The french connection
If it weren’t for former Economic Development Board (EDB) chairman Philip Yeo, Chong’s career might have taken a different route. You see, it was Yeo who urged Chong, an EDB scholar, to further his studies in France, instead of the UK or the US.
“He was chairing the scholarship panel and saw that I had studied the French language, so he asked if I wanted to go there,” recalls Chong, who picked up French during his Raffles Institution years. “He said it was romantic and that I’d enjoy it.”
Chong would go on to spend a decade studying and working in France, the latter as part of an EDB unit to connect Singapore businesses to French interests. Here are his four takeaways.
Unlike his peers who had opted for the UK or the US and gained direct entry into a university, Chong spent two years in preparatory school before being admitted into one of France’s elite engineering institutes. “You’d literally spend one month just taking the national exams, which are very similar to China’s gaokao. There were both written and oral tests, even for maths – and the questions did not even have numbers!” he recalls with a chuckle.
“I didn’t know about this gruelling process before I left. Honestly, many years later, I still have nightmares about failing an exam. Some days were depressing. If I had known, I might have had second thoughts. Then again, you cannot live life twice. You must have a certain level of resilience.”
There is no easy way out. “My friends who studied in the UK or the US were allowed the use of a dictionary, because English wasn’t their first language,” Chong says. “In France, there’s no concession. You’re known only by an index number.”
DON’T REST ON YOUR LAURELS
Complacency has no place in a fast-moving world. In other words, lead or be led. “In Singapore, we feel very privileged – even entitled. I thought my maths was good, until I went to France,” he says. “In the past, Europe was referred to as the Old World. But look at it today. It’s certainly not lagging. China was known as the sleeping giant, but it’s now a leader in so many ways. We risk being the sleeping dwarf if we don’t catch up.”
If there’s one thing Singaporeans can learn from the French, it is to not take life so seriously. “I guess that’s the whole point, right?” Chong says. “I know from the outside, it looks like a big mess all the time, and nothing works. There’s order in chaos, and how do you work in chaos?
“People need a balance between being structured and prescriptive, versus laissezfaire, and somehow get the results too. That’s why the French will have that one-up in design. They challenge rules and are open-minded about what works and what doesn’t. They are more daring.”