The Gap Year Interview with Gabriel Choong and Charmaine Yap

Gabriel graduated from the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2013. After graduation, he spent three months in Japan before returning to Singapore to work in the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC). He currently works as a Deputy Public Prosecutor in the AGC.

Charmaine recently completed her third year in NUS. She took a gap year after her second year, working with Justice Without Borders (JWB), Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES), the National Environment Agency (NEA), and EarthRights International (ERI).

Gideon and Grace from the Letters of the Law team sat down with Gabriel and Charmaine for a chat on what it’s like taking a gap year after entering law school. Read on for their motives behind taking the leap, their experiences during the time away, and the one reason you should not take a gap year for.


Charmaine: Since I came back to law school, I have had a lot of people asking me to share about my gap year, so I don’t know if this interest in taking a gap year is a recent thing or …

LOTL: Maybe it’s an effect of the job market, like, I don’t have a job yet, so maybe I can take a year off.

Charmaine: But the job market probably won’t get better after you return.

LOTL: But you’ll have a better CV right?

Charmaine: Some people may want to take a gap year to bolster their CV. But others just feel a general sense of ‘stuck-ness’, and they want to take a gap year for that. Gabriel, in your time, were there many taking gap years?

Gabriel: I only know of one other who tried. I think he succeeded, whereas I did not. My participation here is a bit of a fraud… did you know this?


Gabriel: I didn’t actually take a gap year, I took a gap three months [laughs].

My inspiration for taking a gap year started when I was in Year 3, when I had already taken a gap year – in a sense – in London, on exchange at University College London (UCL). I had never been overseas for any extended duration of time, and I was just so absolutely fascinated that there were so many different people, so many different cultures, so many different ways of thinking outside of Singapore. I was a bit of a city bumpkin, and I went a little overboard by travelling just about every weekend. I hit more than 50 cities in my year there.

After a year that I was very happy with, I met this friend of mine, whose exchange experience in Milan was the complete opposite. He never left Milan, and essentially spent his entire time there.  At the end of it all, he could speak Italian fluently, had made friends with the local off-road cycling community, and was participating in tournaments as part of an association… and that struck me as very impressive.

My experience in the UK was a mile-wide, inch-deep approach. I knew quite a few places, but somewhat superficially. In contrast, his was the inch-wide, mile-deep approach, where he stayed in one place and got to know it very well. So I told myself that I too wanted that experience, before I started work proper.

I decided on Japan as I have an aunt who lives there and thought that would be a good launching pad. I had been studying Japanese for a while before my graduation. I had also brought some Japanese people around Singapore under the NUS Law Students’ International Relations Committee (LSIRC), and had gone over to visit them in Year 2, and thought that it would be great to join them. I was told there was an English-teaching programme in Japan called the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme. Youthful exuberance and optimism convinced me that because I was a law graduate, blah blah blah, they would surely be willing to hire me. I put in my application to JET and told AGC to wait a year for me.

LOTL: What was the training contract (TC) application process like for you?

Gabriel: I applied to AGC in the latter part of Year 2, before Year 3 started. It had to be before Year 3, because I was going to London. I had my interview in Year 4. I told them about my London experience, and that I wanted a bit more of that experience. I can’t remember who was on that panel, but they must have been the big-hearted type, since they allowed me to go. The HR side were a little ‘huh?’ about the guy with one year with no salary. I told them I applied for JET, and would update them when I got my contract.

But, uh, JET was not successful. They only took in two people in my year, both trained, career teachers, so I can see why I wasn’t as employable. I headed over to Japan for a month and tried to look for other jobs, but I was unsuccessful.

LOTL: How did people in the AGC see your experience after you came back?

Gabriel: [laughs] They treated it like I had been on holiday.

LOTL: Did you feel like you had gotten closer to the inch-wide, mile-deep approach in Japan?

Gabriel: In 3 months? No. I was still travelling quite a bit. Japan is a bit of a clichéd location, and a bit of a challenging one. People aren’t willing to open up and share their thoughts with you.

Would I do it again? I would. I can see how if you are particularly ambitious, you wouldn’t want to waste time, but the world is very large, and there are very many things to discover. Your schooling years and the years before you start work, especially before you start a family, are the only real opportunity you have left to see the world. You can do it when you retire, but the feeling is different.

Charmaine: I think it’s very interesting because your gap period was during that transition between schooling and work, whilst mine was during my schooling experience. For me, I had just finished my second year, and I realised I was not as driven as I had been during Junior College (JC). I knew that I wanted to pursue law, I felt that I was where I was supposed to be and that it would equip me with a valuable skillset, but I felt stuck. I had the feeling at the end of the second semester of Year 2 that I had no vivid memory of any one moment in those first years. I didn’t want that for my remaining years. I was very grateful to have the opportunity to study here at NUS, and I didn’t want to waste that, so I thought it best to step back, refocus and maybe come back with something better.

