From Singapore to London

When I started researching Public Policy and International Development programmes in the UK, it never crossed my mind that I would apply for LSE. When I eventually filled out the applications in October, I thought “no harm trying” and submitted one to LSE apart from 5 other universities. Even then I did not imagine I would get in. I did not graduate from an Ivy League school or with a First Class degree, I did not volunteer or work in a poor or conflict area, I was not the president of a debate club, nor did I spearhead a community initiative.

Perhaps some of you are wondering why I did not apply for US universities. Master programmes in the US are typically 2 years in duration and given that I am making a career switch, I reckoned a 12-month programme was more suited to me.

By mid-November I got admitted to all of them except for LSE. At that point I was pondering between Warwick and UCL. One Saturday morning in January I woke up to the email tone of my phone. It was about 6am. I grabbed my phone, read the email, acknowledged that LSE admitted me, then went back to sleep. At 8am I woke up, realized what I read and started murmuring OMG to myself.

That could have been the most beautiful dream I ever had. But it was not a dream. Soon after emails started streaming in regarding document submission, offer acceptance, scholarship and accommodation. The offer package was mailed to me a couple of weeks later.

In retrospect I suppose these are the factors that led to my admission:

1. I applied early.
Admission to UK universities usually starts early October. I submitted my application to LSE in end October and got the result early January the next year. I guess they review the applications in batches so early applications may stand a better chance given the fewer number of competitors.

2. I wrote a candid personal statement.
I would imagine most candidates have a First or Second Class degree and impressive records of volunteer and/or extra-curricular activities, so personal statement is what makes you stand out. I don’t think mine was an outstanding one but what probably made me stick was that I wrote candidly. I did not have a challenging childhood or any “wow” factor and I did not try to “dramatize” stuffs. I was honest that I was brought up in a well-to-do loving family and was fortunate to pursue my undergraduate studies in Singapore. But I witnessed poverty in the neighbourhood and I talked about how it affected me since childhood and shaped my world views.

I also talked about my course work, essays and extra-curricular activities that demonstrated my interest in economic growth, human development, poverty and inequality. I described the skills I acquired from work and my professional achievements that I believed were highly transferable across sectors. I talked about my influencer, the challenges I would face working in development policy research and consulting in Vietnam and how I was going to tackle them (which largely mirrored the way my influencer has done). I concluded with what drew me into the university and the programme. I customized my statement for each school and included some key details of the programmes to show that I did my homework.

3. References count, too.
I started to reconnect with my dissertation advisor and a professor for whom I worked as a research assistant months before I submitted my applications. At that point I had graduated 3 years ago and I was anxious as to whether they still remembered me. Luckily they did. I asked them for advice with respect to choosing programmes and application.

I suppose working with (a) professor(s) in your undergraduate is highly useful – the connection tends to be deeper and s/he has more to write about your qualifications and qualities. Meeting your advisor frequently is crucial as well. I had fortnightly meetings with my advisor throughout my final year. Even when I did not make any significant progress in the first term, I discussed with him what I had read, my understanding of the literature, possible research methodology and how I might proceed. I reckon sharing my thought process with my advisor provided him with more inputs to write me a letter of recommendation.

4. Most importantly, aim high!
Many successful women have pointed out that women tend to think they are not qualified enough and/or they are not cut out for a particular job. In other words, as women we more often than not discount our ability, and that usually results in us failing to realize our full potential. Ultimately, we learn by doing, and by refusing ourselves an opportunity to do something we may never know how to do it. So I’d say we women should always aim higher and believe in our ability to pull things off.

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I dream a dream

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.

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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.

Patriarchy and women’s sexuality

Yesterday I talked about my parents’ fear of me losing my virginity before marriage which is actually very valid in patriarchal Vietnam. According to my research, these are the three reasons men often cite for wanting a virgin girlfriend: First, they have not had premarital sex and/or are going to abstain and they expect their girlfriends to do the same. Second, they fear that their girlfriends are more sexually experienced than them. Third, they do not like the idea of “sharing” their girlfriends with other guys.

To be clear, abstinence is a totally respectable choice. In fact, for me, every responsible choice is a respectable one. Having certain expectations of one’s future partner is absolutely reasonable. That said, the society’s zealous scrutiny of women’s virginity and sexual activity makes very little sense in a world of widely available contraception. There are countless stories about slut-shaming, “honour” killing of unmarried girls engaging in sexual acts, and girls having to get their hymen “reconstructed” before consummating their marriage. Gender roles in sexuality are evident in our everyday language. What is often implied about women’s first sexual experience is that they are passive with something to lose while men have something to gain: “she lost her virginity”, “he took her virginity”, “she gave it up to him”, “he popped her cherry”. Ironically men engaging in sexual acts is often deemed “biological” or “boys will be boys”. In other words, men enjoy exoneration for their sexual behaviour even in instances of rape, but women don’t. Such double standard of sexuality prevails even among many men that regard themselves as progressive and open-minded.

