Accidental leadership

The following might sound egotistic or even narcissistic. You’re free to skip reading this. But if you’re in the mood for some (real life) stories, you’re in luck.

So I’m going to tell you how I accidentally assumed roles of leadership, even though I never asked for them.

Glorified rubbish cleaner

I moved to another place when I was in Primary 4. New place, new school, new friends. On hindsight, my best friend from the old place probably wasn’t my “best” friend, and might not even be in the category of “friend”. But that’s another story. Starting all over, my 10 year old self just wanted to hunker down, study and get good grades, and see what happened. Being the new kid in town can be tough…

So when I was in Primary 6, I only wanted to get through the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examinations), a crucial part because it determines which secondary school I could go to.

But one fine day (beginning of school year, I think), my form teacher (an assigned teacher to be in charge of the class, but not necessarily have to teach the class in any subject) needed school prefects. Well, the school needed prefects, and I was in the top class (*cough*), so my class was supposed to churn out more prefects.

It turned out that my form teacher was short of one prefect. So she asked the other prefects to nominate someone. Whaddaya know, all of them unanimously pointed at me. My attempts to reject the exalted post were declined.

And so it’s such that I was the school prefect in charge of the parking lot. Oh and the school fence. Don’t go thinking just because I had a large piece of land that I was powerful. I was just a glorified rubbish cleaner, making sure my domain was litter-free.

One of my duties was to be the “staircase master”. My school had 4 stories, and the staircases wound anti-clockwise. After major school gatherings, prefects would be placed at the stairs telling students to “Keep to your right” while students went back to their classrooms. That was my first taste of command, or of ordering people around. I didn’t quite like it. I guess I don’t like ordering people around, nor being ordered around.

Handling other people’s money

When I was in secondary school, I joined the Chinese Orchestra. It turned out that my Chinese teacher was also in charge of the Chinese Orchestra. I was on fairly close terms with the class monitor (who’s one of the popular guys, so don’t let it be said that nerds/geeks can’t mix with the popular people), and he was also in the Chinese Orchestra (was I also the “deputy class monitor”? I can’t remember…).

The Chinese teacher had a high opinion of me. Once, I was nominated to represent the class in a Chinese debate. My Chinese was so-so, and my debating skills were highly questionable. I don’t know why I was chosen…

Where was I?

So what with all my “connections”, somehow I ended up being the Treasurer of the Chinese Orchestra. I had to make sure there were enough picks (for strumming) and strings (for the stringed instruments), and buy them if necessary. When cash was low, I was the one asking all the members to chip in. Part of that was to pay for the 2 instructors too. This “asking other people for money” will surface again later…

Once, I tallied the accounts and found out the cash I had on hand was different from what the books said (in case you don’t know, this is a financial no-no, even if it’s just a cent off). I couldn’t sleep for days. I think I solved most of the inconsistencies, and paid the (small) difference from my own pocket. Handling other people’s money can be harrowing… And I was just 15 years old.

Affability trumped popularity

I graduated from secondary school to junior college, hoping that I didn’t have to be in charge of anything. Oh that had a snowball’s chance in the desert of happening.

Once the class monitor elections came around, I shot to the top as the clear winner, voted unanimously it seemed. And I didn’t even do anything to promote myself. I was coming up with new camouflage techniques to blend in with the wall. I must try to be less affable…

There were popular guys. There were cool guys. There were good-looking guys. There were smart guys. But I was chosen. I hate landslide victories…

Chance can be cruel

After graduating from junior college, I was conscripted into the Singapore army. All 18 year old Singapore males are conscripted.

So on that fateful day, my dad accompanied me to the military training camp. I signed in and was assigned a bunk. It turned out that my bunk was the first bunk of a section. That meant I was to be the section leader of that room.

Oh joy of joys.

And after my dad explained what a section leader was, it was like cranberry out the wazoo, and it was pointed at me. You’d think the section leader would be selected based on capabilities. But no. I wasn’t physically fit, nor dextrous, nor motivated. To use Internet terms, I was a giant nerd.

In case you’re not familiar with military terms, a military company is composed of platoons, which is composed of sections. A typical section has 7 to 12 soldiers. Because we’re just in basic military training, the section was swelled to have 14 men. Me, and 13 other young men. This did not bode well…

Interesting asides: I’ve been noted as “whiny” during my section leader “reign”. Good thing I didn’t have to ask them to do stuff, since if we didn’t clean the floor real good, we don’t get to leave camp. I was unfriended (this was before Facebook) by my best friend in primary school. My parents divorced when I was in secondary school. There were family problems. Being “selected” as the section leader was exceptionally unfortunate. I didn’t want that position. Also, my bunk buddy was continually sick (benefit of doubt, since he always seemed hale and hearty), and I had to collect food for him and other stuff. As if I didn’t have enough things to do. So give me a break.

Half a caterpillar

During the later days of my 2.5 years in the military, I somehow got into the good books of the S4 (the officer in charge of logistics). The good major often got me to help him with documentation (I was in the administration department).

*sigh* With great power comes great responsibility.

Now my mates and I would usually go to the mess hall for our lunches. It’s free, and all you really need to do is clean up the trays afterwards. This was back in the days when we still had cooks who were serving National Service (what we call conscription in Singapore).

Well, there was the one time when my mates and I went for lunch, and one of them found half a caterpillar in his vegetables. He didn’t make a fuss out of it. Though he did say that if it was ants, he’d just eat it/them. But he drew a line with caterpillars.

Anyway, the major knew that we went to the mess hall for lunch and he asked us how the food was like. He was in charge of logistics in the camp after all. All of us kept quiet. I mean, we’re just sergeants and corporals and lowly ranking people. This was a major.

The words came out of my mouth before I really thought about it. I told the major about the caterpillar incident. My mates were shocked, whether at my audacity or my stupidity, I’m not sure.

The next day, the air at the mess hall seemed tense.

I resolved to be more careful with my words with the major.

Tighter than Schwarzenegger’s fists

The major had a dedicated clerk to help him. However, the clerk finished his conscription service, and … guess. Go ahead, just guess. That’s right. Yours truly became the unofficial dedicated clerk next in line.

Sometimes, during the morning assembly, the major would drive up and get out of his car. We would just stand in attention. The major would then say “Vincent, come to my office later.” I would later get a bunch of paper documents to type into Word documents and save them into a floppy disk. Yeah, those floppy disks. My mates would just let me use their computers, because I hadn’t one of my own.

Anyway, one of those duties the dedicated S4 clerk was to collect monthly mess fees from people in my office with ranks corporal and below. Corporals pay $3, lance corporals $2, and privates and recruits $1. It’s not a lot, but it was harder to wrestle a couple of dollars from them than grabbing a dumbbell away from Arnold Schwarzenegger. While I had experience asking people for money as a treasurer in my secondary school days, these were “hardened veterans” of real life…

I was supposed to hand in the mess fees within a few days from the start of the month. However, the excuse was always “I don’t have money.” And so I wait till just after the 15th, because that’s when the army pays out the salary. So my excuse to the people at the canteen office was that my mates didn’t have money, but I could hand in the mess fees just after the 15th. It worked.

In conclusion

I didn’t ask for them. Did I tell you the story where I worked in “Law of Large Numbers” into a PowerPoint slide for a presentation to a group of managers and directors where I was the task force leader to investigate why people in the office were afraid to speak up?


  1. Thanks for sharing Vincent. I know it’s tough sometimes to put yourself out there. I can see some similarities with my own life story as well.

  2. I think it’s tougher when you’re *not* putting yourself out there, but you still get foisted with responsibilities. You just do the best you can.