2014 Year-End Review (Part 1) – A Gap Year of Exploration

Wow… Time really flies, perhaps faster than ever before. It’s hard to believe that a year has passed because I still have very vivid memories of all the events that happened in the past year (and even further back in time).

I’ll have to say that the year 2014 has been the most challenging year ever. Yet, despite all these challenges and occasional set-backs, I feel like I’ve grown a lot, and gained a lot of insights. And to top that off, I’ve met a lot of profoundly inspiring and amazing people, many of whom have restored my faith in humanity, and given me new lenses with which to see the world.

It’s amazing!

In order to make sense of 2014, I really should talk about it in the context of 2013, only because 2013 was the year that I made a few major decisions on what to do with my life, and it’s only in 2014 that many of these decisions began to unfold in interesting ways.

(I realised, having written so much, that it would be unrealistic to cram all my year-end reviews in a single post. So I’ll split it into several parts. Here’s Part 1…)


A Gap Year of Exploration

At the end of my undergraduate life, I decided to take a gap year from study, so that I could take a step back to explore my options and discover what I might want to do with my life.

I was quite burnt out in my final year of university, to the extent that I didn’t want to go through the ordeal of writing papers night after night. It seems that the experience was so bad that it has developed in me, a small yet powerful dread of writing, to the extent that I don’t enjoy writing very much. In the past, I could just sit in front of the keyboard and words would flow from my mind through my fingers onto the screen. But now, I’m always confronted with a dread and a kind of mental block. Words don’t flow so easily, and it takes me some time to settle down and calm my mind to overcome that psychological obstacle.

Much as I love academic philosophy, I always had this nagging feeling that I might not want to pursue this, or at least not in the way that I encountered it in my undergraduate life. I love the learning, I love reading, I love the process of growth, but I just do not enjoy the painful process of writing academic papers. (But as I slowly come to realise: three positives versus one negative, maybe that’s not too bad? There is no career that is 100% enjoyable, is there? Well, that’s something I still need to discover for myself)

So, instead of plunging myself into graduate school like many of my peers. I figured it would be better to try other things. But I had a lot of reluctance because I couldn’t seem to find a first job that really interested me. Moreover, I was quite afraid that I’d end up doing mindless, meaningless tasks, no more than a cog in the machine.

That all changed one day when I met a professor for lunch one day. (Some introduction to the professor:) This was Prof. Lo Yuet Keung from the NUS Chinese Department. I never thought I would sit in for a class taught in Mandarin, but I did back when I was in my first year (2009). It was the only Chinese philo module that was offered at that time. Though I didn’t understand Chinese very well, I was blown-away by what I could understand. But most of all, Prof. Lo made a very deep and profound impression on me. He was the first person I encountered whom you could call a junzi (君子 gentleman). I looked at him and told myself: this is the type of awesome person I’d like to be. I wanted to study Chinese philosophy the way he did, to be transformed by the wisdom of the ancient philosophers, as he was.

Anyway, many years later, I was very touched to find out from a friend that Prof. Lo remembers me (even though I never interacted with him during or after class in any of his modules). So I decided to drop him an e-mail, asking if it were possible to have lunch. And we did. It was by far, the most life-changing lunch appointment ever. I shared with him my hesitations on applying for a job, and told him that maybe I should take up a course or some certification class. In reply, he said something that changed my reality for the better:

Prof. Lo said: “Why bother paying money to learn a skill, when you can be paid to learn?” He went on to elaborate that I should perceive each and every job as a course in itself. Lessons and insights to acquire every step of the way (and you get paid as well – a double bonus!).

That changed the way I looked at the world, and it helped me with my search. With great confidence, I set out to apply. I eventually landed with a job at an electronics company, handling both the marketing of electronics and training the people who used it. It was a lot of fun.

Half a year later, I got a call from Nanyang Technological University (NTU). They heard that I was looking for a research-related job, and they offered me a position to co-develop a course on Chinese philosophy with the Dean of the College, who was also quite a big name in the field of Chinese philosophy. It was an opportunity too good to miss. And I figured this would be ideal, as it might help me to decide whether or not I should pursue academia as a career.

I said yes, and it was by far the best decision of my life.

It’s been 10 months since I joined NTU. There’s been many challenges and difficult moments. But every step of the way has been meaningful, and it’s been great.

