From Myanmar to Singapore (and back): former A*Star researcher and consulting firm founder and MD Dr Myo Thida shares her incredible journey

In her decade-long journey from Myanmar to Singapore and back, Dr Thida has met Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Nobel Laureate iconic politician, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, published over 10 international scientific papers and founded Myanmar-based consulting firm VigorZwe. We speak to her to learn a more about her journey and what it’s like to straddle Myanmar and Singapore.

By SGN | 19 Jan 2021

Dr Thida is an experienced researcher, entrepreneur and consultant for bridging ties between Myanmar and Singapore. In her capacity as a bridge between the two nations, she has met both Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Tell us a little about where you grew up in Myanmar.

My hometown is called Pyinmana (known as NayPyiTaw no), which is rather small, but geographically centralised for the military. When I was in high school in the 1980s – before I moved to Singapore to study—the transportation networks had not even been developed yet. It’s a quiet place where people are happy in our comfort zone.

I never imagined myself leaving the country, much less work abroad!

What inspired you to pursue Electrical Engineering at Singapore’s National Technological University (NTU) ?

It was typical for girls to go to the medical university if you did well in high school. I had the opportunity to do so, but I was hesitant because I wasn’t fond of blood. I also didn’t want to burden my family as well.

Engineering was an up-and-coming field so I decided to give it a go.

Luckily, my parents supported me even though it wasn’t widely accepted for girls to study engineering at that time. I’ll always be grateful for this because their support allowed me to pursue opportunities abroad, which changed my perspective and worldview. Engineering opened up a lot of doors for me and brought me to where I am today.

In 2001, Singapore universities were coming by to introduce the ASEAN scholarship. I was intrigued, and I took the entrance exam to NTU. That was the first time I spoke to foreigners who spoke English! I was interviewed by a professor and I was very nervous; I thought I didn’t do well.

Fortunately, the professors saw something in me and I won a scholarship to pursue a Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering at NTU. I packed up my bags, and moved to Singapore after shortly. I went on to complete a Bachelor’s in Engineering in 2005 and Master in 2008.

You moved here at the tender age of 20 after receiving the ASEAN scholarship. What was it like for you?

My first 6 months was very difficult. I had to adjust to huge lifestyle and culture changes, as well as overcome the language barrier. Also, I had been used to being the top student back home; at NTU, I found that I blended in as an average student. The pressure to perform was intense.

I was deemed sufficiently proficient in English to not qualify for the bridging course, though I wasn’t a native English speaker at all. Of course, we took English as an extra module, but it wasn’t as intense as a bridging course. As a result, I didn’t understand what the lecturer was saying at all! I had to read a lot and I gradually grew to be more comfortable with conversing in English.

Adjusting to campus life was also challenging. When I first landed, I still remember being picked up by Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) from Changi Airport, where we  drove an hour to send us to NTU. I stayed in hall 15, where there weren’t many roommates yet as I was a week early.

One night, I woke up one night to noises of men arguing, which gave me a shock. I was quite nervous – that’s when I realised that guys were on a different floor. In Myanmar, the female and male hostels are separated.

Infrastructure is another shock. At that time, we didn’t have ATMs, banking system or train in Myanmar. I still remember the first time I went to the NTU library, I was so overwhelmed that I almost cried. The library was so huge to me! Back in my hometown, our library was so limited that I couldn’t even borrow them because they were too limited – I had to read them in the library! When I saw the NTU library, that was when I made the decision that I wanted to set up and develop education in Myanmar.

We know you went on to join A*Star as a researcher for six years before returning to Myanmar in 2013. Transitioning from school to work must be quite a change – care to tell us more?

Dr Thida hosted Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his visit to the Singapore Myanmar Vocational Training Institute (SMVTI) in Yangon. Read more here.

I joined A*Star right out of school as a Research Engineer. This was when I really built my network in Singapore and made many friends; we would often have drinks after work and became close over the years.  I thoroughly enjoyed my work with A*Star and had the opportunity to be a part of many meaningful projects.

One of the most meaningful projects I’ve had the privilege to lead was to develop the “Fish Activity Monitoring System”. Working closely with the Public Utilities Board (PUB) of Singapore, we researched, designed and implemented a real-time surveillance system which monitors living organisms for the water security of Singapore. This technology has already been deployed by the PUB.

For this project, we received the 2008 IES Prestigious Engineering Achievement award from Institution of Engineers, Singapore and the 2012 IWA Applied Research Honour Award from International Water Association.

After so many years here, what inspired you to return home?

I have always felt a burning desire to return to Myanmar, even when I was a student. At each life stage, I thought about going back. In 2005, I was offered a scholarship for a Masters’ program, so I thought I’ll return after my Masters.

During my Masters however, I was offered a job at A*Star. I worked there for about 6 years, and started to pursue a PhD part-time with a UK university. That was when my happiest time in Singapore started – I made a lot of friends in A*Star – we hung out every day. Even though I was stressed out by my PhD, my friends kept me going. But even so, I kept thinking about returning to Myanmar.

