If a Fortune Teller Had Told Me…

By Genevieve Duggan, PhD student, Department of Sociology

If when I was 20 a fortune teller had told me what life had in store for me, I would have asked for my money back! At that time I was studying German and French languages to become a teacher in France. I did not learn English at school and was not curious about the people living on the other side of the Channel.

The good thing in life is that we do not know what it has in store for us. My life took a different turn after marriage and became quite nomadic, moving countries every four to five years; I learned English and studied at three different universities (Bahasa Indonesia at Atma Jaya University in Jakarta, anthropology in Heidelberg and Singapore). If my experience can be of any use I would be happy to share some thoughts.

First I married a Brit working in Germany, and started to learn English in order to communicate with my mother-in-law. When moving to another country and culture, I tried not to look back at what I was leaving behind, but embraced the new opportunities my new home country offered me, saying ‘yes’ to new experiences as new chances and did not try to isolate myself which is the easy alternative.

In Indonesia, I studied the language. This knowledge allowed me to access the culture and visit places off the beaten track. Curiosity was certainly what resulted in my meeting others. The desire to know and to understand what at first sight does not make sense is the engine for an interesting life. After moving to Germany for a second time I had the possibility to study anthropology at the age of forty. This brought about questions from friends like: ‘what is wrong in your life that you go back to university?’ Or ‘What is going wrong in your marriage that you are doing this?’ I did not sense something was going wrong. I was taking the opportunities that my nomadic life offered me learning the way while walking, and did not let these well meant comments of friends bothering me.  When looking back, I realised that I did not worry when I happened to go against the flow since I saw a meaning in what I was doing. As I was not a ‘cappuccino anthropologist’, fieldwork in eastern Indonesia meant little comfort and much isolation, but also rich experiences.

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When we moved to Singapore I had the opportunity to continue to study at NUS for my PhD. The varied nationalities of students at FASS Graduate School suited me very well. It is the most cosmopolitan university I ever studied at. After doing fieldwork, the writing phase of a thesis means months of relative isolation, but the pleasure of learning and playing Gamelan with the NUS singanglaras group every Wednesday night compensated for loneliness.

The most important thing in my life was to be curious. Critiques or lack of recognition from others did not disturb me since I saw meaning and value in what I was doing.

An Experience like No Other

By Priscilla Ann Vincent, South Asian Studies, Year 2

Uncertainty – is the word which summarises the start of my NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) internship.

On 4 June 2009, Mr Rajesh Bhat, the director of The Rural Edge (the social entrepreneurship project where I did my internship), called me from the state of Karnataka, India. He asked if I was ready for hard work and the challenge of living in rural India. He gave me only an hour to accept the internship offer. Not knowing much about the project or what rural meant, I pleaded for him to give me a day or two to decide.

The Rural Edge project, in collaboration with Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO), Samuha and Foundation for Life, aims to bring Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) into rural India. Firstly, villagers with little or no education are trained in basic English, Mathematics, Computing, Logical and BPO work, specific skills like invoice processing and new application processing. The second part of this rural development project is to equip these villagers with BPO jobs in the village. The project is based in a village called Kanakagiri, in a rural part of Karnataka, about 10 hours away by road from the city of Bangalore.

I was still unsure. The project website I was told to refer to did not answer all my questions. How rural is rural? Is there electricity? Was the water safe to drink? Was there any internet access? Where will I be staying? What would my job entail? Most importantly will I survive? But being presented with a fulfilling and one of a kind work experience, I decided to accept the offer. After all, I am young and should be able to face the challenges.

The first two weeks were especially hard. I had to get used to the hot and dry weather, distasteful water, spicy food, a concrete bed, little or sometimes no electricity at all and daily cold baths. I worked from 7am to 9pm daily. Furthermore, the working environment was chaotic. Meetings went on and on without an agenda. Consensus to the best approach to issues could not be achieved. There were no minutes taken at meetings thus resulting in misunderstandings between colleagues on what was to be done and by whom. I had to do something about it. Coming from organised Singapore, I could not allow the project be so inefficient. In such a chaotic environment, there was no way the project was going to reach its target of transforming the lives of 6 million villagers in 12 years. I approached Mr Rajesh Bhat to suggest ways to improve the current situation and was immediately appointed as the chief strategist of the project – an honorable but demanding position.

