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Philemon CHAN FS2014-15, City University of Hong Kong | to Singapore

“You seem to have lost a lot of weight! Was the studying environment overseas very stressful for you?” spoken by my Korean friend when we managed to catch up for a while on Facetime this late afternoon. It was more than a year since we last met each other face-to-face. He used to be the exchange student sharing the dormitory with me on campus. We were close so I assumed his reaction out of nothing but shocked to be a relying reference point of this. And true, he was one of the many who pointed out the mystery of me slimming down after my exchange program at the National University of Singapore (NUS), including my parents and relatives.


Applying for the Student Exchange Program (SEP) was never a pop-up thought out of a sudden. I have always hoped to have a taste of how it is like studying in a university where students enjoy engaging into academic discussions and are propelled to give the best out of learning by dreams and interests. When I finalized my university choices in my application, I consulted enough, including my professors and relatives, and considered thoroughly about the relevance of the courses that are offered by the hosting universities to my course of study, I eventually prioritized NUS over several equally tempting choices, including the University of British Columbia.


Since the NUS School of Economics and the NUS Business School are highly-renowned not only in Asia but also in the international academia, I was quite confident with the quality of the education provided. I believed that was one of the major reasons for my choice.

Exposing oneself to challenges and uncertainties, learning to cope with the unexpected environment independently, stepping out of our comfort zones and diving into others’ cultures are clichés that the exchange coordinators acknowledge from SEP participants. Undoubtedly, these are crucial elements constituting a note-worthy SEP experience. However, I wanted more. I wanted to be a signature difference from the crowd. I remembered myself speaking up in the interviews, saying, “I wanted to observe for myself the differences between Hong Kong and Singapore so as to bring back for my peers and the society, equipping us to better gear up for the upcoming competitions across the ocean and creating a healthy breeding platform for future policies and improvements as an ultimate benefits to Hong Kong”. Huge and heavy, but I believe I have accomplished part of it.


I adapted to the Singaporean way of living quite quickly as Asian countries do share similar values and rituals. A metropolitan city, small but rapidly evolving. It is more or less like where I came from. I spent most of my time making friends and creating strongly bonded friendships, in NUS during classes and extra-curricular activities, such as residence gatherings and the NUSChoir. Luckily, I met some friends in church which has further broadened my understanding of the country other than knowing those elites from university. From my observation in class and interactions with friends, I have discovered that most of the Singaporean youngsters truly enjoy learning about what they are studying. They try their very best to master their knowledge and understand most of it because there is a huge part of them enjoy being nurtured with the philosophies of their field of study. You can always tell the same when their eyes start blinking, tones start rising and when they carry a smile discussing their academic learning even though we are all stressed about exams and the “bell curve” grading mechanism. However, it is a pity to say that I seldom see my Hong Kong peers’ shining eyes and blinking eyelids when it comes to academic discussions. They are there only when we come across with topics in relation to salary, prosperity and consumerism. We are too comfortable getting things done under given constraints and expectations. But who we are? We do not have to live upon others’ expectations, right? I definitely perceive it is time that our younger generations had a refreshed mindset about university education, starting to love what they learn, if our city is aiming at greater innovations, lifestyle and academic contributions like what has happened to the stronger powers in the globe.


I appreciate the opportunity to learn from my professors in NUS, they are intelligent and nurturing. I am most inspired and entertained by the guest session that they scheduled in class. Their dense connection in the fields provided me room for career planning, it was brilliant hearing stories from elites who are CEOs and Managing Directors of big brands, for example, DBS, FujiXerox and Rodamas Group etc. I was deeply impressed by the speaker from Marco Polo Marine. He walked into the seminar room at 8 o’clock in the morning with a cheerfully amiable smile, apologizing for his poorly dressed attire with a polo-shirt in grey, an ordinary sneaker and an authentic blue jeans, with a cup of coffee in his right hand. We were slightly surprised as we thought we were to having a sophisticated middle-aged elite as our guest lecturer that day. His young face and his presentable character caught most of our attention and faded our yawns in that energetically sunny morning. In the speech he gave, he introduced to us his daily work and problems that he faced in the years working as a CEO since his father’s retirement. I couldn’t imagine that he still reserves time to visit docks to check out the ships, to ensure the company’s strategies are well performed in the field and to motivate his employees. That explained his apology for his poor attire that day. As I always perceived CEOs as the ultimate power in a company who meets business partners for opportunities frequently and comes out with strategic planning in a large room on a wooden desk which was different from what I learnt from him. There is one thing I am sure about after attending his lecture – there is no perfect formula for a successful CEO, it’s truly your vision and the working atmosphere you created that empowers your company to be special!


