The french con­nec­tion

The Peak (Singapore) - - The Hot Seat -

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.”


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.”

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