For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a fighter.
When I was in kindergarten, I would chat with my friends at the back of the room, but stop at just the right time — so teacher could never scold me. I learned to test boundaries; to play at the edge so I could mostly do what I wanted — without suffering consequences.
In primary school, I fought too. My mom would complain that my white shirts were brown every day — due to all the fighting I was doing. It was a lot of them versus me. But it wasn’t bullying. Bullying is when someone bigger makes the target feel weak and scared. I was never scared. Every time I was down, I got up again and fought back.
Mom and I would argue every night — when it was time to study. I would argue with her on the merits of studying, until Dad came home with supper. Then we’d take a break, eat, and I’d go to bed.
We’d repeat that process every night.
But something changed when I turned 11. Somehow I realized that studies were important. So I stopped fighting, and started studying. Nobody taught me how to do it, but I managed to cover everything in time for the 12-year-old national UPSR exams.
When the results came out, I got full As, and did a victory lap around my school.
Do Well in School
Getting full As meant I could get into the best high school in my hometown.
The only problem was that it was an all-boys school. So I never learned how to talk to girls in high school.
But I knew I had to find a way; I didn’t want to die a lonely virgin. Then I heard about some wonderful tools all the other boys were using: IRC and ICQ. I signed up and started my first awkward conversations with the pretty girls from St. Nicholas Convent. Something must have worked, because I started getting invited to parties too — like the rest of my popular friends.
The girls didn’t distract me from school though. My teachers seemed to like me — five of them nominated me to become a pengawas (prefect, in the British school system). But like I told you earlier, I’m a rebel. I said “No.”
Then came the 17-year-old national SPM exams. I got full As too.
Not that I really needed them. Before the results were out, I had already secured a scholarship to study engineering from the national oil company.
Hard Work Always Helps
Foundation year university was easy. I was basically learning the same things in Form 4 and Form 5, but in English. I spent most of my first year goofing around and ended up with a 3.9-something CGPA anyway.
In second year, things got tougher. I was learning serious stuff now, and goofing around wasn’t going to cut it. I remember going to tests and failing; not knowing how to even start. So I started getting more serious about studying.
I met my first girlfriend in university. We went to a battle-of-the-bands competition one evening at the university hall.
I lost the girlfriend; but the next year, my band won the competition.
In my final year, I stopped all non-essential activities. I mainly studied, and worked on my final year project.
Someone from a small tech startup called Google commented on my final year project website. I didn’t write back.
Be Bold in Life
I graduated with first-class honors, and went to work for the national oil company.
It had nothing to do with my degree, but I decided to learn as much as I could anyway. I was pretty proud at first. Working for the national oil company was considered prestigious. People thought that I was rich.
But two years in, I decided I needed a change. I couldn’t imagine my future with the company any more. So I quit.
I joined an American company instead. I wanted to get back to doing technical stuff. And I knew they would provide me great learning and opportunities.
I was right. Things went well at the American company. Lots of experiences, lots of travel and good money. I was a Singapore Airlines Elite Gold member at 26, and a Regional Manager by the time I was 28. I bought my apartment the same year, and my first Rolex the next.
I started this blog when I was 30 years old. I didn’t want to write about food, clothes or travel. I wanted to write about more important things in life. I wanted it to be meaningful; and reach as many people as possible.
In January 2015, I wrote down a goal: to write for the Huffington Post; which I considered to still be the most powerful name in blogging. In November 2015, I published my first piece on the Huffington Post.
In the past two+ years, I’ve written more than 80 articles, and more than 100,000 words. That’s enough material for a full-length business book.
The blog has grown in influence and popularity. A couple of months ago, I went on Malaysian radio to talk about my views. People want to pay me to post stuff on my blog now. (You guessed it: I say No.) In my second month, back in July 2014 — I had 497 page views.
Last month I had more than 100,000.
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Now that I think about it, my life has always been very blessed.
Thank you God.
I grew up in a middle-class family. My dad was a doctor and my mom worked in the hospital. Mom would talk to me about my “fighting” in school. She let me know they were always there if I had any serious problems.
It wasn’t real fighting either. It was more like play-wrestling. We never threw blows or made anyone bleed. I never got hurt.
