Education headstart for Mandarin-speaking folk
BUSINESS owner and interior designer Tan Heok Seng (picture above) wasn’t fluent in English but he still wanted to pursue management subjects. The next best alternative was to study them in Chinese, which was what he did at the Singapore Institute of Management.
Those were the days in the 1980s when SIM offered Mandarin diploma courses in Business Studies and Sales & Marketing which Mr Tan signed up.
“I learnt a great deal in these two programmes,” he recalls. “For instance, I learnt how to develop a marketing plan for my products and services, analyse market conditions, conduct marketing surveys and launch advertising and promotional campaigns.
“It was after my National Service stint and I was working at building construction sites then. The SIM diploma courses gave me the confidence to venture out on my own.”
Mr Tan went on to do a Diploma in Interior and Landscaping Design at the Building and Construction Authority’s BCA Academy. Now 54, he says he has attended many other certificate and diploma courses, all for the sake of upgrading himself.
“Why did I study so much? Because in the early days, Chinese-educated individuals like me found it difficult to get a job unless we acquired extra qualifications and skill sets.”
In 1987, he opened an interior design firm with two other partners, also alumni of SIM’s Mandarin courses. “Aurora Design and Contracts started operation in a kampong (village) house in Buangkok where we could see squirrels running wild in the trees outside.” His firm expanded and moved and today it operates from a two-level office and carpentry factory in a massive multi-storey building in Woodlands North.
“When we began we were just design consultants but the contractors couldn’t produce the stuff that we wanted, such as frames, structures and furniture. So we decided not only to design but to build the fittings and furniture too.”
The firm has completed many design projects including the re-design and fittings of the library at North Vista Secondary School in Sengkang last year, and interiors of a commercial office at Wheelock Place. Mr Tan says his most recent project was the design and fittings for a newly-built three-storey residential house in Seletar Hill.
“Running your own business is stressful,” he notes. “You must go out to drum up new projects, and when the work is done, to collect money. Meanwhile you have to keep yourself informed of the continual changes in government policy regarding hiring of foreign labour.”
There are more than enough projects to handle, Mr Tan notes. The difficulty is in getting carpenters, painters and other skilled workers. Young Singaporeans are mostly degree-holders or studying for one, and with tertiary qualification, they are not interested in grunt work. As a result small firms in interior design and renovation have to depend on foreign manual workers.
Mr Tan de-stresses by taking up a Chinese ink brush to write calligraphic strokes on scrolls of pearly-white paper. “I picked up calligraphy in Primary school, and after years of practice, some of my own works are now good enough to be displayed in art exhibitions.”
But he continues to attend class at least once a week and shows to SIM GE’s student reporter Mabel Yeo some of his pieces that the teacher has corrected. The quality of his writing is not consistent, he says. When he’s distracted or stressed, it shows in the weak, hesitant ink strokes. But when his mind is focused and “goes with the flow”, the lines move in a fluent artistic rhythm.
Mr Tan is also active in the 250-strong SIM group of graduates of the Mandarin Business Management Diploma course. The members, now in their 50s, are mostly business owners or senior executives. From their office in SIM’s Management House at Namly Road, they organise seminars, workshops, study trips, factory visits and, of course, karaoke sessions.
—Interview, posted online July 2014
Mr Tan looking over the interior that he designed in the new house in Seletar
Mr Tan demonstrating his calligraphy to Mabel Yeo, SIM GE’s student reporter