The greatest highlight of my time in NTU was to be involved in a project exploring ways to overcome the East-West barrier, how Chinese philosophy might help to enrich complexity thinking in the sciences (and social sciences), and how the two might just be related to each other. As part of this project, we organised two surveying workshops and invited several prominent researchers, directors of research institutes, and top public servants from around the world. It was amazing sitting in the midst of great and brilliant people.

This very experience gave me two very deep and profound realisations: (1) Firstly, it made me realise that my training in academic philosophy was insufficient in enabling me to comment on policy issues or matters of current affairs. I could listen and critique the ideas of others, but I’ve been unable to formulate anything positive on my part. This has been important to me as I’ve always aspired to be a public intellectual, using my philosophical skills to comment or critique pressing issues of society, or provide ideas, solutions or insights into certain matters. I always felt a sense of this inability, and in some ways, I’ve struggled with trying to write about such matters. But it was during those discussions that this inability became strongly apparent. Here I was, struggling with my training, knowledge, skills, and insights, yet what could I say? I could only speak theoretically (and naively even) about ideals, and I was unable to translate or connect it back to real events or issues. It was a challenge.

(2) Secondly, I came to the realisation that when you study philosophy along with several other disciplines, you will gain very interesting insights that you would not have acquired simply from the study of philosophy alone, or even from a mere interdisciplinary study of philosophy with one other discipline. No, it’s not just about one or two disciplines coming together. It is about bringing several disciplines together like a complete package (e.g. studying these disciplines together at the same time on a particular issue: philosophy, economics, politics, sociology, history). It is through this approach, that one could see certain issues very differently.

These two insights have changed my priorities and objectives. While I would still like to pursue a PhD in Philosophy, I would nonetheless like to branch out and study something else, maybe related to philosophy, but also related to other disciplines, as a good stepping stone in enabling me to address the two realisations above. I’m applying now for a Masters programme. But I’ll say more later once I’m done writing the proposal. What I can say now is that I’m going to take a rather unconventional route, but it seems that this choice will open more doors for me, and lead me to far greater growth.

With 2014 coming to an end, I realised I exceeded the time frame I gave myself when I took the gap year. I expected myself to have started graduate studies by now, or at least to move on to begin building my career.

For a while, I felt rather guilty, but recently, a very brilliant person commented that we all have cycles of activity and cycles of recuperation. Rather than to be worried about not being in the active cycle, I should instead focus (and not feel guilty) about my recuperation period, to recover and prepare myself intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally for all the great challenges and obstacles that will come my way once I begin graduate studies.

There should always be progress, but progress is to be made in the context of cycles of activity and recuperation. When such cycles are disrupted in the name of “progress”, it is not progress but haste. And it is in haste that we lose all insights and direction, and it is because of haste that we tire easily and burn ourselves much sooner than we expect.

In that case, I look forward to prepare myself slowly yet steadily for the changes to come next year.

With a new year starting, I think I now have a sense of what I’d like to pursue, at least over the next few years. In so many ways, I’m glad I didn’t simply rush into graduate school. I wouldn’t have had so many opportunities and life-changing insights. In 2013, I struggled so much trying to find some solution as to what to do next with my life, and thankfully, in 2014, I think I found the answer.

It has been a good year.

The Consummation and End of My Undergraduate Life (and What is to Come)

I’ve finally graduated!

After four exhausting years of toil, of literally blood (having gone to the hospital thrice and getting needles injected all over my body), sweat, and coffee, I’ve survived university and graduated!

Well, as some of you know, I’ve been pretty busy  finishing my Honours Thesis in my last and final semester.

My thesis was entitled, “Notions of Harmony in Classical Chinese Thought.” In it, I set out to investigate and reconstruct all the various notions of harmony that could be found in the Analects, Mozi, Daodejing, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and the Xunzi. The problem with much of the scholarship on harmony is that scholars have often assumed harmony to be more or less the same idea across thinkers throughout Chinese history. My project was to demonstrate that this is not so. (If you are interested in reading it, please leave me a comment, and I’ll e-mail it to you!)

The final week before the Thesis submission deadline was extremely stressful as I was up almost every night until 3-4am trying my best to edit and polish up the paper.

Friday, 26 April 2013 was the thesis submission deadline and thankfully, I managed to finish my thesis by then.

