By Allison Choong (14S05A), Bryan Chua (14A01A), Lee Chin Wee (14A01B) and Tan Jun Xiang (14S06C)

Outgoing and incoming principals Mrs Lim Lai Cheng and Mr Chan Poh Meng share their thoughts on the school’s recent past and its immediate future.

MRS LIM LAI CHENG SPEAKS

Mrs Lim Lai Cheng
Mrs Lim Lai Cheng

What would you consider to be the high point in your tenure as principal?

It would be in 2011, when we went in for the Singapore Quality Award (SQA). I sensed that the school was ready because we’ve done so much over the years and built such a strong foundation. It served as a rallying call for all of us—students, staff, alumni and stakeholders to come together and be of one mind. And we did very nicely, because all of our staff—from the teaching and administrative staff to our canteen operators—came together and we were all so proud of the school. I think Rafflesians love being put to the test and we do very well when we are tested.

What would the low point be, then? Do you have any significant regrets upon leaving?

I wouldn’t explicitly pinpoint a low point, but I do wish I had more time to spend with students and staff to build relationships. I think if you spend enough time with people, trust is built and everyone can discuss issues like corporatisation more easily—there wouldn’t be any niggling feelings of ‘Why is the school doing this?’, and ‘Why were we not consulted?’. I actually found myself spending a lot of time with the parents—meeting them for townhalls, and lunch and breakfast sessions—and I don’t get any difficult questions from them at all. They tended to be very accepting of explanations I provided, without second-guessing me, without being suspicious of the motives. I feel this just goes to show how important relationship-building is.

Tell us more about the greatest challenge you’ve faced in the last six years.

You know, there had been moments when I just dropped all my work, called it a day and went to sleep and prayed that the next day would be a better one. There was nothing absolutely crucial—just challenges to do with people and, sometimes, events. I’m too focused on the tasks at hand to look back and be bogged down by all those moments.

Mrs Lim addresses the school at Prize-Giving Ceremony 2013
Mrs Lim addresses the school at Prize-Giving Ceremony 2013

What was your vision for RI upon entering the school, and do you think you’ve achieved it?

When I came, there was indeed a purpose and a mission: the integration of RI with RJC. Back then, the Ministry actually wanted to see ‘transformative growth’. They saw the potential of the two institutions, and it was up to me to make us more than the sum of our parts. That was an exciting challenge, because anyone who knew both RI and RJC knew there was a lot of potential due to the quality of staff, students, resources, heritage and the alumni.

My main purpose was to work closely with staff and let them run with their ideas, rather than impose my ideas upon them. When I was principal of previous schools, most of the teachers would just wait for instructions. They would say, ‘What are your ideas? Let us know,’ and they would do it. But when I came to Raffles, it was a much bigger playing field. If I tried to push my ideas without any support from the staff, they definitely would have fallen through.

But I could work on their ideas, and provide them the support, resources, networks and connections to see their projects through. Honestly, I can’t take any credit for what has happened here—not the Gap Semester, not the E W Barker Institute of Sports, nor the Raffles Leadership Institute. These were ideas offered by the Deans and HODs. We came together a few times to do strategic planning and to formulate a set of common values and ideals for the school. I can’t claim credit for any one initiative in the school.

Some critics, especially old boys, have criticised the alleged corporatisation as alienating the students and staff of the school and a dampener on school spirit. What are your views?

Teachers often lament the fact that they don’t have enough time to know their students well. What we’ve done is to take away as much of their administrative work as possible, so that they can focus on teaching well. With specialised help, the school conducts itself more professionally. I think that has fed into the perception of corporatisation, because we have good staff who want to do things properly. Our Estate staff, for instance, are trained, have dealt with contractors and some have even worked in town councils. I think when you professionalise some corporate services, you will get a completely different feel than if you had largely depended on teachers who are trained to teach and not to do finance, estates, landscaping or signage.

