Putting the brakes on books

By Tiong Linshan

Back in school for the new semester and raring to go, these three NTU students share with the Nanyang Chronicle the adventures they had during their semester-long hiatus.


Michelin star hawker dreams

Last semester, School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (EEE) student Lee Lock Teng took a break from the books to wield a chef’s knife at his own hawker stall, Ah Lock Tofu, at Yishun Park Hawker Centre.

The 25-year-old, who started his third academic year in January 2018, spent over 12 hours each day mincing pork belly and preparing stuffed tofu for his signature Hakka Tofu dish.

His stall serves a fusion of traditional Hakka yong tau foo and donburi (Japanese rice bowls) ranging from $3 for his Hakka Meatball Mini Bowl to $6 for the Hakka Tofu Platter.

While the choice to start a food and beverage (F&B) business came naturally to the passionate home cook, who started cooking since he was 10, taking a break from school was something he mulled over for a long time.

He eventually decided to apply for a Leave of Absence (LOA) from the University last June to pursue his passion for cooking, as well as earn extra pocket money to pay for his university tuition fees later on.  

The ambitious hawker had to start from square one, learning the ins and outs of running his own stall.

“I had zero experience in running an F&B business,” he said. “It’s totally different from daily home cooking.”

Lee experienced one of his biggest setbacks on his stall’s opening day. His initial plan to operate his stall from lunchtime fell through as kitchen preparations took much longer than expected. In the end, Lee was only able to open his stall for business in the evening.

But these blips along the way have not dampened Lee’s entrepreneurial spirit.

He had borrowed $5,000 from relatives and set aside $5,000 of his own money for Ah Lock Tofu’s initial capital. By the second-month mark he had broken even, and could also roll out a new menu and revamp the stall in time for Yishun Park Hawker Centre’s grand opening last November.

Even though business slowed down after two months due to smaller crowds, Lee still receives about 80 unique customers daily.

On weekdays, he opens for dinner from 6pm to 9pm, but his food is usually sold out by 8pm. His family helps him to manage the day-to-day operations of the stall.

Lee may be young, but he already has big ambitions in the future for his humble hawker stall. “My goal in this hawker business is to get the Michelin hawker award”, he proclaimed.

And while his passion may lie in food, education remains a priority to him. Though he still has two more years left in NTU, Lee is determined to simultaneously juggle both his business and studies.

Now a part-time student, Lee will spread his education over the next three and a half years to ensure that he can focus on his studies while still running his business.

“When I can go into doing franchises, I can be more focused in school. I really want to complete my studies,” he said.


Beauty queen of only 22

When Lynette Chua joined the Miss Singapore Pageant International (MSPI) a year ago, she did not expect to take an LOA a few months later to represent Singapore for the Miss Asia Pacific International (MAPI) pageant.a

Clinching the Miss Singapore Asia Pacific title at MSPI last August meant the third-year EEE student had to take a break from her studies to represent Singapore in the international round of the pageant, MAPI. The finals were held last November in Manila, Philippines.


Chua, 22, said her decision to enter MSPI was “initially out of fun”, as she had no plans for her summer break last year.

The MAPI pageant was her fourth pageant in two years. In 2015, Chua participated in the NTU Sports Club Pageant, and in 2017, she also took part in the Campus Model Search.

As the MAPI competition dates clashed with Chua’s semester-end final examinations, taking an LOA was her only choice if she wished to compete internationally.

Chua was initially hesitant about putting her studies on hold as she was worried that it would affect the timeline of her studies.

“I would be one semester behind my friends, and it’s also not the usual path people normally take,” she said.

But the thought of exploring options beyond her course of study won her over.

Chua said: “I didn’t want to take (the LOA) at first. But I thought about it, and my parents were quite supportive.

“I realised that it’s not every day I get this opportunity to represent Singapore on an international level, and I should just go for it since I’m still young.”

While on her LOA, Chua’s previous routine of studying, captaining the Crescent Hall tennis team and training with NTU’s varsity tennis team was replaced by a hectic pageant training schedule.

On top of attending pageant trainings, costume fittings and gym sessions, Chua was also working. Last September, she did a full-time internship at CIMB Bank, in addition to balancing a part-time job at health food store Guac & Go, where she made salad bowls.

“The most important thing for me then was to make my semester productive, so that I wouldn’t feel like I wasted my time taking a semester off school,” she said.

Chua also believes pursuing her pageant passion has helped her stand out from her peers when applying for internships.

“It looks interesting on my resumé — that’s actually how I got my first internship at CIMB Bank. My boss was quite surprised and said (my resume) is very different from others”, she said.

Life as an engineering student was tough, said Chua, and that taking a breather was just what she needed.

“It definitely feels like I have achieved more in the past three months, as compared to just studying in school,” she said.


A shot at the Games

A 50-metre pistol training at 9am in Jalan Bahar. A 10-metre pistol training at 3pm in Yishun. A post-dinner gym session till 11pm, before heading home.

That is what a typical training day for 26-year-old national shooter Hoong Shi Xiang looks like.

The fourth-year student — who is on a double-degree programme at the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and School of Social Sciences — was on a two-semester LOA, in preparation for the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games selections that took place over the months of December and January.

During this time, Hoong was packing his schedule with back-to-back shooting sessions, four days a week.

On weekends, he rested more —  only having one shooting session alongside his gym workout.

Hoong would spend Mondays, his only rest day, training with the Hall of Residence 13 cheer team.

“That is my side activity to keep myself sane,” he said.

His rigorous schedule was what led him to take a year off from school to focus solely on his shooting training.

As Hoong fell short of being selected for both the 2015 and 2017 Southeast Asian Games by one placing, he has become even more determined to succeed this time around.

“My greatest fear is coming back after a two-year break with nothing. It’s not the medals,” he said. “More like, I couldn’t fulfil my dream of representing the nation for the two Games.

Hoong also had to battle peer pressure during his LOA. Many teammates and friends told him putting his studies on hold was not a good idea as grades should come first, he said. They found it difficult to understand why he would delay his graduation by a year, given that he had no intentions of going professional yet.

On top of that, training for his shooting events may not be financially viable in the long term, according to Hoong, since he has not attained “Olympic standards” yet — which would come with a higher pay.

Despite these challenges, Hoong decided to take a leap of faith to apply for a year-long LOA.

Hoong’s family also remains a strong pillar of support as he pursues his dreams. “My mum is really supportive of my LOA and shooting pursuit,” he said. The only condition from his family, however, is that he has to complete at least one degree once he returns to school. Currently, he is still on the fence about whether he should finish both degree programmes, or forgo one in order to graduate earlier.

But with his sights set on the Olympics in 2020 and 2024, especially since he did not make the cut for the Youth Olympic Games back in 2010, training hard is Hoong’s top priority now.

He said: “It’s really just the hope and desire that I will eventually make the team and represent Singapore in the upcoming major games.

“What’s worth the hustle is that I see myself improving generally as a whole despite fluctuations from day to day. These improvements are going to better my chances when selections are here.”