Life : Feb 2002 to Aug 2003

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University Studies in Australia

Straight away after finishing my National Service, I left for Sydney, Australia for my University studies on 27th February. I managed to get a place in the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney. My decision to go to study in Australia was a very last minute decision. In fact, for years I had wanted to go to the United States to study. It was only less than a year before my National Service finished that my father asked me to consider Australia.

I never really considered studying in Australia before because I have always thought the standard of studies there was very low – and still do. Furthermore, I had studied before in Australia and so didn’t really want to go back there again. In fact, I’ve been to Australia so many times that going there again didn’t greatly interest me. Therefore, early on during my 2.5 years of National Service, I took my SATs 1 test, thinking that I would be going to the US to study. I also decided that I wanted to go to Wheaton College. Wheaton was/is known as the best evangelical College in the US and therefore I applied for a place there and managed to get in. I looked forward to studying all that I was interested in – Development, Politics…etc – from a Christian and biblical point of view. However, in the end I decided to go to UNSW in Sydney instead.

The main reason why I decided not to attend Wheaton was because it was so much more expensive than if I were to study in Sydney. First of all, the school fees for studying in America is so much more than in Australia. Not only was the American dollar so much stronger and thus the fees itself per year higher than in Australia, but I would be part of a scheme in Australia that resulted in me paying pittance for my education there – much, much less than what International Students would pay there, and even less than what I would pay if I were to study in Singapore! Furthermore, my father has an apartment right next to the University of New South Wales – this was where my sister stayed. I couldn’t justify me asking my father to send me to the States to study, eventhough he gladly said he would. He told me to think about trying Australia because he thought the undergraduate education wouldn’t be much of a difference from the undergraduate education in US – and it would be shorter too, at least if I didn’t go for my honors year. He advised me to go and pursue my postgraduate studies in America if I wanted to, rather than doing my undergraduate there. But he was more than willing to send me to the States if I wanted to for my undergraduate studies. In the end, my conscience wouldn’t allow me to spend so much money just on getting a degree in America.

By that time, I was getting more interested in issues of poverty. I wanted to study politics and development for the purpose of wanting to commit my life to help the poor in future. I was affected by the fact that so many people are dying in the world, while so many Christians and people living in the developed world have it so well off. It would be so hypocritical and ridiculous for me to spend about S$150,000 – S$200,000 on an education in America so that I can be better qualified to work in say an NGO to help the poor. That amount of money is a lot and if I were to just give it to the poor, many lives would be saved. So it was a pretty straight forward decision for me to study in Australia and I eventually wrote this reply letter to Wheaton College:

Dear —-, hi. Thank you for your email and sorry for this late reply. As much as I want to study in Wheaton (and I really do!) I have decided after much consideration that I would not like to burden my parents with the cost of the education eventhough they could afford it and are very willing to send me.

Knowing so much poverty exists in this world makes me think twice about how I want to spend my own money and that of my parents. Being a Christian and one that wants to view my passions (Development and Politics) from a Christian point of view, I would have loved to attend Wheaton as I consider it the best Christian university in the world. However, I guess I also have to be faithful to my own principles. My love for International Development and International Politics/Relations stem from my heart of compassion for the poor and oppressed – which I believe is God’s heart too. It is by God’s grace that I was born in the country of Singapore (a relatively well-off and developed nation) and live in a middle-class family. I don’t want to take this for granted knowing that billions of people around the world live in poverty. I want to be a good steward of the God’s gifts and not use money in an unnecessary and wasteful way.

It is not that I consider spending on the education at Wheaton wasteful, but I cannot justify spending US$100,000 of my family’s money just for my own education. Again, it is the poverty in the third-world that comes to my mind. US$100,000 for my education is just too much and I’m not worth it. I think nobody ought to spend that much when thousands die each day because of starvation.

Therefore, sticking to my principles necessitates that I should not accept the offer. It is not only for me that I do this, but for every poor person out there. I just cannot get them out of my head. It is my small little sacrifice for them. It is a symbolic stand. It is my act of solidarity with them.

Please do not misunderstand this email. I am very much delighted to have been accepted to Wheaton College. I consider it a real honour to be selected. And I wish I could have received the quality education I would get if I were to study there. Believe me, I’m one of the biggest believers in education and the power of education to shape minds and lives. I know that any university I eventually go to will not be as good and challenging as Wheaton College for my Christian mind, but I also know that one’s University education is not everything in life – definitely not, when people cannot even afford to live.

When I applied to Wheaton College, money wasn’t that important to me. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was. But now, things are different. A knowledge of what goes on in the world around us changes our perspective of things and life. That’s the power of ideas, knowledge and education (be it informal or formal).

