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A learning disability didn’t stop him from becoming Singapore’s first Rhodes Scholar in 14 years

Tackling dyslexia is like solving a Rubik’s cube – once you find the solution, progress can come in unexpected leaps
by Edward Yee

PHOTOS: AMIN SHAH

They say a child’s brain is like a sponge, eager to absorb information. Growing up, mine was more like a sieve – I was the child who lost the information rather than retained it. As a result, I struggled with languages and rote learning in primary school, failing my tests frequently. In Primary 3 and 4, I was assigned to the worst class. In my first two years of secondary school, I was among the bottom five to 10% in the cohort. Tackling my poor academic performance felt like staring at a Rubik’s cube – I didn’t know where to begin.

I put it down to a lack of academic inclination, but a diagnosis in Primary 5 showed otherwise. My parents sat me down and told me about my dyslexia, which explained why I was good at logical reasoning, but could never grasp a mathematical formula or remember the strokes of a Chinese character as well as my peers, no matter how hard I tried. It also accounted for the way I saw and understood things in images, rather than in words.

What really helped was having a supportive family who never gave up on me. My grandmother would take me to the library and borrow books for me. Gradually, I developed a love for reading, which I believe helped me to better grasp the English language.

In the months leading up to the Primary School Leaving Examination, my father even took leave to, quite literally, add colour to my revision. He taught me how to mark my notes in colours to learn better, a technique that I still use. Red, for example, denotes a very important point, while green is for definitions or questions. The coaching helped me to pass the exam, but the most important lesson I learnt from this process was the importance of having a growth mindset – that talent can be developed through hard work and good strategies.

Looking back, I now know that just like a Rubik’s cube, dealing with dyslexia may seem like a frustrating puzzle at first. But once you find the solution, progress can come in unexpected leaps. For me, that first leap came when I joined the Integrated Programme at National Junior College. Studies have shown that dyslexic brains are organised in a way that maximises strength in making big picture connections at the expense of the ability to process fine details. In junior college, I challenged myself to spend more time finding connections and patterns, instead of memorising facts. This allowed me to work around my dyslexia, and embrace my different way of thinking as a strength.

Like solving a Rubik’s cube, the way to go about accomplishing something big is to break it into small, manageable chunks, so you end up creating something that is bigger than its parts.

Of course, I am also fortunate to be born in the digital age, where critical thinking and analytical skills are prized over the ability to retain information. There has never been a time, with the technology we have, when we have had more need to be thinking outside the box.

I was challenged again when I started my undergraduate studies in accountancy and business at NTU, where I was exposed to multiple disciplines under the University Scholars Programme, and had to think nimbly and flexibly to navigate the course work. A philosophy module offered as part of the curriculum played a huge part in shaping my thinking. It introduced me to the concept of effective altruism, which looks at solutions that balance emotion and practicality to make the biggest impact.

At NTU, I also had the opportunity to chalk up overseas experiences, which was a great way to meet people, collect stories and broaden my horizons. One such example is the the Overseas Entrepreneurship Programme run by NTUitive, the innovation and enterprise arm of NTU. I spent six months at a data analytics start-up in Silicon Valley, USA, where I saw how talented people tried to make a positive impact in the world. The drive to change the world for the better was palpable and contagious, and it further convinced me that impact investing was the way to go.

In 2017, I co-founded Givfunds, a start-up that provides low-cost loans to social enterprises. We are now focused on helping communities in India. During my backpacking stints in Bangladesh and other parts of Southeast Asia, I saw how social enterprises that made a real difference to communities were hampered by a lack of resources. Like solving a Rubik’s cube, the way to go about accomplishing something big is to break it into small, manageable chunks, so you end up creating something that is bigger than its parts. That is what I hope for Givfunds. By making funds available to social enterprises to help them scale up, they can collectively make a difference beyond the communities they directly help.

Perhaps it is this passion for making an impact in this world that earned me the Rhodes Scholarship, considered the granddaddy of international postgraduate scholarships. It is both an honour and daunting to be Singapore’s first Rhodes Scholar in 14 years. I know I have huge shoes to fill.

I was drawn to the scholarship not by its prestige, but the idea of coming together with other Rhodes scholars to fight the world’s fight. It takes me back to Jagriti Yatra, where I joined some 400 young leaders from all over India on a 15-day train ride, meeting social and business entrepreneurs who have changed the lives of millions. It is in the smaller towns and villages that the impact of social enterprises becomes real, and I remember returning home with a renewed conviction to give back to society in my own way.

At the University of Oxford, I will be doing a double Masters in Social Data Science and Evidence-based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation, which I believe will help me take Givfunds to the next level. I want to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of social intervention programmes, and use data to better allocate resources in a way that will impact the communities. With that, I hope I can leave the world a slightly better place.


Edward Yee, 24, a final-year Nanyang Business School student, is Singapore’s first Rhodes Scholar in 14 years, coming a long way since failing test after test in primary school as a dyslexic child. He beat 90 applicants to secure the prestigious award to further his studies at the University of Oxford later this year.