“Doing The Next Right Thing”

I felt like a pilot receiving news of his flight deteriorating, with each new update bringing us closer to an unwanted conclusion. All I could do was make the next decision with the information I was receiving, hoping it was the right one.

Managing the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) program in Toronto, Canada, I shepherd students as they navigate their entrepreneurship journeys in foreign lands. I work with start-ups, partner universities, and local stakeholders to help NUS and Singapore leave a positive footprint in these innovation ecosystems. Household names like Carousell and Shopback are fruits of this labour.

For startups, uncertainty is a way of life. The students and myself experience what it takes to deal with unforeseen circumstances and events. However, nothing prepared us for Covid-19 and its devastating effects.

I was actually back in Singapore for a planning retreat when news first broke of a “virus in Wuhan”. At that point, the worst I could imagine was something similar to SARS in 2003; the impact would be tremendous but focused in Asia. I thought our students in Toronto would be unaffected.

I was wrong. When the World Health Organisation labelled the Covid-19 situation a pandemic in March, it was like a howling wind that entered the house before a thunderstorm. Doors started to slam shut; things we held dear started to topple.

NUS made a decision to recall our students in the US first. There was a glimmer of hope things could be different north of the border. Then Canada shut its borders to the outside world. Then airlines started cancelling routes. Worse, there was no direct flight from Toronto to Singapore, unlike the US. We would need a transit point, and those points were either shutting down or potentially ‘vectors for infection’.

I will always remember the 22nd of March 2020. When we made the difficult decision to recall our Toronto students, I thought the worst part would be informing upset companies, dealing with heartbroken students, and jostling with thorny landlords.

I was wrong again. We earlier secured more than twenty tickets on an Emirates flight through Dubai. On that Sunday morning, Emirates announced that it was cancelling flights to Singapore by Monday night. Our students would be stuck in the Middle East if we chose to continue.

I recalled the Eva Air option was relatively affordable and efficient. As we were booking tickets on its website, Taipei announced it was eliminating transit travel. We needed another route home.

Etihad Airlines emerged as an option. As our students were claiming their boarding passes at the airport in Toronto, the United Arab Emirates announced it was stopping flights to Singapore by Tuesday evening. Our students missed the curfew by 7 hours.

When they finally landed in Singapore, there were tears of relief and joy; earlier of pain and disappointment when the recall news first broke. I was monitoring news from 20,000km away, not wanting to fly with or ahead of the students in case I got through and they were stuck. Only when they had landed could my young family book our tickets and fly that very evening.

To say that life has been interrupted since would be a severe understatement. The “Overseas” in “NUS Overseas Colleges” no longer physically exists, although students and I still stay in touch with foreign counterparts thanks to technology.

All affected students and those enrolled in the NOC program for the near-future will intern with start-ups in Singapore until a door opens to travel. Who knows – the Straits Times said that NOC catalysed the start-up scene in Singapore in 2005. Maybe this will be the second time.

The students will obviously miss out on the “culture” and “working styles” overseas, but the experiences in Singapore are no less meaningful. There are tremendous things happening within the start-up ecosystem in Singapore. What it needs is support, belief and investment. Perhaps the pandemic will divert the attention of young talent and investors closer to our shores. South East Asia is also growing rapidly. If long-distance travel is not feasible, perhaps experiences closer to home could be the way forward. Our region isn’t lacking in diverse business and social environments.

The NOC program is not dead. In fact, we hope to re-invent the program to keep it relevant and even a step ahead of the “new normal”. At the very least, students entering the program will now understand what it takes to thrive in uncertainty, take calculated risks, and that the best plans don’t always come to fruition.

As a husband and father, this pandemic has also thrown my plans into disarray. Worries about finances, the children’s education, when and whether we will return to Toronto; these thoughts cross my mind every day as I catch up with global developments.

I also realise my mood, behavior and action influence my loved ones. They take their cues from me, even if I don’t know what tomorrow brings. I’ve come to realise man can plan, but our directions are not always what we intend. Like many governments and industries, we might not know what the end looks like; we can only make the next “right” decision when a fork in the road appears.

Harpreet Singh is Associate Director of the NUS Overseas Colleges at NUS Enterprise

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