PSC Scholarship: Yes, Maybe, No

psc choice

I write this so that, years down the road, I can remember my exact state of mind when making this choice that had a bearing on how I choose to lead my life. It’s arguably the most monumental decision I’ve had to make in my brief 19 years of existence. This is a raw, honest, reflective account that is ultimately personal. I don’t intend to extol or belittle, but to interrogate and ask questions. It’s important not to accept easy answers.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

What is a life worth living?

The question haunted me in the empty dining room. My table was a realm of spilling notes, mockingly optimistic highlighters, and the ticking tension of dwindling hours. But this revision orbit was like a vacuum in time — it balanced on the pinpoint of desire for straight As but easily took over my life; yet, it was peripheral to all achievements and sufferings of mankind. My stress levels had overshot the mark and I was suddenly aware of how laughably trivial this entire endeavor was.

Exam revision was at once obsessive yet alienating.

I was having a crisis, in the twilight weeks of September 2016, right before my Preliminary Exams.

I had questioned myself on what I wanted to do with my life at many junctures. But the answer I had gripped tightly in my hand for years now paled in the face of an expanding abyss of disillusionment.

I want to give back to my country by joining the civil service. 

My mind clamored for some sort of meaning behind that. Something, anything that could put all the opportunities and insights my education has given me, this having of knowledge, all the ceaseless striving to wield it, and this grueling pre-‘A Levels’ period in perspective. It rang hollow.



To be very honest, my dreams have taken strange turns and detours and roundabouts.

I wanted to be a writer for years, before deciding to be a lawyer when I was 11.

Sometime in my secondary school years, before I knew it, my dreams had shifted in one direction — to be a civil servant, specifically, a foreign service officer. In retrospect, it was so widely endorsed by everyone who heard that I never bothered to think too hard about it.

I had a lot of other dreams that ebbed and flowed over the years. To excavate the stories of obscured histories and marginalized peoples, to question assumptions and drive action with cultural understanding, to be a cartographer of the heart… These dreams were nebulous, without the reassuring sturdiness of an occupationally safe and established aspiration.

The society feeds us words through which we filter our beliefs and experiences. Cloaked in those other dreams, I had felt insecure and adrift. Saying the two words “civil servant” offered a resounding sense of certainty, backed by societal endorsement and centuries of veneration for entering the government that is rooted in the Asian psyche. The nugget of truth in the age-old adage handed down to my young mind was powerful — Confucious had said, “A good scholar becomes an official(学而优则仕).” How could he be wrong?



I received a thick package in the mail on a warm February morning this year.

Thank you for applying for a PSC scholarship and for considering a career in the Singapore Public Service. I’m pleased to inform you that the PSC has decided to offer you a scholarship. Congratulations!

A yes was lingering at the brink of my mind.

I thought about what will probably be a sufficiently fulfilling career in the Public Service, playing a part in protecting, building and advancing the potential of this magical country that has given me so much. I thought about what everyone, most of all my parents, expected me to be. I thought about my hefty college tuition fees that the scholarship would cover and the calculated comfort of a firm 6-year job offer.

I thought and thought and thought.



It is dangerous to avoid difficult questions or even answerless ones.

What is a life worth living? Right now, I say this: a life worth living is a well-examined one. That means to interrogate and to interpret my motivations behind every choice and what I truly want from life. To ask, self-aware, why this, but not that? To seek to not lose sight of what gives me meaning.

I had thought very carefully about the prospect of a 6-year bond in the Public Service, or what might even turn into decades there. My thoughts had unwittingly crept towards the whimsical idea of writing a novel in my free time, in anticipation of one day when I would finally have the money or the opportunity to delve wholeheartedly into creating creative content.

Why this winding, circuitous path filled with digressions towards my keenest dream?

Let me admit this: I was cowardly. I wanted to leave as many doors opened as possible — to have the financial security of a formulaic career while dabbling in the unpredictable. I did not want to break free from the habitual momentum of being on a smooth-sailing path that will lead me to conventionally defined success. Call me risk-averse or afraid of failure. All these labels were spot-on.

It was very telling by the direction of my thoughts that I sought to postpone my dreams of writing and that I saw a public service career as a safety net that might enable my dream, not as a true calling.

After all these reflections, my true ambition did not grow more apparent to me. But being painfully honest with myself revealed to me that right now it for sure was not the public service.

On 28 April 2017, I replied to the secretariat. I decided not to take up the PSC scholarship.


There is nothing wrong with the first part of this sentence:

I want to give back to my country

It is most admirable and also what I aspire to do. The logical extension of this is to then ask: How can I create the most value for the society?

In an ever-changing world, there exists a limitless array of callings for each of us.

