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'Imagine taking university classes at a firing range': Woman shares unusual career path from SAF gunnery instructor to DBS product manager

'Imagine taking university classes at a firing range': Woman shares unusual career path from SAF gunnery instructor to DBS product manager

These days, Ong Jia Hui dons formal office wear for her job at DBS Bank. 

But a few years back, her work attire was entirely different and she wore an army uniform instead. 

Before working as a project manager for the bank, she was a regular servicewoman at the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) for five years. 

Though she enjoyed her time there, Jia Hui craved a different challenge and eventually made a drastic career switch, landing herself in the banking industry. 

Chasing her childhood dream 

While Jia Hui joined the SAF in mid-2017, her love for all things military started way before that thanks to her father, who was a Commando during his National Service (NS). 

"During my childhood years, I listened to stories from my dad and was really fascinated. My father recalled fondly his time spent doing airborne training and outfield exercises, and the camaraderie he shared with his fellow comrades," she recounted to AsiaOne. 

"A personality quirk I shared with my father: I always detested the idea of a desk-bound job. I wanted a job serving a greater purpose – one that came with a challenge. I decided to explore the option of a military career."

She finally made the decision to sign on after a fruitful trip to the Army Open House, which happened sometime after she graduated from polytechnic. 

There, she met Chief Warrant Officer Jennifer Tan, who has since retired. 

"She became an inspiration to me to join the Army; she excelled in armour, a traditionally male-dominated vocation, and eventually attained the highest rank for a non-commissioned officer," Jia Hui shared. 

"She proved that women could be just as competent in a high-pressure, physically exhaustive environment. The thrill of a challenge, plus the promise of an adventurous career made the SAF a natural choice."

Jia Hui eventually went on to serve in 42nd Battalion, Singapore Armoured Regiment (42 SAR), an armour infantry battalion.

As she was a former competitive air-weapon shooter, she chose this vocation because of her love for weapons. 

Making a career switch 

While Jia Hui thoroughly enjoyed her time in the military, she eventually felt the need for a new challenge somewhere else. 

So, she took on an instructional role as a senior gunnery instructor in her fourth year of service.

As this meant that she did not have to live in the army camp, she managed to find time to pursue a part-time degree in marketing. 

"It was challenging completing my studies at that time – imagine taking Zoom classes in an active tank firing range – but I am thankful for supportive colleagues and bosses who gave me more flexible working schedules," she said gratefully. 

The topics she learned during her part-time degree piqued her interest, and Jia Hui found herself wanting more time to pursue this. 

So, after eight months of contemplation, she left the SAF in February 2022. 

"[It was] a difficult decision as I genuinely enjoyed my time in service. However, I felt like I was ready for a new challenge, a new career. I was eager to learn more about the world" she explained. 

She also did not want to end up regretting the choices she didn't make. 

"I figured that I had to make this transition while I was still young," she told us. 

However, Jia Hui didn't start working a full-time marketing and sales job immediately. 

First, she took up a four-month internship at a marketing consultancy so she could gain some work experience, which included managing paid media content and handling external partners. She even picked up presentation and design skills along the way. 

Later on, she joined ST Engineering in a project management appointment. 

"It was a comforting experience as I was tasked to market defence simulation systems, a product I had many hands-on hours with as a military regular.

"The clients I worked with were also familiar to me as they were mainly from the Singapore army," she shared, adding that even up till now, she still keeps in contact with the bosses and colleagues she met there. 

But while Jia Hui enjoyed her time there, she didn't want to get too comfortable. 

As she was "itching for a new challenge", she applied to be a product manager at DBS Bank because she "loves solving problems". 

New things to learn, old skills to use 

And Jia Hui did get challenged, in a good way. 

"My first day at DBS was an eye-opener, to say the least. I remember walking into the office and thinking to myself: 'Everyone is immaculately dressed'," she recounted. 

The transition to a completely different and fast-paced industry meant that she had to keep up and acquire knowledge quickly. 

Thankfully, her new colleagues made the journey more bearable. 

"While painful to start from 'square one' once again, I am thankful for great colleagues who generously shared their knowledge with me and patiently helped me along the way. This made my adjustment period bearable, and fun even."

But she wasn't just learning new things — she was applying old soft skills that she picked up in the SAF as well. 

Back as a platoon sergeant, Jia Hui had to communicate "confidently and effectively" with her platoon and to "understand the troubles they faced as young men".

"To win the trust of my men, I made sure to listen empathetically to them, with an open heart. I learned to manage conflict. More specifically, to be comfortable with conflict, and to manage it calmly and patiently," she explained. 

"These skills have served me well in the workplace. They give me the confidence to handle the ups and downs of corporate life, and to build lasting friendships with my colleagues. I am comfortable with time pressure and work stress, equanimity earned from my time in service." 

She still misses the army, including the physical training

Even today, Jia Hui misses her time in the military, especially the friends she made there. 

"The camaraderie I shared with my Army mates, I miss that the most," she told us. 

"There is an unmatched level of trust with my fellow cadets and trainees, especially when you have spent an inordinate amount of time living and training together. Tough times and tough conditions bring people together." 

Another aspect she misses? The physical training sessions. 

"There were regular weekly workouts in the Army. I enjoyed the routine," she revealed, adding that up till now, she continues to keep fit after work by going running, swimming and cardio boxing with her partner. 


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