Brisbane, Australia

Thursday, December 26, 2019

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If I'm being completely honest, a huge plus that comes with participating in international case competitions is the privilege of travelling and exploring a new city. It's a blessing to be able to see the world and compete at an undergraduate level. However, having been to Australia multiple times previously, I only had one main objective this trip: for the team do our very best and hopefully get a podium finish at the Australian Undergraduate Business Case Competition 2019 (AUBCC), from 17 - 22 November (i.e. during reading week!) 

Despite our pretty dismal and disappointing training sessions in the last few weeks of an insanely hectic semester, I knew that this was a team that could work really well together - we were friends and understood each others' strengths, weaknesses and motivations. While pressure doesn't necessarily equate to performance, I think the good stress allowed us to peak during the competition this time around.

Anyway, I couldn't really explore Brisbane much at all, as I had to leave on the night of the closing dinner in time for me to sit for a finals examination the next day. We caught a red-eye flight and arrived in Singapore around four hours before my paper. Instead of studying on the plane as I had initially planned, I just knocked out from sheer exhaustion and only managed to revise outside the examination hall. 

As such, my focus all through the week was on the competition and I'd like to apologize for my misleading title - this post will likely feature 10% Brisbane and 90% of the competition itself! Also, all the photos published here are not taken by me and credit goes to the photographers and organizers of AUBCC. I realized that my past blog posts on my international case competition experiences rarely touch on the competition formats in detail. So here's a recap of everything that happened, day by day.

Day 1 

Our team arrived the night before the competition officially started, so we had a free morning & early afternoon to explore a bit of Brisbane. We decided to go for brunch at The Pancake Manor, a short walk from our hotel. While the pancakes weren't anything to shout about (pretty simple buttermilk ones done right and served in humongous portions), the restaurant was housed in this beautiful refurbished cathedral that made the dining experience pretty memorable.

The actual programme for the competition started in the late afternoon with a welcome function at the beautiful Queensland University of Technology (QUT) campus. The competition was co-organised by QUT and the University of New South Wales, and they take turns hosting it - so it alternates  between Sydney and Brisbane each year.



Gorgeous golden hour glow from the QUT campus.



During the welcome function, we met the other teams and had a draw to determine our divisions and direct competing teams for the various rounds of the competition. This competition saw three rounds - a 4-hour boardroom format, a 6-hour presentation format, and a 12-hour presentation format. All three rounds would contribute points to decide the top four teams to proceed to the finals, though the 12-hour presentation took the biggest weight. 

Day 2 (Case I) 

Time for actual case-cracking! The first round was the 4-hour boardroom style, a format that we've been seeing more often in case competitions globally - and also the format that we're the most uncomfortable  and unfamiliar with. Three of us in this team went for the CBS Case Competition in Copenhagen earlier this year, where we were utterly defeated by this presentation style. It requires a more conversational tone of voice and the ability to engage the judges only with one single-sided sheet of paper, a far cry from the insane amount of slides we enjoy building and referring to during the presentation.

I daresay we were the most concerned over our performance for this round and spent a bit of time strategizing for it. The case was on Youngcare, a non-profit organization that focuses on providing appropriate housing for the young with high-care needs, a niche industry of complete unfamiliarity. Of course, four hours was a mad rush to come up with a sound yet creative strategy, and we really had to trust one another and ourselves.


Last minute running through of points prior to entering the presentation room.


Anxiety written all over my face.

After our presentation, I felt a lot more at ease - not because I was sure we did well, but because we did our best. There wasn't the same "oh dear I just bombed that" feeling I felt in Copenhagen this time. I also appreciated that every single round of this competition allowed teams to get feedback from the judges immediately after everyone had presented. This was helpful not just for the competition but for growth and improvement in general. 

In the evening, it was social night at Friday's Riverside, a bar/ restaurant right beside the Brisbane River. There, they announced the results for the first case, and we came out top in our division - truly a huge relief. 



We were later split up into different teams for a game of trivia. My trivia knowledge is really poor and I ended up not really contributing any answers. Kudos to all of my other team members because we somehow ended up winning the game, which meant that we could all get our photos taken with koalas the next day! 