But, why is it that most of us, by a certain age, begin to subconsciously gravitate towards one rote path? Why is the widespread mentality that we can only give back to the country if we are in the civil service?

I do deeply admire those working in the civil service who find it their true calling in life. But I wonder how many have lost sight of their true ambitions, trapped by their yearnings for what is financially secure and what society deems prestigious. And I do also ponder about those, bound to the words they signed on a page at 19, who feel their dreams slowly die in the claustrophobia of bureaucracy and who, in their thirties, settle with resignation and listen to their souls heave a sigh at the opportunities that they are too tired to fight for. What we do inevitably alters the fabric of who we are — we are the sum total of our choices; every choice to postpone a dream might just mean that you drift further apart from it.

Interestingly, one argument that won my parents over was the fact that Singaporeans are the only ones who are confronted by an abundance of safe, prestigious options. It’s not like every other 18 or 19-year-old in the world doesn’t face immense uncertainty in life. The existence of lucrative government scholarships in Singapore has fostered a unique situation: many Singaporean youths are fearful of taking a less trodden path. An unprecedented number of top students choose to be civil servants when they could have become entrepreneurs, artists, mathematicians, scientists, writers, innovators, public intellectuals in civil society and whatnot.

Nowhere else in the world do other youths our age have such an option of immense security. So, how can Singaporean youths be less risk-averse when the opportunity cost of risk-taking is so big?

I admit that uncertainty is daunting, but it is the inescapable truth of life. We all constantly face the looming void of blank, unwritten next chapters.

But uncertainty also means freedom. Freedom to not have your life figured out at the age of 19, freedom to explore every dimension of you, freedom to mold your sense of purpose with the pressing challenges of our era, freedom to experiment with failure and learn how to not fear it, freedom to shape the trajectory of life with all the new possibilities that you could not have known of at 19.

Freedom to combine what you love to do with giving back to society.

Freedom to see the world as a young idealistic mind, to stand independent, grow informed, and to have both the wisdom and the ability to choose. Come back to join the public service after you’ve seen more of the world, understood more of yourself and know that it is your calling.

Value this freedom. It’s quite underrated in our society. Many things in life are far more important than a sense of security. Value the promise of uncertainty over the comforts of the predetermined.

Such is life: I don’t know what’s next, when it ends, or what it means. So I choose to tread the path that leads directly to my yet unarticulated dream — I will likely stumble, pick myself up once, twice, again and again, but I keep in heart a powerful reminder: the shortest distance between me and my dream is reliably a straight line, not a constantly deviating path. So, I embrace the autonomy I now have, and boldly, foolishly move forward with faith.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Macau: Casino Lights Dancing


It felt like the universe had conspired in magnanimity to lay out before me all the stars it had in its pouch.

There’s a boy seated next to me at the roulette. It’s a round-table congregation of tense, weeping or energetic men (some slightly crazy-eyed); this boy who seems unperturbed by it all; and then there’s me, scribbling devoutly. 

We all stare intensely at the spinning wheel at the center and at the blur of white making its rounds. As the ball swerves intently on the circular track, my mind leaps and stumbles, doubts and hopes. It is a scene of magnificent contrasts and soft ironies: the ball’s mechanical steadiness and the wild rocking of our pendular minds; the slowing wheel and our increasingly hitched breaths.

I feel the boy’s gaze boring into my score-keeping card carelessly lying in the space between us. I cast a cursory glance in my card’s direction–it’s just unkempt rows of crosses and numbers I have been scrawling in red and blue ink, in a clumsy attempt to spot a trend.

Hey, he finally speaks after we’ve both been aware of each other’s presence for the last thirty minutes, you’ve got that number wrong. 

I glance back at my sheet at where his finger points. Oh, you’re right, I say, crossing 32 (red) out and writing 22 (black) in its place.


No problem.

He looks like he’s about to say something else but the ball rolls into place and falls at–

It’s hard to tell by pure sight so we all, in synchronized mesmerization, look up at the screen.

It’s a 0 (zero), in garish green. There’s a chorus of groans, expected not simply because the odds are 37 to 1 but also since 0 is eternally the outlier to any semblance of a pattern. Just when I think that no one has escaped unscathed, the boy taps my card again and grins disarmingly at me when I turn to look at him.

Look at that, he says good-naturedly.

I’m about to say, “Zero is always the hardest to guess; it’s how casinos reap the cash, no?” when I see that the top right of his screen displays in clean-cut font: 

PREVIOUS BET: +3360 credits 

My jaw slacks a little. Subconsciously, it occurs to me then that I only have a woeful 120 credits left (since I just lost). 

