Open Letter to Singaporean Graduates

By Eugene Tay

Dear graduates, you are about to learn the one lesson that school did not prepare you for: everything you have been told about success is a lie.

School used to be an institution that prepared you for life. Education used to be an asset that differentiated you from the rest of the serfs. Unfortunately, standards have dropped to appease the demands of the masses. Teachers have to be sensitive to your fragile feelings – don’t mark with a red cross, don’t tell a child he is wrong, don’t give out grades or a child may feel inferior.

Positive reinforcement they call it.

You don’t really get the opportunity to learn from a mistake because, just like our constituencies, the boundaries are redrawn to accommodate your level of suck. Everyone becomes a winner! Parents and teachers have a duty to make you succeed at every turn. They readjust the bars so that you feel, despite your shortcomings, that you are awesome. They give you formulas and questions prior to exams to help you ace them. Motivational speakers get paid by the thousands to get you to yell positive slogans and make you feel that you – yes, you – are a genius too.

You are the emperor and everyone has been applauding your new robe. You are feeling mighty proud of yourself, as well you should, for completing two decades of education. You did relatively well by your parents and you earned yourself a degree. Congratulations. You have unlocked an achievement. Tutorial mode complete, load map for game proper.

Only now you find yourself in hardcore mode. There are no auto-save points and the epic gear that you grinded so hard for appears to be useless.

You are upset. You feel cheated. You blame yourself for not being good enough. Here’s the good news: It’s not your fault.

The bad news: You can’t rage quit this game.

Your parents probably warned you about “becoming that roadsweeper if you don’t pass your exams”. They might have also mentioned that if you “study hard, get good grades, you can get a high paying job.”

You grew up working towards that promise.

That Study-Hard-Get-Good-Pay philosophy may have been true in your parents’ generation, but what we have now is a society filled with degree wielding graduates who believe that they are special – the main lead in the blockbuster action movie of life. In a recent poll by, 88% of fresh grads say that they expect a starting pay of $4000 at the very least.

What you will soon find out is that your name doesn’t appear anywhere on the credit roll till the last guy’s left the theatre. You are Graduate #5722.

YOU are the new norm and your imperial robe is an illusion.

I have been there, done that, got the t-shirt; and I’m going to help you realign your expectations to a more realistic level.

Here are some quick facts about the job market:

• Employers are searching for good staff. HR companies earn money just by doing that.

• Employers are willing to pay four grand for anyone who can perform the task better than the average Joe.

• A degree only indicates that you have knowledge of the theory and practices in the industry you are applying for. It is a first impression, not a passport.

• Most employers don’t believe what you write on your CV anyway.

• Only you think you are special. We have seen a hundred other equally special people before you stepped in. Why hire you?

A Realist’s Guide to Earning Four Grand a Month

1. Do you have a strong portfolio that shows that you can actually DO what you say you can?

I hear that even MNCs are now looking for candidates with strong portfolios and relevant work experience. When I say relevant, I don’t mean “people skills” you picked up from your part-time job that you left after a week, cos’ the hours were long and the pay was shit. I’m talking about actually knowing how to do the job you applied for. Most graduates are book smart but are unable to perform the tasks they say they can. Bosses don’t have the patience to let you learn on the job. Not with a four-thousand-dollar paycheck, at least.

The only place that still favours a certificate over personality is the civil service industry. You can just about get a decent post and promotion opportunities solely with your cert. Even that is slowly changing I hear.

2. Are you in the finance industry?

“But my friend makes $5,000 a month.”

I hear this a lot. Most of these friends are in the banking or social escort industry. Not many jobs have those ridiculous payouts. I was told that my cousin made 5k as an IT diploma holder back in the 90s. When I graduated in 2000 with the same diploma from the same poly, my starting pay was $900. After I got my degree? $1,200. And I suspect it has more to do with my three years of working experience than my certificate from “one of the world’s top 5 tech universities”.

If it’s money you want, look for an industry that can actually pay you that amount without batting an eyelid. English majors and Theatre students? I hear Starbucks is hiring.

3. Do you know how to make money?

It’s a tough question to answer. Most graduates know little to nothing about financial literacy. If your game plan to succeed in life is to get a good job and save money, you’re in trouble. No matter how much you make, know that you will never have enough. Prices will always rise. The government will always make unpopular decisions. Someone else is always to blame.

Suck it up and deal with it. Change yourself or spearhead the change you want to see in society. Are you going to sit around and gripe that there are no jobs out there that pay you what you want, or will you take a job anyway and find ways to supplement your desired income? Potential side income sources could include multiple jobs, smart investments, freelance projects, and so on.

