Book review: Singapore's Lost Son, by Kaiwen Leong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 February, 2013, 4:04pm

Singapore's Lost Son - How I Made it from Dropout to Millionaire Princeton PhD
by Kaiwen Leong
Marshall Cavendish


After Singaporean Kaiwen Leong was sexually assaulted at age 10, his life spiralled downwards. A failure at school, he was best known for getting into fights with schoolyard bullies; he was kicked out of four secondary schools. His teachers all agreed he would amount to nothing, and they made sure he knew it.

Singapore's predominantly Chinese society, like Hong Kong's, sets great store by educational success. When the teenaged Leong finally found himself in a school where "subnormal" pupils were left to rot, he knew he had hit rock bottom. Singapore's Lost Son tells the story of how he overcame the imprecations of the naysayers and his own despair to realise his childhood goal of graduating with a PhD from a top university.

At the suggestion of a substitute teacher, the one person who believed in him, Leong left school and sat his A-levels as a private student. He was accepted by Boston University in the United States and so began his journey to find and prove himself.

Four years later, he had a bachelor's degree with majors in mathematics and economics, and a master's degree in each subject. The core of the book is a fascinating account of how by "blind determination" Leong surmounted the many obstacles in his path.

Having scored a D+ on his first writing assignment, he resolved to improve his English. He did this by eavesdropping on the conversations of Harvard students in cafes, sipping 10-cent cups of water he'd bought to avoid being kicked out. His family having been driven into near-bankruptcy by a failed investment, Leong was forced to adopt a one-potato-a-day diet. At one point he got himself a cardboard box to live in.

Many people helped Leong achieve his goals. To fulfil a promise he made to the teacher who first made him believe in himself, Leong has dedicated his efforts to "paying it forward" by encouraging young people who see little hope in their lives. Among the vignettes that make up the book is one about how he rushed to the top of a building to talk a fellow Princeton student out of jumping off.

Simply and earnestly written, the book tries to show that whatever in our circumstances holds us back, the real obstacle to achieving what we are capable of lies in what we believe we cannot do.

Unlock our minds and we unlock our potential.

Those seeking pointers on how to become a millionaire will find scant details of how Leong invested his way to riches. On the final page, however, he hints at a sequel in which he "will soon share about the man … who taught me how to turn my knowledge into money".