When people find out that I took a gap year, they often say that I was ‘brave’, but honestly at that point in time, it felt like the most obvious thing to do. It wasn’t a deeply rational decision, but there was a strong emotional conviction that I needed to do this. The rationalising happened afterward. I shared about my situation with my friends and professors, and asked for their advice. They were surprised, but I was lucky that they were supportive. I didn’t dare to go to my parents yet, because I felt like I needed to build a compelling case. I don’t know if that’s the same for you, Gabriel.

Gabriel: I’m fortunate that in my family we generally do whatever we want.

Charmaine: After deciding on the gap year, the next question was what I would do with the gap year. If nothing came out of it, then it would have been a drastic step that left me nowhere.

My original goal was to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. However, after talking to a practicing lawyer who had been a mentor to me, I realised that I would have been setting myself up for failure. My mentor himself had not realised what he really wanted to do with his life until he was 29. It’s a long process, and it’s something that can change along the way. If that had been my goal for my gap year, I most likely would not have discovered what it is that I was truly passionate about, and I would have been frustrated at that failure.

My objective for my gap year thus shifted towards using the year away to experience things outside of law school, and build the tenacity and capacity to face the challenges ahead, until I could reach that point of knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I think that’s a lot more realistic.

Then I pitched it to my parents. I kind of had a plan, which I didn’t follow exactly, but it gave them the sense that I had put some thought into it. They were worried, but I think they recognised the conviction I felt, and supported the decision at the end.

LOTL: What was that plan?

Charmaine: It was very ambitious at the start. I wanted to do all these law firm internships. I thought since it was off-cycle, I would be able to do internships at law firms I usually wouldn’t have interned with due to lack of time.

What I eventually ended up doing was interning at JWB. They assist foreign workers in pursuing civil claims remotely after they have returned to their home countries. I had actually worked with them before, while I was in law school. But while I enjoyed the work, eventually I also wanted to venture outside what was familiar.

The environment was another area I was interested in but had not previously explored, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to experience work in this area. I spent a month with ACRES, an NGO working to protect wildlife in Singapore. I was in the crime investigation unit. I then spent ten weeks in the legal department of NEA. I was hoping to do some policy work, but it turned out that their legal department handles a lot more transactional work and some low-level prosecution work. I got a taste of what government life is like, and realised it wasn’t what I was looking for. I was used to working with NGOs, and I always felt like there was a bit more ‘spirit’ there.

After that I went to work at ERI, an NGO in Chiang Mai that works at the intersection of environmental justice and human rights. They work with local communities in Southeast Asia which have been affected by development projects such as resource extraction plants or hydro-powered dams. They primarily use the law as a tool for policy advocacy and education. It was a different way of using legal arguments, and this process of bringing about change is a slow and arduous one.

My experiences over the year were definitely not the ‘law firm internship’ that I first intended.

LOTL: What was it like coming back to law school after that experience?

Charmaine: I think it was the psychological boost of taking the year off that was the most impactful. I had taken the step of moving out of the track that had supposedly been laid out for me for most of my life. I did reasonably well in PSLE, so I went to the school that was the ‘best’. When picking subjects in secondary school, I went with the combination which kept the most doors open. I was in the integrated programme, so there was no question of which JC to choose. When I entered JC, I again picked the combination of subjects which kept the most options open. I did reasonably well at the ‘A‘ Levels, and when picking courses I knew I didn’t want anything in the science areas since it wasn’t my strongest suit, and so I picked law.

On hindsight, I’m lucky that it turned out to be something that gave me the skills I could use in my life. With my skillset, I realise I can be very valuable in certain places. I’m lucky to have ended up in a place where I feel like I can be useful, especially since not everyone has the opportunity to pursue law. At the same time, though, I never made a conscious decision that ‘this is what I want in my life’. I just followed the path of the least resistance. The gap year helped me step outside the system. The most valuable thing that came out of my gap year was gaining confidence and a feeling of ownership over my education and my life.

LOTL: You mentioned that before you started your gap year you talked to professors and friends.

Charmaine: Yes, I spoke with my professors and also approached the counsellors at the University Health Centre (UHC). My visit to the counsellor was mostly a rant about how I felt about law school, and I got very frustrated that he couldn’t give me a straight answer. In retrospect, I realised that it isn’t his job to give me an answer. I guess that when I approached these people, I had already made the decision and was finding people to ask who would respond positively. In a sense I sought them out more for affirmation than for assistance in making the decision.

LOTL: Gabriel, did you consult anyone when you made your decision?

Gabriel: Nope, I did not. I was a lot more impulsive, a lot more ‘I’m gonna do it and no one’s gonna stop me’. In hindsight, I can understand how many people might have reason to pause, but really, what is the objection here? Have you considered taking a gap year? If so, what stops that?

LOTL (Grace): I think what stops that is the feeling like you’re on the train already, or what Charmaine called the track that’s already been laid out for you, and that jumping off is a big step, something which people don’t do.

LOTL (Gideon): I think there’s an additional worry about, well, how this is going to look on your CV, how you justify that additional year to the interviewer. You need to make good use of that time, and it needs to be good enough to justify that year away.

Gabriel: I think the concept of stepping out of the normal is more apparent than real, because of the word ‘gap’ before ‘year’. The entire concept is that you will return to the track that you left, rather than joining a new place or job permanently. So if you think about it, the concern is really getting back on the train after you’ve gotten off.

