I got my O-level results 10 years ago. Look at me now

The O-level results came out two days ago, and receiving that slip is a momentous part of almost every student's life.

As some laugh and some cry, and some perhaps do both, this week brings me back to 10 years ago, almost to the day - when I too was about to discover what my years of secondary school education would come to.

I was 16 years old, facing the future as the song of life prepared to shift key and move to the next verse. I had hopes and dreams, and I did not know what to expect.

But I was sure that the O levels, with all they represented, would provide guidance and set me on concrete footing for my future.

Now, if I could literally transport my 26-year-old self to face the 16-year-old Jose, and asked him if he recognised the man standing in front of him, he would shake his head. He might even call school security.

I am unrecognisable to myself, in ways I would never have thought.

Take career, for instance. The 16-year-old me wanted to direct movies. The parents of 16-year-old me wanted him to practise law.

I learnt in the years between 16 and 26 that we are all muddling our way through. Though we pretend otherwise, and though some may have more luck than others, nobody really has a clue what they are doing.

I am now a journalist, a job I never expected for myself as a teenager fresh out of secondary school. But here I am, and I deeply enjoy talking to people and writing their stories.

Or look at academics. Secondary 4 Jose thought he might go to film school or study environmentalism.

He ended up learning how to speak Swedish as part of his degree.

Secondary school is a hugely important part of everyone's life, and it significantly impacts your future. But it does not define who you are, even if the fear of failure tells you otherwise.

Last year, The Straits Times reported that Singaporeans were among the world's most stressed and anxious students.


The study, done by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, showed 86 per cent of Singaporean students to be worried about poor grades in school, compared to the global average of 66 per cent.

This fear filters down to the O levels - the examinations that we as teenagers think determine what we end up doing with our lives. But they do not.

The former chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce Banking Commission from 2010 to 2015, Mr Tan Kah Chye, failed his O-level English examination, and later put himself through school in Canada by selling vacuum cleaners and encyclopaedias.

That did not stop him from eventually becoming one of the top bankers in the world.

The 2016 EY Entrepreneur Of The Year, Mr David Low, did not even take his O levels, dropping out of school in Secondary 2 because he said he lacked an environment to study in.

In 2005, he took the helm at Futuristic Store Fixtures, then a small renovation contractor, before turning it into a business with global customers.

A bit farther from home, British billionaire Richard Branson dropped out of school at 16 and made his name in the music industry before moving into space tourism in recent years.

I am willing to bet good money that none of these people knew that their lives would go in those directions when they were at the age of those who got their O-level results last week.

But one does not need to be extremely successful in one's career or earn a high income to be happy, for happiness comes in many forms, be it through family, friends or one's personal interests.

The past 10 years alone have taught me that all the plans that I make for myself probably will not come to pass the way I originally envisioned them.

The 16-year-old me who thought he would go into film has ended up writing stories for a living.

The friendships and ties he has made and lost, sometimes all too unpredictably, in that time have also taught him that bonds he once thought unbreakable can disappear in an instant.

If I have a message for those who just got their O-level results, it is this:

This is only the beginning of a very long journey, a journey that will twist and turn in ways that you will never be able to imagine.

All those adults who seem to know what they are doing with their lives? Their paths lying clearly ahead of them? Nothing but an illusion.

I learnt in the years between 16 and 26 that we are all muddling our way through. Though we pretend otherwise, and though some may have more luck than others, nobody really has a clue as to what they are doing.

Except for your parents. Your parents always know best. My parents too (love you both).

But of course, do not stop making plans. Just know that most of them will change, and that if there is one thing that will see you through the future, it is the ability to roll with the punches.

I still have hopes and I still have dreams, the same as my teenage self. And still, I do not know what to expect.

The only difference is that I feel a little less terrified now, understanding that even when events beyond my control change my plans irreversibly, I can and will strive on.

So regardless of whether you did better, as well, or worse than you expected for your O levels, go out and treat yourself. These few years of education were tough and you deserve a break.

After all, we only have the rest of our lives ahead of us.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 14, 2018, with the headline 'I got my O-level results 10 years ago. Look at me now '. Print Edition | Subscribe