Photo credit : Vincepal | Flickr
I had it all figured out. At 23, I had a first class honours degree from the London School of Economics and a Masters from Cambridge. I was going to work at one of the most prestigious management-consulting firms in the world.
After two years, I would get my Masters in Business Administration from a top-notch business school, probably Harvard University or the University of Chicago, and be made partner before I turned 35. Two years later, I was told that I was not cut out for management consulting. I faced two broad options. The first was to continue my corporate career and look for a job in banking, a multinational corporation, or another management consultancy. The second was to pursue a career in political research.
The former was safer and more financially attractive, while I had no idea where the latter would lead me. Perhaps it was the stubbornness (or stupidity?) of youth that pushed me to choose the latter, and it became the second best decision of my life after asking my wife to marry me.
One month after I got a job at an MCA-affiliated think-tank, I was in Washington DC with former DAP assemblyman Lim Guan Eng, watching an NBA game featuring Michael Jordan! This was after I attended a conference where he debated with Khairy Jamaluddin and the late Adlan Benan Omar.
I also managed to get myself involved in a project on electoral reform in Malaysia at IKMAS, a social science research centre at UKM. Sponsored by the Fredriech Naumann Foundation, the project allowed me to meet some of the most prominent political scientists in Malaysia including Francis Loh, Noraini Othman, Khoo Boo Teik, Mavix Puthucheary, and Lim Hong Hai. We had some very meaningful discussions on electoral systems and electoral reform in Malaysia!
At present, I am completing my PhD thesis at Duke University, confident that many other interesting life and career experiences await me. If someone had told me that at 34, I would be pursuing my PhD instead of driving around in a BMW Z3 back in Malaysia as partner in a management consultancy, I would have laughed in disbelief. Yet here I am, a better person now because of the career choice I made. If I had stayed on in the corporate world, I would not have gained the variety of experiences that I did.
I would not have been invited to blog about Malaysian education matters by a friend, Tony Pua, who would later become the assembly person for Petaling Jaya Utara (visit the blog at www.educationmalaysia.blogspot.com). I would not have mingled with so many Malaysian politicians of all stripes and from various parties, as well as social and religious activists from diametrically opposite ends of the political sphere (from ABIM leaders to progay rights activists).
I would not have had the opportunity to specialise in a niche area of political science (malapportionment and gerrymandering) in the Malaysian context which few others have studied in great detail. I would not have gotten to know the ‘Southern’ culture and way of life in the United States as well as I did. I would not have witnessed a match-winning last second half-court shot by a Duke basketball player at the Cameron Indoor Stadium.
I would not have had lunch with Reverend Samuel ‘Billy’ Kyles, the last person to see Dr. Martin Luther King alive, or been able to worship at his predominantly African American church, the Monumental Baptist Church, in Memphis, Tennessee.
I would not have flown in a Navy airplane, landed on the USS Kittyhawk somewhere in the South China Sea, and experienced the pressure of a ‘slingshot’ takeoff from the same aircraft carrier. I would not have driven from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, through Yellowstone National Park, and to Bozeman, Montana, where I had my ‘A River Runs Through It’ moment.
Often, the reward for taking the path less travelled is not monetary but experiential. Most people will not have a clear idea of their future immediately after SPM. And even if they think they do, as was the case for me, life comes along and changes one’s priorities and aspirations.
One of my favourite lines from a great movie goes:
What we do in life echoes in eternity.
While most of us will not be placed in a position to make decisions that will affect hundreds or thousands of people, what we can do is seek experiences. Experiences that inspire us to do our part in ensuring that our actions do touch others in small ways, with the hope that the impact of these acts will indeed echo in eternity. Now, surely that is something to aim for after finishing SPM?
Ong Kian Ming is torn between being a hopeless romantic and a hardheaded pragmatist. He hopes that he will lead an exciting and fulfilling life with his wife when they go back to Malaysia after getting his head permanently damaged.
Note: The above entry was written in 2010 for What’s After SPM?, published in 2011. This non-for-profit book project is a collaboration between Leaderonomics and a team of young Malaysians. Click here for details on the project and authors.
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