The second point is a valid one. People’s responses when they hear about my gap year have generally been positive. More often than not, my bosses don’t see it negatively but rather with a hint of curiosity. It’s something that differentiates me from the rest, along with the rest of my exchange experiences.

I understand that there is the concern that taking a gap year may not reflect well on you. My view is that if you feel like you need it or it will benefit you, then don’t be held back by people’s expectations.

There is a flip side to this. When I travelled in Europe, I met a lot of people on permanent gap years - idealistic young graduates with no idea what they want to do, who backpack around the world for many years out of fear of getting caught up in the soulless corporate, money-minded culture. I find that irresponsible. You’re not planning for your future or building something you can rely on, but just flitting aimlessly, wandering around. I suppose so long as you avoid that mentality, as long as you’re not doing it just to avoid entering the working world, then you should be fine. If you’re looking to avoid the corporate lifestyle, then I think the correct choice is just to not enter that lifestyle, because it may not be right for you.

Charmaine: I get what you mean about engineering it. You shouldn’t engineer it too much, but you should have a re-entry plan. It’s good to have some idea about what you’re going to do when you get back, and keep your focus on that, so that it’s not just going away for a year for fun, and going back to school with nothing changed.

LOTL: What changed the most for you when you returned to law school?

Charmaine: For one there was the confidence. I used to be very intimidated by law school. That feeling that everyone’s doing so well can lead to a feeling of paralysis – ‘what if I don’t match up? What if I don’t measure up? If I fail, it means I’m not as good as everyone else’. But going away helped me build an identity separate from law school. The aspects of my personality which I built outside of law school helped me anchor my position in the world that was independent of the school context. When I returned, I was less swayed by the pressures of law school. I didn’t feel like it was my entire universe anymore. I had seen a bigger world, and I was capable of dealing in those situations. I felt like I could be my own person. I could try, and if I didn’t do well, it would just be one thing, and I could do better again.

LOTL: Were there any practical aspects you felt were strengthened?

Charmaine: Well it was a bit serendipitous, but while I was in ACRES I met the founder of ACRES, Louis Ng, whom I am now assisting as a legislative assistant to come up with parliamentary questions and speeches. It was something that happened in my gap year that put law school into context and helped me understand myself in relation to law school. Law school became a place to get the skills which would help me contribute in my capacity as a person outside of law school.

Gabriel: To build on that, now that I’m three and a half years out of law school… You must know that grades no longer matter. When I was 14 my L1R5 was the most important thing in the world, but now I bet you don’t remember any of those numbers. I know it’s difficult to not be concerned about your grades or your performance in school, but it is really no indicator as to your performance in life, or in whatever role you find yourself in after leaving school. Find something you like to do and people you like to work with, and things will work themselves out. I know it’s clichéd, but it’s true. I still don’t think I really know what I want to do, and my gap period didn’t answer those questions. I found the experience valuable in other ways.

Charmaine: That’s not to say that the stress of law school disappears after a gap year. I still stress out about exams, and worry about doing badly, but it helps you bounce back. The perspective reminds you what your ultimate aim is.

Gabriel: A lot of my experiences overseas did not alter my worldview, but they were certainly memorable. Learning more about other people, how they live their lives, what they eat, how they view Asia versus how we view Europe; they don’t change my worldview, but they are nonetheless very interesting. Ultimately, if I were to say how my worldview changed, I would say that now I have a view of the world. It is very big and there are many people who are concerned with their own things, which are not what we are concerned about… you’ll find that your place in the larger order of things is maybe not as important as you’d think.

LOTL: Do you think the wider scope and framing towards your life helped?

Gabriel: I guess it’s very difficult to bring my mind back to before I went overseas on exchange. It’s kind of a one-way street. I only recognise that I have changed, but not how I was before I changed.

LOTL (Grace): My theory is that the gap year (or gap three months) brought out latent parts of your personality, which is why what Charmaine brought to and away from her experience is different from yours. It’s hard to pinpoint a change in your personality, so much as it was a part of your personality that became more developed.

LOTL (Gideon): Maybe it’s less about being changed, but feeling more ‘you’; bringing out the ‘you-ness’ in you. I get the sense from both of you that there was an inevitability to the gap period. It was something that you needed to do, something that just seemed natural. So the kind of person that you are will shape the kind of gap period you take. So in a sense, it might be an experience to help people bring out more of what or who they are.

Charmaine: If you’re thinking of pursuing a gap year as a way of escaping from reality, I think you should relook at your motivations for doing it. Your motivations will shape your gap year, and what you take away from it. Depending on your motivations, you can have the benefits of the gap year without taking a gap year.

Gabriel: Yes. It doesn’t have to take the form of a gap year. A ‘gap year’ is just a container for a set of experiences. These experiences can come in terms of a three-month period, or an exchange period, or a job which has the experiences that you want. Those experiences are what is really important. That’s really all I wanted to say.

Hairul Hakkim, Justices' Law Clerk

Simon Chesterman, law professor