That day was, for me, a very momentous occasion – it was the big day where after one entire year of researching and writing, the time has finally come for the paper to be printed and submitted! Wow… You know, I never thought it would ever have been possible to write such a lengthy paper. My thesis was approximately 12000 words, and it consisted of 42 pages! That’s right! 42! The number, the answer to life, the universe, and everything!

Somehow, the entire day felt like a momentous victory! I met a friend at the library who was more than happy to help me photograph the momentous occasion while I printed my thesis:

Waiting anxiously for my thesis to be printed - all 41 pages of it!
Waiting anxiously for my thesis to be printed – all 41 pages of it!


Proudly displaying the printed thesis! Notice the disheveled hair from the many overnight editing/writing marathons.
Proudly displaying the printed thesis! Notice the disheveled hair from the many overnight editing/writing marathons.


The finished product: complete with binding!

The finished product: complete with binding!


It was somewhat unfortunate that I didn’t have the time to bind my paper into a hardcover book (which was the tradition for submitting theses). Oh well, I didn’t have the luxury of time to do it. But that’s ok. Hardcover isn’t a submission requirement.

With the Honours Thesis out of the way, I felt a huge burden lifted from my shoulders.

But I could not heave a sigh of relief yet as I still had exams to study and sit for. And so, after a day of rest, it was back to the books.

Unfortunately, the exams didn’t end on a very happy note. My last exam was an engineering module (for the life of me, I still don’t understand why on earth did I decide to do an engineering module). It wasn’t an introductory module either (I really have no idea why I put myself through such pains). Anyway, it was the last exam of my undergraduate life, but the paper was so difficult, I was faced with a very real possibility of failing the paper. I counted the marks of the questions where I think I would have gotten right, and I only had just enough to pass. If bell-curve moderation was not in my favour, there was the very very real possibility that I would have failed this paper, and worse of all, I would have to repeat a semester. Gosh… It was a very horrible feeling to have while walking out of the exam hall.

But no matter. A few days after that traumatic experience of the final exam, I was out of the country for a holiday to Penang (I’ll write more about it later). Then it was off to Kuala Lumpur to run some errands and enjoy a bit of holiday by the side. The Girlfriend’s grandmother came down to Singapore some time back and discovered the wonders of the Internet, specifically YouTube, and she wanted to have this amazing Internet in her home. So I volunteered to go down to KL and help buy and set up a computer and an Internet connection. And after Kuala Lumpur, I was off to Bangkok. These three places were amazing in their own way, and I think I’ve grown and learnt a lot while I was there. (But I’ll keep all those thoughts for another blog entry here).

Let me just fast forward by about 2 months to the last seven days leading up to my graduation ceremony.

Gosh… It was quite an exciting week! I was given the opportunity to present a section of my Honours Thesis at an international philosophy conference. It was the 2013 Joint Meeting of the Society of Asian Comparative Philosophy (SACP) and the Australasia Society of Asian Comparative Philosophy (ASACP).

Name tag for the conference. It's such an honour and privilege for an undergraduate/fresh graduate like me to be present wearing this name tag amidst a crowd of about a hundred professors and PhD students all over the world, and to present a paper just like them!
Name tag for the conference. It’s such an honour and privilege for an undergraduate/fresh graduate like me to be present wearing this name tag amidst a crowd of about a hundred professors and PhD students all over the world, and to present a paper just like them!


Not only was I busy helping out with some of the logistic matters, I was also rushing to edit and present my paper for the event. It had been two months since I last wrote papers. It felt good to be writing a paper once again. I had a cup of coffee by my side, soft piano music playing in the background, and I was all ready to write my paper all the way into the midst of the night. So for three consecutive nights, there I was sitting before my computer, typing away until 3am. It was tiring, but it felt so good to be engaging in this paper writing ritual. There’s something so comforting and wonderful about the experience.

Monday, 8 July 2013. At last, it was the day of the Conference. I had to present my paper on the first day, in the afternoon before many academics, some of whom were really really BIG names in the area of Chinese Philosophy. It was intimidating, but nonetheless, a huge honour!

The paper I presented was entitled, “Reconciling Culinary and Musical Models in Classical Chinese Thought.” There’s been some sort of academic debate where there is disagreement as to whether the culinary and musical models of harmony have merged into a single unified notion or remain as two separate models in classical Chinese thought. In my paper, I attempted to present a new way of looking at the relation of the two models and how they can be reconciled together into a single theory despite remaining as two separate yet distinct models.