As the chief strategist, I had to implement a system of daily agendas and minutes of the meetings. I had to advise my colleagues and evaluate their plans before their proposed plans go to the director. As my director was critical, I learned that my plan was not always right and the best work comes out of much debate and discussion.

Together with Shihan (the other intern from NUS), I played a vital role in designing the curriculum for the villagers. The curriculum had to be tailored specifically to the criteria of the hiring BPO companies. We saw our curriculum being used to train the villagers. It was inspiring to see the villagers use the materials created. It was fulfilling to see them enjoy and learn quickly. 

The NGO (Samuha) that we were staying at and working in was surrounded by sunflowers and wheat fields. The air was fresh without a tint of pollution and cows and goats graze the dry land. Bullock carts and cow dung were a common sight. People live in small village huts and survive off the land – a humble living experience. I had to wash my clothes on a concrete slab, eat only vegetarian meals for two and a half months, walk three kilometers to the nearby village town to buy provisions and bathe and work in the dark as the electricity supply often went out at night. There was no television or shopping mall. I spent most of my free time enjoying the beauty of the countryside and building strong relationships with the locals. Language was a barrier initially as I had no knowledge of Kannada (the language of Karnataka). However after a month of being taught Kannada by my colleagues, it was easy to strike a conversation with anyone. People in rural India are very welcoming and friendly. I felt safe and secure.

Living and working in rural India was exciting. There are four things that they say you will encounter in Kanakagiri – giant toad, rat, scorpion and snake. A new born rat wriggling on my concrete bed greeted me when I arrived the first day. A month later, I had a rat run across my arm while I was sleeping, an eight-inch scorpion in my room and a giant toad in the common bathroom. Thankfully, there was no encounter with a snake. We were told repeatedly never to walk around or out of the campus at night. With encounters like these, I have become less fearful and am now able to deal with uncomfortable situations easily.

What an amazing journey it was. I was to have returned to Singapore on the 15th of August 2009 but as the project was scheduled to be inaugurated on that very day and not wanting to miss this historic moment, I postponed my return ticket to Singapore. However to my disappointment and dismay, the inauguration of the project was postponed due to the lack of funds. The agreement made by the previous bank manager to issue a loan for the project was revoked by the new bank manger. We had to come up with a contingent plan as the villagers were expecting to start formal training soon. I learned that when working in India, one has to be very flexible and ever ready to emerge from difficult situations. For a project to succeed, one has to be very determined to overcome the many barriers that one would undoubtedly face in India.

NOC’s Experience India is one of a kind. From this experience, one has clearer understanding of the Indian business environment and is able to make vital connections to break into the Indian market. It enabled me to grow mentally, physically and emotionally. It is indeed a total development that is needed for any aspiring entrepreneur of today! 

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Read more about Priscilla Ann Vincent’s adventures in Straits Times.

Engaging a Growing China

By Chen Heng Hui, Economics, Year 3

While waiting for enrolment into NUS three years ago, I self-initiated a working trip to China and offered my services as a translator to a training company based in Shanghai. Having experienced and enjoyed the business adrenalin rush in China, I was keen to spend my 2009 summer holidays working in Shanghai.

Since December 2008, I started applying to many Singapore-based companies with operations in China. Although I managed to receive a few offers from multi-national companies, I accepted an offer from Hupomone Capital Partners, a Singapore private equity/venture capital firm based in the Greater China region because the company was willing to provide me with a mentorship.

Due to my bilingual abilities and prior understanding of Contemporary China, I settled in quickly and was treated like a full-time employee by my colleagues and bosses. During my 10-week stint, I was largely involved with deal origination and deal analysis work. Besides research and due diligence work, I had the opportunity to travel to five different Chinese cities-Wenzhou, Beijing, Hangzhou, Tianjin and Taiyuan to meet entrepreneurs of different industries and other private equity managers.

