Monday, October 22, 2012

From abuse victim to millionaire academic

HE WAS a millionaire by the age of 29 and received his PhD in economics from Princeton University before turning 30 last year.

Now, economist and academic Leong Kaiwen has added another job title to his resume: published author.

This after the assistant professor of economics at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) released on Oct 1 a mini-autobiography titled Singapore's Lost Son.

Now 31, Dr Leong seems like a man who has it made. His book about his life journey so far, however, reveals a tale of hardship, personal struggles and academic failures, the result of being sexually abused as a 10-year-old.

"I was sodomised," he told The Straits Times in an interview at NTU earlier in the week.

Recounting the ordeal that lasted for more than a year, Dr Leong spoke about how he was sexually assaulted by a martial arts instructor whom he trusted.

"After that, I had difficulty trusting people. I felt that everyone had a motive."

Those traumatic experiences affected his grades, he said. His PSLE score of 200 was one of the lowest in Singapore that year.

He went on to a neighbourhood secondary school, where he was frequently picked on and beaten up by bigger boys due to his small frame. But he hardened himself, and put on an arrogant persona after he moved on to junior college.

"I walked away from teachers when they spoke to me. When they insulted me and said I was sub-normal, I would retort that they were insane."

His defiance and frequent truancy led him to be expelled from his first junior college in less than a month. With his mother's help, he was taken in by a second junior college. But again, he was expelled within weeks of going there, he said.

"I tried to conform, but I could not. No teacher could see where I was coming from."

He switched schools two more times, with the same result. After being expelled from four junior colleges in half a year, he tried to study in a private school here.

There, he received a wake-up call from a relief teacher. He wrote in his book that these words the teacher uttered changed his attitude: "You are weak. And you know you are. You are loud and arrogant, but this is not strength. True strength is quiet strength."

He left the private school and decided to study for the A levels on his own. He passed all the subjects he took and was accepted by Boston University in the United States.

He went there heavy-hearted, as his parents had lost a lot of money after his uncle Leong Yew Cheong, one of the co-founders of Autron Corporation, was found to have rigged the price of the company's shares in 2002. Dr Leong's parents had invested heavily in those shares.

"My mother sold her jewellery to pay for my first year's tuition fees," he said.

Determined to prove to himself and his family that he was not a failure, he decided that he would complete two bachelor's degrees - in economics and mathematics - and two master's degrees, in four years.

Ordinarily, this would have taken about eight years.

To do that, he needed time. So he slept just four hours every night. "I didn't need caffeine. I didn't need any drugs," he wrote.

He also had no money because his parents were on the brink of bankruptcy. So he ate a single boiled potato every day.

He wrote in his book that he had "smelling out adventures", where he would stand by kitchen vents inhaling the scent of foods while he ate his boiled potato.

"This was how I ate steaks and lobsters - with only my imagination as a knife, and my willpower as a fork," he wrote.

Later on, his tortured stomach found relief when he was allowed to eat unfinished Subway sandwiches left on the tables.

Things started turning around for him after he received a university scholarship in his second year, but he continued to tutor and invest in stocks.

In his book, he called his graduation in 2007 "my redemption". That was also the first and only time his mother visited him in Boston, due to financial constraints.

He wrote that she had no idea of his academic achievements. "I harboured each success, big and small, like a treasure trove."

Dr Leong, who is married, said that apart from his wife, his mother is "the only other encouraging person" in his life, who never used harsh words on him for his failures in school.

"My mother is my world. My wife knows that my mother is always No. 1."

After his graduation, he took a year off and invested in China's real estate market, in the hope of easing his family's financial woes.

"I bought low. And I sold out high. Very high. That was how I made my first million," he wrote.

From 2008 to last year, he was on a full fellowship PhD programme at Princeton University, in economics.

He began his search for a job back here in his final year, and was offered the job of economist at Spring Singapore.

"At last, I could return home to serve. I was no longer a lost son," he wrote.

His story of having felt loss and failure before success is what he seeks to address in his book.

He hopes that it will ignite hope in the lives of those who feel rejected and alone. "I have walked the path, and you can too," he wrote.

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