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High flyer gave up 6-figure salary for TCM passion: How did she do it?

Ng Seow Ling, now managing director of Eu Yan Sang Integrative Health, said planning is key before pursuing passion.

Ng Seow Ling, managing director of Eu Yan Sang Integrative Health, who quit her previous role at the height of her corporate career.
Ng Seow Ling, managing director of Eu Yan Sang Integrative Health, who quit her previous role at the height of her corporate career to pursue a passion in TCM. (PHOTO: Eu Yan Sang) (Eu Yan Sang)

SINGAPORE — Would you quit your job at the height of your career to pursue your passion? That was the dilemma that Ng Seow Ling, now managing director of Eu Yan Sang Integrative Health, grappled with.

In 2017, Ng, then 46 years old, resigned as the managing director of Unilever Food Solutions for Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos after 20 years of climbing the corporate ladder. Spurred by a weariness that resulted from the daily grind and the desire to improve the health of her loved ones, Ng gave up her "six-figure" annual salary, along with the comforts of an established work routine and a stable team, to embark on a journey of becoming a certified traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) physician.

Within a month of leaving her job, Ng was enrolled in a five-year bachelor's degree course in TCM. Ng shared with Yahoo Finance Singapore about her "long thinking process" prior to taking the plunge.

Financial planning is key

When she first considered going back to school, Ng's priority was to sort out her finances. She assessed her financial position, taking into consideration financial commitments, outstanding liabilities and how much she needed to save to sustain herself – her course fees alone were S$60,000. Ng also considered the opportunity costs from giving up her previous role.

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"I made sure that in those five years, I could live comfortably. Not lavishly, but comfortably," said Ng on how she saved up before resigning. For her own needs, Ng said that having S$4,000 to S$5,000 per month was "good enough".

While she is not married and has no children, Ng had ageing parents who counted on her for financial support. Setting aside money for any unforeseeable medical emergencies was crucial to her preparation. "My parents' medical bill is actually the biggest risk, because you can never tell when there will be an emergency," said Ng.

Another key factor that gave Ng the confidence to leave her job was her minimal housing loan obligations. She owns an HDB (Housing and Development Board) flat that has been fully paid for. She had a mortgage for a private property, which she rented out. The rental income was used to cover the installments.

"Don't buy a condo to start with. Buy an HDB first. When you have extra cash, then you buy a condo. From the onset, I was very clear on that. That gave me certainty in my finances from a very young age," she advised.

Do your research

Ng's interest in TCM first started when she was studying for her A-levels and grew over time through work stints in China. An interest in healthcare further reinforced her passion for the subject, as her mother had heart issues, and had suffered from a stroke. Ng's father is a diabetic.

Ng added that she saw improvements in her mother's condition after the latter went through TCM treatments. This led her to do more research on the subject, and she made multiple enquiries to various universities.

After considering other areas of healthcare, such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy and psychology, she ultimately settled for TCM because of its depth and history spanning over 3,000 years. Her research also made her more informed about the prospect and potential of the TCM industry in Singapore, given Singapore's ageing population and the possibility of the industry becoming more integrated with mainstream healthcare services.

TCM is a whole new ball game; I really started from the bottom. In that five years (in the TCM course), I ate a lot of humble pie, but I was enjoying myself too.Ng Seow Ling

However, no amount of research could have prepared Ng for the challenging course. She shared that she struggled badly in her first year because of the "more sophisticated" Mandarin that was used in the course. What kept her going was her unwavering passion for the subject.

A little luck comes in handy

While securing a job right after graduating is great, landing a role as a managing director is even better. Within the same month as her graduation in June 2022, Ng was offered the position of managing director of Eu Yan Sang Integrative Health, a role that requires her to oversee all of the company's TCM clinics in Singapore.

According to Ng, it was fate. Initially, she had wanted only to be a practising TCM physician, but a chance encounter with a former colleague who now works for the 144-year old company changed that. While Ng was studying, she had registered a consulting company as a means of taking on part-time consulting work. As luck would have it, her ex-colleague referred Ng to Eu Yan Sang for a project. Although the project did not take off, Ng's resume was passed to the bosses and the rest, as they say, is history.

Ng Seow Ling in her role as a TCM physician. (PHOTO: Eu Yan Sang)
Ng Seow Ling in her role as a TCM physician. (PHOTO: Eu Yan Sang)

Experience combined with new skills

Although she was initially reluctant when asked to take up a business role again, Ng nevertheless thought it was a good opportunity. The new position allows her to leverage on prior experience, and she's also able to practise as a TCM physician. Ng now treats patients once a week at one of the company's clinics.

People management and managing key accounts were some of the transferable skills Ng possessed; she had to acquire industry knowledge and quickly adjust to the new company's culture.

"TCM is a whole new ball game; I really started from the bottom. In that five years (in the TCM course), I ate a lot of humble pie, but I was enjoying myself too.

"When Eu Yan Sang came and said the role will allow me to combine my past with what I want to do in the future, that's the best," said Ng.

Regardless, Ng couldn't avoid feelings of fear and self-doubt. There were significant changes to corporate life too in the five years she was away. For instance, working from home became the norm as a result of COVID-19, and the digital landscape was also fast evolving.

There were other challenges too. While she was familiar with managing sales and marketing teams, her new role required her to manage clinic assistants and physicians. Ng shared that the personalities were very different: in general, sales staff were more outgoing and profit-driven, while physicians were more focused on treating patients. "Being a physician, although a very junior one, helped," Ng shared.

Looking back on her journey, Ng said that she enjoyed climbing the corporate ladder in her past but would only "regret" if she hadn't made the switch. In her new role, she finds fulfilment from treating patients and being in a position to elevate the TCM industry.

"I have a new purpose... to drive the TCM industry forward and let more people benefit from the goodness of TCM," said Ng.

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