Besides the aesthetic changes, some have also commented on the disappearance of a ‘homely’ school culture. Perhaps that’s because we’ve become such a big school, with all the management staff essentially handling a six-year job scope, and we have had far less time to interact and be personable. In my first meeting with the Students’ Council in 2008, they told me that the school was too cold, so we tried very hard to make the spaces more interactive for students. I think we’ve come a long way in becoming cosier—there are a lot more hubs where students can congregate.

The lack of homeliness may also stem from the fact that Mount Sinai was a small, cosy set-up, and the staff and students saw a lot of each other, and their paths tended to criss-cross getting from one point to another. Now, we’re on a sprawling campus and thus see less of each other. So I think the lack of homeliness could be due to size, and we must overcome that by building closer relationships. I think now that we have done most of the strategic and structural work, the focus should shift towards building emotional connections.

Was the disjoint in culture between Year 1-4 and Year 5-6 an obstacle to integration?

Integration is an evolution, rather than simply an endpoint. It allows us to ride on the advantages of size, or economies of scale, and merge two strong institutions, but I do not want to force it by saying, ‘let’s integrate in six years’ time’. Those of us who have taught in JCs know that the JC population is very different from the secondary population, and we can’t treat the students in the same way. For those who experienced a six-year RI (before 1982, when RJC was formed), it seemed only natural to have completed one’s education in one school, with a shared school ethos and culture throughout. However, when two institutions have grown apart and have developed independently for 28 years, putting them back together just doesn’t occur overnight. I’ve always reminded the Year 1–4 RI boys that, in the six-year IP, they are the minority—only 450 out of a batch of 1,250. How can they then impose their past on the Year 5–6 cohort?

Mrs Lim at the Y5-6 Farewell Assembly 2013
Mrs Lim at the Y5-6 Farewell Assembly 2013

Did you face any difficulties as the first female principal of the school?

I’ve never thought of gender as an issue, especially because half the JC population is female! Clearly, the Board of Governors didn’t think it was an issue either, because they were the ones who agreed to a female principal in the first place.

When I first came, I asked the students in Year 1–4 about this, and they had absolutely no issue. What was most important to them was having a principal who was approachable. I don’t know whether the older alumni have an issue, because the younger alumni don’t seem to have much of a problem. If they do, it’s never really been something that has been surfaced.

In your opinion, what defines Rafflesians?

We are very task-oriented and focused on our goals. Because we’re so ‘indefatigable’, which is a word the Deputy Principals use to describe me, we obsess over winning, no matter whether it’s a debate or a project. The other side of the coin is that we never lose sight of our goals, and we do not let the things around us hinder us from attaining our dreams. Frankly, that defines the way I work. It doesn’t bother me at all if I hear things like ‘this is the first female principal’, because I feel I just need to get the job done.

What are your key wishes for Rafflesians?

The first word that comes to mind is ‘kindness’. We can be so critical of so many things: the government, the school administration, our own peers, ourselves. If Rafflesians were kinder, we would be able to receive more kindness in return. We intellectualise lots of things—myself included, I’m always searching for the critical argument—and we let our minds control our hearts. We get quite a lot of flak from others about being elitist and arrogant, but maybe if we were more empathetic and kind, we might receive less criticism.

Mrs Lim on an RPA community service trip to Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Mrs Lim on an RPA community service trip to Angkor Wat, Cambodia

In our assemblies, we always talk about giving back and being conscious of the fact that you have the talent and the strengths and must help others along. We have also urged Rafflesians to be grateful and realise that whatever we’ve achieved is not solely by our own merit but facilitated by many others. That rhetoric remains the same, but because of the current landscape, this has been brought a lot more to the fore.

I don’t know if you’ve read the book, The Twilight of the Elites. It talks about how America has lost faith in its elite, in the wake of a series of crises. There is now a lot of focus on making sure that there’s more equity, and that those who are more privileged should have to spend more effort and share their resources with the rest. I think there’s going to be a more conscious effort to let our actions show, not simply through words.

RI does come under some criticism from some quarters that our socio-economic profile is one that is skewed towards people who are wealthier and that we have significant barriers to entry. What’s your opinion on this and do you think we have a key role to play in promoting equity?

