Paths to peaks

Paths to peaks: Charting bold new course, inspired by poly-grad dad

Goh Wei Xiang, 25, had left junior college to take up Nautical Studies at Singapore Polytechnic. As part of his course, he spent about a year working on a tanker where where he could apply what he learnt in classrooms in an actual work environment.
A JC student who later transferred to Singapore Polytechnic, where his father went, Mr Goh Wei Xiang took up nautical studies, like his father, and spent a year working aboard two Greek-owned cargo ships as part of his course requirements. He is now
A JC student who later transferred to Singapore Polytechnic, where his father went, Mr Goh Wei Xiang took up nautical studies, like his father, and spent a year working aboard two Greek-owned cargo ships as part of his course requirements. He is now in a highly competitive graduate programme at global commodity trading and logistics firm Trafigura - the first non-degree holder here to be accepted.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

This is the second of a four-part series on young Singaporeans who have ventured beyond conventional academic tracks and followed their passions

He had gained entry to new, highly sought-after academic paths on Singapore's diversified education landscape, including the International Baccalaureate (IB) and the Integrated Programme (IP).

But when push came to shove, Mr Goh Wei Xiang chose to give up junior college for a polytechnic diploma, as he followed in his father's footsteps.

Not only did he enrol in Singapore Polytechnic (SP), where his father went too, but he also chose nautical studies, the course his father graduated in back in the 1970s.

His mother had reservations about him forsaking a more prestigious route for a diploma, but his father, Mr Goh Pit Ghee, now 58, saw things differently.

The marketing manager for a ship agency, who has spent the bulk of his career in the shipping industry, recommended the course to his son, then in junior college, when he found out that his child was looking at other options.

Now 25, Mr Goh is part of the gasoline operations team at global commodity trading and logistics firm Trafigura, where he is in charge of facilitating petrol cargo shipments to fulfil transactions made round the clock by commodity traders.

Last year, he became the first Singaporean to be accepted into Trafigura's global commodity trading apprenticeship programme.

And just last month, he marked another milestone when he became the first non-degree holder here to join trainees from prestigious universities in the company's highly competitive graduate programme.

As someone who "gets bored quite easily", he relishes the relentless nature of his job as a graduate recruit with Trafigura, where "you are constantly learning, and pushed (so that) you can expand the boundaries of what you think you are capable of".


SHIP Mr Goh, who obtained his nautical studies diploma in 2014, started secondary school at Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), which offered the IB programme.

While there, he found himself craving the more diverse environment of a school in the heartland, where "you are exposed to people from all walks of life". Mr Goh, who lives in a detached house with his family, jumped at the chance to transfer out and join the IP at Temasek Junior College (TJC) in Secondary 3, which allowed students to go directly to the A levels without taking the O levels.

However, in JC1, he made a "poorly advised" choice, picking the science stream instead of the humanities, in which he was stronger. At the end of his first year, he failed several subjects, even though he passed the General Paper and scored an A for project work.

The vice-principal told his parents he had two options - stay back a year to repeat JC1, or transfer to a polytechnic. Choosing the latter was a no-brainer for Mr Goh.

He said: "JC (for me) felt like just pure studying. It was too late to switch to arts by then, and I thought I would enjoy poly a lot more."

So, in 2010, he started a three-year diploma course in nautical studies at SP.

His mother, housewife Elina Goh, 53, said she "wasn't sold on the idea" at first, and thought perhaps he should repeat his first year. She relented when he promised he would work hard at the polytechnic.

She said: "The whole purpose of him joining TJC was to sit the A levels and head to university after.

"I was afraid that he couldn't go anywhere without an O-level certificate. Moreover, studying at a polytechnic requires more discipline since it involves more independent learning, and he clearly had not shown much discipline then."

In contrast, his father was fully supportive from the start.

The elder Mr Goh said: "Even though it is good to have a degree, it isn't a must-have. I do believe that experience and practical knowledge are more important than academics. During my time, I didn't even go to university."

Mr Goh heeded his father's advice and joined SP.

He said: "I just went for something more familiar, and I also wanted something more hands-on after JC. Even if I didn't end up working on a ship, I would have opportunities on shore anyway."


Mr Goh eventually found his groove at SP, spending a year working aboard two Greek-owned cargo ships as part of his course requirements. Coincidentally, one was chartered by Trafigura during his stint.

He started off handling menial tasks such as cleaning and sweeping the ship's deck, which stretched for over 200m - a job that took at least an entire day to complete.

When his colleagues from other countries got to know him better, he was also entrusted with tasks such as helping to plot the ship's position and navigating. They called at ports all over the world, including San Francisco and Rio de Janeiro.

What he enjoyed most was the practical approach. "Most of the things I learnt in the classroom were directly applied during my year on board the ships," he said.

Concepts also sunk in better as failure to apply what he had learnt in class could have had "catastrophic" results. "You could plot something wrongly (on the navigation charts), and the ship could go aground."

He said this experience helped him during his year-long apprenticeship at Trafigura. Besides learning to communicate better with people from different backgrounds, he can also communicate better with cargo and ship operators as a member of Trafigura's gasoline operations team.

"When we charter ships, we tend to make demands on the owners. But having been on board, I know the limitations (and avoid making unreasonable demands), so I try to be more understanding and respectful when I make a request," he said.


After graduating from SP, Mr Goh had a job offer from a shipbroking firm where he had previously completed an internship. He also had a certification from the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers that qualified him for a master's programme in energy, trade and finance at City, University of London, in Britain.

But one day, while surfing the Net and looking for other opportunities in the shipping industry, he chanced upon Trafigura's apprenticeship programme, which was launched in Geneva in 2015 and was expanded to Singapore last year.

Polytechnic and A-level graduates from any subject background can apply for the scheme, which recognises that university might not be the best route for all individuals. They can then be fast-tracked to the company's two-year global graduate programme, which rotates them through three postings and offers opportunities to work at Trafigura's overseas offices.

Mr Goh said he was surprised to learn about this opportunity. After sending in his application in June last year, he was accepted into the programme, which started in September last year. "I had the impression that, to get into a trading house (like Trafigura), you needed to be a graduate with first-class honours or a double degree," he said.

The apprenticeship programme is now accepting applications for its second run in Singapore. Trafigura Group's Asia-Pacific chief executive Tan Chin Hwee said the firm hopes to convince parents and society at large of the value of skills-based qualifications, by offering good career pathways for non-graduates.

Mr Goh sees his acceptance into Trafigura's graduate programme as a vindication of his decision to take up a diploma course instead of the paper chase. Now, his two younger brothers, aged 21 and 23, have also chosen the polytechnic route.

Of the way his career has developed, he said: "It's been a nice turn of events. The ship (where I worked) used to carry Trafigura's commodities and cargo, but now, I'm the one telling the vessel where to go."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 01, 2017, with the headline 'Charting bold new course, inspired by poly-grad dad'. Print Edition | Subscribe