Top image: Khaliq Masuri
This article was first published 23 Jan 2019
Five minutes into my interview with Adam Khoo, I learn that Singapore’s most famous motivational speaker actually hates the term ‘motivational speaker’.
“I always cringe when people use the term ‘motivational speaker’. It’s like, rah-rah-rah-you-can-do-it!,” he says, all bluster and emphatic gestures, almost shouting the last few words. “It’s about a lot more than that. It’s really about personal tools and how you bring out the best of yourself in different areas.”
It sounds exactly like what motivational speakers do, and he sounds exactly how I think a motivational speaker would—peppy, fast-talking, brimming with the kind of intense energy that makes me want to simultaneously sit up straight and lean away—but I let it slide. As it turns out, it’s only the first of many times that I’ll be wrong-footed, confused, and generally frustrated over the next hour and a half.
If you, like me, grew up in Singapore in the early 2000s, chances are you’ve heard of Adam Khoo. His story is the sort of feel-good fairy tale so extreme it borders on caricature, starting with an early-onset underachiever who gets expelled from his first primary school at age 9.
At his next school, Adam Khoo continues to be a less-than-stellar student, doing so badly in his PSLE that all six of his choice secondary schools reject him. He ends up at Ping Yi Secondary School, then a ‘relatively new public school that no one we knew had heard of’, where his despairing Secondary One maths teacher phones his mother to ask why he can’t do a Primary Four maths problem.
At the nadir of his school career, his desperate parents decide to send him to a five-day motivational camp for teenagers. The transformation is sudden and extreme: overnight, the textbook hopeless case decides to turn himself into a star student. Up go the motivational posters and study charts. Down with the negative self-talk.
The transformation that followed would lay the foundation for the rest of his life.
Within a year, Adam Khoo pulls himself up to rank amongst the top students in his cohort, before going on to top his school in the ‘O’ Levels and winning a place at his dream junior college. He goes on to study business at NUS, makes Dean’s List every year, graduates at the top of his class, makes his first million at the ripe old age of 26, and releases a best-selling book about his legendary attitude adjustment.
When he began running his trademark ‘I Am Gifted’ camps in 2003, students came flocking in droves, shepherded to his doorstep by their anxious parents. His message seemed clear: for a couple of thousand dollars and change, he could turn your underperforming, unmotivated, ungifted child into a 6-points-for-O-levels, scholarship-winning, Harvard-or-Oxbridge-attending star of the future. They would be successful, just like him. Things had come full circle.
The thing about fairy tales, of course, is that they never explore what happens in Happily Ever After.
Success, and what it means to us as Singaporeans, has been in the spotlight a lot over the last couple of years. In 2018, the Life Beyond Grades movement encouraged parents to look beyond their kids’ report cards for other metrics of success.
More and more, for every aspiring banker or lawyer, there are aspiring chefs, Egyptologists, photojournalists, animators. For every high-flier who reached the upper echelons of the C-suite, there’s an Anthea Ong who had it all, lost it all, clawed it all back, and decided to give it all up to teach yoga. What happens when we realise the narrative we’ve been fed—or that we’ve built up in our heads—about what success should look like doesn’t match the complicated, imperfect reality in front of us?
All these questions are buzzing around my head when I show up at Adam Khoo’s office, tucked away in a nondescript building in industrial Eunos, one intolerably hot morning.
I’d been wondering about what Adam was up to for a while. Somewhere in the last decade, or so it seemed, the light of his star had begun to fade. The man whom the papers had lauded as a ‘genius’ was suddenly nowhere to be found; I knew he’d continued running his camps, and expanded into tuition centres at some point, but couldn’t recall reading of any new achievement on the scale of his teenage transformation.
My first impression of Adam’s Happily Ever After is how unexceptional it looks. His office, on the fifth floor of the building, is large, bright, clean, and astonishing in its plainness; there is no glossy reception desk or fancy coffee machine. It also appears to be quite empty. Around fifteen to twenty employees are dotted around the open-plan space, a couple scrolling through Facebook. It’s not what I expected to see, but perhaps this says more about me than it does about Adam Khoo.
Our interview gets off to a slightly awkward start. At first, I sit across from him at his desk, only to realise that this seems way too formal, so we move to the couch. He begins by telling me all about his different programmes, and when he eventually runs out of breath after four minutes, I gently explain that I’m not here to learn about his businesses. I’m here to learn about Adam Khoo the man.
It takes us a while to get there, but what I do eventually learn about him is surprising. For one, he’s no longer as involved in the day-to-day running of the empire which bears his name, relying on his business partner to do most of the heavy lifting.
