The Brand Master

David Shaw (BBA 1981)



He graduated with an NUS Business degree in 1981 and went straight into advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi as a copywriter. He has never looked back since, moving on to J. Walter Thomson, and then helping big guns like Lenovo Asia-Pacific and Hewlett-Packard Asia-Pacific with their branding. He created his niche in the creative world of branding and advertising. Today, he is with a successful branding consultancy business Activiste. So how did David Shaw (BBA 1981) go from finance to advertising? He shares his journey, with glimpses of the personality traits that make him so successful in his chosen field.

It’s pretty common today for people to carve out a career in an area not necessarily related to their academic qualifications. But at the time you graduated, it was unusual. What motivated you to join marketing and advertising after graduating with a Bizad degree? How challenging was it for you in making the switch?

To be frank, it wasn’t so much challenging as it was a matter of survival, and playing to my strengths. By the end of my first year, I’d concluded that accounting, business finance, etc, weren’t my thing. And I couldn’t imagine myself working in Shenton Way and liking it.

On the other hand, I was intrigued by marketing and organizational behavior. Plus, I had always liked to write. So I applied for a job as an advertising copywriter – and I aced the copy test. Turns out it was a good fit.

Advertising is all about positioning brands in a compelling way; and an advertising agency is filled with the most inspiring, “insecure” people you can find. I was able to try my hand at building brands, enabling sales, and studying all kinds of idiosyncratic, “dysfunctional” types which went into making the distinctive culture of an advertising agency. I had a blast.

How were you able to make a lateral or vertical connection between Bizad and your eventual field? How do you help companies recognize what their brand truly is?

There is no gap to bridge. My Bizad background informs my brand consulting work, and keeps me from devolving to aesthetic fluff. I’m not that rare a species. Lots of brand consultants come from business backgrounds. Often, that’s the best experience to bring to the table. Not ivory-tower consulting that’s divorced from real life.

In the best organizations, business strategy and brand strategy are intertwined. The best companies say what they’re going to do, then do it.

Within every brand, there is a product; but not every product is a brand. Behind every brand, there is a company; but not every company is a brand. That’s a quote, by the way, by Jeremy Bullmore, ex-chairman of JWT and one of the all-time advertising gurus. You’d be amazed at how many companies are sub-optimizing their performance and profits because despite their talk, they’re brand-dead. We help companies discover their brand story.

Clients get the consulting advice, advertising and/or marketing program they deserve. Over time, the cosmic scorecard is fair: You get as good as you give. I’d like to think that in my 11 years as a client marketer, I managed to get some of my agencies’ best work out of them, by being a demanding but fair client.

What other challenges have you faced, and how did you overcome them?

I spent almost 7 years living and working in Canada – as an advertising copywriter. You could see, in my clients’ eyes, every time I was introduced to them, the instinctive thoughts:┬áCan this Chinese man write?” I had to earn respect with my first ad for them – one client at a time.

What gives you the most satisfaction in what you do? What is most fulfilling?

Helping brands find their true voice – something that’s authentic and credible. That’s very satisfying to me. You’d be surprised how many otherwise smart companies need that kind of help. And perhaps even more fulfilling, are the times when I can help people be their best selves, by doing their best work. That truly turns my crank.

What is the meaning of work and career to you, compared to family, leisure and play?

I have a confession – I’m a recovering workaholic. So I’m probably a pretty poor example to hold up to young turks just getting into the working world. All I know is that I would do things differently if I could roll back the years. I don’t want the eulogy at my funeral to be “He worked late at the office”.

What would you like to be your legacy? Is it a different legacy for your family, peers and others?

I’d like the people who’ve had the “misfortune” to walk or work a while with me to feel “He made a difference!” That would be neat.

As for the ones you love, the stakes are even higher. I’ve let people down too many times to recall. When I screw up, all I can do is pick myself up and push on, remembering that to the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.

Are you living your dream? Did you ever think you’d get into here? If this is different from your early dreams, is this better?

Sometimes it’s a nightmare! But I can’t complain. Life’s been an adventure. We make our own bed, we’ve got to lie in it. I’ve been blessed with a family I don’t deserve; friends who are blind when they should know better, and touched by a God who loves me, warts and all. I give thanks, and only strive to finish well.

Living the Reality of the Dream

Sue Yap (MBA 1994)



She’s had many incarnations; from Malaysian “village” girl to Singaporean University graduate, from farmhand to founder of a biomedical company, from lively go-getter to owner of a lifestyle business. Sue Yap (MBA 1994) has experienced life’s roller coaster ride to its fullest. Its lessons are not lost on her and she shares some of them here.

What were your early years like, and how did they shape your character and career?

I grew up on the outskirts of a town, attended Convent school, and always looked forward to adventures ahead, knowing I would leave my hometown one day.

