I was born in Singapore in 1969. My parents weren’t educated – my mother was illiterate, she could only write her name, and my father could read a little bit of a Chinese newspaper. He was a street food vendor selling prawn noodles. He got up at 5am every day and rested only one day a year, on the first day of Chinese New Year. As the eldest and the only son – I’ve got two younger sisters – I felt it was my duty to help him, so from the age of about 10 I helped out on the weekends and during school holidays by washing the dishes, taking orders and making sure the customers paid. Growing up in a low-income family, the only way to get out was to study. Although I studied hard, in middle school I still failed mathematics, English literature and history. It was a disaster. My parents comforted me by telling me that if I couldn’t make it in my studies, I could take over my father’s noodle store. There were many people who were gangsters, runners for loan sharks or selling illegal food around us. As long as I didn’t get into trouble with the law, my parents were happy. I was a seriously underweight, skinny kid with big glasses, so the gangsters never asked me to fight in the street for them; I’d have been useless. Mathematics and M16s I decided to focus on mathematics and practised every past exam paper 10 times. I did above average in the exam and that gave me the confidence to tackle the next subject, science. Once I got a little better, I was able to teach other students, because having been weak before I could understand where people struggled. British author Horatio Clare on his nervous breakdown and life as a writer As I taught my classmates, I got an even better understanding. I took three subjects at A-Level – maths, further maths and physics – and barely passed my English, but it was enough to scrape through to get into the National University of Singapore to study engineering. My entry was deferred until I’d done the compulsory two-and-a-half years of National Service . I was in the Infantry. It was tough, we carried M16 rifles and a heavy backpack. If the terrain was too rough for the helicopter to land, we had to jump from the chopper, and we’d have to wade across rivers where bloodsucking leeches attached to your legs. In the spotlight As an engineering student I was a nerd with glasses and didn’t have much of a social life. To overcome my stage fright, I asked a choreographer if I could stand at the back of the stage during a dance performance. I had a very small role – twice walking to the front of the stage and opening an umbrella. It gave me the experience of being on stage and I let the bright lights shine into my eyes with a few hundred people below. Later, whenever I went to a conference, at the end of the event I’d go onto the empty stage and see what it felt like up there. I’d have to pretend I was looking for something on the stage or else the organiser would wonder what I was doing. It meant that many years later, when I was asked to give a TedX talk , I was confident enough to accept the invitation. Bipolar artist on fighting bulls and burnouts, and finding happiness Bourbon and coke As a student, I got a job as a bartender at Fire Disco, on Orchard Road, in the holidays. The customers asked for lots of different drinks – Singapore sling, grasshopper, champagne, various beers – and on busy nights I couldn’t keep up. During the 15-minute band break, I was so slow that half the customers didn’t get a drink. One day, I told the crowd, I’m going to make bourbon and coke, who wants it? Half the people changed their order to bourbon and coke and everyone got a drink. I got an internship with Hongkong Electric (now HK Electric) on Lamma Island for six months. I liked Hong Kong but I didn’t like engineering. When I heard that DBS Bank was recruiting, I went for an interview. During the interview I told them my bartending story. I think they were impressed that I could think on my feet because they hired me. The wrong fit Being able to think on my feet didn’t mean I had social skills and I didn’t do well at the bank, so I decided to go to Lancaster University (in Britain) to do a master’s degree in finance. It was my first time in the West and an eye-opener. It was the first time I’d seen white people doing construction work. In Singapore, white people had the high-end jobs. I did well in my studies, and it was in Lancaster that I met my future wife, who was doing a master’s in literature. When I finished the master’s, I went to London hoping to get a job in banking. I wore a jacket from [charity shop] Oxfam that was two sizes too big for my skinny frame and I think the interviewers took one look at me and decided I wouldn’t fit. My money was running out, so I returned to Singapore. Hong Kong drag queen Coco Pop on climbing the cross-dressing ladder Best boss It was 1997 and the Asian financial crisis, so instead of going for a front-office role in derivatives structuring, I took a step back and went for the middle office. I was given two job offers. I took the smaller job at Standard Chartered Bank because I could tell the boss believed in me. In your career, it’s good to work at least once with a boss who believes in you because that’s when you dare to take risks. He gave me the chance to be seconded to London for six months and Hong Kong for six months, and it started my international banking career. I worked with this boss for four years and when he moved, I left soon after and went to Citi, where I was given a regional role. I travelled within Asia and was also transferred to Citi Shanghai and Citi Hong Kong. It was an amazingly good time. Talking points When I was young, failing in school, ignorant and socially awkward, I suffered from a serious inferiority complex, so I started taking classes. In 2001, I started learning about Mac computers, it was a good talking point with colleagues and bosses and when they wanted to change to Mac I was the go-to person. I also learned typography and when I was at Citi in Hong Kong, every week I went to Kwun Tong in Kowloon to learn portrait photography – how to set up studio lighting and take photos of people on the street. These skills helped me socially because you can’t talk about work all the time, so I can talk about photography, typography and Macs. I have a three-inch-thick folder full of certificates, from sailing to graphic design, and my latest is a diploma in positive psychology. Global banking COO who was never good enough for the in-laws A new stage My wife and I had a long-distance relationship for five years and then when I was at Citi we got married. We have two children – our daughter was born when I was at Citi in Shanghai and our son was born in Hong Kong. In 2009, I moved back to Singapore to work for [Australian bank] ANZ as head of structured solutions. Two years later, I was back in Hong Kong, this time with UBS as a managing director in investment banking. It was a life-changing time and set the stage for my career after banking. In 2016, I was invited as a guest lecturer at Tsinghua University and Queen’s University in Beijing to teach banking finance and career skills. And then I was made an adjunct associate professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and taught one evening a week. The Institute of Life I was taught technical subjects at school, but not career skills and I suffered as a result. The students I teach at university also don’t have proper training in terms of career skills and planning, so I set up the Institute of Life and work with universities to teach career skills. Many of us shape ourselves according to our major as a student – if you major in engineering you are an engineer, if you are good in finance you go into finance. I hope they can make themselves unique – if you are an engineer with an interest in, say, marketing, then you can market engineering products. It’s what I call a combo-specialist. I help students to become more rounded and also to learn negotiating skills, selling skills and to develop a personal brand so they are different from the next person. Anna Wong wanted to be an entrepreneur. Now she’s empowering women Small Actions I have been writing on LinkedIn for seven years and have well over two million followers. I write in short sentences and use photos to tell a story. I took my articles and consolidated them to publish a book, Small Actions: Leading Your Career to Big Success (2021). It consists of 66 bite-sized chapters, each chapter giving the reader an action to take. I never thought I’d write a book – I failed English at school, I was supposed to be selling noodles in a hawker centre. This book is a career guide to help people become successful at work and life, it’s about recognising your strengths and taking advantage of your weaknesses. My weakness was English, but I realised that writing in simple sentences is good on social media because people don’t have time to read long sentences and it appeals to non-native English speakers. I don’t have plans, I take things one step at a time. I think of what I have, consider my weaknesses and my strengths and how I can use them.