He dropped out of Lasalle College of the Arts after two years because his family could not afford it.
So he signed on with the army and five years later, he joined his brother-in-law's shoe-repair shop.
That was where Edwin Neo found his passion. During those days at the shop, Mr Neo, now 34, taught himself the art of shoemaking. Working long hours at his job, he could only use the machine and tools in the morning when the shop was closed or not crowded.
For four years, he would learn from books and the Internet, often failing because he had no background in the basics. But he was determined to hone his craft. In 2010, he took unpaid leave and went to Budapest, Hungary, to seek an apprenticeship under a master shoemaker.
Taking a bank loan and a huge risk, he spent about $10,000 to train with the craftsman for 1½ months.
His investment in himself has paid off.Today, his bespoke shoes company, ed et al,has grown from a one-man outfit to a team ofnine.He has also co-invested in a factory in Vietnamthat employs 50 to 80 workers to manufacture his ready-to-wear shoes for success.
Mr Neo's resolve to deepen his skills was mentioned by Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in his Budget speech on Monday.
Recognition of his success aside, Mr Neo feels Mr Tharman's mention of him is a "nod to craftsmen". He added: "In Singapore, craftsmen are not really respected as the professionals that they are."Mr Neo trained under master shoemaker Marcell Mrsan, a respected bespoke shoe and bootmaker .At Mr Mrsan's shop in Budapest, Mr Neo and another apprentice from Germany would train from 7.30am to 5pm every day.
The master craftsman had high standards.Mr Neo recalled: "Often, we would have to tryagain and again until our work was considered adequate."After the internship, Mr Neo was invited by MrMrsan to work in Budapest, but he decided to return to Singapore and start his own business instead. Mr Neo's foray into shoemaking was not planned.
He was interested in information technology but failed mathematics and did not qualify to enter a polytechnic.As he enjoyed drawing and sketching, he decidedto study interior design at Lasalle College of the Arts.
"My parents thought that it would lead to a financially stable job," explained the youngest child of a taxi driver and a housewife.Mr Neo, who has a two-year-old daughter, speakspassionately about shoemaking.A bespoke pair of shoes from ed et al would take about three to six months to craft and costs at least $2,500.
"I find shoes interesting in terms of form and function. It has to fit and be comfortable before it can be beautiful. "From a design perspective, it's magical to transform a piece of leather from two-dimensional to three-dimensional."Mr Neo also hopes to pass his craftsmanship onto the next generation through a proper training system.
Designer Candy Wee, 25, who has been working with Mr Neo for the past three years, is now keen to be a shoemaker.
"Edwin supports and encourages us when we want to learn about the craft," said Miss Wee.
She has completed pattern-making and shoe design courses, which were paid for by the company. Mr Neo explained: "I just want to
help future craftsmen so that they wouldn't have to go through the roundabout process that I went through."
Help to develop work skills
Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam used Mr Edwin Neo as an example of someone who is passionate about developing his craft.
A major initiative of Budget 2015 is SkillsFuture, which aims to support Singaporeans who want to develop deeper skills in particular fields.
A total of 2,000 SkillsFuture Study Awards and 100 SkillsFuture Fellowships will be given out a year, especially to those who want to progress in Singapore's growth clusters, which include advanced manufacturing and applied health sciences.
But DPM Tharman added that the Government is open to supporting other industries as well.
Perhaps even shoemaking.
He praised Mr Neo: "He is doing well... selling both ready-to-wear shoes and upmarket bespoke creations. Not cheap, by the way."
This article was first published on Feb 25, 2015.
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