PHOTOGRAPH: Katarzyna Białasiewicz,

An uncle once called him stupid when he was put in the EM3 stream in primary school.

He was the only one from his family in it.

Then, Mr Zhang Zhirong had another blow.

In 2000, he had a score of 105 for his Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and qualified only for the Normal Technical stream in secondary school.

Not wanting anyone to look down on him again, he worked hard and went to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), where he graduated with a perfect GPA of 4.0.

He continued to study architecture at Singapore Polytechnic (SP) after serving his national service and graduated from the National University of Singapore (NUS) in June with a Master of Architecture.

Mr Zhang’s parents divorced when he was in kindergarten.

Now 28, Mr Zhang recalled how he struggled with English because no one spoke it at home. He has two siblings.

His poor English results meant he could not be promoted to Normal Academic.

He told The New Paper: “I told myself that I was going to study hard, so people won’t look down on me again.”

After his N levels, he entered the ITE.

He said that when he was first put in the EM3 stream, he believed that his education would stop after ITE.

He added: “I had no one to guide me or tell me that I had other options, that education doesn’t stop there.”


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But when Mr Zhang, who developed an interest in design and architecture in secondary school, pursued a Nitec course in Building Drafting at ITE Bedok, he flourished, graduating with a 4.0 GPA.

After serving his NS, he studied architecture at SP.



Mr Zhang hit a stumbling block after his poly studies as his lack of an O-level pass in English made it difficult for him to apply to university.

He had taken the English O-level exam twice during his NS and poly years, but did not manage to pass.

So with the help of his neighbour, he wrote to NUS and was surprised when he was called for an interview and test, and was accepted into their architecture programme.

“I still consider myself incredibly lucky to have got in,” he said.

To finance his studies, he worked part-time as a waiter, then as a sales assistant during his ITE, poly and university years.

He also took a bank loan to pay for his master’s.

And when Mr Zhang needed help with his dissertation, he contacted his former primary school teacher, Madam Jocelyn Lim, 60.

Madam Lim, who retired from teaching in 2006, told TNP: “I admire his determination. I think if I was in his place, I would have given up. But he always faces his challenges head on.”

She gave Mr Zhang weekly English lessons. He offered to pay her, but she declined.

She said: “If I can do anything for my former pupils within my means, I definitely would.”


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Mr Zhang was quick to credit his teachers, friends and family for helping and supporting him throughout his journey.

He said: “Without their help, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Mr Zhang is another example of what Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung meant when he said at a SkillsFuture Study Awards ceremony last month that the education system is not designed with “dead ends”.

Mr Ong said: “If we encounter a setback, which all of us will, we do not give up, and do not let one setback define us.

“Our system is not designed with dead ends – far from it – there are multiple alternative paths to take, and we have a lifetime to walk them.”


This article was originally published in The New Paper.