Standing at the Gates of the Future

This is a personal blog post.

With the nearing of the end of my military service term, I will now have to think about my future. For almost two years, I have lived with the sole purpose of wasting time, as like many of my peers. Luckily, I did not have to do the "soldier" things and had the chance to work in a magazine publishing department, albeit a really shitty one.

To skip the introduction and background, click here.

Let me just start with an introduction on National Service. Singapore, being a tiny city state, has no professional army. Thus, it relies on the "citizen" army model of defence, where every single male has to enlist into the army for two years of training when he reaches the age of 18 or completes his junior college (we don’t have high schools here) or diploma education. While this rule is pretty much essential for the nation’s defence, it also wastes a lot of time away. In fact, many flee the country for fear of having two years of their life taken away. It isn’t that bad as compared to say Korea or Taiwan, where since the threat of invasion is real, they serve a lot tougher training and are in the army far longer.

In these two years, there are only three ways you can behave.

The most common is the "I wait for my date of release and try to slack as much as possible". This means two years in a guy’s development is complete wasted. In fact, it’s more than two years as he then has to catch up with the females and foreign guys, having forgotten most of his previous education due to this two year slumber.

There’s also the "Since I have to do it, might as well learn from it" approach. Most people learn things like how to survive in a jungle, how to fire firearms, combat tactics etc. Those that are commissioned officers get to learn stuff like man management (which they inevitably suck at), leadership etc. The thing is, most of the stuff learnt from these two years do not really apply to your desired future. And most of the guys do not have the luxury of time, since they get to leave camp only on weekends, which they surely want to spend with their family and friends. So they don’t get to learn stuff outside.

The third type, is the rarest. They love the military lifestyle, strive hard for a high-flying job as a soldier and treat the two years as a stepping stone to their future careers.

I belong to the second type, although I do wish I can be released straightaway.  As I said many  times before,  I’m lucky enough to not have to do the crappy mind-numbing military training. Instead, I work 8 to 5.30 in a regular office, just writing military news. In an office filled with like-minded conscripts of various talents, I have learnt quite a lot.

I’ve always felt that the life of a regular Singapore student, especially those that are gunning for good paper grades, is very limited in scope. Many of my peers, including me, despite hailing from fancy schools claiming to produce the cream of the country’s crop, have very poor skills beyond studying. In spite of my hatred for the two years in NS, I have surely learnt a lot more than the two years I spent in junior college. Through diffusion and also acive learning, I have started on the basics of web design (still improving, thanks to the webmaster here at my office), basic photography (which I still suck at) from the camera crew, basics of writing (how to write crappy news releases at least) etc. Beyond these relevant skills, the starting of this blog has also proved to be a stimulus for learning. Photoshop, wordpress, FTP clients, php, databases, css, html, all these were alien to me previously.

All this is just the beginning. I feel to be a successful (meaning you enjoy your job and are paid handsomely) person, you do need a lot of skills and attributes.
A lot of my peers just don’t get it. The moment something is "out of the syllabus", they switch off and are not in the least interested. In their spare time, they hang around shopping malls, chat on msn and basically just while their time away. I admire those put full effort into their hobbies, be it reading, biking, sports, design etc. But towards the wasters of the most precious commodity – time, I have nothing but disdain. We have already lost two years. People from say the US or Japan, at the age of 20 will already be in their 2nd year of university. Many of them also have put a lot of effort into their hobbies, gaining many skills in the process. And yet, at the age of 21, we will just have restarted school and most probably with nothing but irrelevant military bureauracy in our minds.

The Real Issue
Ok I have sidetracked. But what weighs heavily most on my mind now is the choice of university course and subsequently the choice of career. I do not want to be stuck in a situation where I am unable to pick my job and have to accept whatever comes. I do not want to dread Mondays,waking up in the morning just because I have to go to work. Unenjoyable work can be compensated for with good pay, this I am very aware of. But if possible, it would be best to go for something you enjoy. To do that, you need strong interest and passion. But you also need the ability to excel in your field.

Click here for a short para on what universities in Singapore are like. Very different from those in the US and UK.

Passion and ability. These are areas of concern for me right now. I know myself and the fact that I change hobbies ever so often pretty well. Let’s see what I have interests in. Note these are cyclic in nature. I’ll just list all the rotations and the age I was into them.