Dr Thida was inspired to return home by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who appealed for young, educated Burmese professionals to return home to develop the country.

I was thinking about making the move again when our leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi spoke at a forum to Myanmar professionals in Singapore. Though she did not make any direct appeal for us to come back home, she said this, ‘Myanmar needs young educated people to develop (the country).”

My life has changed because I studied in Singapore and Myanmar, so I wanted to give back.

That made up my mind. Not long after her visit to Singapore, I gave up the pay raise that came with the PhD and returned to Myanmar at the end of 2013.

What was adjusting to Myanmar like, after being in Singapore for over a decade?

Yangon Central Railway Station in Myanmar

I experienced reverse culture shock when I returned to Myanmar. My first two years were especially trying.

Firstly, I had to get used to the infrastructure in Myanmar. While the country had developed significantly since I left for Singapore a decade ago, but it not comparable to what I had become used to in Singapore. There were a lot of service gaps that I had to get used to.  Second, I had to adjust to the pay cut. I was used to living on a generous pay check in Singapore; living the good life.

When I first came back, I was a lecturer at a university. I wanted to teach engineering while setting up a small training centre. I was teaching university students, lecturers advance courses that I learned in Singapore. But the school was progressing slowly at that time, which is when I was asked to be involved in the Singapore-Myanmar joint project.

We understand you were involved in setting up the Singapore Myanmar Vocational Training Institute (SMVTI), a landmark achievement for both countries. Could you tell us more?

I was closely involved in setting up the SMVTI from its inception alongside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and Singapore’s Institute of Technological Education (ITE). As the SMVTI Vice-Principal appointed by the Myanmar government, I worked alongside a Singapore government-appointed Principal in this joint project between the two governments.

As someone who understands the cultural nuances and working styles of both sides, I helped to foster understanding between the two governments and facilitate the establishment of the school. I led a team of 81 local staff to establish this first government vocational education training institute in Myanmar, which has remained in operation since its founding in 2015.

As a joint collaboration project that’s first of its kind, both governments were highly motivated to push the SMVTI forward. While the Singapore government took charge of renovation of the schools and training, the Myanmar gov provided the infrastructure and staff.

After crossing this milestone, we understand you left to found your own consulting company, VigorZwe.

In 2017, I decided to leave SMVTI. I felt that the school was in good hands, and I had fulfilled my role as the ‘bridge’ in the early stages of the project, before the relationship was mature. Now they have a good relationship, and the school is self-sustaining.

That’s when I started as a freelance consultant, even as I continued teaching. I started to get involved in more education projects. I went to Internally Displaced Persons camps to find out how we could educate them, writing up assessment reports and provided recommendations for the Myanmar government.

I also work closely with UNESCO and the EU as a local consultant in supporting Myanmar’s Education Ministry to revamp the Technical Vocational Training Education in Myanmar. This is how I realised that international aid organisations were paying a lot for expats to come and help and assess the needs of the country – which oftentimes resulted in unactionable recommendations, because while they have the subject matter expertise, they lack the in-depth, in-market knowledge to write up actionable insights.

This is how I was inspired to start my consulting firm VigorZwe, which was formed to tackle this gap.

Finally, any words for girls seeking global experiences or careers in Engineering?

Girls think that engineering is challenging, and there’s this perception that you’re always on the field, in hard hats. But this is no longer the case!

With machine learning, AI and other digital applications, the field of engineering has transformed and is really quite fun – there’s a lot more to it than you think!

There’s also a lot more ‘plug-and-play’ software than there used to be, which means there is a lot less hard coding and a lot more of  about creative thinking. If you’re interested in engineering, I really encourage you to try it out and learn how it’s evolving over time.

Dr Myo Thida is a member of our Singapore Global Network. Join our network here to be notified for our next Coffee Connections, a virtual intimate networking event where you may meet other ASEAN network members like Dr Thida.

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About Dr Thida

Dr Myo Thida received her PhD degree in Computer Vision from Kingston University (KU) in 2013 and B.Eng. and M.Eng degrees in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU), in 2005 and 2008 respectively.

Over the past decade, Dr Thida has carried out theoretical and applied research in computer vision, image processing, machine learning, pattern recognition and video surveillance. Dr Thida has published over 10 scientific papers and articles in international conferences and high impact journals. Her research has made inroads in the computer vision industries, where her team has contributed to a number of breakthroughs in automated industrial processes and the team won the 2008 IES Prestigious Engineering Achievement award from Institution of Engineers, Singapore and the 2012 IWA applied research honour award from International Water Association.

Since 2014, Thida has actively participated in multiple educational projects that contributing towards educational reform in Myanmar. In 2019, She was awarded the ASEAN-US Science and Technology Fellowship alongside 16 other fellows from ASEAN countries.

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