Right now, he says, “I spend more time with my kids and my wife than I do working.”
“I’ve actually changed a lot, I would say, in the last 8 years. In my 20s and 30s my dream was to buy a Lamborghini, buy a bigger house, like most Singaporeans. Right now, it’s totally unimportant to me,” he tells me.
“I don’t know, as you get older your values shift, so now … now I don’t even own a car, by the way. I took a Grab here. To me, I’ve … I’ve really shifted into the more family, more spiritual stuff now.”
He claims he doesn’t connect with today’s social media savvy camp attendees as easily as he used to, because he’s an uncle who still uses Facebook. He wears polo shirts to work and tries to make his wife laugh at least once a day, and considers freedom and love to be his primary values. He can’t pinpoint any one thing that prompted his change in perspective.
Life happened. Age caught up. Maybe he just matured.
“You reach a point where you realise your kids are growing up so fast,” he says, “My wife is approaching 50, I’m coming [to] 45 … she said something that really hit me when it was her birthday in October: that we may have only 25 or 30 birthdays left to celebrate for me. Maybe we’re thinking too much, but we’ve gotten to the point where you realise you have less time ahead of you than you have behind.”
“I’ve fulfilled all the material parts of my dreams,” he adds. “I’ve got more money than I could ever want, generating more money than I could ever spend. More money doesn’t make me happy already.”
What does make him happy, apart from spending time with family, is teaching and mentoring. Adam Khoo tells me it’s what he’s always felt he was destined to do; it’s what he’s trying to focus on right now, building up his YouTube channel of instructional videos. Which, as it happens, are about teaching people how to make more money.
He shows me a massive Telegram chat group on his phone, where amateur investors from all over the world congregate to share their forays into forex trading under his guidance.
“Look, this is my Forex group with 409 members, we’re trading currencies 24 hours. I get these messages, like, look at this one”—he pulls up a message—Adam, you’re awesome, congrats. And this guy who’s a medical doctor, he sent me this message today: Hi Adam, I’m one of your Wealth Academy students from Penang. Thank you for opening your forex class. So far I’ve traded my overall mix of losses and wins, but overall have turned a net profit of 4R in just eight days.”
His excitement is palpable as he continues showing off his students and fellow traders.
“People here, you can see they’re from all around the world, from the US, Miami, Lisbon, Neufchatel, Reunion Island, the Maldives… all around the world trading currencies 24/7, and I’m coaching them in making money… So this is my joy, basically, grooming people to create [a] second income and build their wealth. This is what really excites me now.”
The next plot twist comes when, midway through our interview, Adam Khoo tells me that he doesn’t actually care about grades.
“So, if I could tell parents what I really feel, I’d tell them grades are not important,” he says. “But I can’t. I have trouble convincing my wife of this, and myself sometimes. I have two teenage kids, and like most mothers my wife is very stressed—[your kids] must get good grades and all that.”
“But I keep telling my wife, grades are not important. At the end of the day, it’s more important to find what you’re passionate about and do what you love. It’s easy to say, but once you become a parent it’s easy to get caught up in the competitiveness.”
To say that I’m mildly surprised by this would be an understatement; this is, after all, a guy who built an empire teaching kids how to study smart. Parents and schools alike have been throwing money at him and his trainers for years to try and improve their children’s exam scores, and he doesn’t actually care about grades?
Moreover, I’d always been under the impression that his programmes sell a road map to a very specific kind of life, namely the kind that starts with the Gifted Education Programme and ends with a cushy C-suite job. Was this actually what he’d intended to put across?
“What we tell our kids during our programmes, when it comes to goal setting, is this: you can succeed in anything, as long you aim to be the best at anything you choose to do. And the only way to become the best at something is do something you enjoy,” he tells me.
“You like cooking, be Gordon Ramsay … [Y]ou like to draw? Be an Andrew Matthews. Go be the best illustrator out there. Do what you love.”
Then he adds this caveat: “But, like it or not, we need good grades to give us choices.”
His argument goes something like this: grades themselves aren’t as important as the process of learning how to work hard towards a goal. That being said, he believes everyone can get good grades even if they aren’t naturally academic, as long as they’re willing to put in the hard work. He’s proof of this, he says.
However, you have to actually want the grades to begin with, and not just because someone told you you should want them. People don’t like being told to do things; if you didn’t feel you had a choice in the matter, you won’t like doing something, and you probably won’t put in the work to get there. So you can choose to work for good grades or you can choose not to, but it’s probably better if you do; you’ll learn about the value of work, and keep more doors open for yourself in the long run. Ergo: choosing good grades means you might have a better chance of doing what you love.
