The year is 2004.
We’re seated in the school hall, and I’ve just received my PSLE score from Mrs Siti.
Is 199 a good number?
I look up from the laminated sheet of paper to the sight of my classmates high-fiving each other’s sweaty palms or offering commiserations to the quiet ones.
And… that’s about as far as my memory can take me for what happened! I’m convinced most 12-year-old brains are not fully formed at that age.
But I do recall not being overly worried. My primary school was affiliated to another secondary school, so that let me slip into the Express stream by the skin of my teeth.
So that was the first great mercy of my academic life: being allowed in to a place I never deserved.
In secondary school, I went through a number of phases, most notable of which was when Daughtry’s first album came out and I shaved my head but left the sideburns.
What? I wanted to look like the man himself. Being a teenager is a strange time.
Anyway, Express wasn’t so bad… If you took out like, half the syllabus. I was terrible at everything that didn’t have to do with the humanities. So the sciences and especially math… disastrous.
How bad was it? To give you an idea, my school handed out mock result slips after the preliminary exams that indicated on the back which junior colleges or polytechnic courses you were eligible for.
While my friends’ papers had multiple pages filled with courses, I had about three options on a single sheet, and they were mostly nursing courses on the far end of the island.
Now, I love and respect nurses – but there’s no way I have what it takes to do the work they do. So I got scared. Well, more importantly, mum got scared.
So I was sent to tuition with a nice auntie named Mrs Boey, who eventually helped me to break the F9 barrier and stumble into uncharted C5 territory.
Genuine miracle. There was nothing special about me – I should have flunked. But by God’s will and mercy, I had grace and opportunity.
So, a few more mercies here. Like, the mercy of being able to even receive tuition even though we weren’t rich by any means.
And also, the very special mercy of meeting my tuition friend and future wife, Cheryl, at Mrs Boey’s Simei flat!
See, mercy wasn’t something I really understood at the time. I now know that it’s not receiving something you deserve. In my case, it would have been a tougher path in education – one I should rightly have gone on.
But as I look back now, I can clearly see that God was the one who was ordering my paths. In His good pleasure, He didn’t just withhold negative outcomes, He also orchestrated blessings into my life that I couldn’t yet see.
The truth will always be that I deserved none of it.
After the O-Levels, I only just made the cut for Serangoon Junior College (now sadly defunct).
At the time, I was one of two students in the whole cohort who had a unique subject combination: History, Economics, Literature and Physics (H1) – very aptly acronymed as HELP.
I actually worked pretty hard for the two years, but things didn’t work out entirely as planned. While I aced most of my subjects, there was one problem. Big problem.
I got an “S” for Physics.
And no, it doesn’t stand for “Super”. I could wish! I think an “S” grade is what they call a “sub-pass”? Which is a nice way of saying you didn’t manage to screw up entirely.
I knew getting into a local university would be extremely competitive. There must have been hundreds of other students just like me with better grades (and hair that actually connected to the sideburns) and no sub-passes.
Still, with little other choice and whatever time I could scrounge together in the Army, I applied to a handful of institutions.
Against all the odds, I was actually accepted. And not just by the university I had my set my eyes on, but a few more as well!
That’s divine favour!
Then came my university years.
For most undergraduates studying for a general arts degree, writing an honours thesis is supposed to be the big thing.
Only thing is, I wasn’t like most undergraduates. You’d think I would have carried on that great work ethic from my JC years, but I came out of the Army crazy lazy.
I didn’t even know how to S/U modules. Oh, right. When you S/U a module, it basically means you can pretend it never happened and literally erase the grade so it doesn’t affect your cumulative score.
It was what I should have done after my fateful encounter with that Radio Transmissions module when I was feeling foolishly adventurous one semester.
But, alas, I never exercised the option because I
believed in total transparency as an academic was lazy, and it cost me big time as I dropped from Second Upper to Second Lower Honours in my final semester.
Funny thing is, I was looking through my old Instagram account with my wife a few days ago, and we came across a picture of me smiling broadly, holding up my printed and freshly bound honours thesis.
When we look back, we see clearly that the mountains weren’t that high after all.
Where am I going with all this? I guess it would be something like this: At the end of the day, some things aren’t that big of a deal.
And I don’t mean that in a negative sense at all. It’s just, when we go through life, we often come across things at certain points in our journey that seem so huge and massive.
And years on when we look back, we see clearly that the mountains weren’t that high after all.
Like, even for my job. I was consumed with existential fear and was pretty sure I would end up teaching General Paper at a junior college.
But right before I accepted the offer, I spent a week climbing a mountain with my good friend, who told me on the flight about his work – writing Christian content for a website.
He was talking about Thir.st. And that was how I got into the fledgling ministry at the time – through a conversation, not a certification. After nearly two decades of studying for some ideal career, that was how I landed my first job.
But this was just another divine moment, an orchestrated opportunity.
The main reason I wrote this piece is because every now and then, there’s a news report of a young person who tragically takes his or her life.
The newspapers rightfully don’t speculate over why it might have happened, but some possible factors that could lead to such an outcome are desperation, depression or stress.
It’s hard being a student in Singapore, where if you’re not careful, grades and jobs can easily come to define you. I joke a lot, but I genuinely consider myself extremely privileged to have escaped that trap and to even graduate from a local university.
The truth will always be that I deserved none of it. And since you now know most of my story, I’ll tell you one more honest truth. On the house.
It could easily have been me leaning over one of those parapets – but for the hand of God in my life. It could have been me in the papers.
But the only reason where I am today, still drawing breath, still serving, flawed as I am, is because God has always held my life in His hands.
I personally believe He guided my path (beyond the reasons of His good pleasure and will) because I was dedicated to Him as an infant and, at various points in my life, had truly surrendered my all to Him.
I know, without a doubt, that He has been faithful and good to me all my life.
So grades do not define you. Jobs do not define you. Your relationship status does not define you. They don’t if you don’t let them.
What defines us? Where do we get our identity from?
I’ve never been a great student, yet I know by grace that the only right answer to this question lies in the Most High God. God alone should define you.
And when we are willing to take on God’s purpose for our lives, we accept what is best for us. And boy, it’s liberating knowing you’re always travelling first-class no matter how bumpy the road gets.
Are you struggling in life right now? Without trivialising your pain or suffering, allow me to say this: Whatever you’re facing at this moment will pass.
Bad situations and moments don’t detract from the fact that God is good and that we are in the centre of His loving and sovereign will as we submit our lives to Him.
He is sovereign over all. The God who created everything cares for you and directs your paths! His Son died for your sins and rose again, so that you could be with Him someday in paradise.
My friend, God has made a way out for you and I through Jesus Christ.
And all you have to do is take His hand.
THINK + TALK
- Looking back on your life, how have you seen God’s hand guiding you on your path? What can you be thankful for?
- What dreams do you have for your future? Are you able to surrender them to God?
- What encouragement can you hold on to from the Word of God today?