From failing O-Level English 3x, to head of IBG Tech

3 April 2024

“The year was 1992. With two giant dictionaries in hand – one translated English to Chinese, and the other, an English dictionary – I started slowly translating and responding to work e-mails.

I grew up in a Chinese and Teochew speaking environment. Unlike many of my native English-speaking co-workers, who could breezily respond in minutes, I could sometimes take up to half-an-hour to reply to an email because I wanted it to be as close to perfect as possible.

But I didn’t mind the extra effort. After all, this was my first programming role in the public sector – something I’d been working towards since I failed my O-level English exam (I’d passed the rest of the subjects) for the first time four years ago.

Back then, at 16, I thought the failure would only set me back a year, so I enrolled in the exam once more, and worked at a manufacturing factory to pass the time.

But the more I spent my days next to a conveyor belt, soldering, fixing gears, and packing remote controls, the more I realised the role wasn’t for me.

The gears shifted in my head when I failed the English exam again – this time, I changed my strategy. I flipped through the job ads in the newspapers every day, pin-pointing skills that I needed to get hired - the subjects that appeared most were accountancy and computing.

I enrolled in two diploma courses in those subjects part-time. To pay for them, I sold vegetables in my aunt’s wet market stall. For two years, I’d work there from 5.30am to 2pm, and rush home for a quick nap, before spending 6pm to 10pm in school.

With the two diplomas, I was hired as a full-time programmer. You’d think I would give up on passing the O-level English exam... but no. I took the exam two more times and finally passed on my fourth try, at the age of 21, two years into my programming role.

I didn’t need the O-level certificate at that point but passing the exam had become a personal goal.

Shortly after, I joined the banking industry, where I worked my way up the corporate ladder over nearly three decades. I’ve been at DBS for 11 years, and my current responsibilities include co-leading teams across the bank to enhance payment availability and certainty as part of the bank’s technology uplift efforts.

It’s an initiative to give our customers greater peace of mind, as they will have more clarity whether their payments have been successful in a service disruption.

It sounds simple, but the payment journey involves many processes, from payment submission, to screening, to fraud detection, to execution, settlements from both parties, confirmation to payer, the list goes on…

It’s a challenging project, for sure – but that’s never daunted me.

My biggest takeaway: behind every difficulty or setback, there are always alternate paths to success. The journey can be arduous, but it’ll make you a much better version of yourself!

Of course, I don’t struggle with my e-mails anymore. And just like how most of our payments are digital these days, so are my two dictionaries, which sit neatly in an app in my phone. I can’t recall the last time I reached for them, but they’re there to remind me of how I persevered and carved a path for myself.”

- Ang Li Khim, Head of Institutional Banking Group Technology