Not the most flattering photograph, I must say. 

Day 3 

The third day of the programme was social day - a day of stress-free fun and sightseeing around Brisbane! Personally, I enjoyed the pace of the social activities they planned for us at AUBCC. It was just right, without being too boring nor overwhelming. Our first stop was Mount Coot Tha, which gave us a panoramic view of the city at risk of sunkissed skin.

All the teams, advisors and organisers!

Next, we headed to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary for lunch and to meet some of Australia's best loved furry animals! (Alright, the sanctuary housed aquatic animals and reptiles as well, but I was really there to meet all the plush toy lookalikes hehe). 



Kanga, is that you? (Almost wanted to type, "Kanga, is that Roo?" but decided to restrain myself).


Not giving me the attention I so yearn for unless I had food in my hands.



This chonky kid was surprisingly heavy and I was pretty nervous carrying it.

While I can't call myself an animal lover because I still eat meat and that would be completely hypocritical, my heart definitely still has a soft spot for animals (yes, yes, there is a dissonance here that I acknowledge I'm running away from). Thus, I'm not the biggest fan of animal tourism and I honestly wouldn't have taken my photograph with the koala if not for my team winning trivia the previous day. 

However,  it was evident that this place treated their animals with so much care, swapping out the koalas as long as they displayed signs of not wanting to take photographs anymore. I was really glad to learn through researching online that this particular koala sanctuary had put in place many ethical practices to ensure the welfare of those under their care, and was in fact founded in 1927 as a place to take in injured and sick koalas. 

Following the furry meet-and-greet, we headed to Captain Burke Park, a nice space right under Brisbane's Story Bridge for some outdoor games and a barbecue of juicy hot dogs with an abundance of Tim Tams. We could also sit on some of the prepared picnic mats and admire the view from the park - really relaxing, probably a reflection of the Aussie way of life. Our team played frisbee, and it marked the most active I have ever been in ages. 


Day 4  (Case II)

And it's back to business! The second round of case was a 6-hour presentation format (or 5 hours and 45 minutes, to be exact) and the case company was the Credit Union Australia (CUA). The day started off with a visit to the office in the central business district before we headed back to the QUT campus to work on our presentations.


We rarely have photographs of the case-cracking process so this was quite pleasant to see - especially since we look like we're actually enjoying what we're doing (not posing at all, there's really no time for any of that). 


The slightly more serious duo. 


A glimpse of the timeline that we attempted to adhere strictly to, though unsuccessfully. Here, I wrote that we "must start compiling" by 2.30pm but the reality was closer to compiling just 1 minute before the actual submission - case is not for the faint-hearted, folks!

While we were a lot more comfortable with the traditional presentation format for this round, the case still proved to be a challenging one. This time, we were faced with the confusing concept of credit unions and a broad open-ended problem of targeting a new customer segment with new financial products, all accompanied by the nerve-wrecking time constraint. 

Somehow (with a lot of luck), we managed to come in first place in our division for this second case as well. At this point, we were ranked the top out of all 16 teams points-wise, how exciting! However, we knew that we couldn't be complacent because the third case was the most important one - we still had to win that to make it through to the finals. 

Day 5 (Case III)

This day just consisted of 12 hours straight of case-cracking. The case was on the business disruption of McGraw-Hill, which most of us would know as the traditional textbook publisher, though it has since branched out to offer other education solutions. In terms of strategic direction, this was also the least straightforward one out of all the cases. Though of course, with a longer preparation time, we typically fall prey to overthinking and second-guessing ourselves.

This case was unfortunately also the one that I was personally the most apprehensive about, but we just had to roll with it because it was show time the next day.  

Day 6

Just like clockwork, we woke up and made our way to the QUT campus to present our solutions for case three. While the presentation went well delivery-wise, the feedback that we received from the judges afterwards was pretty dismal, especially when compared to the ones we had received for the previous two rounds. 

After a nail-biting couple of hours, they announced the results for the third round and we placed first again! I couldn't believe that we had a three-time first-placing streak, and this also meant that we made it to the finals and were immediately ushered out into a holding room. By this point, we had already done whatever we could for this competition, and simply needed to deliver the presentation again to a larger audience. And so we did. 




