I’m probably someone you can call a planner, that is I plan ahead whenever possible. So in my third year in college, I did research on the types of jobs that might be of interest to me. My major was Economics and since I was a foreigner in Singapore, it was virtually impossible for me to work in policy, research or statistics for the government or public agencies which were what I was formally trained for. Finance was in fact a very viable option given the proliferation of multinational and local banks, investment firms, hedge funds, etc in Singapore. Let’s face it: it pays well and is considered an “esteemed” profession. So with the student loan baggage, there I went.
It was by no means a smooth journey for an introvert without a formal finance degree, especially in the midst of the Great Recession of 2008-2009. I graduated at the time when the recession was in its full swing, affecting all the major financial capitals in the world. Massive layoffs at banks and financial firms were the daily headlines. There was a hiring freeze in the industry except for some big banks and boutique firms. The central bank came up with a clever scheme: they sponsored a handful of banks to hire fresh graduates on the basis of a 1-year contract, paying each a below-average salary and banks may or may not pay an additional amount. I got into a local bank via this scheme.
My 8 months there was an eye-opener, albeit in a largely negative way. Being reprimanded by senior colleagues for simply doing your jobs collecting data from them was definitely not a pleasant experience. I told myself, that was real life and I’d rather experience shit sooner than later. I did shed a tear or two, but I tried not to let it get to me. All I could do was to make the most out of my job. Ultimately what I could control was what mattered.
One time I met with a good friend of mine and lamented about my job. She said her firm was hiring and told me to check the website. Hers was a financial data and analytics provider. And so I tried my luck although I did not meet their requirement of working experience and I knew nuts about fixed income which I was supposed to specialise in, and I got in.
My new firm was pretty cool. I worked closely with some senior colleagues who had worked there for over 10 years. They treated me as their equal and assisted me whenever they could. I could ask to talk to my bosses any time. It was something called a flat hierarchy where there was no cubicle, no corner office and no “senior” in the titles. I progressed quite fast: coordinating a group of more than 20 colleagues three months into the job and leading several projects in Asia Pacific after six months. I was selected to attend a course for potential managers after 2 years.
I never intended to make finance my career. Not even after one, two and three years at the firm. Not even as my social circle comprised of primarily bankers and financiers. Even until now I have not met my role model who has a career in Policy or International Development, but I have this probably naive belief that if I wholeheartedly set my mind on something, I will get there some day.
My dream came about in my second year when it struck me what Economics was truly about. That “enlightening” moment came when I read about Amartya Sen’s “development as freedom” framework in which he argues that development is about enhancing people’s capabilities in a number of fronts and enabling them to shape their destiny and influence the world. That said, economists’ concerns about the boom-burst cycle, inflation, unemployment, Pareto efficiency and so on are all very legitimate and crucial. But ultimately Sen’s somewhat utopian view is what we all should aim for, isn’t it? Shoot for the moon and we may land on the stars rather than doing nothing and remaining on the ground.
So even as I was anxiously looking for a job as graduation neared, I was determined to make it to the United Nations, World Bank and/or Asian Development Bank some day. I may not get there in 5, 10 or 15 years. I may not land on the “moon” at all, but the idea that I would do my very best and would eventually arrive somewhere along my dream path kept me moving forward. In other words, being a shiny tiny grain of sand amidst the vast ocean is better than not trying to shine at all.
And so after I paid off my student loan, I found myself staying up until 2, 3am several nights writing my personal statement.