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Comeback Kid

26 May 2017


What does it take to push someone to take charge of his future? Maybe, just sorting out a pile of resumes and realizing that his would end up at the bottom.

Siow Yan Tat remembers his PSLE score clearly: 113.

He scraped through to the Normal (Academic) stream, where he continued to struggle with his studies at Ghim Moh Secondary. Not due to a lack of ability or aptitude, but attitude.

He was more interested in playing computer games and trading Pokemon cards. He eventually flunked his “O” Levels, and decided to enlist into National Service (NS) which proved to be a pivotal game-changer in his life.

This was a great relief to his father, Siow Soon Lye, 54. “Since he was little, we beat and scolded him but it was no use,” he says in Mandarin, shaking his head. “He had a wake-up call in the army, and realised that qualifications are very important.”

“Now, he is doing well and I feel at peace,” beams the company director who set up a raw-food supply business with his family over 30 years ago. 

Yan Tat, 28, is studying for a degree in accountancy and even received a job offer from Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) after an internship with the global auditing firm. He turned it down to help out as an accounts executive at his father’s company.

The NS awakening

With his black-rimmed spectacles and soft-spoken manner, Yan Tat gives off a studious, if not geeky, vibe. But in his younger years, he admits to being lazy, preferring to slack off instead of study. Yet, he passed his N levels with a bare minimum of 10 points. A year later, he bombed his O levels with 36 points, failing all subjects except two. 

He could not get into a polytechnic, so he applied to the Institute of Technical Education’s (ITE) aerospace programme. He was accepted, but was told during an interview session that the course might not be suitable for him due to his size.

The 1.7m tall teenager weighed a hefty 95kg, a tad too large to crawl into tight spots in the aeroplane to fix engines or other parts as an aviation technician. Discouraged by the remarks, he deferred his studies and enlisted into NS.

It was in the army that he received a rude awakening. One day, as a bored storeman, he was told to sort out resumes of job applicants for the Central Manpower Base (CMPB): All those without basic qualifications were to be placed at the bottom of the pile. 

“That was me, I had no proper certification, not even O levels,” he exclaims. “I realised, ‘Oh no, if I don’t study, I won’t be able to find proper work’. This motivated me to study.”

All the berating by his parents had not moved him, but a pile of resumes did the trick. It was a reality check that changed his life – psychologically and even physically.

Overnight, he became disciplined and diligent. These new traits also helped him trim down to a svelte 58kg as he cut his meal portions by half and shunned sweets. 

Learning journey

It was not easy to plunge back into school life, but Yan Tat took it one step at a time. What helped was his new serious attitude which spurred him to do his best. He was so serious that he even paid for his education.

And each time he did well, it motivated him to press on and achieve the next bigger goal.

His first stop after army was at ITE’s Bishan campus in 2009, getting a Nitec certification in Office Skills. 

“My father thought I was still fooling around and refused to pay my school fees. He didn’t believe me that I was serious about studying,” he shared. So he dug into his savings – from his NS allowance – and paid for the one-year course.

His results were “not bad”, earning him a place in ITE Simei’s logistics course. But one of his lecturers persuaded him to try for accountancy instead. He had his doubts.

“I was scared as I got F9 for Maths,” he explained. His lecturer persisted and even helped him secure a spot in accountancy, back at the Bishan campus. He decided to give it a shot.

He proved himself by graduating with an impressive grade point average (GPA) of 3.9 out of 4, in 2012.

For the first time, Yan Tat felt that he was good at something – other than computer games. And this motivated him to improve his skills in accounting as he could finally see a career for himself in this field.

He also did some part-time accounting while studying, which further fuelled his interest to pursue further studies in accountancy.

So a year before he graduated from ITE, he signed up for the ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) which provides a certification pathway to a degree. To date, he has taken and passed 10 exams, with four more to go. 

“Only 48 per cent of candidates pass each ACCA exam,” he disclosed, making his achievement of zero failures amazing, especially given that he opted to self-study.

But he did not stop at ACCA. After ITE, he went on to get a diploma from Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of Business and Accountancy. The diploma led to his internship at PwC in his final year, which resulted in his first job offer from the global auditing firm.

His determination to continually improve himself is clear. He forked out over $10,000 of his savings, including dipping into Edusave, to pay for his school fees at the ITE, polytechnic and ACCA programme. 

In fact, it was his father’s plan to spur him to take ownership of his studies. 

“I figured he would be more conscientious if he had to use his own money. He would feel the pinch and would not give up easily,” the elder Siow says with a gruff laugh. “But, of course, we still gave him pocket money.”

Yan Tat agreed. “I was already serious about studying, but paying for it made me even more determined to succeed and not waste my money,” he says.

He has no plans to stop studying, with an aim to go beyond a graduate degree to get a Masters in accountancy.

“I plan to do my Masters and maybe work in a big auditing firm after that,” he said, an ambition that seemed so far-fetched just a few years ago but seems within reach today.