Friday, 15 August 2014

From humble beginnings to President's Scholar

19-year-old grew up with little, but now hopes to help people as a doctor
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 14 Aug 2014

WHEN he was in school three years ago, Mr Arturo Neo was called into his teacher's office. But he was not scolded for doing something wrong - instead, he was offered cash and kind words.

His Hwa Chong Institution teacher, Mr Joseph Sim, knew that the teen - the youngest of three children in a single-parent family - was struggling financially, and wanted to help with the expenses of an upcoming overseas school trip with his own money.

Mr Neo refused the gift of about US$300 (S$375) at first, but Mr Sim told him: "I'm helping you now, so you can come back and help us next time."

The incident touched Mr Neo, who was also an Education Ministry bursary recipient. It was just one of the many times he had been offered a helping hand, he said.

Now Mr Neo will finally get the chance to pay the debt forward.

The 19-year-old was one of five young Singaporeans who were awarded the prestigious President's Scholarships this year at a ceremony at the Istana yesterday.

The scholarship recipients were picked by the Public Service Commission for their outstanding academic and co-curricular achievements, character and leadership potential. They are the latest in a long line of President's Scholars, going back to 1966.

Mr Neo, who will read Medicine at the National University of Singapore, said the scholarship will allow him to "make a positive impact on people's lives".

"As a doctor, you get to help people in a personal way by relieving emotional and physical pain," he said.

Growing up, Mr Neo was no stranger to adversity. His parents divorced when he was two, and he grew up in a three-room flat in Yishun with two elder siblings.

Mr Neo's mother, Madam Ng Mui Soo, 51, supported the family on her monthly income of $1,500 as a childcare teacher.

The experience taught Mr Neo to be independent and live simply, he said, adding: "I didn't want my mother to worry about my studies."

She did not have to.

Like his fellow scholarship recipients, Mr Neo juggled both community involvement projects and his studies, and managed stellar grades.

The other recipients are: Mr Brendan Dean Zhi Min, 20; Mr Tommy Koh Kit Shaun, 19; Miss Lee Zi Xin, 19; and Mr Eugene Lim Zhi Wei, 19.

Miss Lee wants to study behavioural economics and work for either the Ministry of Trade and Industry or the Ministry of Social and Family Development when she returns.

At the ceremony yesterday, President Tony Tan Keng Yam congratulated the recipients and told them to exercise "integrity, courage and commitment".

"As public servants, you must engage the public constructively... hear the voices of our citizens and keep an open mind to the increasingly diverse views that Singaporeans hold," he said.

The other recipients


HE WAS the president of the NUS High School students' council and valedictorian of his class of 2013.

He finished in first place at the National Public Speaking Competition last year.

Mr Dean will be reading biological sciences at Harvard University in the United States.


HE WAS vice-chairman of the Raffles Institution debate club and secretary of resources on the school's students' council.

Mr Koh also spearheaded a public speaking workshop for the elderly in 2012. Mr Koh, who holds a private pilot's licence with the Singapore Youth Flying Club, will be reading either political science or psychology at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.


SHE received a Raffles diploma for character and leadership last year, and was also secretary of finance on the school's students' council.

Miss Lee, who is fluent in Malay and is a competitive table-tennis player, will be reading economics at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States.


HE WAS president of Raffles Institution's Interact Club, which organises community service projects. He has also headed several fund-raising drives for the Singapore Red Cross and the Unaccompanied Children's Association in Cambodia. In 2012, he volunteered weekly as a tutor for underprivileged children at the Henderson Care Centre.

Mr Lim will be reading global affairs at Yale University in the United States.

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