Eventually I came to Singapore for my university education. I paid my own way through university, working in various jobs. I am the eldest of five siblings and was supporting the family back home, so I was always on the lookout for part-time work.

Some of the jobs were interesting. One time, there was a circus in town – the Gerry Cottle Circus from the UK. I sold admission tickets and manned the entrance. It paid $60 a day for about 12 hours of work. It was something about 20 of us from the university hostel – Sheares Hall – did. Some of the others worked with animals.

I received my Bachelor of Sciences degree in 1984 and Honors Degree in Zoology in 1985. I started work in a fish farm in Punggol. It was the recession then, and I was grateful for a job. Many of my classmates didn’t even get work. I had no social life, working 5am to 5pm. But I love the outdoors, so I didn’t mind it or my uniform of jeans, T-shirt, gumboots and straw hat.

The job was part of the government’s project to convert pig farms into fish farms. It was something new, so there was no one to teach me the job. But I needed to learn because I had a job to do, and I had to do everything. So, on my day off, I worked for an old farmer in Mandai, just to learn from him. He liked having me on the farm, to be a good influence on his daughters, as I had an education. So that was how I ploughed on.

You did not have it easy; and even chose to do things the hard way, such as being an apprentice on your day off, to perform your job even better. How did you make the switch from farming and the outdoors to corporate life and being an entrepreneur?

The fish farm was an EDB project. One day, I came across an ex-classmate who was working with the EDB. She was so finely dressed. That started me thinking. Here I was, with an Honors degree, drawing $1,000 a month, after two years on the job. I still needed more money to support my family in Malaysia. I was in a dead-end job.

So I switched to sales, selling medical and analytical equipment. I was thrown into the deep end; I had about one day to read up on the material before I met clients. But I liked the job and I was moving into the area of life sciences. I slowly settled into it.

There was no real major inspiration for my move into entrepreneurship except for the need to be financially independent and to put my siblings through school. It was also a natural progression from being an employee to trying something on my own. I was encouraged by my husband, an MBA classmate, and the researchers who were customers and friends at the same time. My customers had always expressed their surprise that I was an employee. They thought I was a shareholder from the way I discharged my responsibilities. All of them encouraged me to venture out on my own, promising to support my business. And they did! They were probably not aware of how much they inspired me.

So you set up Research Biolabs Pte Ltd in 1993, with your husband as a partner. How did you grow it from a niche life-science service provider into a full-fledged life-science biomedical company?

Initially, we had a flat organizational structure. Sales, marketing, customer service, research and administration were closely integrated. Responsibilities were clearly defined and people worked in teams, with everyone having substantial knowledge to support sales. Every department collaborated with sales to discuss problems and brainstorm solutions. We also had a customer-oriented approach and were the only local company with its own in-house laboratory.

When we expanded into Malaysia in 1996, I appointed a General Manager to be in charge of operations there. I always felt doing that was a big risk, handing control in Malaysia to someone else, but it had to be done. We had regular meetings to set common goals and I controlled strategic directions.

Thus we grew the company until I finally sold it to my key supplier, Qiajen, a NASDAQ-listed company, in 2006.

Today, you have “moved from life-sciences to lifestyle”, as you like to put it, running Mana Mana Beach Club on East Coast Parkway. What similarities are there and what skills do you transfer from one business to the other?

The only similarity is that the clients are made up of a very large percentage of expatriates. Other than that, it’s a business like all other businesses, where one needs to be focused and watch the bottom line. My husband is the creative one in our partnership; he dreams big dreams and I work to hopefully realize the dreams for him.

Each day at work, I meet very interesting people. I enjoy listening and learning from them, sharing my previous career experience, and the excitement of my present job. My work place is unique; I get to enjoy nature, the rolling waves, thunderstorms, chirping birds.

The Best Moves Are With The Experts

The Best Moves Are With The Experts


Trawling through the minefield of stages and processes of moving abroad can often be overwhelming for many people. Organizing everything before the big move is also a tiring and laborious process. Thankfully, most companies engage relocation experts to aid employees with their move. Alumni share their respective relocation experiences and how relocation experts have helped them settle in into a comfortable environment, sans all the stress and fuss of relocation.


Dennis Lin (MSc MOT 1997):

Before I moved to Beijing to settle down, I was shuttling back and forth between Singapore and Beijing for almost two months. During this period, my boss, who is also based in China, shared with me his previous relocation experience and guided me on adapting to the culture and working practices in China. A human resource company was engaged to assist me with administrative matters, and company staff also helped to arrange for my accommodation.

Initially, my wife was not in favor of my decision to relocate to Beijing although my two sons were supportive. They were the ones who helped to convince my wife to support my relocation.