  • Animals and Nature (0-7, 16 to 19)
  • War and History (7-9)
  • Gaming (7 to 17)
  • Manga (9 to now)
  • Anime (10 to 15, 19 onwards)
  • Japanese (13 to 16, 19 onwards)
  • Trading Cards like Yuugioh and Pokemon (13 to 15)
  • Guitar (15-19)
  • Biology (14-19)
  • Blogging (20 onwards)
  • Figurines and Toys (19 onwards)

This is pretty normal for any kid. But I like to think that I put in a lot of effort for each one while it lasts. It’s pretty obvious that the long lasting ones are manga, anime and Japanese but even so there were periods of time I completely lost interest in them. My room is quite the museum of my evolution, showcasing all the effort I put in for each hobby. My six guitars, bass and two amplifiers now sit, barely used in a corner. I have three thousand dollars worth (now worthless) of Yuugioh cards in a chest in the closet. My 1100+ manga sit proudly on shelves and in the closet. The 40+ 1/8 figurines and barely countable trading sets are scattered around the shelves and on my workdesk. All the old Japanese textbooks, school books are also hidden somewhere I’ve forgotten. The point is? While I am proud of my tendency to put in 100% effort, I’m also very worried that the frequency of change is too great.

Before I entered this current manga and anime craze, aka Second Summer of Jap Love (refer to Eureka seveN’s version please),  I was aspiring to be a vet or a food/biology researcher. The passion I have for science is a 7 compared to the 10 I have for Jap stuff though. But I do know where my abilities lie. I’m not good with languages, humanities, maths and the arts. In school, I did terribly in humanities and maths subjects but I was the bio teacher’s pet. Oh yeah the bio teacher was a hot milf too but that’s another story.

Now I get to the point of this whole post. The dilemma I face is actually, "Should I pick a course I know I will do well at, or should I take a risk and try for what I like more?"

It’s such a simple question and it’s also one that most people have to face. Some are lucky since they like what their talents lie in. Unfortunately for me, they are at different ends of the spectrum.

I am not naive enough to say, "I want to be a mangaka!" or "I want to work in the anime industry". When I was still much much younger, I did that. It’s now a choice between being practical or taking a risk to follow a passion. In any anime series, the conclusion would be a foregone one. The protagonist would surely shout "To live is to dream!" and the cowering adults who have given up theirs for practical reasons would be enlightened and weep at their lost youth. Of course, real life is a bit different.

I’m not sure how important a degree is, at this point of time, in this ever-changing global economic landscape. It’s probably less important than what most undergrads would think it is, but I can’t help but feel very undecided. Every little decision in life matters.

Take for example, if I didn’t break up with my ex, I wouldn’t have found the time to re-pick up watching anime. And that has escalated into me starting a blog, and learning the relevant skills. I wouldn’t be collecting figurines now, nor will I have renewed interest in the Japanese language. I might just have done something different, perhaps surf pornography for two years.

I cannot understand it when people I know just hop onto bandwagons to pick their courses of study. My own JC class, more than half have no clear aim. So they just pick business or something at the new trendy city university. Some have reasons like, "It’s near the city and convenient." Others want to be together with their friends. Some go overseas because it sounds like there’s more prestige.

One of my classmates, is as into French stuff as I’m into Jap stuff. She actually made her way to France and got a place in an arts university there. France is a very uncommon place for Singaporeans to go to, due to the language barrier. Would I have the same level of passion and desire, to go to a new strange and unfamiliar land of complete strangers, crippling myself with study debt and mountains of administrative paperwork? It’s easy to say, "I want to go to Japan to study." But considering all factors, it’s a terribly difficult decision.

The cost is enormous. The language is alien. The culture is alien. No matter how you think you know the place from anime, the truth always shocks. Most of the stuff  I can study there, I can probably study locally too. I can even major in Japanese Studies locally. But from a realistic point of view, I’m not too sure if a degree in Japanese Studies is better than a degree in say Food Technology because I’ll probably do badly at it.

It’s true that with mastery of Japanese, you can work at the Japanese MNCs. Especially since Singaporeans already are bilingual since birth. That can also lead to working overseas, in Japan, like a Shingo or a Dannychoo. Would I be able to leave all my friends and comfort zone here in my home country behind? I think I would.

So this period of time is possibly the most important ever so far, with plenty of big decisions to make which can all massively change how our futures will turn out.

To conclude this rant, I present myself the following questions.

What do I really want in life?
To enjoy every minute of it, without having to worry about finances, being able to spend freely both money and time on my hobbies and to not hate my job too much.

Am I willing to put in effort  and sacrifice to achieve that?
It is tempting to just WoW, watch anime all day, but I think I’m pretty self-motivated.

Am I willing to take the risk of studying an expensive obscure degree in a  faraway unknown land?
Argh, I can’t decide.

Am I satisfied with a safe local environment, with little room for development but total stability?
Probably. But then I would look back forever and wonder if I could’ve done better.