“You just have to know that choices have consequences. You don’t want to study? Can! Nothing wrong with that. But you gotta know that choices have consequences.”
One more thing about fairy tales: they don’t leave a lot of room for nuance in the narratives they entrench. When real life gets elevated to myth—particularly one you’ve written yourself, even if the plot is grounded in fact—a lot gets left on the editorial cutting board.
This includes how a lot of people continue to think that Adam’s whole motivational schtick is one big scam.
Prior to the interview, I spoke with a couple of people who’d attended his camps several years ago, back when they were in secondary school, to get a sense of what went down. The picture I got wasn’t exactly flattering.
Shaun Tan, now 25, described being taught some study techniques: speed reading, mind maps, and mnemonics, that “were certainly useful if applied consistently, but at that point in time it looked a lot more like parlour tricks.”
He told me, “The teachers who came in all told a variation of the typical rags to riches story … presumably to inspire us that anything was possible. It was rather inspiring, I have to say, but ultimately it was just a nice story.”
The next scene he described could’ve come straight out of a cult.
“Then there was the infamous crying session. They turned off all the lights, told us to close our eyes and started to speak to us in a low, hushed tone. They told us to imagine going home one day only to realise that our parents were dead, and tried to make us feel like we were unfilial and ungrateful. I guess their end goal was to guilt-trip us into working hard in case their parlour tricks didn’t work.”
Shaun’s not alone in this. There’s an entire Reddit thread full of camp alums bemoaning their workshop experiences. Phrases like ‘shock tactics’, ‘emotional manipulation’, and ‘waste of time’ get bandied about a lot.
Needless to say, Adam doesn’t come out of this looking too good, so I nervously bite the bullet and ask him about it.
He tells me a bit about being put through similar tactics himself, back at the camp he attended in 1987. “The trainer was, like,what have you done with your life, how have you treated your parents, how have you treated yourself, and we were like, waaaaaah,”he says, mimicking the blubbering of his 13-year-old self.
“[But] I was one of those people who, after I cried, woke up. I said, I’m going to do something with my life. I had friends who cried, but who forgot about it. It’s one of those things where the crying part is you realising how you’ve let yourself down, and make new promises to yourself.”
“But the question is, do you keep your promises? A lot of that takes your own personal discipline. You get what I’m saying?”
He follows this up with a metaphor about how self-motivation is like bathing. He can give attendees all the soap and brushes and towels they want, but you can’t bathe once and stay clean of negativity for the rest of your life. You need to do it every single day.
To this end, the accusations of brainwashing and emotional manipulation don’t bother him at all. He tells me about an interview he gave many years ago, where he was asked if he was ‘brainwashing’ kids.
“I said, yes, I am! Because their brains are dirty from all the negativity.”
“If I have this model of the world that I can’t change everyone, I can’t make everyone happy, so why even try? I don’t think that’s a very useful model,” he says. “My model instead is—I can do my best to make a difference [in someone], and if they don’t change immediately, at least I’ve planted a seed in them. Maybe something else will come along later and they’ll be like, oh, yeah, I remember.”
I’m not completely convinced by this response. On the one hand, he has a point: you absolutely can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Giving people tools does not guarantee they’ll make the effort to use them, and how could he credibly guarantee this anyway?
On the other hand, it also sounds like a convenient disclaimer. Granted, Adam describes several ‘success stories’ who have emerged from his camp—including the son of his ex-principal—and his websites are full of glowing testimonials. Equally, however, if that Reddit thread is anything to go by, there are a lot of ex-attendees out there who aren’t using, and have maybe never used, the tools his camp purported to impart. And if the onus is ultimately on participants to make the change in themselves, it doesn’t really matter what drives the change to begin with.
In this vein, it bears mentioning that Adam believes some rather questionable things. For one, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), the practice on which Adam based his book, his camps, and ultimately his own transformation on, is famously divisive. A not insignificant group of people who’ve tried it and found it worked for them swear by it. Another not insignificant group swears it’s rubbish.
The point of NLP, in essence, is that by paying attention to your thought processes and the language you use, you can change the way you think and behave. Call yourself a loser, an idiot, a screw-up, and you’ll behave like one. But ask yourself what you can learn from failure, or how a bad experience can make you stronger, and you’ll come out the better for it.
