The misperception that society may have about ITE is indeed what you have said earlier — that students end up there because they have not studied hard enough, or they are delinquents. What are the stereotypes that are just untrue?
Not everyone who goes to ITE is bad at studies or lazy. The sixteen-year-old me thought of himself as a quick-witted and expressive person. But Singapore’s educational system, at least back then, was designed such that you had to be good at mathematics and science. It just wasn’t designed for students like me. The mainstream schools were not flexible to accommodate students who displayed strengths in language or arts. I had peers who were artistically inclined, but because their families were not privileged, they could not afford an enrolment in a private arts school. Like me, the diploma choices offered to them were unappealing, so they chose to go to ITE as a safer option.
Another stereotype is that ITE students come from broken families. Of course, there are a few who have struggles and that show up in their behaviours. But my peers who had behavioural issues have now grown up into successful adults. When you look at it from a larger perspective, any school would have students who are battling all sorts of problems, from family issues to mental health struggles.
And finally, there are no gangsters in ITE. As I’ve said, many ITE students are the artistically inclined breed. We are expressive. We laugh a little louder. We wear our hearts on our sleeves. I think generally, when members of public see a group of ITE students hanging out in public spaces, laughing and having fun, they perceive them as rowdy or as ruckus-causing gangsters. But a group of junior college students doing the exact same thing would project the image of a unit of friends just cherishing their best years together. It’s the uniform — there’s a stigma attached to it. When in the public eye, ITE students are subjected to a lot more critical scrutiny.
On that note of having fun — what’s your fondest memory of your ITE days?
My time in the green club would be the fondest. It was a new co-curricular activity launched by my form teacher, and my class president, who was a good friend of mine, got us to join it. Back then, the topics of environmentalism and green living were still very novel. My involvement reaffirmed my innate interest in nature. We had the chance to fly to Bintan and explore the mangrove swamps. One time, for a fashion show, we had to use recycled materials to make outfits. We went around the void decks and along the roads to pick up nets and other materials from trash. That was my first exposure to the eco-friendly lifestyle.
This ties back to what you said about finding an interest, and thereafter excelling in it. And for you, your interest turned into a business. How did Littlebotany take root?
Littlebotany began as a hobbyist account on social media — I wanted a challenge outside my day job as a flight attendant. When I first started it, the online communities and resources were mostly for westerners. There was a scarcity of information on how to grow plants in Singapore’s climate and homes. Thanks to my job as a flight attendant, I had the benefit of visiting different night markets in Thailand. On the Littlebotany account, I shared about the unique plants that I came across, most of which were affordable. Even though I was in a foreign land, because of my trainings as a flight attendant (and previously as a retail assistant), I was aware of body language, and I knew the importance of respecting people and their cultures. So, I very quickly established a friendship with the farmers. In my mind, I was beginning to map everything — with air or sea freight I could import the plants into Singapore. Network of partners, also checked. Circa late 2019, I already had a somewhat successful side hustle selling cuttings as a means of funding my green hobby. I thought, ‘There’s something here that could become a real business. It could work out.’