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Singaporean reject excels in Oxford and Princeton

Singaporean reject excels in Oxford and Princeton

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A true autodidact who beat the system to be awesome.


Lim Wah Guan, 28, belongs to a rare breed of Singaporeans. He has studied at Oxford and Princeton. (In non-geek speak, it’s like having had sex with Mila Kunis and then Jennifer Lawrence.)

He completed his master’s degree at Oxford in the UK last year. He is now a PhD student at Princeton in the US.

However, this was after the Singapore education system pissed all over him.

He did not qualify for any scholarship. He was not from some gifted programme.

Although his life started well enough in primary school.

Lim scored 252 for PSLE, and 12 points for his O-level exam, scoring well mostly for maths and science subjects.

However, he retook his A-level exams, after getting C, E and O grades for Maths C, Higher Chinese and History respectively. The second time round, he got B, D and D.

This was the phase of his life where he decided to pursue his passion for the humanities. And it went downhill.

With his A-level grades, he applied for a spot at the faculty at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

And failed. Four times.

The fourth time he sent his application was with an appeal letter from his Member of Parliament.

And why was he so persistent to study in Singapore’s university?

‘I was still trying to find my way back into the system,’ Lim said. ‘In Singapore, if you’re not in the system, you aren’t anything at all.’

Churchill of Singapore

Regardless, Lim has since been referred to as a “Churchill” — someone who failed to excel in the education system. But goes on to kick some serious ass.

But it was his slide during his time in Singapore’s education system that was the most noticeable.

It was in junior college, when Lim pursued his interest in the humanities, specifically theatre, history and Chinese literature, that his grades started to free fall.

His knew his passion was not in maths or science. So he gave up on the sciences and took only one maths subject.

But when he took his A-level exam twice, he scored best for mathematics twice. And why was that so?

He said: ‘Looking back, it was ironic that I got the best grade both times for mathematics, the subject I had the least interest in. But I think it was because it was the subject which lent itself best to exams.’

Moreover, he could not help but look at his peers.

One of them, he remembered, was a straight-A student who had never heard of the Quran.

‘I could not understand why this was happening to me,’ he said. ‘I asked myself, was I really inferior to them?’

Mr Lim eventually decided to apply for the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia. His decision broke his mother’s heart. It was a tough decision then but today, Mr Lim jokingly describes his time at UNSW as when ‘I turned into Cinderella’.

Four years after his rejection from NUS, Mr Lim graduated from UNSW near the top of his cohort with a first class honours in Chinese and Theatre Studies.

In a referral letter, his supervisor, Dr Jon Kowallis, wrote that Mr Lim ‘is truly a unique student of the calibre that one comes across once every 10 or 15 years’.

Another, written by his Dean of Residents, Dr James Pietsch, said: ‘…it is not on the basis of his grades that I wish to recommend him for a postgraduate program – there are many residents here who can boast high grades.

‘However, Wah Guan stands apart in terms of his attitude to his study. Wah Guan has an intellectual inquisitiveness… (he is) not driven by grades or competition, but by a genuine desire to learn.’

But there were further setbacks when he was away.

During his time abroad, he also missed the funerals of his grandmother and primary school teacher to whom he was very close.

Plus, there are times when he saw himself as an ‘NUS reject’. ‘It was a huge mental block I needed to overcome,’ he said.

Usually eloquent, Mr Lim was stumped when asked just how exactly he made good.

‘I just don’t think a three-hour exam is the best way to test any student’s ability’ was what he finally said.

This coming from a man who has made it into the East Asian Studies PhD programme at Princeton University.

And after he completed a master’s in Chinese Studies, focusing on the work of Gao Xingjian, the first Chinese recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Does he plan to return to Singapore? Will he turn his back on a system that rejected him?

He misses home terribly, but he has not gotten over the disappointment. He will only say for now – maybe.

This article was stolen from here.