Caught referring to the screen, yikes.



Fielding questions from the judges. 


And it's a wrap! Parting handshakes with the judges.

It was undoubtedly an honour to have been given the opportunity to present in front of the distinguished judges and the teams from all parts of the world. It was also so nice knowing that the rest of the squad back in Singapore was supporting us, some of them tuning in to catch our presentation via the live-stream on the AUBCC page. No matter what the outcome was going to be, we were happy with our performance and that's really all that matters. 


Awards dinner closing ceremony with some of our new friends from UNSW and Thammasat University!


Photobooth with our table buddies from Thammasat.


With our ambassador, without whom we wouldn't have been able to survive the week as well as we did! Thank you so much for being the most accommodating buddy ever, you're a real sweetheart. 

It was a great night with good food to cap off an eventful and exhausting week, and thankfully we also managed to get a little souvenir for NUS - we came in second place overall, and I couldn't be more proud of the team. Case competition outcomes are almost always unpredictable and I'm so grateful we managed to make it this far and attain a podium placing.  



Of course, huge congratulations to Indiana University for emerging as champions for AUBCC! 

And with that, it was back to enjoying the rest of the dinner, this time with a huge load lifted off our shoulders. Here's a series of cute team photos we took at the photobooth before heading back to our hotel room and knocking out for a good two hours (unexpectedly, which almost cost us our flight -  but hey, that's another story). 




Competing in such competitions is exhausting beyond belief, but incredibly fulfilling as well. This fulfillment doesn't exactly take the form of having one's strategies and solutions impact real companies (though I believe that's the goal) because realistically, a group of four undergraduates is not going to solve a problem that a board of directors have been cracking their heads over, in a mere 12 hours or less. It does, however, come through via the feeling you get when you're actually applying your business acumen and skill-sets in a high-intensity environment, an experience that is actually transferable into the real world too.

As always, immensely humbled by the opportunity, and excited for the next one! Thank you so much, team. It has been a real honour. 
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On Education

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

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At risk of sounding cliché, my relationship with formal education can only be described as a roller-coaster ride. While I typically find myself recalling all the lows, I acknowledge that there were times where I did thrive in this meritocratic system, most evidently in primary school and thankfully, rather last-minute at the A Levels. Indeed, I've been lucky enough to perform in the exams that seem to matter the most (though of course, in the larger scheme of things, they really don't). 

That said, I stand by the fact that academics has never been my strong suit. I'm not someone who does well naturally in standardized tests, and never prioritized working hard for academics either - though I've come to embrace the latter as a source of pride as it served as an indicator that I didn't allow myself to succumb to mainstream expectations of society. Of course, this came from a position of privilege where I was able to find other strengths that I valued in myself, which others valued too (i.e. still needing that affirmation from society anyway, just in alternative ways).

Speaking of privilege, saying that I struggled academically may seem like a bit of a stretch when looking at my educational background. Indeed, I have been fortunate enough to receive an exceptional education from top schools and a local university. "Aiyah, the last position in Raffles is probably still the first in some other school," was something I heard over and over again but honestly that felt like one hell of a lame excuse for poor academic performance. Nobody knew if that was actually true, and it just wasn't... a nice thing to believe in either, potentially further entrenching elitism in society.

Plus, experiences are relative. The external validation I received for my "academic prowess" from those who only saw the uniform I was wearing and not my actual GPA, wasn't going to negate the fact that I was drowning metaphorically. There's no denying that sinking feeling I felt in my gut after every mathematics paper I did in secondary school, the embarrassment of getting hauled up to meet the vice-principal because I was performing poorly (yes, this seriously happened), and the apprehension of showing my parents my grade cards (I might have just stopped showing it to them from secondary three onwards heh). These were all valid emotions.

Suffice to say, formal education had never been the most rosy experience (academics-wise, that is!) and I found myself subconsciously and mistakenly conflating the idea of learning with education. Due to my inability to produce positive education outcomes in school, learning started to feel like a chore - done merely as an exchange for a letter grade in my transcript, rather than something that would actually make me feel happy and contended doing.