I am not upset about my parents’ concern although it does not necessarily mean I will conform. They only want the best for me in a society where the prospects of marriage are bleak for “liberal” girls. In their typically patriarchal views, women need men’s protection through marriage, which I disagree.

A while ago I did a little research on why men are so concerned about controlling women’s sexuality and below is an interesting account by BJ Gallagher, a sociologist, best-selling author, and speaker.

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Women’s Sexuality and Men’s Fear

By BJ Gallagher 

Years ago, Mother Teresa was invited to attend an anti-war rally. She declined, reportedly saying something to the effect that: “Anti-war protestors are some of the most war-like people I’ve ever seen. I have no interest in participating in war. But, if you ever hold a pro-peace rally, let me know.”

I recalled that apocryphal story last week when I received an RFP (Request For Proposals) from a large, nationally-know women’s organization. The entire RFP was a rallying cry for women to get into action to combat the “Republican War on Women.” I cringed and deleted the email.

Is there really a “war on women” going on? Or are we simply experiencing a never-ending barrage of fear mongering and over-the-top rhetoric being blasted from both political parties — as well as from religious institutions, women’s organizations and the media? I think it’s the latter. I don’t believe Republicans are waging a war on women, and neither are men.

Male-bashing doesn’t get us anywhere — we don’t need to be anti-men in order to be pro-women. Republican-bashing doesn’t get us anywhere either — there are millions of good people in the Republican party who simply have genuine differences of opinion about what’s best for the country. Demonizing men — and/or demonizing Republicans — is not helpful in finding solutions to our vexing national problems. Hating the opposite sex and/or hating the other political party only breeds more hate.

I’m with Mother Teresa: I’m not interested in speaking the language of war nor participating in war-like gatherings of women. Why do I feel this way? Let me provide some background:

About fifteen years ago, I visited a fascinating exhibit on the “History of Sex” at a prominent museum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. On a business trip to Southeast Asia, I allowed some extra time to take in some of the local culture. The sex exhibit struck me as odd, since my impression of Muslim countries was that sexuality is severely repressed. But perhaps I had been mistaken, since I really didn’t know much about Muslim cultures. This gave me more than one reason to check out “Sex” at the Malaysian museum.

When I arrived, what first caught my attention were groups of young schoolgirls touring the exhibit. Dressed in pastel-colored blouses over long skirts, with matching scarves covering their heads, the girls looked like flocks of lovely little pastel birds flitting from one part of the exhibit to another. Each group was monochromatic — a flock in robin’s egg blue outfits, another flock in flamingo pink, still another in canary yellow — so sweet and pretty, talking quietly among themselves as they took notes. I was struck by the visual anachronism of these young, innocent girls touring a museum exhibit on sex.

The “History of Sex” was a terrific exhibit, with well-researched timelines, archeological artifacts, artistic renderings and scientific writings by archeologists, anthropologists, historians, biologist, physicians, sociologists and psychologists, as well as enriching contributions from the arts. The entire exhibit was very well curated.

And the Malaysian schoolgirls weren’t the only ones who were learning a lot from the “Sex” exhibit. My own “ah-ha” came from a display that explained: “Throughout human history, men have always had a vested interest in controlling women’s sexuality — and they’ve found many different ways to do it.” The museum display pointed to everything from mechanical devices such as metal chastity belts, to modesty clothing like burqas, hijabs and abayas, to laws proscribing what women were allowed to do, be and have. My mind boggled at the myriad ways men have exercised control over women’s sexuality and reproduction throughout the entire course of human history.

Why? Why are sex and procreation so important to men? As a social scientist, I’d surmise that part of the answer can be found in biology: Much as a male lion will kill the cubs of a lioness in order to sire his own cubs with her (thus perpetuating his genes), the human male wants to sire his own children, and he’s worried about unwittingly raising any offspring sired by someone else. His biological imperative is to perpetuate his own genes in the human species, not the genes of another. This instinct is hardwired into the human animal just as it is in the lion … and many other species as well (though not all).

I’d also argue that another part of the answer can be found in sociology and psychology: One of the worst misfortunes that can befall a human male is to be cuckolded by an unfaithful mate. What men want and need most is respect — but a man whose wife or girlfriend has sex with another man is pitied, ridiculed, disrespected and diminished in the eyes of society. Such a threat to his masculinity and self-esteem must be prevented at all costs — making many men hyper-vigilant in protecting their women (and their self-respect) from potential rivals.

(Sidebar: I remember how my father often smiled and said, “It’s always reassuring to the father when the children resemble him,” when people would remark, “Your daughter looks just like her daddy.”)