At the same time, I was spurred on by one of my bosses, Mr Siew Wing Keong, who told me that I was able to initiate and propose new ideas to the team even though I was an intern. As such, I initiated an unassisted trip to the capital-rich city of Wenzhou to explore alternative financing opportunities for a medical device deal. In Shanghai, I originated a deal with a rapidly-expanding Taiwanese café-bakery chain after being a frequent customer at one of those stores. I identified that the bakery chain as a winning proposition because it is a combination of Starbucks and Breadtalk, catering specifically to the growing middle-class population in China. Soon after, I managed to schedule a meeting with the Group CFO to further discuss investment opportunities.

This internship had surpassed my expectations as I was lucky to have nurturing bosses who were willing to mentor young Singaporeans to engage China. After working and travelling in China for the last decade, I am keen to return for work in the Greater China region upon graduation and would strongly encourage every Singaporean to engage China in every way possible.  In a CNBC interview with Maria Bartiromo in 2008, Jim Rogers said :  “If you were smart in 1807 you moved to London, if you were smart in 1907 you moved to New York City, and if you are smart in 2007 you move to Asia.” Asia’s rise will be primarily driven by China’s growth story and it will be an extremely exciting prospect for us to take part in this historic-changing process.

Heng Hui looks forward to working in China full time
Heng Hui looks forward to working in China full time

Read more about Heng Hui’s China trip here!

Finding Peace – The Meditation Series

By A/P Millagros Rivera, Head, Communications and New Media Programme

I have been in Singapore over seven years. During this time, I have noticed that students have become more stressed and are experiencing depression and anxiety in larger numbers and with greater frequency. As the Head of CNM, I have done what I can to make my own students feel supported by giving them 24-hour access to our facilities, but even that is not an adequate response to the emotional problems I see.

Being a well-rounded student means going beyond studying and getting good grades. University students should do community work, have fun and live fully.  But we also have to remember that they have relationship problems, family crises and these issues, along with the heavy workload they face at NUS, can have a very real impact in their mental, physical and spiritual well being. I think the FASS Student Wellness is a very enlightened initiative and I will support it in any way I can. When I was asked if I would lead a meditation series for students, I immediately said “yes!”   Sure, I am busy! But I think this is very important and deserves my time. My hope is that students will see meditation as part of the things one can do to have a more fulfilling life/career. It’s not something spooky or weird; it can actually bring a great deal of joy, peace and mental clarity to one’s life/work/study.

I believe that peace and joy are things all people aspire to, regardless of their religious orientation. Since coming to Singapore, I have been studying meditation techniques and attending spiritual retreats and workshops in Asia. I started my spiritual work by holding informal meditation sessions at my home for friends who faced difficult life situations and in every instance, those involved in the meditations felt a positive impact. So I know this stuff works! I also teach a spiritual class at a local holistic centre and in my group there are people of all religions and spiritual orientations. We come together because we know that there is more to life than working, making (or worrying about) money, etc.

So for the meditation series, I have tapped on my friends from the spiritual community to lend a hand and teach students various modalities of meditation to achieve inner balance/peace and mental clarity. This will allow students to choose which type of meditation technique works best for them. This will also help them see that there are many types of people involved in spiritual work. I am a professor and look relatively normal even though I teach meditation. There are, of course, yoga teachers, spiritual healers, and others so called “light workers” who teach meditation, but students will also meet an entrepreneur who teaches meditation and a retired career army man who is now a spiritual teacher/healer.

Tsai Miao Kun, PhD student, Department of Philosophy shares, “If a person doesn’t know how to learn from within herself/himself, then she or he can only seek to learn from the outside world. However, I believe that we, as humans, have access to an energy field which is intimately connected to the universe and it has the capability to return us to a source of inner strength by grounding our “everydayness” with balance. This belief led me to the fascinating meditation group initiated by A/P Millagros Rivera (Head, Communications and New Media) and Mrs Soon Huey Yann (FASS Student Wellness).

Joining this group is the most joyful encounter I have ever had in NUS. What can you get from it? First of all, you will meet people greeting you with generosity and love. In addition, you will have access to teachers from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs, allowing you to play and explore meditation in distinct ways. Sometimes you may feel yourself embracing novelty like a child, and sometimes it may appear as if you are ready to be the teacher yourself.

Come and enjoy! You may be told here that meditation is the best way to help you release all the tension and stress. You will shortly find out that this group is far more than that, and, it is also lots of fun!