“What I teach people is, when something happens to you, be aware of what you’re saying to yourself,” he says. “It’s not just ‘think positive’ but tools for how you change your attention, your focus, your images, your self-words. Your internal language.”
Language matters more than we think; as someone who writes for a living, I can’t argue with this. But I do think there are limits to what you can achieve with words alone, a belief which Adam does not seem to share. He believes, for one, that cancer is caused by a form of the mind-body connection, a somatic effect of people’s inability to “let go” and stop sweating the small stuff. He also believes it’s possible to think your way out of depression, which at best suggests a lack of understanding of how mental illness works, and at worst seems dangerously misguided.
This ability to condition yourself to believe whatever you want to believe comes up several times during our interview. It’s how he met his wife, for one. He tells me they bonded over a shared fascination in the power of the subconscious when they met at a club night, back when he was in NS.
Towards the end of our interview, he mentions the former Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy, who shot to fame with her viral TED talk about ‘power posing’ and how our body language affects our beliefs. When I mention that her research has been challenged, and her co-author has since distanced herself from their findings, he looks surprised, then shrugs.
“I mean, people are divided about NLP, there’s always two sides to everything. There’s no meaning in life except the meaning you choose to give it.”
I come out of the interview feeling very, very confused. I get on the train with my thoughts still churning, and they don’t settle down for a very long time.
I spend ages mulling over how to write this piece and write several awful drafts, all to no avail. I beg for several deadline extensions and sorely test the limits of my editor’s patience because, after weeks of agonising, I still have no idea what I think of Adam Khoo.
Then it eventually hits me that I’ve been going about this wrong, and that I needn’t have burned my brain out with overthinking. He’d given me more than I thought I had to work with; in fact, the biggest clue had come just a few minutes into our interview.
Early on in our conversation, I’d asked Adam about why he seemed to be moving away from his roots as a life coach and towards becoming a finance one, if his YouTube channel was anything to go by. He clarified that he found Patterns of Excellence (his life skills programme for adults) much more fulfilling and interesting to teach, compared to his Wealth Academy seminars, although the former continues to be a much harder sell.
“The sad thing is this: more people want to learn about how to make money. Everyone needs to learn how to communicate with their kids, how to be happy, but everyone’s like, I wanna know how to make money first,” he explains.
“So simply because of demand and supply, I run the Wealth programme 16 times a year, and Patterns of Excellence just once. If I could, I would love to do the latter more, but it’s just the reality of the situation. And you give people what they want in a way, right?”
This anecdote, I think, sums up what I needed to know.
You can believe that it’s more valuable to teach people how to become better versions of themselves, and still teach them about investing instead because it’s what the economics demand. You can build a name teaching kids how to do well in school, and still believe grades aren’t important. You can believe grades aren’t important but also that they are, because it’s good to have choices.
You can believe that money doesn’t make you happy, but derive immense satisfaction from teaching people how to make more of it. You can attain every conventional marker of success, only to realise that you really care more about doing what you love, which is helping other people attain conventional markers of success. You can force yourself to get with the programme, and train yourself to believe and do what you need to get everything you’ve ever wanted, only to realise that most of it doesn’t matter anyway.
In other words, Adam Khoo is a walking bundle of contradictions, which is all we as humans ever are.
I struggled with writing this story because I couldn’t figure out who the man I interviewed was, or what he really stood for. As it turns out, those weren’t the questions I should’ve preoccupied myself with; maybe it doesn’t matter, or at least it matters less, what Adam Khoo believes. This is, after all, a man who sells the transformative potential of self-belief, coupled with the tools to make those beliefs materialise.
Maybe the point just is that you need to choose something to believe in, buckle down to making it work, and have enough self-awareness to realise if it’s a constructive choice or not. Adam’s made a lot of choices, some of which align with the well-publicised, PR version of his life, and many of which don’t, but he hasn’t let himself dwell on this. He found a way to get himself where he wanted to go, which looked every bit like the textbook definition of success, and then let go of the goals that he realised no longer served their purpose.
It doesn’t matter if this means the pieces don’t always fit neatly, because the real story of anyone’s life, the one which gets built out of all the inconsistent fragments, is always going to defy easy narrative packaging. And more than being intelligent or gifted, perhaps it’s the ability to reframe, pick your battles, and decide what really matters that counts.
“Just do what works for you. I’ve been criticised a lot over the years, people telling me [NLP is] pseudoscience or whatever, but I don’t know, it’s worked for me,” he told me, just before we wrapped up.
“You can’t make everyone happy. Even Jesus and Obama couldn’t make everyone happy. Just give yourself a break.”