Moreover, I liked how the professor delivered the “Strategic Management” class other than providing us precious lectures meeting the guest lecturers. She prepared us with case study materials before class and required us to finish up the readings beforehand, including confidential company information which were approved by the company under discussion. The materials reported real difficulties which were faced by the companies, she would normally lead us through intense discussion having us to provide points of views, analysis and possible solutions to rectify the problems. After that, the guest speakers would take over the discussion and share how and what they did to alleviate the problems in the past as well as going into the pros and cons of our suggestions. I fancy the experience as it allowed us direct conversation with the CEOs and to have our thoughts challenged as potential analysts helping the companies. I have developed a greater exposure to help building a more forward-minded character so that I can be an early bird catching opportunities when they arrive!


Apart from knowing local friends and learning in class, there were more back in my accommodation. I was given a 4-bedroom suite with three other “flatmates”, a Jewish-American, a Chinese-American and finally a Korean-Dutch. We had a lot to compromise and to learn from one another especially we differ in various, ranging from hobbies, personal hygiene (especially there was one who liked drying his underwear on our sofa in our living room) and political standpoints etc. Our differences in living habits was the first that we had to overcome. They enjoy hosting guests at our place late at night, drinking and chatting happily. It’s their way to socialize with people after a long day in class. However, I sometimes found it irritating as I had a few 8am and 10am classes on weekdays. They were understanding but the most challenging was me trying to hold my temper asking them to lower their voices. Since I was annoyed easily when loud laughs pull me out of my dream. I tried not to be rude as I like befriending with them. So I learned to remind them with ease when they became too loud and say “goodnight” before I sleep, finger-crossing that the “goodnight” shall act as a tag line for them to lower their voices. That was how things went smooth under appropriate ways to compromise.


Furthermore, I recognized there was a time the Jewish-American and I engaged into a discussion about the divergences between the Chinese and American political system. We pin-pointed a lot on liberty, communism and even on the values of family and friendships coming after the system. We had opposing perspectives about the differences, one believed the states was the model to follow and the other advocated that the world should leave room for the Chinese to develop their own system especially when the western system has not shown perfection yet. We tried hard to maintain our temper yet speak with confidence without finger-pointing each other. We didn’t have a conclusion at the end but we slept well that night after having our perspectives broadened as we made it respecting other values and coping the differences well to love one another in humanity.


Last but not least, this has always been a remark of my stay in Singapore whenever people asked about my experience. The time, typically the second half of the semester, spent with the NUSChoir was stunningly awesome. I am glad that I went for audition in the beginning of the semester even though I was the only one going among all those I knew in the first few weeks after arrival. I reckoned I was attracted by their welcoming poster and persisted to keep singing as what I projected myself doing before leaving Hong Kong. The choir does choral pieces of various genres and languages which the experience have strengthened my passion doing choral pieces and has widened my understanding in choral singing. I acquired a lot from it, such as, ways to conduct a choir, new vocal warm-up exercises, and vocal projection techniques as I was assigned into a vocal class taught by experienced vocal teachers and more. I have expanded my interest appreciating different contemporary choral pieces and their composers, as the conductor of the NUSChoir knows many of them and tells stories between themselves when he conducts. Eventually, a mixture of confidence and folly was evolved and motivated me to step out from the crowd becoming the “Section Leader” who conducts sectional rehearsal with the choir members after returning from Singapore. And that has marked myself a significant milestone while singing with friends who share the same ideals.


Finally, I hope to extend my gratitude to Victor & William Fung Foundation for acknowledging me as one of their scholarships recipients. It not only has provided me with easier budget in fees associated to air-ticket, accommodation and miscellaneous expenses and more. It helped me to afford a place in the most popular and expensive accommodation on campus with easy access to trendy facilities including the infinity pool, gym room and cozy study lounges and that I didn’t have to seek for off-campus accommodations. Thus it was a blessing to me to stay close and spend even more time with a lot of exchange students and local friends who stayed in UTown together with me, learning from their stories and reflecting on my deficiencies. Also, to a greater extend, the scholarships has become a recognition to my past that I proudly treasure and has always driven me to stay positive and be true to my values whenever I am upset for the world not recognizing my talents and abilities. I wish the future recipients of the scholarships would further confirm that the foundation’s generosity be favour to the younger generations whose overseas exposures have been seen important to developing a better society!


NUS organizes plenty of activities before the start and thorough the semester. As the closing activity of the NUS Alumni Day (photo on the left), friends and relatives of NUS came together watching a moving at night on “UTown Green”, spending moments of fantasy at “home”. HERE (photo on the right), the annual showcase of the NUS Centre for the Arts (CFA) which in-charges of all arts groups including the Wind Symphony and the NUSChoir. It’s where talents, dreams and companionships meet.