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Making it count

SNOW rookies are easy to identify. During the winter of 2011, a Singaporean student was so excited by his first sighting of snow in Pittsburgh, United States, that he immediately rushed outdoors. There was just one problem — he was wearing shorts. Looking back on that experience, Mr Jonathan Yee, 27, an infocomm specialist at the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS), says his choice of clothing almost led to hypothermia. But that was just one of many great experiences he had while pursuing a Bachelor of Science (Computer Science) degree at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pennsylvania.

Enjoy the journey

Mr Yee, who was awarded the IRAS Undergraduate Scholarship in 2010, says he always had a passion for computers since childhood. After all, he had been playing computer games since the age of five. He also taught himself programming when he was 12 years old, and was a member of the Computer Science Club at Raffles Institution. He followed his passion when choosing his university course, saying the high quality of computer science courses at CMU was a major highlight. He says: “I found the operating systems, distributed systems and machine learning courses most influential. To date, my interests still revolve around these subjects. “Self-directed learning is a critical component of all these classes, but the teaching assistants or professors always offered support when I needed it.” The IRAS Undergraduate Scholarship scheme covered his tuition fees and provided a monthly stipend, which he used for living expenses such as rent, food, transportation and textbooks. An important component of the scholarship scheme was the career guidance provided through mentorship and buddy programmes. One piece of advice from his mentor, Mr Ong Khiaw Hong (then deputy commissioner of Corporate & Services, now chief executive of the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority) — “the important thing is that you are having fun” — made a particularly lasting impression on him. Mr Yee adds that implicit in Mr Ong’s statement was that whether easy or difficult choices were ahead of him, he had to enjoy the path nevertheless. The scholar’s learning experience at CMU required him to change his mindset. Initially, he simply read the provided materials and occasionally asked his friends for help. This approach did not really work in his first semester. “I was not used to approaching my teaching assistants for help on working through some of the problem sets,” he shares. “But I came to see that seeking outside help to learn was not a sign of weakness. I even attended supplementary classes, something I personally would not have done before attending CMU,” he says. He says the projects were “immensely fun and challenging” and that the course material was taught well. Peer support was also a vital factor — his coursemates were so good at computer science that the spirit of friendly competition inspired him to push his own boundaries.

Lessons learnt

Mr Yee recommends the undergraduate scholarship scheme to aspiring scholars. For one thing, he feels that IRAS took good care of him when he was a student. “I was allowed to do an internship with an American technology company during my summer vacation. I also spent a semester abroad in Japan learning about its language, culture, literature and religion,” he says. One fond memory the scholar has of his time in Pittsburgh was receiving an IRAS care package every winter, with laksa and chicken rice packets among the contents. Apart from this taste of home, he cherishes all that he has learnt — from his degree course to his career at IRAS. Mr Yee says that one of the most important lessons he took away from his operating systems syllabus was that there is no single correct answer. Instead of trying to choose the “correct” response, it was wiser to pick the one with the “right compromises”, by taking into account the benefits and trade-offs of each option. “This approach sums up how decision-making works in IRAS. Being trained to think in this manner has helped me to see why decisions were made and justify my own decisions more easily to the management,” he adds. Mr Yee appreciates that IRAS is constantly forward-looking in its application of technology to the tax collection process. He is also proud to state that it is one of the first tax administrations in the world that allows the filing of income tax via the Internet. Exploring the many areas of information technology has helped Mr Yee to understand not just the theory behind these computer science fields, but also how they might be applied to IRAS as it expands its methods of engagement.