Through the course of tertiary education in Singapore, most students get the opportunity to do at least one internship.
It’s a rite of passage that takes you from the safe walls of school into your first taste of the professional world.
It’s less common, however, to try doing an overseas internship.
Liow Wei Quan is one of the few who decided to cast his line out further.
Today, he’s a Lead Product Manager at Grab overseeing the tech firm’s parcel delivery arm GrabExpress—and he fulfils our curiosity on whether the overseas experience really makes a difference.
Back then, the opportunity arose while he was studying accountancy at the National University of Singapore (NUS). The university offers a programme that lets students study and work abroad for a period of their course.
For Wei Quan, it was an experience he wanted and applying for the programme was a no-brainer.
“It would give me an added advantage through the eye-opener of working with people from different backgrounds,” he said.
Getting Over The Big One: Expenses Abroad
From working in a small company to an MNC, the experience differs, and it all depends on what you want to learn.
The idea of working in a startup in the midst of expanding appealed to Wei Quan, as he felt that he could learn a lot by stepping out of his comfort zone and diving deep into hands-on work.
This was one of the factors he considered when applying for a spot at Applied Clinical Intelligence (ACI), a contract research firm in Philadelphia, United States.
Beyond the type of company, there were other questions to worry about. Going overseas for a year is no small decision.
“Many of the concerns I had revolved around living overseas without my family, and coping with the high cost of living in the US,” says Wei Quan.
Anyone’s first thought would be: “Can I afford this?”
The good thing is that unlike an overseas study exchange, an overseas internship doesn’t come with the significant financial burn, because you’re earning an income to tide you through it.
To further ease his worries, Wei Quan resolved that as long as he spent his pay prudently, he would do fine.
“I used some of my own savings to pay for the air tickets and part of the accommodations, and the allowance from my internship was enough to cover the rest of it, including all my daily expenses while I lived there,” he shares.
The only thing left to overcome was being away from home alone, and in time, making new friends overseas “allayed the feelings of homesickness”.
“Why Would They Want To Trust Me?”
Although he was an intern, far be it that his responsibilities given by ACI were light and breezy.
Wei Quan was put in charge of managing the company’s financial scorecard and reviewing operations to determine how to make their processes more efficient.
These were tasks that typically fall on more senior staff, especially since it required the company to place some of its most sensitive information, like financial records, in his hands.
Why would my colleagues want to trust in my capabilities, when I had not even graduated from school yet, and I came from a foreign land [without any prior knowledge about American businesses]?Liow Wei Quan
Rather than shying away, Wei Quan says this pushed him to keep up consistent effort so that he’d earn their trust and prove it was worth their while to take a chance on him.
His days at work included catching up with managers to learn ACI’s operation processes, and meeting the founders to understand the problems the firm was facing.
With what he gathered, he worked hard with the rest of the team to map out operational issues and propose solutions to help the company achieve desired outcomes.
Through the opportunities given to him, and his repeated efforts to make the most of them, Wei Quan saw himself growing from a greenhorn to someone with a honed discipline in managing a company’s cash flow.
It gave him the confidence that he could take on more in the future, even in new and unfamiliar areas.
Of course, it helped that his colleagues were patient and willing to provide guidance when he needed it.
Wei Quan shared that as someone who was new to the country and company, he was heartened to find out that earnestly asking for help went a long way, especially in unfamiliar situations.
Lessons That Last A Long Time
Although his overseas internship happened years ago, Wei Quan continues to feel its impacts on his career till now.
“The spirit to venture out serves me well,” he says.
For example, his experience was what gave him the confidence to try out a new career path in product management, and the tenacity and adaptability to join a fast-paced firm like Grab; things he wouldn’t see himself doing so readily otherwise.
Some skills, such as the financial discipline he picked up at ACI, proved to remain useful in new situations.
“I’ve seen the importance of controlling costs and growing new revenue streams in order for a company to survive, [and] this is something I have transferred to Grab, thinking of ways in which products can ensure that the business remains on a firm path to profitability,” he says.
More than that, his overseas experience comes in especially handy now that he’s working in a company with a regional presence.
“One thing that particularly struck me [during my internship in the US] was the cultural difference,” he says.
Wei Quan observed little things, like how his American colleagues tend to prepare their lunches from home and eat it at their own tables, compared Singaporeans’ habit of buying takeaway and eating together.
Or the fact that people in the US don’t wait till their bosses leave the office first at the end of each day.
He also had to get used to different terms and slang people frequently used when they spoke.
While these observations may seem insignificant, they left an impact deep enough for Wei Quan to remember them till this day.
Noticing how people from another part of the world have their own habits and norms taught him that it is important to always “be sensitive to the nuances of each culture”, and never assume that one size fits all.
At Grab, I am taking care of regional products across six countries. Each country has its own culture and customs, and my experience has taught me to factor this in whenever we plan new products.Liow Wei Quan
This has remained at the centre of everything he does, from expanding GrabExpress’ footprint across online shopping platforms like Shopee and Indonesia’s Tokopedia, to extending the service to corporate customers in each market.
Would You Go Global If You Had The Chance?
Internships overseas can create experiences that you can’t simply replicate here at home.
Beyond Singapore, there’s so much more we can learn from around the world by observing how different people from different backgrounds work, communicate and solve problems.
With more local businesses increasingly born with their sights fixed on the global marketplace, the overseas work experience can give graduates a competitive edge when they enter the workforce.
This experience isn’t just available to NUS students like Wei Quan, and neither is it meant to be out of reach if you don’t have financial luxury.
Opportunities are actually open to students from a number of participating universities, as well as local ITEs and polytechnics.
The Global Ready Talent programme (GRT) was launched by Enterprise Singapore in October 2019 and offers young talent access to local and overseas internship and work opportunities in promising enterprises.
It aims to arm them with real-world skills to take on challenges in a rapidly evolving business environment as well as develop global business insights that helps them stand out from the crowd.
If you are interested to find out how you can apply for an internship abroad, visit www.beglobalready.sg to learn more.
This article was written in collaboration with Enterprise Singapore.
Featured Image Credit: Liow Wei Quan