Eventually, only my wife and I were relocated because my sons were all grown up – one is now working in Singapore and the other is studying in London. The move was tougher on my wife as a mother, so she stills travels frequently back to Singapore to see my elder son.

One factor that I considered before the relocation was my potential adaptability in the new environment. As a Singaporean Chinese, I was confident with the fact that I could speak the language and understand the culture. Another factor was whether I could still maintain my active social life – for example, my involvement with the NUS Alumni and my professional societies.

Inevitably, I had to make some sacrifices. But fortunately, I am still able to connect with other NUS alumni in Beijing. One interesting observation I have made since the relocation is that the Chinese tend to observe hierarchy more than we do in Singapore. For example, even for a restaurant meal with colleagues, there is a protocol to observe. Sometimes, only the boss gets to be seats; and always, the boss will start the meal first.

Janet Ang (BBA Hons 1982):

I have faced relocation four times in my career – first to Tokyo, back to Singapore, then to China and then back to Singapore. That is why I would say that my family is reasonable mobile. Each time we had to relocate, my family was enthusiastic and adaptable. In fact, I will be relocated again in one year’s time once my daughter, Maryanne, completes her major examinations.

Of course, we could not have done it without the help of relocation staff. Whenever I was assigned out of Singapore, they helped us with the necessary arrangement – everything from my children’s education, accommodation, banking, medical needs, down to groceries for the household. Their strong support definitely helped both my family and I adjust quickly and made each experience favorable.

I must say that I have also been blessed with a company of good friends who helped us. In Tokyo, I was fortunate to have been reunited with three BBA classmates who had similarly been posted there. They, too, soon became “family” for us in Tokyo. Likewise in Beijing, I connected with colleagues who helped us settle in and get into a rhythm of life in our new home.

Chen Jianwen Brian (BBA Hons 2008):

My first relocation took place in August 2008, shortly after my graduation. I moved up to Hong Kong from Singapore for a job I am currently still in. At that time, I knew that I would be leaving my loved ones and close friends behind in Singapore to live alone for an extended time – for the first time in my life.

One individual who then made the relocation smoother and more bearable was the relocation specialist who assisted me in all my relocation needs, arranged my working visa and helped me find a permanent place to live in Hong Kong.

My company also put me up in a serviced apartment located near the office for a month on the company’s expense to give me time to look for a permanent place to live. An ample relocation allowance was also given to me by my company, to be spent at my discretion so as to facilitate my relocation.

Along with my adaptable nature and the mental preparation I had made before the move, the help of the relocation specialist and company staff helped me handle the relocation well.

Feeling At Home Away From Home

Feeling At Home Away From Home


Relocation may be thrilling, but is nevertheless difficult. Culture shocks, communication barriers and other challenges of adjustment await. Employees facing relocation often have to thoroughly prepare themselves before leaving for new and, sometimes, strange places. Alumni share their respective relocation experiences and how friends and family have helped them adapt to changes and to enjoy the new chapter of their lives.


Shankar Meembat (MBA 1996):

Back in 1997, it was novel for a growing international company like Nokia to have someone from Asia move to the headquarters in Finland. There were no standard operating procedures for these transfers, and I did not know anyone whom I could reach out to for guidance on living in Finland. Nevertheless, I took up the challenge and, in the end, my family and I integrated quickly with the help of a circle of expatriate friends. We provided strong mutual support to one another.

After the good experience, the family looked forward to the second assignment in Denmark where I moved to in order to head a regional team. I then returned to Singapore for five years, only to return to Finland again after another promotion. This was exactly 10 years after my first trip and, by then, relocation was easy on all of us.

I still recall my General Manager’s comment when the decision was made to let me relocated to Finland in 1998. He said, ‘Go to Finland and teach them about Asia.” Since then, that has been my guiding principle when I move employees – making sure that they are not just top performers themselves, but are capable and willing to transfer knowledge and skills. After all, an overseas assignment is meant to help local teams gain from the diversity the expatriate brings.

Today, my company has in place a good support system for relocation. Cultural and language training is provided for both the employee and spouse to help them adjust to the new way of life. The company also helps with all the various aspects of the move like transfer of the goods and work visas, and ensures that the employee’s family is well taken care of. Relocation consultants at the destination help the family settle in and usually spend more time with the spouse rather than the employee. With good reason – a happy home means a happy workplace.

Kathleen Kong (BBA 2007):

I was looking for challenges in my previous job when I was offered the opportunity to relocate to Hong Kong six months ago to be part of Daiwa’s new start-up. I was pleased when Daiwa actually flew me to Hong Kong for a day trip and the interview. Although it was the job exposure and not the relocation that I was looking forward to, there were exciting prospects of relocation, like going to a new country and experiencing the culture. However, there were always impending challenges such as the language barrier that I still face. Although Hong Kong is quite cosmopolitan that you can get by with English and Mandarin, the main language spoken is still Cantonese which I am totally unfamiliar with. This, in my free time, I have been watching TVB dramas to pick up the language.