Yes, that’s why we came up with the RI Junior Scholarships where we reach out to primary school boys who may be in need of educational resources that we can help with. We give out over 20 scholarships every year. Through self-help groups such as SINDA, we have also started mentoring programmes for Primary 5 and 6 students, to build confidence and help them improve academically. And we do see them get into good schools, even though it may not be RI.

The fact that more of our students are from better families is a reflection of Singapore society. It has become more affluent, so we can’t go back to the days when we were in school and say that our peers were from poor families. Even for myself and many others, we are now much better off than our parents. There is a new idea for the DSA (Direct School Admissions) now to broaden the criteria for admission. I don’t think any educator would fault these policies aimed at increasing social mobility, I think they’re all good. The difficulty is in the implementation, to make sure that people don’t abuse it.

Many have actually criticised the Raffles Diploma as exacerbating the paper chase. What are your thoughts?

I think it’s a natural thing to say, because anything that requires people to show what they’ve done can be taken in a negative light. It all started because of the Raffles Programme, and the A-Levels just do not do justice to all the things that our students do. So we decided to come up with our own accreditation, something that sets us apart from other schools. The Raffles signature is one that reflects excellence. When you have a Raffles Diploma, it does draw attention to the quality and standards that we’ve set for this programme.

I’ve always told people to do it not for the sake of the Raffles Diploma, and that it doesn’t matter if you don’t get your Distinction or Merit. It’s just an encapsulation of what you’ve done as a student. People outside like it, as far as I’ve heard, because it helps them better understand our programmes, and they are able to pick out the different things that our students do, which sets them apart from the rest of the schools. The institutions outside have also said that they look at a graduate holistically. It doesn’t mean that your RD grade represents the person you are—it’s just one among a few things they look at.

We understand that RI was once considering adopting the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme. Do you think that one day, Raffles might take on the IB?

We have considered that. I think the onus is on the MOE because we’re a national institution and we need to get the ministry’s permission to do it. Right now, I think they want us to stick with the A-Levels. To me, the IB provides an alternative for students who prefer a more broad-based curriculum. I wanted it earlier on, for a small segment of the population, because I still prefer the A-Levels for its rigour, especially for our students who are strong in individual subjects. But not all students are for rigour in terms of depth, some of them prefer breadth.

In the previous issue of Rafflesian Times, you talked about how the 1823 Fund has given more coherence to fund raising efforts. What do you think of the way it has gone over the past six years since its inception?

We set up the 1823 Fund to serve as a rallying point for Rafflesians. And through the 1823 fund effort, I think we’ve reached more alumni than we’ve ever done in the last decades. We had alumni out there who were saying, ‘We’re just waiting for the school to contact us and ask us what they need. They’ve never done that.’ They’ve been waiting and no one has knocked on their doors.

So I think I’ve been quite happy with the outcome. Out of the alumni who give back to RI, 90 percent give to support financially-needy students. Many of them do not contribute toward our buildings and programmes—they care more about making sure that RI remains inclusive and open to anyone who needs financial help. So we will continue with the efforts. Under the 1823 Fund, we’ve also launched the Raffles Community Initiative, which supports our community service projects, and that is another worthy cause that people can contribute to.

Mrs Lim shaving Mr Tan Boon Poh's locks at Hair For Hope 2012
Mrs Lim shaving Mr Tan Boon Poh’s locks at Hair For Hope 2012

A lot of people say that alumni and parent relations have improved during your term in RI and it’s something you’re very proud of as well. How far do you think these relationships are important, and how much more is there to go in terms of improving it?

It’s never about fundraising; it’s the building of trust. When you have alumni who are well-disposed towards the school, they will come forward to support the school when it receives criticism or if it needs help, like contributing to their former CCAs and school events. It is really about building emotional ties and getting people to contribute back towards any area that interests them. When we do strategic planning, we would invite old boys and girls to come and give us ideas, especially those who’ve been in government or in key private-sector positions. They are readily available. They all want to help shape the future of this institution, and they are a very valuable resource.

