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Not your typical misfit

SINGAPORE — The story of Mr Jeremy Chua’s life is a classic tale of someone who stayed away from school and eventually made good — but with a twist.

Mr Jeremy Chua (left), with Mr Raymond Yeh, used social media to help people during the recent haze crisis. Photo: Xabryna Kek

Mr Jeremy Chua (left), with Mr Raymond Yeh, used social media to help people during the recent haze crisis. Photo: Xabryna Kek

SINGAPORE — The story of Mr Jeremy Chua’s life is a classic tale of someone who stayed away from school and eventually made good — but with a twist.

Unlike dropouts who disliked studying, it was Mr Chua’s thirst for knowledge that made him a misfit. Through self-study, he continued to do well in national examinations, much to the chagrin of his parents, who wanted him to return to school,

Recalling how a teacher once labelled him as full of “intellectual posturing” — he was more interested in pursuing knowledge outside the curriculum — he describes his time in secondary school as being in a “don’t ask questions” learning environment.

“I wanted to flourish in a different system, not one that told you what to think and do,” says Mr Chua, who is in his final year of a liberal arts programme at Vanderbilt University. Looking back, he acknowledges his rebellious streak, but has no regrets “going all out to prove a point and challenging the system”.

The 25-year-old, who made the headlines six years ago for his good grades for his A-Levels despite skipping classes for an entire year before the exams, again garnered national prominence recently during the haze crisis: He was behind SG Haze Rescue, a community initiative that called for people to donate their excess masks and mobilised hundreds of volunteers to distribute them to the needy.

His efforts were cited and praised by various ministers, including Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who helmed the Haze Inter-Ministerial Committee, and Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim.

True to character, the self-starter with a sense of derring-do sprang into action when he returned home on school vacation to find the island shrouded in smog. “I love my sunshine,” he quipped.

He remembers how many people were complaining on social media about the haze and the authorities’ response. Yet, very few did anything about the situation, he points out.

The power of the social media was in its full glory: A day after creating a Facebook page calling for people to donate their excess masks, Mr Chua received 200 of them.

He also recruited University College London undergraduate Teng Jin Zhi, 22, and consultant Gao Rifeng, 25, for his organising team. Mr Raymond Yeh, a 21-year-old web design enthusiast and entrepreneur, also volunteered to set up an open source platform that allowed the project to run by itself. “They told me, ‘We need help, and we need it fast.’ How fast? ‘Today’,” Mr Yeh recalls.

The team tapped online platforms to channel manpower and resources to, for example, estates with a large proportion of elderly. A Google document was also set up for volunteers and donors to list the ways they can contribute, such as cash or mask donations, or air-conditioned rooms for others to sleep in.

In all, about 500 volunteers went around distributing masks to groups such as the elderly and children. “Getting volunteers was surprisingly easy. People jumped on the opportunity to help,” Mr Chua said.

Among the Good Samaritans was a junior college student who, despite having to sit for exams the following week, volunteered to help for several nights in a row. Another was an American who is a permanent resident here. He bought two boxes of N95 masks off the black market and passed them to Mr Chua, with the words: “This is not much, but this is my home, too, and I want to help.”

Mr Chua and his team were pleasantly surprised by the response. “Given the right impetus and catalyst, the beautiful part of us will really emerge. It’s all there behind the door. You just have to knock,” he says.

And Mr Chua, who intends to work in Silicon Valley, never allowed doors to be shut on him, despite his struggles to fit in the education system here as a teenager. He dropped out of school in Secondary 3, but returned to classes under his parents’ encouragement. A few months later, he dropped out again. Nevertheless, his school allowed him to sit for the O-Levels, and he did well enough to enter a junior college.

In junior college, he stopped attending classes in his second year and insisted on self-study for the A-Level examinations. “Everyone thought I would fail miserably,” he recalls. He scored an A in History, and Bs in Music and Literature.

Mr Chua’s story, which was carried in the press, caught the eye of Vanderbilt University, which offered him a full scholarship. On what his parents think of his unconventional route, Mr Chua says with a chuckle: “They don’t say anything. They don’t like to be proven wrong.”

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