BES Interview with Nicholas Ang

Profile Information

CV photo

Name: Nicholas Ang

Specialization in BES: Geography

Dream Job or Organization: Be the founder of a for-profit organisation that shows (and leads) by example how business can be environmentally-positive and socially just.

Actual Job and Organization: Was running a startup for 6 months after graduation. Currently freelance writing.

Must-have snack or dish in NUS: Hwang’s korean bbq pork bibimbap

Favourite module in NUS: AR2723 (Strategies for Sustainable Architecture). I still think this should be manadatory reading for all BES undergrads.

Favourite hangout in/around NUS: FASS Humble Origins cafe (the one at Ventus)


Tell us more about your job now and what you’ve been up to since NUS?

About a month after graduation I got married. With a solid relationship behind me, I started a company trying to invent a writer’s laptop. It was to be an electronic device with a full-sized keyboard and a big-enough screen meant for getting serious writing done, without the trappings of an all-purpose laptop. (Yup, I’m talking about email and Facebook, on top of Youtube, that downloaded American TV series, video games… I could go on).

But 6 months into the project, I pulled the plug on it because I realised I wasn’t ready for the commitment at this point. I’ve learned a lot and built contacts that I believe will be useful in projects down the line.

I’m currently exploring different broad areas of interest. I believe everyone should take a stab at becoming a jack of all trades, and a master of a few. At this point I’m doing freelance writing gigs as I find them (mostly not so meaningful ones for company blogs).

There’s no easy way to put this so I’ll just say it as it is. In the eyes of the law and perhaps more punishingly, society, I’m currently unemployed.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I’ll go on to say that I’m proudly and happily unemployed, for 3 main reasons:
– I’m still relatively young and have hundreds of things left that I want to explore (eg. writing for a living, learning to code and make electronics, understanding histories through biographies of interesting people, meeting orthogonal thinkers from all over the world…). Thankfully my wife agrees with me, and we’ve found a way to make our finances work for the time being.
– I recognise this as the only time in my life I’ll be able to do what I want without too much social repercussions (that’s not saying there isn’t any, of course), and without being unduly irresponsible.
– I know at the back of my mind that this “exploration” is aimed at strengthening the foundation I’ve built from the BES programme and give me a more nuanced perspective of what I should dedicate the rest of my working life to. That’s 40 years in Singapore – too long to be wasted, in my opinion, being unaware of my specific contributions to the organisation I will be working under!

Every day is a struggle and I’m learning to deal with it. What I’m doing isn’t special even though I think it probably appears odd from the outside. What I’m doing is struggling, just as much as I think most of my peers are at their jobs. Maybe not, I can’t speak for them. But at this early stage (less than a year into our first ‘real’ jobs), I think it’s perfectly normal to struggle either ideologically, meaningfully or financially. It’s unhealthy if we stop questioning things. That’s when I know I’ve become just a digit.

How long did it take you to realize that’s what you wanted to do?

To become an entrepreneur was something I aspired towards since my days in the Army. Days out in the scorching Singaporean sun made me very aware of the changes in weather (I’m sure I referred to it as “climate change” at that point, even though you and I know that climate entails more than day-to-day weather variations – yay geography!). Training on some days would be unbearable because of the heat, and at some point I told myself I was going to do something about environmental issues.

Then some days later I was introduced to Richard Branson’s autobiography (Losing My Virginity) and after reading it, I was sold on a simple idea – business is arguably the most leveled playing field with the greatest potential impact, if done right. That book solidified my belief that becoming an entrepreneur was the biggest way I could influence the way things are being done.

Now, years of university education later and having learned from so many people, my interests have definitely diversified beyond climate change. I imagine this is the case for many undergraduates – we grow personally and intellectually in university in ways we could never have predicted. For me, I now think a lot more about social justice, empowerment, and judicious use of technology of solve problems.