For a place like RI, it never really belongs to any one of us, and none of us should presume that it belongs to us. You can’t claim ownership over a school like RI. You can only be a part of it, and help to contribute to its growth, and of course, be inspired and transformed by it whilst you’re here. I think RI has transformed me a lot. When I talk about giving and the Rafflesian spirit, it’s made me a lot more conscious about my own social responsibility. I have never been more proud of my Rafflesian heritage than I have been in the last six years.

Another thing that some have picked up on before is that, in recent years, the school has begun to grow and expand its international presence— we’ve also had a lot of foreign guests and students coming in and so on. Why was this put in place?

It wasn’t a deliberate effort. Each time we had groups visiting, they were very intrigued by Raffles. We started out just getting involved in one or two networks, and had students take part in symposiums, like the Winchester symposium. Then a few of these schools got together and we decided that we wanted to form a network that would enable our students to be more conscious of their social responsibility. That was when we set up GALES, the Global Alliance of Leading-Edge Schools. As the teachers organised their own events, they also invited some of our partner schools. Our science camp, for instance has become an international camp, and our debate club has started to organise international tournaments. I think there’s a lot of respect and regard for Raffles outside of Singapore that we never really tapped, previously.

Let’s shift back to the local perspective—with the RGS campus soon moving near RI, do you envision closer cooperation between the two schools, and do you think that would be a good thing?

Our relationship with RGS has been good the last few years. I think it’s been quite strategic that I’m also from RGS, which helped, in a way, when RI and RJC re-integrated. So they’re coming nearer, and it has given us some ideas such as joint CCA practices, joint seminars and even joint modules. But we have to work on these carefully, because scheduling is one issue, and whether we want to get the boys and girls to mix so early is another matter for consideration.

Soaking up the Rafflesian Spirit: Mrs Lim gets dunked at Take 5, 2009
Soaking up the Rafflesian Spirit: Mrs Lim gets dunked at Take 5, 2009

You mentioned that you can’t imagine being a principal of any other school—is that part of the reason you’re going to SMU and not anywhere else?

When the idea for me to join SMU came up, I was quite excited about it. I liked the idea of a new leadership initiative to be focused on Southeast Asia that would get youth to serve the countries in the region. I will be Senior Advisor to this new initiative and also a Fellow of the School of Social Sciences to teach a course or two.

What do you feel about leaving the school?

I’m happy that I’m leaving it at a high point. I wouldn’t say I was sad or sorry—I know that I can’t stay forever, because the school will not grow if a principal stays on for a long time. I’m just appreciative of the students and staff and the passion I’ve seen amongst them. I am grateful for the experience of having interacted and grown along with them. And I feel I have grown, and just like you guys who will graduate, I have to move on too, and take on new responsibilities and grow new competencies.

If you had one last thing to say to Rafflesians, what would it be?

Don’t be deterred by what other people say. Just do what you believe you need to do, and do it well, and be kind along the way!

MR CHAN POH MENG SPEAKS

Mr Chan Poh Meng
Mr Chan Poh Meng

What sort of principal would you describe yourself as?

RI will be the third school I’m leading—Outram Secondary School was my first, and the second was Victoria JC. I would describe myself with the abbreviation ‘ABC’: approachable, bubbly and communicative! I’m a very people-oriented principal— to me people matter the most, because passionate individuals driven by the right purpose can do a lot for the world. Of course, sometimes I do realise that when I am too people-centric, I may sometimes give the impression that anything goes and that rules are not important. But that’s very not true—I’m also quite rule-centred, because rules which are established by a community provide the structure for people to understand each other better and establish a working culture.

What sort of relationships do you hope to forge with staff and students?