Mom never gave up on me when I didn’t want to study. And I actually had sibling rivalry motivation — my sisters were top students themselves. I was bound to get influenced.
But the ultimate thing about growing up middle-class was this: my parents prioritized education above everything else. I didn’t have to do house chores because we could afford a maid. I had good food and lots of free time. My parents did some other crucial things: They filled my home with books and forced me to learn things like swimming, music, and most importantly: English. (Technically speaking, it’s not my first language.)
Mom also made me go to church and Dad was strict with me when it mattered. They taught me discipline.
How to Do Well in School
Privilege encourages success. Success often leads to more success.
I learned how to talk to girls not because of my own ingenuity, but because I had sisters at home to teach me IRC and ICQ.
Being taller than average and having mixed-parentage looks helped being popular with teachers and girls too. Besides, most of my friends were smart and either middle class or rich. If there was an “elite” in school, we were it.
Although I went to the best high school, not all my teachers were great.
But my secret weapon was tuition classes. Excellent teachers, and motivation to perform well from the pretty girls. Thankfully, my parents could afford to send me for as many classes as I wanted.
I did well in school, but with all those privileges thrown at me — could you blame me?
Privilege Always Helps
Our university syllabus was fully in English. While many of my uni-mates struggled with the switch from Bahasa, I never felt more at home. I had been reading English books all my life; I was thrilled to finally get to use it in exams.
If my social circle in high school was “elite,” my social circle in uni was “intellectual elite.” I was constantly surrounded by smart people. They made my uni life a lot easier — I could always turn to my friends in difficult times. There was always someone who could help.
Confession: I probably won the battle-of-the-bands competition only because 50% of the results were based on audience votes. And we hacked the competition by borrowing people from other bands. A lot of different people from different demographics were bound to vote for us.
Besides, in a bizarre coincidence — the band who was expected to win got interrupted halfway by a power-crazy security officer.
Google were looking to hire; but I never wrote back because I was too stupid, lazy and privileged to realize they were going to change the world. I knew I already had a secure job waiting for me in the national oil company.
After all, they’d paid for my education and fed me for the past five years.
A Good Life Helps You Become Bold
In my first job, I was content. I respected my boss and loved my colleagues. But one year in, a new team leader was assigned to me: Pedro.
Pedro was a hustler. He was ambitious and bold, well beyond what most people perceived his abilities to be. He was the one who planted the seed of “what if” in my life. He questioned whether I was really fulfilling my potential or just settling. He encouraged me to chase my dreams, while he was doing the same.
The seed was planted, and within a year — I quit.
I did well in the American company because of values my parents had taught me: discipline and responsibility. But I also had a secret weapon: I could speak and write English better than almost all my peers. And I had been soaking up American culture for a decade now; via the Internet.
This meant I could understand my mostly White bosses better than anyone else. It meant I looked good to them; like I was the right guy to promote.
Besides, I was a man’s man in a male-dominated industry. In a male-dominated world.
Financially, I was in the right industry in Malaysia to make money: oil and gas.
And thankfully I’ve never had to pay for any expensive medical bills. My parents have remained amazingly healthy over the years. Their healthy genes have passed on to me.
I bought my apartment and other expensive stuff just at the right time — as oil prices were peaking, and interest rates were low. I rode the rising wave of the oil industry and got in just before the housing bubble in Malaysia peaked.
I shudder to think how young people today can afford a home.
I was lucky.
To Start Something, You Might Need Help
I got my first break in writing through a longtime church friend. She introduced me to her editor, who was kind enough to give me a chance to start writing articles.
My first “viral” blog post wasn’t about me — it was about one of the smartest guys I’d known since university. I just put his story online.
I’m privileged enough to live in a country with blazing-fast Internet, that’s mostly uncensored. I’m lucky enough to live in a time where I can access most of humanity’s knowledge with a few clicks; and can reach almost anyone I want via social media.
Everything else I’ve done to make this blog successful isn’t original. Someone somewhere had already done it — and wrote down steps to help aspiring writers like me.
I just needed to try, and give it time.
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Those are the two stories of my life.
Both stories are true.
But sometimes when I get big-headed — I remind myself about the other side of the story.
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Partly inspired by Toby Morris’ famous comic on privilege.