In the most recent semester in university though, I experienced pure, unadulterated joy for learning for the first time in a long, long while. What was different this time? It marked the first semester I didn't have to clear any compulsory modules for my respective courses and I had semi-control over what I was going to study. Yes, I was still limited by the demands of my degrees but I had a bit more freedom this time to choose. I went ahead and picked modules that scared me, and that were not directly related or useful in whatever I'll be doing in the near future, simply to learn for learning's sake.

While not every module inspired me with the same intensity, I daresay I have never felt more energized in school. This was surprising because despite my overload every semester, this particular one was when I faced my heaviest workload ever of 29 modular credits (the typical workload is 20 credits!) Attending classes was immensely enjoyable, and credit goes to the inspiring professors and tutors I had the honour of meeting/ being in the presence of, especially those that taught me financial journalism, sex in the media, and communication for social change. Somehow, it also turned out to be the semester I performed the best in. Perhaps performance is truly intrinsically linked to passion.

It's a bittersweet feeling knowing that the next semester marks the final semester of my undergraduate studies. A part of me wishes I didn't rush the five years of study into four, but at the same time I'm also excited for what's ahead, and am glad that at least it's ending on a note where my mindset towards formal education is one of fondness.

Of course, this isn't going to mark the end of my journey as a student - and no, I'm not about to make  a cheesy reference to how life is about continuous learning (though I suppose it's not wrong to view it in that way too). I do have little dreams I still hope to accomplish, and so much more I want to learn about in a formal education setting. Heh, graduate school sometime in the future, perhaps? 
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A Final Farewell

Monday, December 16, 2019

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A Final Farewell 

Dressed inconspicuously in a loose black blouse and a pair of navy tights, Sandra walked hesitantly towards the HDB void deck. It was her first time back in years. This was a placed filled with memories of bicycle-riding lessons with Papa at six-years-old, which later functioned as an overnight shelter during her teenage years when she got thrown out of the house whenever she tried on Mama's dresses and heels. 

This time, the open space was temporarily walled with yellow tarp, indicating the demise of a neighbour living in the block. It also offered a semblance of privacy for those attending the wake. 

Beyond the bright partitions were the intermittent ringing of Taoist chants sung by monks, done to ensure a peaceful send-off for the deceased. Grief was muted by the cracking of peanut shells at every makeshift table, done to pass time as relatives kept vigil. 

As Sandra came within sight of the attendees, a split-second of silence fell amongst them. Then, murmurs in a mix of Hokkien and Mandarin ensued. 

"What's he doing here?" 

"He actually has the audacity to come back?" 

"Doubt he'll be able to leave in peace now." 

Seemingly unperturbed by the commotion, Sandra took a deep breath. Do it for Mama, do it for Mama. As she walked closer to the photograph displayed at the casket, she was reminded of the distinctive facial features of the deceased which matched her own – the same pair of eyes she had not seen in years, but which greeted her whenever she did her makeup in the mirror. 

Just then, a woman of around seventy years of age lunged at her in an embrace. "Thank you for coming, Papa will be so glad you came," the woman whispered. 

Breaking away from the hug, Sandra took a good look at Mama. Mama's eyes were brimming with tears – sad droplets from missing her husband, mixed with happy ones from seeing her child again. Her child was born as "Long Sheng", as masculine Chinese name that directly translates into "dragon-victory", but whose personal identity did not correspond to his assigned gender. 

Sandra stood in front of the casket and lit three sandalwood joss sticks. This was the first time she has appeared before her father as a transgender. As she bowed in his direction, she thought about how listless his embalmed body was, a far cry from her last interaction with him before she left home for good, where he vowed never to acknowledge her as his child, if she were to identify as female. She clenched her fists. Do it for Mama, do it for Mama. 

Slowly, the flames burned away the last bits of the incense sticks that Sandra placed in the brass urn. As she turned to leave, Mama grabbed her hand. 

Papa wanted you to have this." 

In Mama's hand was a gold locket with an old family photo within. Inscribed on the locket was a design of a phoenix, a Chinese mythological symbol for female grace. 


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(Attempted a 500-word short story for a storytelling university module two semesters ago, and decided to post this here because it touches on a topic that means a lot to me.) 
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