I was very fortunate to have studied in the original Bras Basah campus in my first three years, followed by three more years in Grange Road. I’m fully aware that the Raffles I’m returning to is a different Raffles—even though it’s merged and now a six-year institution again. I want to spend my first six months getting to know this new Raffles better; using an appreciation of the past to gain a deeper understanding of the present Raffles. I would like to understand the system and the place through its people— it will be you, the students, your parents, the non-teaching and teaching staff, and the alumni. I’ve already met the ORA, I’ve met parents, I’ll be meeting the softball alumni soon, and I just came here two Saturdays ago to witness the launch of the new Rugby Union. I intend to get to know everyone, and in the process allow you guys to know more about me and what I stand for. I don’t wish to impose a singular vision on RI. In fact, I want to understand RI again.

Mr Chan’s Secondary 4 class with their form teacher Mr Kovac in 1972
Mr Chan’s Secondary 4 class with their form teacher Mr Kovac in 1972

As a Rafflesian coming back to your alma mater, what does Auspicium Melioris Aevi mean to you?

Well, I was taught in RI that it means ‘Hope for a Better Age’! It’s a very forward-looking motto about being the hope for a future age. As the oldest institution in Singapore, we aren’t old for the sake of being old. There’s a sense of mission and duty to nurture students who will do something for the Singaporean community. It’s about touching lives and benefiting society no matter what age we live in. It’s not hope for ourselves, but hope for the community. We should first start with the Raffles community, and then move outward in concentric circles toward society, the nation, and even the world.

How does it feel to take on the task of helming the school for the next few years?

‘Challenging’ would actually be the first thing that comes to mind. I feel that I shouldn’t take for granted the progress we’ve made. As a returning alumnus, I don’t want to fall into the trap of imposing what RI was like in the past onto the present. Yet I’m also sure that the alumni expect me, as a Rafflesian, to retain the true spirit of the school. That’s why it is challenging—not the long hours at work or the size of the school, but trying to capture the true Rafflesian spirit. Leading the school is a two-way process—as much as I can provide input, I need the help of students, their parents, staff and old boys and girls to work together in creating a new future for the school.

From the perspective of an old boy, how has RI changed since you left? What was your experience of school life and school culture, and would you like to ‘recreate’ this experience?

I graduated in 1975, but I did come back to RI from 1976 to about 1980 as a boy scout. I even went to Thailand with the scouts as an alumnus. I also did one term of cadet teaching in 1982 for six months. So that was the RI that I last knew. After that I came back to RI only for meetings, but I did not get involved in the school anymore, as I was so busy in my own career as a teacher and everything else. So, in my impression of RI, I am almost like an outsider.

Mr Chan being invested as a Patrol Leader at the 02 Scouts Investiture Ceremony, 1972
Mr Chan being invested as a Patrol Leader at the 02 Scouts Investiture
Ceremony, 1972

What I enjoyed most as a RI boy was a six-year school where I was given a chance to grow up with peers who were a few years my senior, and as I grew up and became a senior myself, I was able to be a senior to some of my juniors in return. I was a troop leader for the boy scouts in Pre-U 1, and I thoroughly feel that that was a very important experience for me, because I was a peer leader in the most natural of contexts.

Back then, we still had teachers in charge, but the ones actually running the boy scouts were the troop leaders, the Pre-U 1s, because the Pre-U 2s were busy studying for their A-Level exams. This happened in most of the CCAs, and even the girls who came in at the Pre-University level also became natural leaders. Seniors would mentor their juniors, and the juniors in return would learn from their seniors’ role-modelling, and that was very impactful.

RI has become so big now—it takes me 20 minutes to walk from one end of the campus to the other. The sheer size of the school has likely changed the quality and nature of the interactions between seniors and juniors. And the almost romantic notion that I had about seniors helping juniors may have disappeared, or may just not be the same. If I am right, I want to do something about it.

This notion of mentorship—of seniors helping juniors—is something which struck me during my time as a student in RI. Besides scouts, I was also in Raffles Players and the choir. These were the places where I met the girls, and I noticed that girls were able to play the role of seniors, even though they had only joined the school at the Pre-U 1 level. In our present context, we also have the JAE students who enter the school at Year 5. Even though they have not spent their first four years in RI, I think it is precisely because of this that they would add diversity and colour to the senior-junior bonding interactions, and I believe that they would be good role models too. This is what I felt I’d like to look into—how this senior-junior role modelling and camaraderie could be first explored then strengthened.

