PUBLISHED AUG 4, 2015
A frank speech by the principal of Raffles Institution (RI) has sparked discussion among alumni and students, with many agreeing that the school’s student population has become less diverse.
At RI’s 192nd Founder’s Day ceremony about a week ago, its principal, Mr Chan Poh Meng, warned that RI is at risk of becoming a school that caters only to a certain class of Singaporeans and must do more to counter accusations of becoming increasingly elitist.
Most alumni interviewed said they agreed that RI, widely seen as Singapore’s most reputed school, has become less diverse in its student population.
Mr Ted Chia, who attended RI in the 1960s, said: “Most of us came from unknown primary schools, gaining entry because we did pretty well in the Primary School Leaving Examination of the old days.
“Most students were from humble backgrounds, taking the bus to school and not driven by mum or dad,” said the 64-year-old director of sales in an aerospace business.
Dr Lee Soo Ann, 76, a senior fellow in economics at the National University of Singapore who went to RI in the 1950s, said out of his group of 10 friends, just three went to university.
“In those times, people would leave school to work because they could not afford to study further or they didn’t do well enough,” he said.
Mr Chia added: “Nowadays, kids are groomed from young to do extremely well in the PSLE.
“So inevitably, you will find the present students belong to a smaller and more privileged group.”
RI alumnus Tommy Koh, Ambassador-At-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said RI should aim to be a “microcosm of Singapore”, with students from all socioeconomic classes and races.
“RI is a great school and we don’t want that to change. I am, however, concerned by his statement that RI has become a middle-class school,” he said.
The concern that top schools are becoming closed circles has been raised before, even by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. In 2013, Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan, then a Nominated MP, said in Parliament that he was concerned that RI, his alma mater, was becoming less diverse.
But Mr Eugene Wijeysingha, RI headmaster from 1986 to 1994, defended the school, saying many Rafflesians have served the country despite being “chastised for continuing to live in an ivory tower oblivious of the plight of others around”.
He noted that a “high premium” is possibly placed on one’s linkage with RI today.
However, “these boys slog it out and the best find their way to the school… They deserve to be highly regarded and to regard themselves with pride”.
“I do not believe that all this has gone to the head of the RI boy and destroyed his values as a balanced human being,” he added.
“Most students were from humble backgrounds, taking the bus to school and not driven by mum or dad”
Going to school during Secondary One and Two (and the first semester of Sec Three) when the school campus was still in town at Grange Road, I had to take 3 buses, a feeder bus from my house to the bus interchange, and then a bus to go to town, and finally change to bus 104 at the Far East Plaza (Scotts Road) bus stop for the final short trip to Grange Road. (If I remember correctly, the MRT train system was brand new then, and I do use it, but I’ll had to walk 10 minutes for the final part of the journey.) Or, the feeder bus to the MRT train station, then a train to Orchard station, then walk for about 10mins from Orchard Boulevard and down Paterson Road, to reach Grange Road.
Usually by the time I reached the school gates just in time for school assembly, I’d be breathing a little hard from my brisk walking and as always, perspiring more than a bit. And as I huff and puff and make my way up the sloped driveway towards the quadrangle, I would had to dart in between all the cars of the parents who are sending their precious sons to school in air-conditioned comfort and dropping them and their bags right at the quadrangle where our form teachers are taking attendance.
[Just had a memory flashback…
I remember one of those cars was a red Honda Prelude. I would always be looking out for it when I was climbing up the slope, and most times it would vroom pass from behind me as it made it in the nick of time before the gates were closed, snarling all the way up the driveway, scattering leaves and shocked first-year freshie boys in its wake. Now that I think about it, I wonder what kind of parent with a teen-aged-old child would drive a 2-door boy-racer…
But I liked Preludes back then.]
“RI alumnus Tommy Koh, Ambassador-At-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said RI should aim to be a “microcosm of Singapore”, with students from all socioeconomic classes and races.”
Oh, we were certainly that. Sons of hawkers, fish-mongers and cleaners sat next to scions of cabinet ministers, generals and assorted captains of industries.
Within my own merry band of brothers in Sec One, four of us got close and started hanging out together.
Qing was from a more humble background and belonged to a group within our class called the Ghim Moh Boys, RI boys who stayed in the Ghim Moh area and played soccer and basketball together every weekend at the Ghim Moh/Ulu Pandan community centre. The group gradually enlarged over the 6 years from Sec One/RI to Year Two/RJC and even beyond, to include any Raffles boy who joined in the games the Ghim Moh Boys would hold every weekend without fail. Last I heard some of the Ghim Moh Boys were still having regular gatherings to play soccer and basketball into their thirties.