There are undoubtedly other factors fueling the urgent need men feel to control women’s sexuality. Economics plays a part — as providing for a family is expensive (assuming the women isn’t the primary breadwinner or at least contributing). Relationships and marriage are an investment of money, time and energy. Males are understandably skittish about making such a big commitment if there is any doubt about the wisdom of his investment. Even a hint of unfaithfulness can trigger intense feelings of betrayal and the desire for financial retribution.

The Malaysian museum’s “History of Sex” exhibit reminded me how complex and multi-faceted human sexuality is. We would do well to take a step back from the heated rhetoric of the “war between the sexes” and take a more thoughtful, rational, contextual look at our gender differences. Studying and understanding human sexual behavior from the point of view of ethnobiology, zoology, sociology, history, psychology, economics, anthropology, political science, theology, and the arts as well can help us understand ourselves better. In so doing, we can make progress in finding solutions to our most vexing people problems — including gender and sex problems.

Who knows? Perhaps more thoughtful people will come to realize that no one is “waging war on women.” Perhaps, as the exhbit suggest, men (well, some men) are simply acting out an instinctive biological imperative — reinforced by thousands of years of history and tradition — going to any lengths to control women’s sexuality. The bottom line is: Men feel the need to exert control over women essentially because they’re afraid.

Men and women both have a vested interest in putting a stop to the “gender war” – in America and around the world. Isn’t it time to declare a cease-fire? Isn’t it time we learn to live and work together in peace? Let’s begin by calling a truce in the war of words.

Link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bj-gallagher/womens-sexuality-and-mens_b_1289564.html

From Saigon to Singapore

My story is simply one of an Asian girl, having a pretty conservative upbringing, trying every single day to assert herself as an individual and realize her dreams. Penning one’s story is definitely an intimidating thing to do but that said, I hope mine will resonate with girls who may be reluctant to stand up to social pressure.

Everyone has dreams. Sadly it is common for the society to assign lower values to a girl’s dreams compared to a boy’s. Particularly in most parts of developing Asia, college education is more than sufficient for girls, and marriage, not career, is unanimously regarded as their source of security. They are preordained from birth to be the weak, vulnerable kind who is prone to, and has to be constantly protected from, actions of dishonour such as premarital loss of virginity, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and even sexual assaults. A woman’s marital status is almost always under scrutiny to the extent that all the other aspects of her life are not worth considering. Even if she graduates with first class honours, works as a biochemistry scientist or finds the cure to cancer, if she is not married, she is an abject failure.

Asia is undergoing swift social transformations over the recent decades with fast-paced industrialisation, increasing exposure to Western cultures and education, and the changing role of women as independent earners. Foreign observers, such as Roger Cohen of the New York Times, have noted of the “American dream” among the rising Vietnamese upper- and middle-class which entails American lifestyle and education for their children. Nonetheless for millions of Vietnamese young women, defying patriarchal norms continues to be a day-to-day struggle. Escape is not an option, even for those like me who are able to: we do not wish to be alienated in our own home, we yearn to connect with our families, and we want to gain a legitimate place in the community without losing ourselves.

The day I got admitted to a university in Singapore, I knew it was not the end of a year-long “battle” to fulfil my dream of seeing the world. My parents let me sit the entrance exam perhaps because chances were I would fail, or because they were ambivalent about letting go of me. And when they knew I passed, they threw me tons of questions to which I had no answer: am I going to survive college overseas?,  am I going to be able to protect myself (for marriage)?, will I be able to find a job and pay off the student loan?, and so on.

Since a very young age, I had been keenly aware of their overprotective tendency toward me and built up a strong and even cold façade with the hope that they would think I was totally capable of protecting myself. But my tough façade apparently did not guarantee satisfactory answers to these questions. Ultimately it was going to be a four-year period of uncertainty.

My childhood could be described as a series of attempts to break out of the “mould” my Mother had for me. She had always wanted me to excel in maths and science and to become a doctor or a pharmacist. By contrast I sucked at both and instead went on to major in literature and later on English. For university degree choices, I went for Business, Economics and International Relations instead of Medicine and Biochemistry, and I was admitted to read Economics.

Gradually they toned down their stance as their friends and colleagues talked them into letting me go. And so I was allowed to leave for Singapore on the implicit condition that I would preserve myself for marriage.

I love my Mom more than anything else in the world. One time I saw her hit by another motorbike and my heart literally stopped beating until it became clear to me that she was okay. Although it was virtually impossible in my childhood, slowly and surely throughout my college years, I opened up to her and showed her who I really was. I told her about how I loved my major and how wonderful my professors were, about my very first jobs, and the guys I saw.

And after Singapore, it was and still is my incomplete “mission” to show her who I want to become.