Mr Chan with I Arts C, his Pre-University Class. His Civics and Economics tutor was Mr Chow
Mr Chan with I Arts C, his Pre-University Class. His Civics and
Economics tutor was Mr Chow

Broadly speaking, what direction would you like to take RI in the next five years?

People outside of RI may sometimes harbour a lot of misunderstandings about our school. I experienced the consequences of such misunderstandings when I was a 13-year-old RI boy. In the last five years though, this issue has become increasingly prevalent, because of all the accolades that RI has won and also this national consciousness that we want to make sure that nobody is left behind. So, first, I want to make sure that the community around RI reads us correctly.

I live around here, and I think of myself as a very ‘Bishan community’ person. I take public transport; I don’t drive, I don’t have a car. I’m telling you this because I feel quite strongly that RI’s presence is not felt in our immediate community. RI’s presence in Singapore is felt, sometimes in the wrong way. I’d like to make sure that the Bishan-Toa Payoh community knows RI more.

I think we should reach out to the residents here and let them know what RI stands for. Charity begins from the home. When Rafflesians doing community service are featured in the media, that’s great, because it lets the general public know what we’re doing to give back to society. But it would be even better if we could impact our community to the extent that they stand up for us and tell the world about us—I think that would be so much more impactful.

In addition, I would also like to bring RI to a place where we are more exploratory and more open about things. For example, I’m a movie buff, and I’ve been following people with non-academic pursuits— all the chefs, musicians, and movie makers—and I feel that there’s a big, wide world out there outside of your conventional, regular careers like law and medicine. Nothing wrong with being regular; we do need good doctors as well! But what I’m really saying is that I would like for us, over the next five years, to be open and explore ‘alternatives’.

Mr Chan on an 02 Scouts hiking trip in the Lim Chu Kang area
Mr Chan on an 02 Scouts hiking trip in the Lim Chu Kang area

In the midst of concerns like CCA closure and dwindling interest in non-competitive CCAs, how will you work to support the school’s CCAs?

Let me first state that I strongly believe in the value of CCAs. However, when we evaluate whether a CCA should continue or be closed down, we have to go back to the objectives—why was it set up, and did it fulfil what it set out to do? We also have to talk to the members and ask them why they want to continue, and explain to them to why certain current conditions have to be met before we can carry on with the activity.

Otherwise, their official status (which may include funding, manpower and resources, and even infrastructure) may be changed into an SIG (Special Interest Group), where some of these things are less important, and you can still pursue your interests. It may even become something that’s not an SIG—where you actually make membership more open, where maybe even non-Rafflesians can take part.

I want to give a message to Rafflesians—I’m not here to close things down, but I’m here to look at the rationale, and what’s best for us. CCAs are extremely important, especially for holistic development, and I’ve believed this since I was 13 years old. However, I want to emphasise this again—I’m not here to lead my own life; I’m here to make sure that students’ lives are well cared for. I also want to ensure that at the end of the day it’s not all about closing down CCAs, but that it will be a properly-reviewed process, and I’m happy to hold dialogues with students. That’s what I can promise.

Moving on to your vision for the Rafflesian population, if there was one key value you want all Rafflesians to have, what would it be?

If there were only one value, it would have to be resilience—it’s something that I feel quite strongly about. I feel quite personally disturbed if I see successful people breaking down over the smallest failures, for example, a team that losing the volleyball finals. Initially, an outburst of emotion, a few droplets of tears, that’s fine—but sometimes it can get too over the top. I feel one of the biggest challenges of successful people in excellent institutions is that these people may not truly understand what it really means to fail. Everything is relative, and even failing an exam in RI doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world!

I think that’s why sometimes people misunderstand us when we have such outbursts—I think sometimes it’s because we have no resilience. Resilience means that whatever failure, big or small, we will tell ourselves to try again. ‘Trying again’ cannot start with great regret, getting discouraged, or losing your passion entirely and trying something else instead.