Wow, I tell him, you’ve got some crazy luck.

It all seems so unlikely–in my month of wandering nothing has astonished me much, and to now come across, in the twilight of my travels, a moment that is at once abruptly natural and magical in its implausibility–that Littlewood’s Law comes to mind. I think of its theory that one can experience a miracle (odds of one in a million) once a month, and a voice whispers in my head, maybe today’s when something wonderfully absurd happens.

Hmm, it suddenly seems possible.

The 120 credits last me for three more rounds before I realize that I have neither the reason nor the money to stay around. 

I turn my chair to try to spot my father somewhere in this cavernous hall, but he is nowhere to be found amidst the thronging casino masses. 

Are you going to stay? His voice comes up on my right.

I want to say, yes I am because I want to see how much more you can win and what’s your name and hi I am Selina. But I just shake my head and say,

I’ve run out of money. And either ways I feel like trying the slot machines.

I’m here for kicks, he tells me, his eyes shining, I’ve already tripled my credits when I was expecting myself to leave empty-handed.

I’m not quite sure what to reply to that, so I offer him a genuine, buoyant “congrats”.

He lets out a laugh, and continues, Take 500 credits. It seriously doesn’t matter to me.

He sees that I am wavering and passes me a ticket that neatly prints 200 credits, his tone forcefully kind, If you can’t take 500, at least accept the 200 I have as a leftover. Just so.

I feel weird, I tell him truthfully, when I take money from others for free. And I don’t even know you.

Oh, now I can finally ask. What’s your name?

As we march away from the roulette towards the carousel of slot machines, the ticket bunched in my left fist, I am dimly aware of the fact that I have just broken a personal principle this easily under the allure of sustained game of chance–not for algorithmic luck, but maybe, just maybe for Eros & Psyche’s roll of the dice.

I declare boldly, I’m going to at least return you 250 credits.

He snorts. That’s a promise you can’t keep.

Conversation rolls amidst an easy rhythm of button pressing, the animated sound of shuffling reels and unguarded laughs. We don’t ask each other anything that seems too dangerous so we talk about Macau and traveling, pork chop bun and airplane reads, Jay Chou and Joe Hisaishi, winning and losing, and how, for us both, casinos made no sense at all. 

Who’s most like Wes Anderson? 

Hayao Miyazaki. Fitzgerald. Tom Wolfe. I can think of loads.

Why do they all sound like meshed Spotify Discover Weekly playlists?

As my credits dwindle close to nothing yet again, my father appears in a happy halo softly glowing with the delirium of capitalist success. There’re no awkward introductions because he is too pleased with himself to care. I get 250 credits from him and return it to the boy.

And it’s all over in a matter of seconds.

I’ve got to go, I tell him.

My father, who is counting his tickets and ready to leave, looks up, sees me dawdling, and tilts his head to consider whether he should ask about who this person is but wisely decides not to when he sees the expression on my face.

I’ve got to go, I say again.

Somehow, I just can’t get goodbye out of my mouth. It would do no justice as an ending–it’s too weak, too pale, too irrevocable.

Wait, the boy stares at me and says slowly, you know, a lot of life’s promises aren’t kept–

I look at him and in that heartbeat, feel an impossible urge to tell him that the chandelier lights in the casino happen to be dancing in his eyes there and then, like leaping, crackling, shooting stars, but I seem to have lost the ability to do anything else other than nod. So I just nod.

–But I hope I’ll keep this promise. See you again.

I think about this sentence in my luggage-strewn hotel room, on the zipping cab leaving Cotai in the misty morning as the windows fogged with condensation, in the empty bleak landscape of the departure hall as I drink bland porridge, in the three waking hours on TR2903 across the Java Sea surrounded by the lingering imprint of a short-lived encounter, and as I step through the Changi gates finally back home after 1 month and tasted sea salt in the dust.

I think about it sometimes when I’m in colorful train carriages on a collision course towards some known future. Then, on one rainy and slightly warm morning, on a cab that had fogged windows, it comes to mind, that monochromatic morning when I left Macau on a cab that could not, would not, and did not turn back. My fingertips touch the cold glass and feel again this fierce impulse to draw something, anything, to just remember. But, after a drawn-out moment of indecision and broken vignettes flashing by in a tunneling mind, I can only draw a star. It’s the only effervescence that can be put into strokes.

And I never saw him again. But it has only been 25 days, so who knows? 

In our village, folks say God crumbles up the old moon into stars.

And the rest is rust and stardust.


月亮忘记了 When the Moon Forgot / 几米 Jimmy Liao


The quotes, in order of appearance, can be attributed to: me & my brain, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Nabokov’s Lolita.