The point I’m trying to make is that change–in our ways of thinking, behaviour, beliefs, and the things we concern our short lives with–is the only constant we can count on. At least for our 20s (I’m sure neuroscience has some answers as to why this is true), if not for the rest of our lives.

But who am I to speak ‘truth’ to you? I’m not actually doing what I realised I wanted to do! Not yet at least.

Did any past experiences (at NUS or outside) contribute to the decision on your current career path? How so?

Ironically, it was being in the sea of students at lectures at NUS that imbued in me my current awareness of being just another cog in the machine (the university thus being the factory of cogs). I’d credit this awareness to all the weird stuff that I like to do, previously at NUS and now out in the world.

But to answer this question directly, I think the NOC (NUS Overseas Colleges) programme had a big impact on my decision to start a company after university. During the programme I was immersed with like-minded entrepreneurs (wantrepreneurs, perhaps, since few graduates from NOC actually go on to start companies). I now remember fondly how I stayed in a room just some doors down from one of the co-founders of Carousell when they were just starting out. Things like that leave an indelible mark on you, you know? (By the way I implore you to think about the social and environmental implications of something as simple as the Carousell marketplace app).

While NOC helped me see early on what it’s like to be an entrepreneur for real, and inadvertently built up my ambition, the work of the BES programme office–particularly of Renee–taught me about the value and power of getting good at what you do. (I’m not trivialising the work of anyone in the office – I’d just had the chance of working most closely with Renee). In the interest of space I’ll sum it up in one sentence: type of work alone does not necessarily predict how much people enjoy it. (I later found a book that wrote this exact sentence, and I recommend every BES graduate to read it – Cal Newport’s book with the unfortunately gimmicky title So Good They Can’t Ignore You). In other words, Renee taught me that you could derive tremendous satisfaction by doing anything as long as you’re good at it (or dedicated at getting good at it).

These are two poignant memories I have of NUS that I think shape the way I look at career decisions now.

What was the most challenging task you encountered during your undergraduate studies?

The geography honours thesis. It was intellectually challenging, but it was the timeline that required the best of me. I ended up starting work about 2 months before submission and on the day of submission, had to literally sprinted to the thesis room to hand over my just-printed booklet. I made it a few minutes before the deadline, and went home and puked for about a half hour.

Time management is a demon I continue to wrestle with. One day I’ll subdue it, but I’m not there yet!

Do you think that due to the broad nature of BES program, it is harder to specialize and stand out?

Yes. In the big bad world we call the workplace, our BES degree isn’t likely to help us stand out. Unlike quasi-professional degrees like engineering and statistics, our programme doesn’t groom us to be anything more specific than an environmental thinker and leader. I think that’s by design, and we need to learn to make what we want out of it.

So if by “stand out” you mean to be employable, then yes, it’s harder. It just makes more sense for companies to hire people who are easier to identify neatly as A or Z. When people haven’t heard of something, they tend not to trust it. So an “environmental studies graduate” carries less weight than say, a “chemical engineer”. This will probably change over years to come as employers start to work with some of us, but I think it’ll take at least 5 batches of graduates before significant change is observable.

Any words of advice for our current undergraduates?

– Burn it into your mind that your 20s is an extremely valuable period in your life. Don’t be afraid to use it to explore things before settling down on a few. Once it’s over, you might not have the luxury to explore anymore.
– Strive to be a jack of all trades and a master of a few. Maybe someday down the line these will converge into one main thing, but it makes more sense to dabble before deciding right out of university what you will do for the rest of your life.
– Take everything anyone says with a pinch of salt. Mix them with your own salad.

Lastly, your best memory concerning BES.

I think I most enjoyed the late night talks with the guys in my batch in our Dao Diamond hotel room during our Philippines field trip. We discussed so many fascinating subjects and for the first time, I really got to know them. I think we grew a lot in those weeks. I’d give a lot to relive those days


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

One thought on “BES Interview with Nicholas Ang

  1. Thanks for the candor! I enjoyed every bit of the writing.? I guess it really takes the BESt to understand us BESt.

Leave a Reply

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