Thanks anyway and I wish Wheaton College all the best. May it continue to mould many more godly people and shape the thinking of young lives in a godly way.

In UNSW, I studied for a Bachelor of Arts, which took 3 years. 4 years for honors – though I decided not to pursue that. Due to my Polytechnic studies, I managed to get almost half a year of credit. That meant I would need to do 2.5 years of study and a little bit more only for my degree. As of the time of this writing (early 2004), I’ve done 1.5 years of study (and that little bit more – one general education subject). I’ve studied subjects from three main subject areas: Politics, Development and Spanish and Latin American Studies. As I still have one year left to study, I haven’t finalized my major yet. But most likely I’ll be doing a double major in Politics and Development.

My last semester of study in UNSW I’ve taken so far was the first semester of 2003 – which would have made it my 3 semester (1.5 years) of study in all. Then, I decided to take a one year break from July 2003 till June 2004. My plan was to go on an AIESEC exchange to Colombia (in South America, for the ignorant ones!) for the one year. I would be working in a school and teaching English for the year. At the same time, I would be immersing myself in the culture of Colombia and improving my Spanish. The main reason for this one year work cum study/practice Spanish break in Colombia was basically to improve my Spanish as I had applied to study my last year (remember, I have one year left of studies) as an exchange student in a University in Chile from July 2004 to June 2005. I wanted to improve my Spanish as I would be studying everything in Spanish in Chile. Thus my Spanish language skills had to be as good as the other students! Colombia was one of my favourite Latin American countries since a few years back. It was probably the most unique one – being probably the most violent and dangerous country to be in. Colombia was thus the place for me to go. I could learn Spanish there and experience life in a Third World country and also be involved in some humanitarian work.

So that was my plan as of mid-2003. Things did change a bit eventually but I’ll focus on what happened in the next section. For now, I’d like to describe my experience in Sydney for the 1.5 years I was there.

Firstly, overall I didn’t exactly like my life in Australia. Put simply, it wasn’t challenging enough. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to spend my last year as an exchange student someone else rather than in Australia. I also decided not to do my 4th year honors as I couldn’t bear to stay one more year in Australia! I wanted a different experience and not stay on in Australia – a place I was getting bored of.

I would like to say the subjects I took there were pretty easy. That may be true in a way. Of course I didn’t expect things to be as hard work as say attending a top University like Harvard or whatever. After all, UNSW isn’t exactly a top University in terms of world standards. I think it’s one of the top 2 or 3 Universities in Australia, but then again, I don’t consider the standards of Australian Universities that high. Furthermore, eventhough my University would probably be the best in Australia for Engineering, it probably wasn’t that great in the Humanities and Social Science subjects I took. Having said that, I sat under some very good lecturers/tutors. In a way, I shouldn’t complain it was too easy. I think I did put in a lot of hard work and that’s why I did well and thought it was probably a bit too easy. But then again, who wants it to be harder – that only means one would do worse!

Maybe I disliked the studies there so much because I’m very independent in my studying. Since I was 16-17, I read a lot on my own and the things that shaped my life and thinking most were from all that I’ve read and discussed with my Internet friends. It was not formal studies that helped me learn much. Rather, it was my own reading and studying and pursuing things I’m interested in. During my 1.5 years, I was interested in a lot of stuff. I’m talking about academic interests – to do with politics and development and theology…etc. And for those interests, I spent my free time pursuing them and reading up on them. There is no doubt I learnt something in all the lectures and tutorials I’ve attended. But I’ve also spent a lot of time learning stuff I wouldn’t want to learn if it were not for the fact that I had to do so for a particular subject.

My point is that I think ultimately attending a University is mostly about getting paper qualification. Give me 3 to 4 years of independent study by myself and I would learn so much more than I would if I were doing formal studies in a University. That’s because I would study stuff that interested me and related to my life and future and interests, while not wasting time on stuff that would be unimportant. I believe there is NOTHING one can’t study by oneself that he/she would have done through University. That’s because there are books to read, journals to read and people to discuss stuff through the Internet. Going to a University only results in one getting a paper certificate. No doubt the student will learn something and will be forced to study. In that sense, going to University will discipline one to study. But for me, I’m already disciplined enough. Other benefits of going to a University that one can’t get from independent study are that one can get to know other people and network with others of similar interest – which may be of great benefit in the future. Also, if one is under a great world-renown teacher and doing serious postgraduate, research, doctoral studies, then such an experience and the challenge to be under such a teacher will of course not be gotten through independent studies. But to learn what one normally learns in most undergraduate studies, it’s not really necessary to attend a University. (Of course if one were to study something to do with science or engineering which requires more practical work and equipment that only a University would have, then there’s no other way but to attend a University).

