Nurturing Unconventional Youth Outliers (Part 2/3)

Daniel Ching
8 min readApr 23, 2024


On Unconventionality: Redefining Growth for Singaporean Students — My thoughts on the Singaporean education system, truly ambitious teenagers, and the need to explore in an AI age, to the hardworking Singaporean teenager (who seeks to do the best in whatever he can).

On Ambition, Comfort and Nurturing Unconventional Youth Outliers

Image generated by DALL-E. (i’m very impressed!)

Apart from the ruthless prioritisation of metrics, this is another observation that I’ve made about our local education system.

The Singaporean education system produces an average student far better than anywhere else around the world but with fewer unconventional, truly ambitious youths.

I think it’s necessary to quantify what these terms mean.

“Better”: easy to quantify, in terms of establishing an academic foundation. As shown in PISA 2022, Singaporeans swept the tables in all subjects: reading, maths and science.

PISA 2022 results, image courtesy of Straits Times

“Unconventional¹, truly ambitious youths”: much harder to quantify, but I believe that the Rise for the World Challenge is a good proxy for this. Another example could be the Atlas Fellowship. There are no Singaporeans who have won the former challenge (it’s been around since 2021), and only two Atlas Fellows from Singapore (Jason and Pradyu, who both studied at international schools).

Rise Global Winners 2023, Courtesy of Schmidt Futures

We are known for the high academic standards across various educational institutions. We also have stopgap measures in place. Contrary to deeply ingrained beliefs, it’s always possible for a student to flunk a major examination² (PSLE, O-Levels and maybe even A-Levels) and join back the majority of students in a local university, albeit taking a longer time. While course offerings are tiered according to grades received, a significant majority of students still graduate and find careers. My proposition is therefore this: that no matter how badly Singaporean students could fail, with employability as the end goal, we perform far better than other countries on average. But some of us never reach that place, anyway.

As long as there’s a grind-able path before us, we can put our head down and work. With safety nets in place, youths can be rather content with where they’re at.

If you think that changing-the-world sort of ambition can only be achieved overseas, think again. A local proxy to judge where ambitious youths in Singapore hail from³ could be the Philip Yeo Initiative — two of the youngest recipients (Kazel and Ing Kai) come from polytechnics. My theory: with fewer defined paths to “success” and a more relaxed environment, there’s a larger room for exploration, place for failure and iteration and general growth in maturity that prepares a student for the working world.

One observation that I’ve made about the differences between JC and Polytechnic students is that the latter seem to be more certain about what they want to do with their lives. Too many times have I come across JC students who ask, “what’s next?” and “what should I do in uni?” followed by a prompt reply “i really don’t know leh” — all these fresh from finishing their gruelling A-Levels. What’s worse, we are given a mere 2–3 months to make their mind up about their future.

Maybe most JC students assume that since they’ve been doing decent for most of their lives, then following the masses would surely lead to a decent outcome too–since there have always been safety nets at every point in their life. Maybe for the first time, serious grappling with discomfort sets in. Maybe, things are no longer as straightforward as they seem to be.

In the end, the majority of students do what they’ve been doing most of their lives: follow the herd, jump at the hardest (or most prestigious) local course their grades would allow them to get into (med / law / dentistry / cs), since most of their family and friends have done so and gotten out just fine. Guys have a bit more slack: use their time (2 years) in National Service to think critically about what they want to do and hopefully reach a conclusion.

Perhaps JC students who have been a product of academic and extra-curricular success have been too comfortable to go all in on anything that’s not tried and tested.

It could be that this is deeply rooted in Singaporean culture to play it safe and do something that’s tried and tested. Some of us might be thinking: aren’t we doing great for a country of our size? I posit that size alone doesn’t justify why we’re producing fewer exceptional truly ambitious youths.

Every year, I look forward to attending the track and field finals at the National Stadium–brand name schools sending legions of student supporters to cheer their athletes on. The atmosphere, electric, the pressure, intense. Going back as an alumnus and seeing my juniors race never fails to bring back the exhilaration of watching my then-teammates clinch pole positions.

National School Games Track and Field Finals, 2024. Taken on my low-res camera.

But when the festivities die down, when the season is finally over, student-athletes well, return to studying. While athletes grab the local headlines for that moment of record-breaking fame, we are faced with the reality that it’s a local record that is broken. The thousands of athletes that we field so strongly here in the National School Games, rarely go on to be full time athletes to compete on the world stage.