Will I be changing my primary interest in the future?
I fear that I would. I would try not to, but some things are inevitable.

For those wondering what the hell are wrong with local universities, read on.

Singapore is a tiny country measuring approximately 26 x 42 kilometers wih a population of four million. It has only three Universities and all of them are very pragmatic. There are only courses that serve the economy, so you don’t get those fancy obscure degrees like how you all do in the US. The syllabus is also rigid and rather lecture based. Out of the three, the trendy one in the city is out for me because there are only business, economics and accounting courses there which I have zero interest in. Another one is a science university but is inferior to the one I have already gotten a place in. There really aren’t many choices out there, unless you go overseas. I don’t think US people would get it, since they have a really large country with a lot of universities across different states. The elite of this country ALL study overseas. Due to the lack of competition in universities here, the quality of grads range from genius to retard but a lot of them are pure average and this creates a bad name for locally educated people. I’m also concerned about the style of education here, which is totally pragmatic and spoon-feeding style.

Since studying overseas can cost up to a few hundred thousand Singapore Dollars, a normal household will not be able to afford it and so everyone guns for scholarships which are handed out by the government or private organisations to a lesser extent. These pay for everything but you are bonded to the government, meaning you have to do compulsory work for them for a few years which is very frustrating because of the lack of freedom. But the prestige and allure of having a foreign degree beats the six to eight years of bondage for most people so everyone’s competing for the scholarships.

For your information only, my school is actually ranked the top in the world for providing the most number of candidates yearly to elite universities worldwide, and was mentioned in Time magazine quite a bit. Scary but true. The bulk of those who go to the super universities are really amazing people who will go on in life to become the rulers of this country.

I decided from the start I did not fancy a life chained up, so I did not go the conventional course of setting myself up with the paper credentials, but rather went for a more intangible education path. Meaning my grades suck but I know more, since I actually bother reading up and learning about stuff even if they aren’t tested in examinations. But with this choice also comes having to pay through the roof for an overseas education since I will surely not qualify for scholarships as they view academic qualifications as first criteria and not the number of anime series watched (a couple of hundred haha).

What do I hope to achieve from posting this on Riuva? Comments from those who have walked a similar path, facing the same predicament etc. I am so unable to decide right now.


10 Responses to “Standing at the Gates of the Future”

  • First of all, uh, this is the first time I have ever read a personal blog post in my whole life. (I’m not uninterested in people in general, I just know that my time is precious *g*)

    Well, I guess everybody at our age has to ask him/herself these questions *g*

    Although I hate it, the very first question imho is how important money is to you. I feel like every single of your collection is worth more than my whole room O.o Apparently I really don’t spend any money at all because fortunately everything I like is ‘free’ (I get my books from the library, scanlations and fansubs are free if you don’t count the internet costs). If I didn’t had much money, I would be okay as long as it’s enough to have a clean bathroom in my apartment. If I had a lot of money, I would definitely spend it (on unusual and thus expensive trips to other countries, to be exact).

    There is another aspect that you haven’t taken into account but actually is important to me: I do not only want fun and money with my job, but also a certain respect. Personally, I have high respect for
    a. people who work very, very hard, which means 60+ hours per week (animators and basically everybody in the anime/manga industry) and/or
    b. people who have proven themselves to be highly responsible (doctors, managers, teachers, scientists, lawyers have to have a high sense of responsibility, otherwise they would destroy other people… the big problem is obviously that they mostly aren’t -.-)
    Since I have no intention of working more than 50 hours/week, I hope to be able to take responsibilities one day.

    Which leads me to what I am studying right now: In fact, I am part of those people who jumped on a bandwagon because back then, I didn’t know what to study, but I didn’t want to throw away my maths and physics skills. In my uni, we are so numerous that people love to make fun and despise our major (okay, we make fun of the business people as well XD). 2 years after this decision, I have come to the conclusion that – unlikely everybody else who studies this mostly for the money – this is the right thing for me.
    Just like you said: In the past, our hobbies and interests have changed pretty quickly. That’s normal for a young adult, I am the same. ^^;;; To put it bluntly, if you wouldn’t change in the next 4 years, I’d assume you’re not mature at all. I wouldn’t care how you change, but I would expect that you do it in some ways.
    I have never dreamt of becoming a mangaka or something like that, because I have always felt a ‘dream’ must be something that lasts. Have you ever noticed a manga or an anime where the protagonist has lost his interest in his dreams? One Piece, Hunter x Hunter, Naruto etc. etc. They never lose hope, and never lose interest. Especially when you lose your interest earlier than your hope, then something’s wrong…
    (In fact, I dream of becoming a housewife. Perhaps I dream of it because I know perfectly that I will never become one before turning old and wrinkly.)

