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Featured Article of the Month

JET Alumni Association Singapore (JETAA SG)

By Mr Wong Teck Zhung and Ms Cheryl Phua

This year, JET Alumni Association Singapore (JETAA SG) turns 10 this year so we invited the first President, Wong Teck Zhung, to talk about his memories on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme. In addition, both the first and current President, Cheryl Phua, shared their thoughts about JETAA SG.

Wong Teck Zhung’s memories on the JET Programme

I was the fourth batch of Singaporeans on the JET programme and served as an assistant language teacher (ALT) in Aya town in Miyazaki prefecture from 2002 to 2004.

Imagine an estate of four two-storey blocks, made primarily of wood, with a quiet road with rice fields on one side. Beyond is a river bank where locals do fly-fishing. Further back are mountains shrouded in mist in the morning. Follow the river a kilometre up, and the aroma of shochu (a type of Japanese liquor) from the nearby distillery wafts into your nostrils. That place was my home for two years.

My daily ALT life involved shuttling between Aya Elementary School and Junior High School, and joining local craft lessons in my spare time at the kouminkan (community centre).

The students were adorable, and I had to match and exceed their bubbly energy and enthusiasm. I was often bemused but encouraged by their creative English expressions, like “don’t dig your nose” or “getz”. Playing football and learning Kendo with them helped to build relationships. I even ended up climbing mountains, and joined a very long overnight trekking excursion with one of the school principals.

I wished there were more convenient ways back then to stay connected with Aya townsfolk, my students, teachers and fellow JETs, like the WhatsApp and Line apps of today. In retrospect, that thought would eventually lead to the creation of JETAA SG.

Setting up JETAA SG 10 years ago

I first heard of the idea to set up JETAA SG in 2004 from the staff of the Embassy of Japan in Singapore (EOJ) and The Japan Council of Local Authorities for International Relations, Singapore (J.CLAIR). While everyone agreed on its value, nothing was formalised for years because there were not enough returnee JETs. This topic was raised again with returnee JETs in a January 2009 dinner organised by EOJ. This time, there were finally enough returnees to kick-start the set-up process.

Why did I volunteer? Perhaps it was a cocktail of the idealism of a foolish, single young man who missed his time in JET and wanted to give back something; a ‘why not?’ spirit; and a dose of alcohol. Deep down, I believed that we needed JETAA SG to coalesce and build connections among SG JETs, to aggregate the resources and support from EOJ and J.CLAIR, and to build and sustain the precious relationships that each returnee JET had created and brought back to Singapore. These ideas were subsequently laid out in JETAA SG’s vision statement.

The biggest challenge was creating the JETAA SG constitution document. It was time-consuming and I am truly grateful to all the fellow returnee JETs who contributed. Many revisions and meetings went by before the constitution was accepted by JETAA International and the Registry of Societies in Singapore. The next big challenge was for the interim JETAA SG board to call every single returnee JET whom we have contact with, to attend the inauguration party in May 2009, which was a great success.

As the first president of JETAA SG, my role was like an airplane pilot — set a destination and take off safely with all passengers on board. Along the journey, I was most happy to start the buddy system, which continues till today. Through matching new JETs with returnee JETs based on prefecture, new JETs get the support, assurance and practical advice from their seniors before they leave for Japan, in addition to existing support systems.

I had to represent JETAA SG at official events to promote awareness of JETAA SG, and build collaborative relationships with different parties. It was tough to juggle these engagements with my shift work schedule then, and it worked best to spread these event invitations among my board members.

Vision for JETAA SG in the next 10 years

Wong Teck Zhung: I’m happy and proud to see JETAA SG turn 10 this year. It’s a remarkable achievement that is built upon the selfless contribution of returnee JETs, and the support of EOJ and J.CLAIR. My wish for JETAA SG is for all alumni to keep this go-giver spirit and culture of open-mindedness burning strong, as well as to always remain grateful for their experience. It is my wish that JETAA SG help JETs unleash their full potential and strengthen connections between members, and for members to continue to be the cultural bridge between Japan and Singapore.

Cheryl Phua: When I first came back to Singapore after the JET Programme, I was thinking of how I can contribute back to this programme. The seniors asked if I would like to run for the board and after some thought, I decided to give it a try. This decision gave me the opportunity to learn alongside fellow alumni members who were passionate about the programme.

The journey has been fulfilling, working alongside with like-minded board members, in supporting new JETs prior to leaving Singapore and organising bonding activities for alumni members. It was also heartening to see that the average number of JETs from Singapore has been around 20-30 in the last five years.

It is my honour to be part of the board as JETAA SG moves to our tenth year since our set-up. I hope that this kizuna (bond), will continue to run in the blood of everyone. It is one of the key components of growing a stronger community in Singapore. I also hope that this kizuna will grow along with the members’ stronger sense of affiliation to the association, and continue promoting the JET programme while bonding with fellow members.

About the Authors

Mr Wong Teck Zhung was an ALT from 2002 to 2004 in Aya town, Miyazaki prefecture. After JET, he took up different roles with multinational Corporations in the media and technology industries, based in Beijing and Singapore. He also started a business in Shanghai and is currently an entrepreneur in the anti-aging industry. Teck Zhung led the set-up of JETAA SG and served as its first president.

Ms Cheryl Phua was a CIR at Yukuhashi-shi in Fukuoka Prefecture for 2 years, from 2013 to 2015. After the returning from the JET programme, she is now working in the social service sector in Singapore. Cheryl is currently the President of JET Alumni Association Singapore from 2017.

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