When we think about Singaporeans receiving silverware on the Olympic stage, we celebrate a few luminaries in recent history: Joseph Schooling, who won Singapore’s first and only Olympic gold medal to this day in 2016 and Feng Tianwei, who clinched a bronze in the 2012 edition. We blame our lack of sporting talent and particularly our lack of local talent(seriously! such a small country!) for this. Of course, there’s a bevy of other reasons why we don’t have world class athletes (climate, focus on academics, lack of a serious sporting culture), but these two particular ones stand out. Notice how unsustained excellence is here (as impressive as these individual sporting achievements are⁴).

Erling Haaland. Image courtesy of The Star.

We take a look at Norway, a country which has a smaller population than us⁵. It is home to renowned, world-best footballers (Haaland, Odegaard, Hegerberg), endurance athletes (Blummenfelt, Iden, Ingebrigtsen(s), Nordas) and even chess players (Carlsen, Christiansen). One concept that explains why Norway has such a huge pool of generational talent across so many diverse disciplines is the idea of idrettsglede, translated to “the joy of sport”.

Kristian Blummenfelt in Kona Ironman 2022, where he placed 3rd, and Gustav Iden, his Norwegian teammate (under the same coach), placed first. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Through playing the whole game (a methodology which has also been applied to one of the most famous deep learning courses) and withholding judgement from a young age, the system allows children to develop genuine interest, and ultimately gives them the liberty to pursue an interest that eventually brings them to elite levels⁶. With the intrinsic interest to get better at that sport / endeavour driving the athlete’s pursuit, immediate results become secondary, the eventual goal being “the child becoming self-reflective about their bodies and minds”. This has led not only to a blossoming of generational talent, but also to the sustenance of such excellence⁷.

Even in Norway, where traditions run deep, breakthroughs in conventional roles are common. One would assume that the best coaches in the world are successful only because they have once been high-level practitioners of the sport, or they would have studied something related to performance science in higher education.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Olav Aleksander Bu, coach of Olympic Gold Medallist Blummenfelt and IRONMAN World Champion Iden, studied electrical engineering in college–nearly unrelated to his profession today.

Yet his innovative methods of maximising physiological data collected, identifying weaknesses in his athletes and using pinpoint intensity control techniques have brought his athletes to the highest levels of success. His secret? His interest in coaching started with the simple question of why.

Olav Aleksander Bu, in Scientific Triathlon. Image courtesy of Scientific Triathlon.

That’s precisely what we need: self-reflection, intention and a willingness to think critically from first principles. We need genuine interest to be grown such that sustainable progress can be made. We talk so much and invest even more into lifelong learning, but it boils down to the individual to take action through their own will and curiosity, so why aren’t we building that instead?

Yet cultivating them in an environment where it’s so much more comfortable to strap in and rely on existing support structures is challenging. Going through the hard work of figuring things out and forming your own perspectives of the world then becomes a superpower.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not attempting to compare the sporting culture in Singapore vs Norway. I’m using it as an analogy. I’m bringing up Norway as an example of how they focus on the well-rounded development of an athlete, and what Singapore could learn from this. If Singapore had always believed that our comparative advantage was in the wits of our human resource (analogous to the advantages of talented genetic pool + amount of free space + sporting culture [among other reasons] that we see in Norway), shouldn’t we adopt some of the principles that other countries are using for growing their edge and apply it locally too?

If we’ve always prided ourselves in turning ourselves around without natural resources, what must we do to remain at the frontier?

In my last and final piece (On exploration and genuine interest cultivation in an AI age), I will outline ways and give concrete examples of how to get started on a path of unconventionality, with the necessary caveats.

Once again, thanks Michael and Joao for allowing me to see the edsystem in a new light back in my schooling days.

Thanks Kuang Wen, Michael, Zhen, Aaron and Jean for reading through the essay and giving your thoughts.

[1]: To be clear, in conventional realms of anything academic related, Singapore does an excellent job of sending students to compete in International Olympiads (IOs), and coming home with probably the highest medal to population ratio (correct me if I’m wrong). Instead, I’m focusing on students passionately pursuing a problem that they want to solve. Or a talent they want to keenly hone and develop, with or without external incentives.

[2]: Singapore’s education is tiered in such a way that everyone would have some form of secondary education.

[3]: Another venture worth noting would be the National Young Leaders Fellowship (NYLF) and I applaud the diversity of fellows — time shall tell if this initiative too falls under the category of another metric to be gamed (I’m hoping it doesn’t!).

[4]: Both individuals have proved themselves multiple times on the regional stage. Many other athletes have done so similarly too. However, while various countries field sporting greats who have performed consistently through multiple Olympics, Singapore has none. A good proxy could be this list.

[5]: This is just one example, there are many other countries with smaller populations than us that have produced much greater sporting achievements than Singapore.

[6]: A case study on footballer Erling Haaland’s hometown supports this point.

[7]: Of course, genetics do play a role. However, The Talent Code posits that talent can be trained, too.