Tong Yee started out as a public-school teacher, teaching General Paper at Nanyang Junior College. After setting up a successful community outreach program to provide tuition for repeat students in Singapore, he thereafter co-founded School of Thought to continue to promote educational innovation and civic learning in both the private and public sector. In this interview, Digital Senior sits down with Tong Yee to find out more about what keeps him motivated at what he is doing.
1) Share with us the activities you took part in while studying English and Theatre in NUS. Why English and Theatre of all majors?
I really only chose to do theatre because I perceived it to be easy, but it turned the other way around. Post-army, I think I did not have a good sense of how to best use my time in university, so I picked what I enjoyed. I majored in English as well because I wanted to teach it as a subject. That was the purpose behind doing English and theatre.
Back then, there was so much security in Singapore that you just sort of followed the track of the tried and tested. There was not much thought given in what major to pick. I was from the arts stream during the A-levels, so this seemed like the natural choice. The jobs which were very encouraged in the past was to be a doctor, lawyer, accountant or teacher. There was indeed very little job diversity back then.
In NUS, theatre took up most of my time. I also handled the NUSSU hotline, where we were trained as hotline counsellors to counsel students who felt stressed and depressed. I was mainly involved in hotline and theatre productions. I lived five minutes away from NUS thus I did not stay in the halls.
2) What are your takeaways from your education life?
I met only one good teacher who gave me very strong mentoring in terms of career trajectory or honing developments. My real development only started post-university. I didn’t find school life extremely fulfilling.
3) Why did you choose to become a General Paper teacher after graduation? What is your greatest takeaway from this teaching stint?
Right after NUS, the hope was to follow on a career at Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) as I was given a few hosting stints to host on live TV and I was also part of the cast of Under One Roof. But I couldn’t commit to the filming due to my conscription commitments and conflicting schedule that time. After graduating from NUS, I was given a chance to relief teach as the tutor, who was my ex-GP tutor, was going to pursue a Masters.
Unfortunately, she passed on during her Masters in an accident, and I think fate took it that I continued to stay on as I believed that it was a sort of legacy I was fulfilling to carry on her work for two years.
I spent two years doing relief teaching and another subsequent four years of full-fledged teaching in NYJC after one year in NIE. I realised then I was a late bloomer and my work experience as a teacher helped me in my social enterprise later in my life. I internalised that nothing was impossible, and I was fearless. I never took a single year for granted.
Our experiences are pivotal in shaping us, and I take successes and failures very seriously. One episode, if not handled well, can result or lead to multiple years of repair, so I tend to take other people’s failures very seriously.
I must find meaning in all that I do. All are developmental for me, including playing strategy games and computer games which shaped how I think.
I found that the teaching of general paper really allowed me to understand context and context is crucial. A lot of evaluations made in life also comes down to context. Upon further analysis, many things can take different directions if you study context deeper or further. It is part of your nurturing and I hope young people learn to invest in their own maturity. Looking back, I feel that context and perspectives are crucial. Investing in our maturity is also very vital. It is about how many layers of identity we can access.
Maturity is so important to me because it means how many identities you can access. Maturity is a result of experiences and perspectives, so the more experiences we gain, the more perspectives we get, the more identities will surface. My identity is a son, father, husband, citizen, thought leader, teacher, mentor, coach, trainer, etc.
Maturity is the result of the growth of your identity. I am always forced to contend with a new identity. You never make your personality an excuse for your character. Character is borne out by choice, but personality is born from a disposition, what I am inclined to be. Life is not always pleasure. Embrace the joy of suffering. Suffering brings perseverance and that brings character. If you suffer willingly, you are going to mature. Make the pain worth it. I very willingly and happily suffer and am a better man for it afterwards.
4) What was the inspiration behind The Thought Collective?