Fitting in and being away from home is not much of a challenge for me as I have been away from my home in Taiwan since I was a child. In fact, I like how I am exploring and making many new friends. And of course, with the wonders of technology like Facebook and WhatsApp, I can still keep in good contact with my friends back in Singapore.

Daiwa also supported me with a basic relocation package, inclusive of first-month accommodation at a serviced apartment and shipment of my personal belongings. I was also lucky to have had some friends who had just relocated to Hong Kong before me, who helped me truly settle down in the environment. Although the experience was daunting for me, it has been exciting for me to be fully, independent, especially since I am still single now.

Nalin Advani (UCLA-NUS 2010):

After having managed technology companies in Japan for many years, I had the opportunity to relocate to India in 2009 to head the Indian arm of my company, Barco. Although I am Indian by nationality and heritage, I have never lived in India. Fortunately, there was my wife Sapna, who helped made the relocation a smooth one. Sapna, who was born and raised there. actively set up our new home, found a school for our daughter to go to, and helped us integrate into our new environment.

My company also provided me with ample assistance through the services of a relocation agency, which encouraged my wife and I to travel to India in advance to examine these factors in making a decision to relocate, and then again to search for the best set of options to address each factor.

My own adjustment was interesting as I began to learn and understand cultural differences, especially in corporate and professional settings. At the workplace, it was the mindset of the colleagues to which I not only had to adjust to, but also evolve with be become a more effective one. Transparency and accessibility were key – by openly declaring a need to improve and grow the capabilities of the team, I was able to involved everyone in the process of transformation. Out of the workplace, the extreme heat of Delhi summers and the difference in food were some of the many challenges that I had to overcome.

In my opinion, it is really important for an assignee to have the right attitude before making the decision to go. Then things that would normally cause grief and headache can turn into learning experiences and something to share a smile or laugh about for many years to come.

Keeping the Spirit Strong

Keeping the Spirit Strong


A more vibrant and engaged BizAlum community – that is what Global Alumni Network Office (GANO), the alumni office at NUS Business School, is dedicated to achieving through the new BizAlum Directory.

Launched on 25 July 2011, the Alumni Directory aims to let the NUS Business School community thrive by keeping in touch with their alma mater, and by lending support to alumni or student activities. Through it, alumni can share knowledge and experience with students and other fellow alumni.

The BizAlum Directory, which is only accessible to alumni and students of NUS Business School, lets registered users update and manage their profiles. Users can toggle with privacy settings to set what information is visible to others.

Besides being able to search to one another, users can establish contact via phone, email or social media platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter) to their discretion.

Unlike the previous directory, which was launched with the BizAlum Portal a few years ago, today’s BizAlum Directory caters to savvy users who would rather connect via social media than contact number or email.

With the revamped Directory, finding old classmates or looking for people of similar interests or different expertise is made easier.

An Interactive Gateway

The newly-revamped BizAlum Directory is the first of its kind that allows members to login with their Facebook details and connect to their friends’ Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. By logging into BizAlum Directory, members can now expand their social media network, all in one portal.

Each user is also encouraged to upload a photo of himself or herself to enhance his or her online presence.

With the new and improved integrated media platform, being out-of-touch is virtually impossible.

The BizAlum Directory sees new registrations every day. But the challenge of achieving full subscription and utilization remains. GANO hopes to reach out to all its alumni – to unite and ignite the NUS Business School Spirit.

Uniting People, Uniting Ideas

GANO hopes to increase the networking momentum through the latest search function which allows users to filter contacts by company, industry, job function, and even city to connect with industry experts. Users can also access career resources and view latest job postings.

Alumni are now able to network with other like-minded alumni to share knowledge and learn from one another in precise manner.

With a network spanning across the globe, the BizAlum Directory offers invaluable contacts to help its users expand their business and career opportunities.

Uniting the School Spirit

The BizAlum Directory ensures that users can also keep in contact not only on a professional basis, but also a casual one. The guestbook function allows users to update one another by posting messages, and also check out what others last did on the site,

A unique feature that connects our alumni is the Volunteer section where alumni can sign up for volunteer opportunities among NUS activity, For instance, a user may opt to be a speaker or panellist for a forum event, a career mentor or advisor to students, reunion organizer or even donor. By engaging the alumni through volunteerism, GANO increases camaraderie and strengthens the already strong bonds between its alumni and students alike.

Although the BizAlum Directory sees new registrations every day, the challenge of achieving full subscription and utilization remains. GANO hopes to reach out to all its alumni in the near future, in a bid to unite and ignite the NUS Business School Spirit.


Register Here