Monday, January 22, 2007

The ASEAN scholarship - would you do it all over again?

Yes, I know my posts have been rather personal these past few weeks. So many exciting and bloggable things occurring in local and international news, and yet here I am wallowing in self pity and defining the word boring. I don't know, maybe the controversial stuff will come back after awhile... when I stop feeling guilty about blogging when I should be putting together my final year project.

Anyway, here's a piece that started out as a discussion in a facebook group (naturally called ASEAN scholars). I never actually meant to go on at length, but ended up writing a full piece, and embarrassing my brother at the same time. And here I shall do it again much to his chagrin. I know he reads this blog because he's not careful about hiding his IP address and I don't know all that many people from


One common question that always arises when people find out that I've studied in Singapore (besides the "Eh, how ar? Everyone there very kiasu is it?") is whether I'd still choose to take up the ASEAN scholarship, given what I know now, and/or would I send my siblings/kids there.

Everyone has a preconception about studying in Singapore. It's generally centred around how stressful and exam oriented the system is and the academic pressure cooker/survival of the fittest environment that has been carefully engineered by the Lee family.

I can't deny that I went to Singapore clutching several urban legends close to my chest. "The top students will tear the pages out of library books so you won't be able to study", "Failure is not an option in Singapore, they make you do push ups if you fail", "Exams are a way of life, all you do is study".

It's easy to laugh about it now, because there were times I faced horrors far worse than failing exams - but coming back to my initial question. Yes, I would do it all over again. And I did send a sibling to Singapore, if he hates me for it - too bad for him. At least he survived it to get into Oxford.

I wasn't a brilliant student in JC. I was always bottom of the class, I had strings of 'O's for my first common test. I couldn't even speak any mandarin to save my life. But people tend to forget that successes don't always come in the form of academic accolades and olympiad medals. And once in awhile it's humbling to go from top of my little PJ school to bottom of Raffles Junior College. It's perfectly alright as long as I lived life in Singapore to the fullest, because the opportunities in school were limitless.

Back in my little PJ school, teachers were reluctant to answer questions outside the core text, curricular activities were restricted, and PE was... well, I don't know what it was because we never did anything but copied down notes about netball in our exercise books.

The day I stepped into JC was the day I realised some teachers do care about you. My Odac teacher never failed to lead us on camping trips and spur us on to do the impossible even if it meant he had to give up weekends and stay till late in the evening to help us bring down the climbing ropes from the rock wall. My Civics Tutor (or class teacher) never once gave up on me, knowing how little effort I was actually putting into my studies. She was barely 30 and yet had the experience to wield control and gain the adoration of a rowdy class of 18 year olds.

I realised that school facilities made a big impact on my student life. No matter what they say about RJC kids being rich and spoilt, the old RJC was tiny in comparison to many other JCs, old and greying, and yes, the toilets smelt of ammonia. But, coming fresh out of my dilapidated PJ school, RJ was grand! The library had real books and study tables. The track was a real track. There was proper PE equipment, a canteen that wasn't monopolised by one vendor and maybe we didn't have fully air conditioned classrooms or proper desks, but we had AVU equipment and teachers made full use of it!

Sure, it was a struggle to keep afloat in a top JC where everyone was seemingly brilliant. Real life isn't easy, and you have to keep swimming if you don't want to drown. Why should school be any different? But I never saw even a spectre of any Singaporean student who would step on me to get ahead (and even if there were the slightly kiasu ones, they weren't so different from my Malaysian classmates who'd refuse to tell me the name of their tuition teacher for fear of me getting better grades - familiar, yes?) My schoolmates were interesting people. Intelligence aside, they were interesting because they were truly passionate about things - whether it was their sports clubs, or council, or dance or computers. And they didn't do it because they were forced to. They did it because they enjoyed and excelled in it and were encouraged and supported.

Even hall life was fun, if you didn't mind the curfews. Staying together with other people in the same situation surprisingly yielded amazing results. Eating together, studying together, gossipping together, watching tv together, doing laundry together... these people who sat down at my dinner table everyday and complained loudly about the amount of salt the cooks had dumped onto our vegetables are my best friends, even after we parted ways at the end of our JC days.

Deep down, I'm patriotically Malaysian by nature and I still snigger at Singaporean news from time to time, however I can't deny that Singapore gave me a chance to see things from a different perspective, while Malaysia is continuously trying to pull wool over my eyes. Would I do it all over again? Any day, baby, any day!