How I Stumbled into My Career, and Why I Stayed.
By Yeoh Siew Hoon
Saturday, 28th August 2010
Yeoh Siew Hoon shares a talk she did at a SKAL industry lunch this week about how we need to keep growing the circle of inspiration and mentoring in travel and tourism.

I am not one of those lucky people who knew what I wanted to be from the age of 10.

Truth is, many of us stumble into our chosen career quite by accident. It's why we choose to stay in it that's by design and purpose and, of course, with a lot of help from friends.

Growing up in Penang, I dreamt of many things. Listening to the radio at night, I dreamt of being a deejay, even a singer. Then I realised you needed to have more than a love of music to sing. It helps but it's not critical, unlike talent.

When Man landed on the moon in 1969, I wanted to be an astronaut. Then I realised I probably had to move to America and that seemed even more impossible than the moon.

And so I studied hard but played even harder. One thing I did love in school was English – and my proudest moment was when one of my essays was read out in class.

It was about a visit to the dentist. It went something like this.

"Open your mouth." I shut my eyes. "Close your mouth". I tried, but there was something sticking in my mouth. "I can't," I gurgled. The nurse giggled.

I didn't know at the time what I could do with words like these and who would pay me to write words like these. And so after O levels and waiting for my results, my father thought he'd help me along.

He got me a job at a friend's electrical shop. On the first day on the job, the first thing Uncle Lim did was give me a broom. "Sweep the floor," he said. I told him, "I don't even sweep the floor at home." And I walked out.

See, even then kids were spoilt. Just like today.

My niece is currently in NUS. She works part-time at a bar in Dempsey for pocket money. I noticed she wasn't working weekends. I asked her why, shouldn't that be the time they need you the most? She replied, yes, but it's so stressful on weekends and the extra pay is not worth it – from S$6 per hour to S$7 – and besides, she doesn't get to keep her tips as a part-timer.

So you see, kids are not just spoilt, they are also smart.

My dad didn't give up on me. He got me a job at a hotel run by another friend of his. I had fun working at the front desk. I learnt about occupancy – this hotel ran 160% between 1am and 6am. I met interesting people – the hotel bar was a favourite meeting place for jockeys. I got great tips. I eavesdropped on conversations.

I think it was then the first seed of journalism and travel was planted in my mind.

After A levels, I experimented with a few more jobs – one was at a laboratory testing food samples. I did it because my best friend was working there. And so I lied to get the job. The owner asked me if I could type. I said yes. I couldn't. The first day he saw me type, he banished me to the lab where I kept company with bacteria and other organisms.

I didn't see me at the back of a lab forever so when one of my friends told me he had applied for a cadet journalism training programme at the local newspaper, I did too.

And here's the crux of my story – I fell into my chosen profession by accident but I stayed in it because of the people I met along the way, people who inspired me, mentored me – people who took the time to bother with me.

Real leadership to me is not just about leading, but about making time for others – it's about inspiring and mentoring those who come after us and blazing a trail for them to follow, so that later, they then chart their own trails for others to follow – and so the circle of inspiration and mentoring grows.

Without this circle of renewal, every industry dies.

I learnt the most from people who were tough on me. What's that saying, we are always tougher on those we love? When someone is tough but fair, it means they care enough about you.

My first scary boss as a journalist was the managing editor, Mr Choong. He sent me to the courthouse for the first three months. He said it would toughen me up. When I came back, he'd rip my story into bits and I'd have to rewrite several times. I was the first female reporter he allowed to do night shift crime –I learnt a lot about life and death those months.

Mr Choong took a chance on me; I didn't want to let him down.

When I came into the travel industry, my first boss was Mike Annetts, the editor of TTG Asia. He interviewed me and I remember his first question, what do you want to be eventually? I said, you.

Mike taught me that a great headline sells a story but after that, the story has to sell itself.

He took a chance on me; I didn't want to let him down.

In my early years in travel journalism, I was fortunate to meet people whom I didn't want to let down. Pakir Singh (who set up the Singapore Hotel Association) – who berated me for being silly at a function. "How can anyone take you seriously if you don't?" Jennie Chua (formerly Raffles Hotel & Raffles International) – who taught me the value of humour, to take things in stride and not to make excuses for my own failings. Charles Stolbach, the publisher of Far Eastern Economic Review, who taught me that if you want to write something, you'd better damn well stand by it and if challenged, stand up for it.

I wouldn't be where I am today without these mentors.

On September 2 we will run our sixth inspiration and mentoring event called WITe.

I launched WITe last year because I thought the industry needed a platform whereby young talent could get together with senior professionals in a non-threatening, non-academic environment where the two could benefit from each other's presence in the same, equal space.

Actually, one of my personal dreams, outside of travel, is how to connect the older in our society with the younger in a format that facilitates real exchange – and not what happens normally – the young go to help the old in old folks homes and the old go to teach the young in schools and institutions – but a real way of connecting the wisdom and knowledge of the older with the energy and enthusiasm of the younger.

I think both have so much to learn from, and to benefit from, each other in a genuine, non-condescending and non-patronising manner.

At WITe, the learning works both ways. While the younger pick up career advice and learn about our industry, the older see the industry through new eyes.

Mostly, we have been reminded about why we came into the travel business in the first place and why we are still in it. There's something very seductive and addictive about the travel business.

For most of us lucky enough, it's a lifestyle, not a career.

I often hear industry peers complain about their work – low pay, long hours – and they say, I would never ask my son/daughter to come into it. Yet I've always wondered why these same people are still in the industry – and they actually seem to love it.

In Singapore, we face a real talent crunch. I was talking to Aaron Hung who runs the SMU's Travel & Tourism Class, and he says very few of his students enter the industry. They cite low pay, long hours. That's their first impression. The second impression is when they get internships, they are treated like slaves – a bit like Mr Lim who handed me the broom no less.

Every industry needs fresh talent and new ideas to grow. These need not only come from the young but also the older workers whom I know many hotels in Singapore have embraced.

Each of us has a responsibility to inspire and mentor someone – to consciously ignite the fire in someone else's belly.

You could say I was lucky that Uncle Lim at the electrical shop handed me a broom that first day on my first real job – at least, he showed me what I didn't want to do.

The rest of the people – they showed me what I wanted to do. They took a chance on me and by so doing, they kept the circle of inspiration and mentoring going.

Without this renewal, every industry dies.

Yeoh Siew Hoon, one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, writes a regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry for 4Hoteliers.com.

Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her other writings can be found at www.thetransitcafe.com . Get your weekly cuppa of news, gossip, humour and opinion at the cafe for travel insiders.

WIT 2010: October 19-22 SUNTEC Singapore ~ www.webintravel.com
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