Did you notice the Dao (道) on my laptop? It's a MacBook Air. I took a piece of card and cut out the Chinese character and pasted it over the Apple logo. It's perfect for a Chinese philosophy conference!
Did you notice the Dao (道) on my laptop? It’s a MacBook Air. I took a piece of card and cut out the Chinese character and pasted it over the Apple logo. It’s perfect for a Chinese philosophy conference!


The cup of coffee on the left was meant to keep me going throughout my paper presentation. I was running on only three hours of sleep.
The cup of coffee on the left was meant to keep me going throughout my paper presentation. I was running on only three hours of sleep.


It turns out that my paper presentation was a huge success! Everybody present enjoyed it and they found the contents very interesting!

The biggest WOW experienced I had was during another panel’s Q&A session. One professor (Prof. Alan K. L. Chan), who is quite a big name in Chinese philosophy replied my question saying that he actually had read my Honours Thesis during his flight to Singapore, and he found it (to quote him), “an enjoyable read” and that it “was very interesting.” Immediately after that, the people sitting on my left and right turned to me asking if I could send my thesis to them.

WOW! If writing an Honours Thesis is meant to make one feel honoured, I think it’s working! I felt so honoured at that moment. Wow…

Anyway, the conference was really amazing. I had the chance to meet so many amazing people. It was also pretty amazing to finally see the faces of people whose books and papers I’ve read and cited in my papers. To be standing amongst the greats in Chinese philosophy from around the world… Woah… All I can say is that it was very inspiring and really awesome to see a bunch of people who are just so passionate about what they’re doing. It was lovely.

The conference went on for three whole days! On the fourth day, Thursday, 11 July 2013, it was finally the day of my graduation ceremony!

Four years of hard work has finally led up to this epic moment:

Notice the Chinese calligraphy necktie?
Notice the Chinese calligraphy necktie?


Let me now present you with the fruit of my labour – the fruit that took four years of coffee, blood and sweat (no tears thankfully):

OMG!!! First Class Honours!!! I never thought that this day would have been possible!
OMG!!! First Class Honours!!! I never thought that this day would have been possible!


You know, it’s crazy… Ever since my first year in university, I never thought that it would be possible for me – a person who came from the science stream and who initially majored in Computer Engineering – to be able to get this.

But with lots of hard work and the encouragement and support from The Girlfriend, the wonderful professors in the NUS Philosophy Department, and all my other friends both online and offline, I was able to endure and persevere all the way till the end.

So what’s next? Well, if you asked me this question two months ago, I would have only been able to shrug my shoulders and sheepishly reply, “I don’t know.”

But since last month, I’ve slowly come to realise that my true calling is in academia, and especially in (Chinese) Philosophy. In the past months, I’ve been looking through job ads after job ads, and I was never really interested in what was on offer. The greatest tragedy perhaps, was the constant thought of never having to pursue philosophy once again. Every time I contemplated that thought, a part of me dies. It was painful.

It was only at a recent farewell party for a professor that I realised that I should do whatever I can to pursue philosophy. There and then, we were having a fantastic time discussing philosophical issues. My heart was on fire once again after quite a period of dreaded boredom. The pursuit of wisdom has left me thirsting yet for more.

The pursuit of philosophy is an arduous process. It is mentally and even physically exhausting staying up late just to research, think, and write. But it is a process that I value so greatly. These four years of my philosophical pursuits have transformed me in many wonderful ways. And I wish to continue to be transformed, and shaped by the pursuit of wisdom, just as how it has transformed and shaped the professors in the Philosophy Department here in NUS. I’ve interacted with many of them, and all I can say is that I feel like I’ve been interacting with wise exemplary sages.

I want to be as wise and awe-inspiring as they are, and continue to pass on this most splendid and awesome tradition.

But in the mean time, I’ll take a year’s break from study to work. I intend to focus on publishing at least one paper in an academic journal. That would help me get a better chance of securing full funding for a PhD scholarship. And by next year, I shall be off to some other country to pursue my studies in Chinese Philosophy.

It looks like I have a really exciting life waiting for me in the years to come. I look forward to that as I take life one step at a time.