He was expelled from 4 JCs

Meet two academics who took the road less travelled. One was a blue-collar worker until he pursued a university degree in his 30s, the other a school dropout before he plucked up enough cash and gumption to make it to the US and eventually Princeton. BENITA AW YEONG talks to these inspiring men

Dr Leong Kaiwen is known for being a school dropout who made good later in life.

The 32-year-old's life story, which echoes an underdog's struggle, has attracted some to follow in his footsteps.

But the assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) economics department discourages it.

"Don't think it's easy at private school. Don't think it's fun to be a dropout," he tells young ones who look up to him as a mentor.

Continue in the education system and work with the school as far as possible, he advises those who want to be like him.

"I had a few parents come to me, with their whole family in tow, asking me to counsel their son who dropped out of JC," relates Dr Leong.

"The boy thought he was too good for the school system and wanted to leave. But I told him, 'Get 4As and prove them wrong'."

It is surprising advice coming from Dr Leong, who was expelled from four different junior colleges as a teenager. He played truant frequently and was not interested in the lessons.

"I was always asking the 'why' behind things - why a certain economics model was used instead of another one, or dreaming about creating a product that would really make a difference to the world," he says with a chuckle.

"Once I even thought about how to speed up interaction between guys and girls who were interested in each other but too shy to make a move."

It was only when the eldest of three boys hit the lowest point in his life - when his family ran into financial trouble because a relative cheated them of some money - that he began to have the motivation to study.

While serving national service, Dr Leong pursued a diploma in information technology, studying when his army mates slept or had lunch.

"I wanted to make something of my life, to help my family," he points out.

While his friends spent their army pay on clubbing over the weekends, he used it to pay for the fees required to take his SATs.

"I can't remember the number of times I took them. Sometimes the test was held at venues such as Hwa Chong and National Junior College, and I would stand outside, feeling wistful and wishing I made it in."

Eventually, his perseverance paid off and he qualified for Boston University, but with only enough money in his pocket to pay for the first year's tuition fees.

The family had to sell their house and move into a flat, and did not have any extra for Dr Leong's studies.

The next few years of his life proved to be one of the most gruelling. Even after he secured a scholarship which would pay for the rest of his education, there were worries such as meals.

He made an average of US$150 ($287) a week tutoring but little was left after he paid electricity bills and book costs. To survive, he ate one boiled potato a day, with an occasional hard-boiled egg as a treat.

"At the time, I had only one goal - to inspire my mum not to give up," he says, adding that his parents' relationship with each other suffered after the family nearly became bankrupt.

But sheer motivation was not enough. He confesses to feeling completely out of his depth in the classes in university.

He was so lost in his honours linear algebra class that the professor suggested that he was perhaps just not cut out for the course.

But the determined man refused to give up.

"I remember copying the textbook, hounding my teaching assistant, just writing down my thought process to solving the problems again and again, and at some point being so discouraged that I broke down in the library," he says.

Eventually, he developed his own methods of understanding the subject and excelled in it.

After four years, he graduated from Boston University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics and Mathematics, as well as two master's degrees in the same subjects - but not before he made his first million by investing in China's real estate.

It was an emotional moment for him and his mother, who visited him in the US only on his graduation day.

He recounts through his book: "This time, they were tears of pride and joy. The guilt and pain of my childhood had formed a leaden ball in the pits of my stomach."

After graduating from Boston University, he received offers from several top universities to do his doctorate and he picked Princeton University.

When he returned to Singapore, he found a job with Spring Singapore before moving to teaching at NTU.

"I have students who tell me they want to be like me," says Dr Leong. "Some of them want to get rich fast, others want to be respected or wealthy. But I always tell them that the greatest men in the world took time to get where they are.

"I don't know how to make cash fast. You've just got to be patient and work hard."

Dr Leong is the world's definition of success but prefers not to dwell on the details. Dressed in a white polo shirt, khaki pants and track shoes, he tells this reporter that he drives a Mercedes only because he has to chauffeur foreign professors who visit.

His old car would not do as the airbags did not work and it was small.

His time outside of work is limited. His hobbies are not what you'd consider terribly exciting: Taking walks with his wife, working out on the treadmill and hanging out in shopping malls.

But he has a dream: "To build something really cool."

He already knows what it is, but prefers not to talk about it until the idea becomes a reality.

“I don’t know how to make cash fast. You’ve just got to be patient and work hard.”

- Dr Leong Kaiwen, assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University