh knew at the time was that he liked to "fix phones", he soon realised that in order to go further, he would need a degree.

After NS, he enrolled at a private university for a part-time degree in computer science and cyber forensics.

Since his parents were unable to support him financially, Koh had to scrimp and save, at times surviving on Maggi noodles to pay for his S$24,000 part-time degree course.

Juggling a full-time job with studies was no easy feat either — Koh "burnt all his weekends" and used up all his annual leave from work for studying and taking exams.

No regrets

Today, Koh is armed with a diploma, a degree, and years of working experience. More importantly, the engineer who writes scripts for the robots that his company produces says that he enjoys his work.

"I don't believe in a perfect system. [After secondary school] I already knew what I want. If the system doesn't work, I tell myself that there must be another way out. I quit ITE not knowing what to expect, and fortunately enough, there was a way out.

As long as you persevere, you know what you are doing, you know where you want to go, then don't f*ck care the system." 

One could say he has far surpassed the expectations he had as an unsure, rebellious student in the past stumbling through adolescence.

And he has absolutely no regrets.

"Every day [since I was young] has been a grind. But without all these things, I wouldn't be who I am today. I am not successful, but I know that I am doing something I like, and I'm earning a decent income, ya lor."

Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.

Top photo courtesy of Koh Wei Xiang and by Ashley Tan