Daniel Tong, 45, was a procurement manager for seven years at an engineering firm until 2016, when he decided to pursue his passion for pastry making.
Little did he know that in pursuing his lifelong dream, he would be left struggling to make ends meet, and be put on a road to find his way back to a permanent fulltime job.
Daniel always had an interest in pastry and F&B but his parents were never supportive of the idea of having him work in a kitchen.
When he was growing up, the manufacturing and technology sectors were booming. This led his mum to believe that engineering was a more viable career choice.
“You should study engineering. You should study electrical. Kitchen work is not good.” Those were his mother’s words that he heeded.
And it turned out not to be a bad choice for Daniel. He was meticulous and possessed good problem solving, budget planning and interpersonal skills as a procurement manager.
But deep down, he still yearned to one day open his own café.
After spending most of his career within the engineering field, a series of unfortunate events over the course of 2014 to 2016 sparked him to take the proverbial leap of faith.
“In 2014, my family member passed away – my father. And then a year later, my elder brother passed away. Then in 2016, my [then] boss passed away. That I think was the final trigger for me,” he shared.
Not wanting to spend his life in regret, Daniel left his procurement role to pursue his culinary training.
A Troubled Dream
Daniel seemed to have everything carefully planned to achieve his dream.
After leaving his job, he spent his next nine months in Bangkok at the Le Cordon Bleu Dusit, which is a culinary school specialising in French cuisine and patisserie. From there, he would travel to Japan to begin his pastry apprenticeship.
Then problems started to show.
Upon his arrival in Japan, he was informed that there were some issues with his visa, and that he would not be able to commence his apprenticeship until the problem was rectified.
He stayed on, trying to re-apply for a visa and while simultaneously enrolling himself for Japanese language classes. Eventually, he gave up after five months and made his way back to Singapore.
He soon found employment as an Assistant Pastry Chef in a hotel, and it was here that he realised that the industry was not what he had thought.
“It is really whole different world,” he said.
His experience was fraught with a lack of supervision, direction and mentoring. He recalled conflicts with fellow colleagues and even bullying at the workplace.
During his hotel stint, Daniel was also concurrently attending a food entrepreneurship course at At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy. He remembered what his lecturer said about different stages of team creation.
“When you form a team, it is always forming, storming, norming and then performing. That was when I realised that what was happening in the kitchen was ‘storming’ – there was just a lot of conflict,” he said.
After eight months of tension in the kitchen, Daniel threw in the towel and left the job. But as one of the requirements his entrepreneurship course was to start a food business, he then took over the operation of his friend’s family fruit juice business to fulfil this obligation.
However, he was once again met with disappointment.
Perhaps it was his poor business acumen, or his lack of experience within the F&B sector, Daniel found himself bringing home a few hundred, sometimes nothing, during his five-month stint as a food entrepreneur.
It was here that he realised that the path he had chosen was not a sustainable one.
Making His Way Back
By now, Daniel had already left his procurement role for almost three years. He started applying for engineering and procurement positions, no matter whether they were entry or mid-level.
But his applications went unanswered.
In the meantime, he began working at what he called “bridging jobs” to sustain himself.
He had earlier started covering the night shift as a caregiver at a St Andrew’s Community Hospital while he was running the still running the juice business to earn some extra income. By March 2020, he was also working as a Grab driver, but that was just two months before implementation of the Circuit Breaker measures.
Daniel pushed on, taking on GrabFood delivery from August 2020, and working as a part-time administrative staff for a swab operations team.
And it was through this administrative role that Daniel found an unlikely opportunity to reveal his past procurement experience to his employer.
Seeing how his experience could be also applied to the healthcare provider’s operations, Daniel’s employer hired him on a six-month contract as the Head of Procurement for the company.
The company recently took him onboard as a fulltime staff.
Looking back at his journey over the last five years, Daniel expressed no real regret of the time he spent out of the corporate world.
However, the recent recommendations by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) to strengthen the employment and employability of PMEs would have undoubtedly been helpful for Daniel when he was looking to come back to the corporate world.
Even when asked how he thought the Government could have better helped him or PMEs in a similar position, he struggled to think of something. He felt that the experience has taught him to better differentiate between what he is passionate about, and what he is good at.
“Perhaps more career coaching from NTUC’s e2i [Employment and Employability Institute] to help us work on our strengths would be good,” he finally thought out loud.
When asked if he would have done anything different on hindsight, he smiled and said that he probably would not have quit his job immediately.
“You must have a plan if you want to pursue your passion. If there is anything I’ve learnt is that you must first try before you jump straight in to pursue your passion.
“If I were to redo it again [the past five years], I would not have left my procurement job, and I would probably have attended weekend classes instead to learn more about pastry,” he said.