4. Are you well-connected to influential people?

Singaporeans love to compare, and when we do, we always get disappointed. We lament the fact that the majority of us weren’t born with golden spoons in our mouth. We work relatively hard to get to where we are today and all of a sudden we feel like the world owes us success. It doesn’t work that way. Hard Work and Good Grades, unfortunately, are not the key ingredients.

It helps greatly to have someone you know pulling strings for you. Sometimes people get the job they want through direct recommendation from an influential contact. Start working on your network and get to know people that matter. Your grades, though important, will not be as crucial as your charisma and people skill.

5. Do you have other skills besides memorizing textbooks?

Think of yourself in Liam Neeson’s position in the movie Taken. What will you tell the kidnappers? I have an excellent set of ‘A’ level results that would make me a nightmare for people like you? If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it.

Bosses may be awed by your results at the start, but you will need to start developing real skills, fast, if you want to advance in your career or even be looked at more favourably than Graduate #5721. Key skills that you definitely want to boost stats for are: People Management, Selling, Problem Solving, Time Management, Ability to Adapt, and Financial Planning. In some specific industries, Taiji, Wayang, and Ass-kissing are core skill sets.

The intern I hired was able to film and edit video, build websites, write content, plan workshops, handle clients, organize talks, and was willing to do overtime. I converted her to full time, paid her as well as I could afford and settled the bill for her part-time degree course.

If you want that salary, then give your bosses the reason to want you on their team. Sometimes you’ve got to give before you can receive.

6. Are you a douchebag?

No matter how smart you are, no matter how impressive your scores are, and no matter how prestigious your uni is, it cannot replace bad manners and poor behaviour. Your cert makes for a positive first impression, but the rest is up to you. If you spent the last 20 years min-maxing your stats, then you might want to consider a character reboot. The world at large doesn’t take kindly to douchebaggery behaviour. The girls who liked assholes when you were 16 outgrew that phase when they hit 21. It’s time you grow up too.

It pays to be a nice person when you are starting out. Bosses can tell if you are going to be a cancer in their organization. Try being a nice person instead of just pretending to be one. You might even find people more willing to help you get to where you want to be.

7. Do you think that you can make more money by being your own boss?

You read about young successful bosses and how that is so much cooler than working for The Man. Follow your dreams, they say. Don’t let people tell you that you can’t, they say. If you follow your heart, the money will roll in, they say.

If you think that starting a cafĂ© is your answer to a four thousand a month salary, then you’re either the biggest idiot or the world’s luckiest business person.

Being your own boss is not any better than being a paid employee. They are different paths in life and cannot be compared fairly. It’s like saying watching a movie is better than watching a play. Not everyone is cut out to be a businessperson. Don’t let this dissuade you though. Try it. There’s a lot you can learn about yourself and life when you run your own business.

Unless you have deep pockets or you’re willing to survive on passion and fresh air, starting business as a fresh grad with little experience is a very risky venture. You might want to work for a company to learn the ropes and build some contacts before starting off on your own. If you are a valued employee of the company, the boss might even give you his blessings and invest in you.

And speaking of passion…

Passion is great. It gets me out of bed every morning to do the job that doesn’t pay me nearly as much as I would like, but brings me joy that’s worth more than money can buy.

Sure, generally passion doesn’t pay well – not at the beginning at least. There are jobs that pay you less than your desired amount BUT they make up for it in other ways. For example, jobs that pay well also expect more out of you. Be prepared to spend a lot of time in the office. It is up to you to find what’s important to you: a positive environment, bosses and colleagues you can get along with, flexible timing, a good support system, or job prospects. All these qualities, if you had to quantify them with a monetary value, could be worth more than four thousand dollars.

Point is, there is a money-to-passion balance that you must strike. You can go to the extremes, but that just burns you out. Think of it as courtship: the extremes would be a good-looking partner with lousy personality, or a kind-hearted loving soul with a face only their mother would tolerate. Chances are, unless you’re going for a quick buck, you would want someone in the middle.

Finally, as my parting advice to you: Challenge limitations, accept failure.

If you have to compare yourself with somebody, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. It. Is. Ok. To. Fail. Failure is not a dirty word. Have you ever played a game and aced it on the first try? Failure makes a better teacher than Success.

This article was first published over at Monsters Under The Bed on 7 March 2015. It is reproduced with permission.


“If you don’t study hard you will be cutting grass like this man here!!”

The Things I’m F***ing Good At Isn’t In My L1R5

Its You … Not Your Degree That Matters