Back in the 80s, life was very different.
I was brought up with the saying that “An idle mind is a dangerous mind”. I am of the Hakka dialect and this particular group of people who originated from China is known to be laborious and hardy.
From a background of workaholics or perfectionists or so I believe, I used to watch my father who was a teacher working long hours. He taught in school and marked books in the evening and then prepared work for the following day. After that, he would work on his calligraphy assignments until mid-night. These projects were converted into signboards for shops and companies for a fee. These jobs served to bring food on the table for seven children.
My mum was a home-maker, involved in the drudgery of daily house chores, and balanced the acts of providing food for us on a tight budget and ensuring that we could meet our school fees. She would keep tabs on my growing siblings and this was no mean feat.
I was the youngest child. The flat was small with two bedrooms which consisted of a living room, a small kitchen, and an attached toilet. It was adequate for all of us. Four of my older siblings occupied two double-deckers in one room, and two brothers slept on the floors in the living room. I slept between my parents which accounted for me being the last, accidental child. I was the natural contraceptive in the 50s.
For many years on, I would struggle through school waiting for the ultimate day of liberation. I thought that day to be on graduation day as a full-fledged dentist until I went into the working world and found out that life was not a straight path.
In my supposedly eight years of the study bond with the government to serve as a dentist in the public sector, I was retrenched while working for only two years due to the recession of the mid-80s. I strongly believed that it was my pregnancy that ended my career in the civil service. I had asked for a transfer to a clinic nearer my home so that I could seek some rest during lunchtime since I was heavily pregnant and felt uncomfortable.
The next thing I knew, I received a letter stating that I would be required to serve the rest of my bond in the private sector in Singapore. I was then seven months pregnant with twins. It meant a savings of two months of salary and two months of maternity leave. I guessed it was the most expedient thing to do when the institution needed to cut costs. After all, the person in charge had the onerous duty of improving the bottom line. Not that I minded in retrospect, for everything turned out good.
I found myself a stint with a private dental group who very frankly mentioned that they had checked up my records with my lecturers and professors. Though I was no high flying student, I was clean and no thorn in anyone’s flesh. I faithfully worked where work was given and also managed to secure some dental contracts for the group.
Donna Summer’s song “ She works hard for the money” was always playing in my mind. Work was then a euphemism for paid slavery as my time and work schedules were dictated by the clinic. Today, as my boss, work is a joy and a necessity for meaningful living.
After two years with the group practice, I had wanted to achieve a long term goal of freedom. I decided to work hard for myself. I decided that if I would rather struggle more and die by my sword. I started my dental practice in October 1987, also known as the Crash of the Dow Jones. The recession had already reared its ugly head.
Landlords were begging for tenants. Empty shops and offices abounded. Rentals went as low as S$1 per square foot. I snared what I thought was a wonderful deal at $1.90 per square foot in an office building in the heart of the city, for three good years and then embarked on my ‘publicity’ campaign.
One big mistake was that my clinic was located on the sixth floor of the building(had since been demolished in Singapore) and there was no visibility. I could perish in there without anyone’s knowledge!
The introvert in me suddenly needed to become extroverted. I met people, attended functions, joined classes, and became sociable. I made myself known by introducing myself professionally to my neighbors in my building. They were receptive fortunately and supported me. After that, I had my sights set on other buildings where there were innumerable companies. The world was my oyster.
Socially, no one was spared my name cards even people I met at funerals, save one. Surprisingly, people were quite supportive and luck was on my side too. I was never in the red from the first month.
It was at such trying times when you realized how kind people were by giving young entrepreneurs chances. I treated my patients with great care and asked them to refer more patients and they did. Word of mouth was still the best recommendation for business.
Life was hectic as I balanced my work by raising two active kids and improving my knowledge and skills along the way. Time flew by but I had not wasted any time complaining.
One of the best decisions in my life was learning public speaking in Toastmasters Club. The ability to communicate better allowed me to build better relationships with patients and friends. It all stemmed from an incident when a director of one company wanted to introduce myself and the doctor next door at a board meeting so that we could secure some company contracts.
Fearful of having to speak up in front of these big-wigs, we excused ourselves before the boardroom meeting to go to the loos. I still remembered washing my hands for quite a while. When we emerged at the same time, apparently he must be taking his time in the loo too. The director was dismayed and said that the meeting had ended and he had just wanted us to show up for him to formally introduce us. What a blunder and missed opportunity!
That was when I made the Public Speaking course an important interest to pursue and to build my self-confidence. Over the years, I learned to articulate clearly whether with patients or strangers. I stopped stuttering by reading aloud every day. My communication has become crystal-clear and that has helped business as any doubts by the patients are clarified.
More than thirty years later, I would say that what had kept me afloat was my persistence to keep up with the changes in Dentistry as it evolved and I continued to exploit the advances of its Sciences and Technology for patients’ benefits and mine.
In hindsight, I was very fortunate to be a young adult trying to make it in Singapore. Singapore has always been progressing with the times and our access to education and resources were also forthcoming.
As a young adult, I had the sense to balance work and play and did not incline towards work only. My work enabled me to pursue other interests — in Sports like Scuba-diving, Skiing, traveling, joining dental mission trips, volunteer work, writing on Medium, and participating in public speaking clubs like Toastmasters clubs.
My philosophy of work is that earning money is good but spending it well is better. So much importance is attached to work that one may forget the true value of work: that is to free oneself to do what one loves. Even if it is just to look at the birds at the end of a hard day.
In a bustling city like Singapore that is ever more pressure-cooked today than thirty years ago, work has become paramount and essential. For the young entrepreneurs of today, I would suggest that they work hard and smart, keep abreast of changes which are everpresent, know your weaknesses, and work on them. However, remember to seek some time for yourself to refresh and rejuvenate whether in sports or other hobbies.
Seek the source of contentment amidst work and then return to the toil from which contentment springs. Life in the 80s as a young adult was a memorable one and I am grateful for this journey thus far.
If you like this article, you may like to read ‘ Childhood Days In Old Singapore’