The way most of my subjects were graded was good for me. Most of Development and Politics subjects required me to do a mixture of one or two easy tests, one or two presentations and always usually one (sometimes two) essays. The tests were easy – as it was based on lectures. For a person like me well trained in rote learning and memorization in the Singapore education system, it was a breeze. The presentation was pretty easy too. The bulk of one’s marks was based on the essay – usually 1,500 to 2,500 words. I simply loved to do essays (yup, crazy me!) and would prepare it way in advance, reading many books on the topic. I would usually exceed the word limit by 1,000 words or more – most lecturers are cool about that. They know I’ve put heaps of effort in the paper and thus wouldn’t mind the extra bit of reading. I thrived on essays because I think that’s where the real learning comes from. Not through going to lectures and listening to what the lecturer said, but through reading your own books and getting familiar with the topic and then arguing a point once you’ve been more or less familiarized with the topic. In fact, while the first session I was a very good student and attended almost all lectures and read the readings, I would hardly do the reading and didn’t attend many lectures in the 2nd and 3rd session of my University. And it wasn’t that necessary because most of the marks were based on one’s essay and if there was a presentation or assignment, this would only involve maybe one or two weeks of lectures or readings – and thus there was no need to attend all the lectures. As for class participation marks, I’ve found out it’s easy to participate in class without attending lectures or doing your readings. After all, most people don’t do their readings or attend lectures. It’s still possible to bullshit one’s way in front of the class and make it seem as though you know your stuff. That’s what most people do anyway.

My experience in the University was also affected by the different culture in Australia. The White Australians would generally not study as hard as the Asians. (By the way, I hardly got to know any Asians in most of my tutorial classes because Asians do NOT study Arts/Social Sciences. They are mostly doing Science, Engineering or Commerce). One major reason is that the White Australians are more independent – coming from a more individualistic Western culture than the Asian one. That means, a lot of these people work part-time when they have time. Thus, in my faculty of Arts, since most students usually have about 12 hours (4 subjects x 3 hours) of study per week, they will work a lot of the other time. That means they study very little – I can tell a lot of them don’t put in a lot of work, at least in my faculty. It’s thus hard to get to know my White Australian friends in my faculty well because they are too busy working during their free time! That meant I hung around a lot with my Singaporean and other Asian friends. And most of them, who didn’t study stuff I was really interested in, didn’t really understand me. I was too idealistic and radical for them in what I believed and wanted to do in my life. Most were just concerned about getting a degree and having a good job and a good pay. That was very far from my mind.

Anyway, I was involved in some extra-curricular activities. I was part of the Resistance group for a while. This was the youth wing of the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia. I attended a Socialist conference within the first month of my arrival in Sydney. I was involved in other of their activities. Needless to say, hardly any (but one) of my Singaporean friends would be interested in this kind of stuff. I also tried to get involved in the Church group there. A lot of my Singaporean friends were part of one particular Church group that was quite popular among international Asian students. Throughout my 1.5 years in Sydney I was never really settled in any one church/Christian group. With a friend, I started a World Vision club in my University – associated with World Vision, of course. I was quite heavily involved in this during my 3rd and last session in UNSW. I often stood outside the library and near a booth giving out pamphlets and information promoting our little group and raising money for World Vision. I also organized a BBQ that raised quite a few hundred dollars for the 40 hour famine cause of World Vision. If there’s anything I miss of UNSW, I have to say it’s not being able to be more involved in the growth of this group. It was probably one of the most meaningful ways I had spent my time in Sydney. Lastly, the only other thing worth mentioning is that in July 2002, I was involved with some Singaporeans in the Remaking Singapore committee in our University. I was involved in editing (along with another Singaporean) the report which was eventually handed to the Remaking Singapore Committee back home. I think we were one of the only overseas Universities that handed in the report. I wished the small little group of Singaporeans that was involved would have been able to meet more often but I think due to the examinations, we didn’t meet that much at all. In the end, I thought we could have handed in a better report, but then again, considering the time we spent on it and the fact we were probably the only overseas University to hand in our report, I guess what we did was pretty good already. I wished too that the Singaporeans in my University would be more involved in this kind of thing. But many couldn’t be bothered by politics. Concerning the Singaporean group there, I talked to a lot of people about it and also some of the leaders there and mentioned my frustration that the group was basically a social club. It organized social events but never did more than that. Most people I talked to agreed with me and wished that the Singapore group would organize more serious events – like gathering Singaporeans to discuss serious political issues or involving them in humanitarian or charitable work, rather than just organizing Ski trips or BBQs or disco parties. But that’s reality. Most Singaporeans are not interested in anything else but fun. However, I saw the Singaporean group as having a great influence upon Singaporeans and there was a great opportunity, I thought and still do think, for the group to play a part in changing the mindsets of Singaporeans there. But anyway…

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