    Despite all this, I still think you should go for Japan. It’s not an unrealistic dream but a future for you. I feel like your fear not to be free is bigger than your pressure to get money. If you go for Japan, it’s less likely to regret having done it than the other way round. Obviously you’ll learn that going overseas is no fun at all at the beginning, but that’s another thing.
    I also hope you will be able to get a job where you can make good use of your abilities.

    PS. Have you actually talked with friends and/or parents about that? Do you have somebody who you trust, who knows you? When I have problems with my future, I tend to ask people who know me…

  • I always tell people one thing- Just dare to dream and follow your dream.
    I guess being singaporean makes us very kiasee, and making sure we have
    a decent future is above everything, even compromising on our dream.

    Personally for me, i took a different route from everyone.

    I choose to go to an arts school, and studied Film. Nobody in their right mind
    would say that Film will bring in job stability. Everyone will says, arts no future.
    The typical response. But because i have a passion for this subject ever since
    i was in secondary school, and also the support from my parents, i went on with it.

    Who cares if i struggle to make ends meet in the future?

    As long as i get to do what i enjoy, that’s even more satisfying then a 9-5 job
    that pays extremely well, but there’s zero sense of satisfaction.

    I know it sounds far fetched and unbelievable, but it’s a gamble i want to take.
    Even the gamble has a certain degree of thrill to it.

  • Thanks for the responses!

    I rarely discuss these with my parents unless I have come up with a proper plan through research on various schools, enrolment procedures etc. My older sister is actually studying in Australia already, which is considerably cheaper than all the other countries and yet it’s already a huge financial strain on them.

    Sasa: What exactly do you study? To me, money is very very important. I have so many things I want to do, and money is the fuel that lets me do them. Sure, I can go on a budget backpacking trip but I would much rather go for a super luxurious ryokan onsen trip and throw money all around. I want to buy all the figurines and toys, a lot of techno gadgets etc. Life just wouldn’t be as fun when you aren’t loaded. But I wouldn’t sacrifice my conscience for money, that’s for sure. Teachers aren’t respected these days. It’s terrible being a teacher nowadays. Your students hit you, abuse you, the parents complain, principal applies pressure etc.

    Tsubaki: Your path is certainly unusual for Singaporeans. My case is slightly different because I know either way, nobody would be unsupportive. Unlike you who already has a fixed dream and is going for it, my problem is probably more of indecision. It’s something only I solve and I hate it that there are no save points in life haha.

  • Concerning your last comment: tj_han, you are thinking too much of gaming *g*

    I still think money might be your biggest problem in future, since I suppose you are coming from a good family that always had money. ^^;;; “I have so many things I want to do, and money is the fuel that lets me do them.” – That’s exactly I think as well… I hope to be able to make money for 11 months in order to go on a trip for 4 weeks every year ^^ (But for the case I end up poor and lonely, my parents have unconsciously well trained me in not suffer because of poverty)

    To me, it looks like it is a common asian character trait to think practically: first comes the money (or rather: the thing that makes it possible to do what you want) and then your personnality and individuality. Asians tend to think more rational about this, less intuitively and passionately. At least all my asian friends are like that, and it doesn’t surprise me.

    Oh my, I hate the “what do you study?”-question, but it was inevitable, I know *g* I’m studying econonomics and electrical engineering… it’s the best thing to do for me:
    1. Money. As an engineerer, you are nearly 100% sure to find a job even when your grades aren’t top notch (like mine -.-), especially when you are experienced with economics.
    2. Work load and freedom. It is also more likely to find a job where you won’t get fired every second and that leaves enough freedom, definitely more than other jobs at the “price range” (which means: 40 hours per week and enough holiday).
    3. Fun. Engineering doesn’t look like a fun job for everyone, but for me it is. It’s a pleasant challenge, not too difficult, not too easy. And I like most of the classes I have: I liked all the engineering classes incl. maths and physics, and I especially love machine design *hehe*; I also love macroeconomics, it’s highly interesting and pretty useful in political and philosophical discussions with friends because, well, it can’t be denied that nowadays economics have an incredible impact on what goes on in the world *g*

  • It’s better to start focusing on what you want now! Can’t be a drifter without a plan.
    If you want to support your expensive hobby, then start thinking! XD
    But all i can is whatever decision you choose in the end, stay with it all the way.
    All the best ya =D

  • Why do you want a stable job with a stable income at the expense of knowing that it’s never going to be what you want in life? With your ability you are certainly going to earn more than the DX4-5s and DX6-7s that mill around Gombak.

