“If you can, don’t go.”
That was the advice Leslie Koh, 35, says that he got from most of his secondary school teachers regarding enrolling in the Institute of Technical Education.
Today, Leslie (@leslie.koh) is a financial consultant and a food influencer who goes under the hashtag #ricecookerman with 18,000 followers across Instagram, Facebook and Tiktok.
But a couple of weeks ago, something prompted him to post something other than food pictures — he saw an Instagram post that showed an alleged interaction a student had with her ex-tutor.
In the post, uploaded by education company Blackbelt Clan, the student, Zoe, told her tutor, Ms Teo, that she enrolled in ITE, who then berates her for her choice because ITE “has no standing in society”.
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The post went viral with the majority of the posts condemning the tutor’s condescending tone. Others questioned the legitimacy of the Instagram post, sceptical of Ms Teo’s over-the-top response.
Regardless of its veracity, the post got many ITE graduates to come forward to share their success stories while admitting that this is indeed a common perception that they deal with.
The post triggered something in Leslie too, he tells The Pride. That’s why he took to Facebook to share his own ITE journey.
“It definitely hit me as I also faced such discrimination. I have a certain influence online. So, I had a choice — I could either start a witchhunt or I could encourage those who have been put down or discriminated against due to their choice of education,” Leslie says.
His post had many comments from other former ITE students as well. Even so, Leslie noted that there were many people questioning the legitimacy of his post and even thought about deleting it.
Leslie says: “I wanted to delete the post because there was a lot of toxicity and I didn’t expect it. However, more good was being done. People were sharing their stories.”
A longer path, but with a destination in sight
His own story wasn’t an easy path, says Leslie. In his Facebook post, he mentioned how he had mixed around with the wrong crowd and had flunked out of express in his early secondary school years and moved to the Normal (Academic) stream.
Things started to turn around after his preliminary exams in Secondary 4, a teacher took him aside and told him not to waste his talent. So he put more effort into his studies and got 7 points for his N levels.
At this point, he had a choice: Take another year and do the O levels as a Secondary 5 student or enrol in ITE.
Leslie explains: “I didn’t want to go to Sec 5 as I was not great at studying and would not do well for the O levels. I chose ITE because it was a path for me to go to polytechnic and get a degree after that.”
This was where he got the most blowback from most of his teachers, his friends and even his father.
“My friends told me, ‘walao why are you going ITE? So low-class!’,” Leslie shares with The Pride.
He also realised that his dad was hesitant about his decision.
Leslie says: “When I shared with him about going to ITE, I could sense he was not comfortable with this due to the social stigma.
“But he was always very supportive of my education. He would be a listening ear and would help me reason out my choices. So he was still ok with it because I was still pursuing something rather than dropping out of school.”
He also had one teacher who stood out from the others. He encouraged Leslie to follow his dreams. “He told me, ‘everyone has their own time and their own journey. If you think it’s for you, go for it’,” recounts Leslie.
Challenges in ITE
Recounting his experience in ITE and of his own schoolmates, Leslie admits: “Truth is, some of them were delinquents. When I was there, 20 per cent of them were smoking or skipping classes. However, I have also met people who are talented but just not good at studying.”
He also mentioned how people would not want to associate with him because of ITE. Leslie says: “When people see me wearing my uniform, they think I’m a gangster or a delinquent.”
He would also get stared at.
On top of that, he also had felt like he was falling behind as he had taken the longer education route.
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Despite the challenges, Leslie has good memories of his time in ITE.
“We didn’t have any issues whether you were academically strong or not. We would help each other out. We had a lot of fun playing sports like basketball, eating together and just hanging out,” he says.
It was in ITE that Leslie found out that he was good at programming and started helping his friends in class.
He shares: “My lecturer taught me how to teach because I had a flair with programming and I would usually finish my assignment pretty quickly. He challenged me to guide my classmates for extra recognition. From there, I also learnt how to negotiate with my lecturers to get extra credits just by doing well and helping my friends!”
Leslie adds: “Later, I got into polytechnic and I found out that thanks to my ITE background, I actually had an edge over my poly classmates.”
ITE is a viable option
Leslie’s case is just one of the success stories to come out of ITE. There are many others who have had similar success journeys — whether it is becoming a doctor or an entrepreneur. They have reaped the benefits of putting in the hard work.
Regardless of education path, we should focus on giving students the right type of encouragement and preparation according to their skills and abilities.
Leslie says: “ITE made sense for me as I got qualifications along the way. My certificates are all skill-based so it is comforting to have that security. If my life were to change, I still have that training to fall back on.”
Just as polytechnic education has become more socially “acceptable” (especially to our parents) as more stories of success emerge, Leslie believes that ITE too will go down that route. ITE should not stand for “it’s the end”, as the often-repeated joke goes.
He hopes that ITE will continue to be positioned as a viable option for those who are not academically inclined to learn hands-on skills just like he did.
“I hope they showcase more success stories and show that just because you take a longer route, it does not mean you will not do well in life.”
“Time levels the playing field, as long as you put in the hard work.”