When he arrived in Singapore nine years ago, Malacca boy Vincent Lai (pic, right) could not even string together a sentence in English.
Today, the 28-year-old is the Chief Executive Officer of Tocco Studios, a five-year-old company providing communication solutions for businesses, with offices in Singapore and Oman.
Tocco (tocco means "touch" in Italian) deals in interactive business solutions, mobile application development, media tracking, digital marketing solutions, and hooks up the unemployed with jobs at community councils.
Lai was once on the wrong side of the law but an intervention from a family friend took him across the Causeway, where he went through many challenges.
At the age of 9, Lai, who was born to a tour bus driver and a babysitter, was collecting protection money from his classmates.
At 10, he was into cigarettes, and a year later joined a gang.
Although he was academically strong, being in the first class in school, he would frequent discos, and got involved in drugs and illegal racing during weekends.
When he was 14, he moved to Singapore at the prodding of a family friend who helped pay his tuition and living expenses.
Lai still remembers his mother's parting words, "ah niu chu cheng" (country bumpkin heads for the city).
With his thick gold chains and streaks of gold in his hair, Lai soon became known as "Johor Beng" at the Republic Polytechnic, where he was studying.
In an interview with The Straits Times, Lai revealed that he had contemplated committing suicide during his first year there. He had no friends and found that he could not adjust to the pace.
However, this did not stop the troubled teenager from diligently returning to his rented room to learn 10 new English words every day. He would write them down and look them up in the dictionary.
To keep himself afloat, Lai took up a job as an Akira salesman.
Things looked up in the second year after he captained the volleyball team and the following year, when he graduated among the top 5% and got offers from all the local universities.
He chose to study at the Singapore Management University (SMU). A scholarship, support from his family as well as the extra jobs he took on helped him through that part of his life.
Lai, now a permanent resident of Singapore, said his life changed after a six-month internship with banking institution Standard Chartered. He and three other students had built an interactive touch screen, the size of a coffee table, to make selling financial products more interactive.
The device became a hit and they received $50,000 start-up grant from the republic's Media Development Authority. But one by one, his friends slowly pulled out of the project due to the high stakes and hard work involved.
Lai did not give up. He ploughed on with proposals, investors and such. He went on to graduate in 2010, being placed on the dean's list.
Another classmate, who is now Tocco's business development director, joined him. In the first two years, Tocco made no more than $30,000 a year and both friends paid themselves less than $800 every month.
Things got better in 2011 after sales of the touch screen device boomed and Tocco managed to secure clients like the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Institute of Technical Education. Its revenue rose to S$150,000 (RM382,000).
Last year, the company made S$600,000 (RM1.5 million) in revenues. Lai said he makes "more than what many of my peers are making".
He dreams of having a scholarship named after him at the Singapore Management University (SMU). Meanwhile, he has started to give back. Last year, his company awarded S$1,500 to the best final-year project at SMU.
"Every time we received an award at SMU, we felt that our hard work was being recognised. It made us want to aspire to do bigger things. So we want to give back this feeling to future batches of students," said Lai.
Lai, who has a girlfriend whom he met during his polytechnic days, said he missed home, especially his mom, a lot. Due to his company's expansion to the Middle East, Lai can only visit his folks twice a year. He spends half a year in Oman. - October 5, 2013.