    A long time ago I decided that I should do what I enjoy doing, and what I would believe in. This sounds very idealistic in a fucked-up way, I know, but it’s basically the simplest explanation. I am willing to devote my life to my craft.

    After watching so many melancholic Haruhis and dissing them, you should well know by now that whether or not the path less taken is the one to choose.

    I think it is your practicality that makes you unable to decide what to do. Rather than think sensibly and avoid impractical choices, why don’t you think of supporting your impracticality with intelligent and sensible decisions throughout your life?

    Okay I think I sound very unintelligible. gg.

  • I think you already answered your own question. Find a career that interests you and pays well and you will be able to spend as much as you want on your hobbies.

    If you are good in Biology then go for it. Biology is a very expanding subject and a lot of pioneering and exciting research is being done these days in the field of biological sciences. The hottest areas of research nowadays are in the fields of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry. You should read more about the type of research being done in those two fields and that may help you decide if this the kind of thing you would enjoy doing in the future.

    Now I should point you to some practical aspects:

    1) It is obvious from your post that you want a well paid job so you can support your hobbies and live without financial trouble and I think that is wise. In the case of Biology, graduating with a bachelor’s degree (undergraduate degree) will probably lead you to a job of lab technician. If you want to improve your career prospects then you should seriously consider doing a PhD after you graduate. Most Biology graduates actually go for that path anyway. That way, you can qualify to work in one of the biological, medicinal, environmental or pharmaceutical research institutions that are spread across the world. You are even paid higher than people who have a Bachelor’s degree. I don’t know what the system in Singapore is but in most parts of the world, people studying a PhD are funded by the state and are even paid a salary so it shouldn’t cause a financial strain.

    2) If possible, try to take some interesting electives along with your major. You might be able to study Japanese language or something similar as an elective. You can also join an anime club or form one if it does not exist. That way you can keep in touch with your hobbies while studying and socialising at the same time. This will also go on you CV and will increase your employability chances. Employers don’t just want someone who knows a lot about his/her chosen subject. They want someone who has a lot of extra skills in addition to his/her main field of specialisation. The skills you learned while doing National Service also count and should also be included in your CV.

  • I totally agree with Mohammad with a few exceptions:
    a. Work experience is far, far more important than a PhD. You don’t have to think about it now, but if you discover that you will be over 30 when you finish your PhD, then something’s wrong. Doing a PhD isn’t time wasting per se, of course it depends on the situation.
    b. What I hear about biology is rather that the subject itself is pretty helpless – but like Mohammad mentioned, biochemistry and biotechnoloy are very hot. As long as you combine biology with physics, chemistry, engineering or something else and do more interdisciplinar stuff, you have good chances to get a high quality job.
    c. I highly doubt it improves your CV when you write down that you are anime addicted. *hrr* If you write a CV, I think your 2 military years can look a lot more interesting.

  • Biotech is so hot that it’s boring. Engineering FTW. Will always be needed. At least till quantam stuff sets in.

  • I think I sort of understand your pains; after all, I’m still deliberating exactly what course to major in. Your concerns are also very real; what if you lose interest inthe very hobby you thought you were passionate in?

    I guess some hard choices are in store for you. From your post, you seem to want the best of both worlds: Having ample money yet at the same time being able to pursue your own interests, whatever they may be. There are such cases, but they are few and far between. For every Bill Gates you see on the market (i.e. those who became successful/lead comfortable lives from pursuing their passion), there will always be millions out there who do not make it. Its a huge risk, and unless you’re so sure that even without the accompanied riches, you’re willing to pursue your interests (Japanese and anime and manga etc), then go for it. After all, money and riches are material wants and make that comfort zone all the more comfortable (and increasing our fear of stepping out of it). Remember, the first thing we were taught in that secondary school was to be daring enough to step out of that comfort zone.

    On the other hand, if the allure of material wants is too much, you could always focus on your career first (as what kwok says, you’ll go far), then retire early (maybe about 40?) such that you have at least 10-20 healthy years + the added financial security to pursue whatever you’ve always wanted to do. The latter might never happen, but it could be the best compromise you could work out for now, if you’re unwilling to slog in return for pursuing your dreams (which i emphasize, may not be fixed yet). Of course, when choosing this path, the degree which you are studying for must also be something you are interested in.

    Life is a constant fight between idealism and realism. I’m quite sure you know the pros and cons of either choice; you need to decide if a comfortable life (but may be boring) is preferable, or if pursuing your passions (which may entail loads of hard work and slogging) is more important.

    Which is why I find the fundemental econs assumption that human wants are unlimited to be so very brilliant.

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