Overseas Singaporeans - The Design Engineer

Posted: October 5, 2009 by fievel in Labels: , ,

My promised interview series of Overseas-Singaporeans has finally gotten off to a start. While he is more than willing to share with us his experiences, he has chosen to remain anonymous and I respect his decision. Please be assured on my good mousey name and faith, for what it's worth, that he is not a fictitious character. As a background, our friend here left Singapore because of educational opportunities, where he was, I guess, deemed not good enough to obtain his preferred choice to read Electrical Engineering in NTU. He has since gone on to complete a Bachelor's degree, followed by a Master's degree in an Ivy League university after leaving Singapore.

Name: The Design Engineer
Age: 34
Location: Arizona
Length of stay: 11 years
Occupation: Engineer

fievel: How and when did you end up here? Was it planned or did it just happen to you?

Quite a long story. It was definitely not planned. I was serving my NS back then, and my brother was already in the States for a few years. He kept encouraging me (and also advising my parents to let me) to go over. I don't think I have much opinion about it back then, probably just going with the flow and thinking that I have to get a degree. I ended up applying to NTU and a few other Universities in the States.

NTU then offered me a placement in Mechanical Engineering, when my first and only choice was Electrical Engineering. Since I hold a diploma in Mechatronic (mechanical-electrical) Engineering, I had hoped that I can pick the area that I am most interested in. Well, I (and my parents) was hoping to stay in Singapore, hence I asked the admission office if I can appeal the decision. Long story short, they said no without much explanation citing policy and what's not, I ended up considering the offers I had from US (I actually forgot if this is the main reason I started applying overseas or I just did it anyway because of my brother's influence). The irony is after I wrote to decline NTU's offer of admission, they actually called to ask me why and then proceed to tell me I can switch to EE if I wanted to.

So that's how it all started. Once I got used to the lifestyle, I really enjoyed my time here in the States. I decided to carry on for a Master's degree, and eventually, decided to find a job in the States. Hence, here I am still!

fievel: Has it been difficult for you to adapt to the new environment? Do you feel at home in this new place? What were the major difficulties you faced along the way?

It is definitely a challenge, going to a new place all by myself and not knowing anyone there. The biggest change really was going from living with your parents to being alone, having to take care of every aspect of your own life. The culture and system were certainly different, but I guess I went in with an open mind and never really has issue there. The public transport system is the hardest thing to get used to, I missed my bus couple times and had to walked home (~6 miles) because I missed the last one @ 6pm! Life is definitely a lot easier when I got my car a year later.

Once I got to know a few close friends, and they helped me figured out the system, the experience had been good. I did not feel at home at first, but the longer I stay in the States, the more I feel that this is my home. I figure that it would be even more so when I eventually "settle" and get a house. Sadly, I think I only view Singapore as a home because my parents and some of my very close friends are still there. Beyond that, I really don't miss anything.

fievel: Obviously, for some reasons, you've decided to stay on where you are up till now. What is it that makes you stay, and not return to Singapore? (Is it career, lifestyle, weather, or just the heck of it)

I think it is mostly for career and lifestyle. If I think farther, it is probably for the future too.

On the career side, I doubt I can find a similar job function and work environment in Singapore. I work as a design engineer, and from the feedback I get from friends and family back home, the prospect is not that great. In fact, most of my engineering friends had long switched to sales and banking sectors. I think I get a lot of freedom here, to do my job in the way I want, so long as the end result is achieved. It is my perception that this is hard to do in Singapore.

Moving on to lifestyle, I think mainly because I am not really a city person. It is really just personal preference. To me, it is easier to get to places for a short vacation in the States, the land is vast hence there is a lot you can do. The pace is slower and more relaxing, I can afford big ticket items like a house and a car easier. I feel like I can afford a easier life and yet still with more spending power than I would have if I were back in Singapore.

Lastly if I wanted to start a family, I think there is also more advantage for the kids to be an American Citizen. I always feel that in Singapore, you cannot afford to really pursue what you want since there is a preferred path to our education system. I am not sure what kind of streaming they have now, but you are branded early as success or failure. While it is important to be competitive, I always feel that if your skill set does not lie in the mainstream (demand), you are pretty much screwed in Singapore.

fievel:  This question is on career and education. Please tell us if you have exceeded your potential compared to what you would have thought possible in Singapore? Or, can you tell us a little bit about your career and how leaving Singapore made the difference?

I guess I touched a little with my reply above, but I will go into more details here. To be honest, I think I would never had achieved what I had if I stayed in Singapore. I never really liked the education in Singapore, I often felt uninspired and it's difficult to motivate myself. Obviously there are many who excel in the system, I don't want to blame the system entirely, but I just feel that the system is just not flexible enough to develop the potential based on different type of personalities. I went to JC for a year, and I did so badly that I had to be retained. After some soul-searching, I felt that I have good analytical skills and decided to enrol in an engineering course in Polytechnic. This should also mean less route-learning and some exposure to hands-on (industrial training, final year project etc.) which I should be interested in. Turned out that this the variation I needed, and I did reasonably well there. This is really a turning point in my life and I learned then that you really have to be doing things you are interested in to do well.

After coming over to the States, I also found that there are people who are very passionate about what they are doing, be it in engineering, marketing, social works, health care, music; they are truely pursuing their dreams and not driven by where the money is (Well I guess if you work in Wall St, you are driven by money :) ).

fievel: If you were to come back to Singapore, what changes would you like to see in Singapore?

This is a tough question, especially since I am not paid millions to solve the problem :)

Personally, I feel that with Singapore, we have a society first, and then we mold the people to fit into it, unless you are among the rich and powerful. I don't want to be molded hence I really cannot envision myself coming back. In my opinion, the Govt feels that Singapore has to function in a certain way for the nation to prosper and progress, and it is sometimes hard to do otherwise based on the size and limitation she is facing. I truly cannot see anything to change.

At the back of my mind, I am always worried about my parents since I am never around them. It is a tough choice for me too, but it really signifies how much I don't want to come back, plus I really think that I do not want to start a family in Singapore, going through what I had gone through again. If I have kids, I'd like to give them the freedom of choice.

To me, it is more likely that I have to change my expectations and mindset to be back. It is strange, but I am no longer comfortable living in the place that I grew up in.

fievel: What advice would you give to a fellow Singaporean in general, if he or she wants to venture out of the country?

Keep an open mind, I have seen many Asians here but was not open to changing their mindset and mentality. As a result, it is very difficult to enjoy their time overseas. There are always 2 sides to a coin, it should not stop us from enjoying the good things overseas while keeping our good Singapore values.

fievel: That's all the questions there is....thank you for your time!


  1. That's a cool story. Thanks for sharing! Pretty much matches many of my experiences and feelings I have developed here in the US.

    His background in Singapore was, however, very different from my own. This reinforces my view that our shared experiences here in the US are a genuine facet of the overall foreign student experience here.

  1. Fievel says:

    I hope you can stay there and not have to come back...not everyone will regret it, but somehow I think you definitely will.

  1. For various reasons, it looks like my life is slowly tilting back toward Singapore again ... we'll see ...