Gutsy mum took 8 years to finish primary school, now runs $10m company


Millionaire entrepreneur Karen Tok has come a long way from her school days, where she felt “stupid” and finished her O levels at the age of 20. 

“I hated my primary school days. I often felt lousy, inferior and an outcast,” declares Ms Karen Tok, when asked about her early years in school.

You would too if you, like her, had been written off as an academic no-hoper at just nine years old.

After taking a streaming examination in Primary 3, she was deemed fit only for the now-defunct Monolingual stream which earmarked her for eight, instead of six, years of primary education.

Secondary school was not an option; she could only look forward to vocational training at the Vocational and Industrial Training Board (now known as Institute of Technical Education or ITE).

“I didn’t do well under Singapore’s education system then. I thought I was stupid and did not dare hope to go far in my life,” says Ms Tok. But it is hard, as the sages say, to keep a good woman down.

An irrepressible spirit, a big appetite for risk and adventure, as well as a penchant for taking on naysayers, helped her shake off the “loser” label and make good.

Related: From gangster and drug addict to businessman and father: Jabez Tan’s extraordinary life

Hard road to success
Ms Tok, 46, is today the founder and advisor of ScienTec Consulting, an award-winning boutique recruitment agency specialising in the life sciences. What is even more amazing is that she built the business – valued at $10 million – with just $10,000 in working capital.

Trim and lithe, Ms Tok has the equanimity of a woman who has braved many challenges and weathered not a few storms.

She is the younger of two children; her father was a taxi driver turned hawker, and her mother, a factory worker. Home was a three-room HDB flat in Boon Lay, which had more than its fair share of gangsters and hoodlums.

Studying to pass exams was something she never quite mastered in primary school. “If I couldn’t see an application for the subject that I was studying for, I saw no purpose in doing it,” says the former pupil of Boon Lay Primary and Boon Lay Garden Primary.

She learnt skills such as soldering, technical drawing, woodwork, electrical wiring and tyre changing first at Jurong Vocational Institute, and later at Kim Keat Vocational Institute.

“In those days, VITB was not like today’s ITE,” she says, referring to the Institute of Technical Education’s modern campuses and updated courses.

“It was embarrassing for my classmates and me to be seen in our uniforms.”

With a laugh, she adds: “But I did pick up some skills. I still know how to solder and I don’t need anyone’s help to change a tyre on a highway.”

Next page: Starting Sec 1 at age 16 

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