Honestly, it was built from serendipity and providence. I really doubt it was a matter of intentionally and ambition as it was a result of experimenting with different things and then growing it into what it is today. At the end of the day, it is more about the quality of relationships and quality of trust. We want to grow a network of people who believe in similar causes, and we found ways to make it sustainable. It was really providence who brought us to where we are now.
5) You’re a board member in the National Youth Council (NYC), Singapore Memory Project, ACCORD (Mindef), Advisor for Youth Corps Singapore (YCS), Families for Life and the Media Literacy Council (MLC). What insights can you share with us based on what you’re learnt and experienced?
It is clear to me that through all these committees–Singapore’s success does not rest on the government alone. In fact, the government really, really, needs the help of its people. I can’t emphasise that enough. They need to engage with the civil societies and that is the reason why I am in these committees. It is paramount for us to see how we can engage our partners, how we share the challenges that Singapore has, and that kind of engagement is highly necessary.
The biggest takeaway from all these committees that I am in is that if there are citizens willing to stand up and respond to these greater things, you don’t have always have to sing to the government’s tunes. I could be pro-Singapore and understand the general needs of the community, yet at the same time I could defer with the government in meetings and still be praised, and thankful for that point of view. All those talks about the government not listening to the public is, more often than not, us failing to understand the current context that Singapore is in. Your solutions need to be context-specific. Your solutions can’t be one dimensional as it must take into consideration the multiple contexts that are happening.
6) Did you have a role model that you looked up to while growing up?
I subscribe to the three main principles of the French government: liberty, equality and fraternity. The idea behind it is that although we have equality, it is only in the combination of the three that society starts to work.
I love the princesses in the classic Disney movies. Mulan was my role model. To be exact, all the Disney princesses are my role models. There is something about the films, the idealism and how they each go through trials and find hope in the end. The world of fiction and narratives is the best role model because, in the modern world and reality, it is very hard to find role models who are perfect. I have no problem with mythology and fictions as ideals largely exist in them. In my opinion, the roles models are the ones that fail well, recover and go back in humility to learn. I have learnt not to idolise. Everyone suffers.
All our assessments change with perspectives and context. Try not to be prejudiced against anyone as we are all humans and we need time to grow. Character is tested when they go through tribulations like fighting cancer and other life-changing events. No one can study their way out of cancer and challenges, we all must dig deep and find a way out.
7) What is one thing you will tell you past self and your future self?
Past self: don’t be so hard on yourself. Future self: Don’t be so hard on yourself.
8) What is one advice you have for young undergraduates who are still looking to find their purpose in life?
Everyone will go through success and pitfalls. The key thing is to have resilience. Why do you still care and innovate? It is about your values system, what are your values and beliefs? Your calling is not found in your 20s. Your 20s is all about finding what you want to commit to for the next ten years. Following that, it is when you gain personal mastery and try to influence things in your 30s. Ask yourself, are you making a difference or impact on people’s lives? Make positive and constructive changes to what you believe in, in your daily work. Take time to find out.
More about Tong Yee
School of Thought has since evolved to become The Thought Collective, a growing group of social enterprises that focus on building social and emotional capital in Singapore. Besides School of Thought, The Thought Collective consists of Think Tank Publishing, a publishing arm that specializes in information design and curation; Thinkscape, a learning experience company that specializes in building cultural and institutional narratives; Food for Thought, a socially conscious restaurant business; and Common Ground, a social innovation consultancy that seeks to design sustainable solutions for today’s most pressing problems.
Tong Yee currently serves as one of the 3 directors of The Thought Collective. He aims to optimise the organisation’s strong cross-sector networks to design a new way forward, allowing Singaporeans to think, live and serve as a community. Having struggled through his earlier academic progress himself, Tong Yee has developed much empathy for people who have experienced failure in their lives, and channels this compassion to connecting with others, leading them to create new possibilities in their lives. Some of Tong Yee’s present endeavours include leading a new prototype of family service centres, designing thought-provoking educational experiences through trail innovation, and initiating novel and compelling social movements in the hope of creating a more gracious and loving society.
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