Pat-man’s father was an engineering consultant who helmed a private-public-academic agency which helped bring together the technical and engineering expertise of the Nanyang Technological University’s faculty with real-world business needs and applications. Sort of like an early startup incubator in the 1980s and 90s, I suppose.
My father was a businessman, and Yu…we knew nothing about at first, cause he was always so quiet and doleful. But he was nice enough and he sat next to me for the whole of Sec One year, though it was sometimes a bit of an effort to get through to him and his negativity (and this coming from me who at 13 wrote lines and lines of poetry and odes to Melancholy). But one day, while some of us were talking about board games on war and gushing about that latest expensive WWII board game, Axis & Allies, with its beautiful figurines of infantry, tanks, ships, submarines, planes, factories etc…Yu casually mentioned that he’s got the game but that it’s quite boring and anyway, he’s too busy playing the latest Sega Rockman series. I remember Qing and I (both history buffs, especially military history, who will stop an Axis & Allies game in midplay just to argue the finer points of whether Nazi Germany could had overran all of Europe if it wasn’t banking on an détente with Britain which never materialized; or if the Russian infantry could had reached farther then Berlin and drawn the Iron Curtain on a partitioned Europe just a little more west at say, Paris; and while Qing and I would be arguing heatedly, banging on the game table, Pat and Yu would get bored and go over to the Sega machine to play Rockman) went all agog, and quickly set about getting Yu to invite us to his house to play the game.
I remember on that certain school day after class, the three of us were quite excited about going to Yu’s house to play Axis & Allies. When we asked him what bus do we need to take to get to his place, he mumbled that he wasn’t sure, his mum was coming to get us anyway, only that she won’t be coming herself… Apparently, Yu had been driven to school everyday by his chauffeur; and that is how we found ourselves going to Yu’s house for the first time, riding in an S-class Mercedes driven by his chauffeur to his house at Goodman road, in the Mountbatten area known for its houses with generous land sizes. When the car pulled into the large driveway of a house on a expansive land plot, I remember thinking Yu’s house actually looked small sitting right in the middle of the large sprawling piece of land, surrounded by a neat but simple green lawn which ran all the way around from the front to the back of the house. The same green lawn where we played many water gun battles on hot June holidays afternoons, with his Super Soakers and even a few air pistols (unlicensed?).
Yu’s mother was a nice lady who seemed to be always a little distracted, pottering about the house in her housecoat/robe and who would poke her head into Yu’s room or the separate games room where we would be playing in, to ask us if we wanted more snacks or drinks. Yu’s father came home later that afternoon, cutting a tall and imposing figure in his business suit and stepping out of his BMW 7-series, driven by another chauffeur. I guess Yu’s parents don’t like to drive.
I later found out Yu’s father had studied chemical engineering at MIT, but had gone on to a career in finance and banking and at that time, was just moving from his MD position at Bank of America to take up an early pioneering role at the newly-founded SIMEX Singapore International Monetary Exchange, to develop the futures and derivatives markets in Singapore. SIMEX is later to become SGX-DT, the derivatives trading arm of the Singapore Exchange.
I remember Yu’s parents took quite a liking to me, and his mother was rather effusive (embarrassingly) with her praise: about my grades, my readings, my sports, even my height, which she would compare with Yu, who was not very tall and rather chubby, who apparently just barely made it into RI, and according to his mother, wasn’t very good at anything. I was always embarrassed and a little mortified when she would say all that in front of us, but Yu always seemed unperturbed and would ignore her and just go on playing his Rockman video game. He was very good at that game though. Yu’s father would come talk to me and tell me to study engineering next time at university because it allows so many career options, give Yu a sharp look and say Yu probably can’t make it into the engineering course at university.
His parents always wanted me over, to play or to help Yu with his studies, or just to stay over for the night. They even asked to meet my parents and our families had dinner together a few times, at that seafood restaurant at the old Big Splash complex by East Coast beach, talking and asking my parents questions about how they raised me, how I grew up, which made Yu and I squirm in our seats. Later, I couldn’t tell if Yu was joking when he looked at me with his sad eyes and told me his parents liked me so much, they probably wished I was their son instead. Poor guy. No wonder he was always brooding and looked so haunted, growing up under the weight of such expectations and pressure.
I should had told him then, that: 小时了了，大未必佳 A brilliant and precocious child, may grow up and become less than ordinary.
Yu didn’t go on to RJC, had a hard time at the JC he went to, and went to polytechnic after that. Subsequently, he finally found his calling, left for Australia to study psychology, graduated with his degree and last I know, was working in a public hospital. Good for him.
And what did I turned out to be?