There is a Chinese saying: ‘failure is the mother of success’—resilience is about understanding what failure means to us, and as time goes on and we face challenges, our resilience levels should get higher and higher. It’s a personal thing, and we shouldn’t be comparing ourselves with others, but I hope that Rafflesians will hold this value dear, and strive to compete with themselves and continually improve.

A young Mr Chan leaving the Grange Road campus via its Kay Poh gate
A young Mr Chan leaving the Grange Road campus via its Kay Poh gate

So you mentioned resilience as a value for us to strive towards, but what do you think are current traits that characterise Rafflesians?

That’s a very interesting question. Excellence, I would say. The pursuit of excellence in Rafflesians is relentless. And I see nothing wrong with that at all. No one should enter a competition thinking: ‘I’m going to be second’. When you say something like that, it reflects how much effort you put in your training. Your psyche must say, ‘I’m going to be first.’ And that’s the right way to go about it!

I don’t believe that you should go to a competition and just tell yourself: ‘I’m just going to give it my best.’ In a sports match, if you don’t go into the game with the mindset that you want to win, that shows a lack of respect, if anything, for the opponent!

Singaporeans are increasingly talking about us being elitist, but that is a separate issue from the pursuit of excellence. Wanting to win is what distinguishes us as Rafflesians, and we shouldn’t apologise for that. However, sometimes this can be misunderstood, because we don’t always explain why we have such a mindset, and no one can win all the time! So when we lose, sometimes we don’t necessarily react in a proper manner and that is where the training of resilience comes in—to lose gracefully and avoid unnecessary misunderstandings. That is something we need to work towards.

It can be sometimes said that some RI students have become narrow-minded in the pursuit of excellence. What can we do to change this?

It would be silly to say that one or two simple assembly talks can change this. We have to address this through non-curricular means—a broad range that could include participation in activities like science research, Mathematics competitions, Raffles Players or uniform groups, just to name a few examples. They all contain elements of competition, whether as an individual or in a group, and there inevitably will be moments where we fail. These are the best opportunities to build up our resilience, and we can be taught to better cope with failure.

Another good way would be to work through the student leaders, like the CCA leaders, prefects and councillors. I’ve recently spoken to all the student leaders of the different CCAs to ask me, each, a question. I’ve already received over a hundred of questions and grouped them into various categories, and I would like to answer all these questions directly, so that I know what the students are concerned about.

I believe this is another very effective avenue that I can use to help change this mindset. It is not enough to just talk about it—the teachable moment will come afterwards, in a competition, when we fail or succeed. For me to individually reach out to the thousands of students in RI would hardly be feasible—I think that student leaders would be a more effective outlet. I understand that Mrs Lim used to have meetings with the student leaders, and I think such platforms would be a good platform for me to start.

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Beyond Raffles, what do you think is the biggest challenge currently facing the Singapore education system?

That would be the obsession with grades. The Singapore government and the Ministry of Education have gone out to engage stakeholders, especially the parents, to persuade them and let them realise that grades are not everything—but people’s mindsets haven’t quite changed yet. People are still as kiasu—in terms of kindergarten education, in terms of PSLE scores, A-Level grades; they are still very exam-oriented. The Integrated Programme (IP) was started a decade ago to send the message that we don’t need so many exams, that many students don’t need the O-Levels, and we have proven ourselves. IP students from all the schools have been accepted by top universities, both local and overseas.

But again, I think people are still very conscious of grades, even though the working industry has told us, through the media and through their engagement of school principals and MOE officials, that at the end of the day, those academic grades translate into one simple key to open the door to a career or a job. Beyond that, it is up to their performance.

How does one perform well? It is through the values learnt while engaging in non-academic pursuits, and a willingness to re-learn and un-learn while on the job. This simple message has been around for a decade or more, but I think people still don’t seem to buy it. Even when I speak to some students here, or back in VJC, they still think, ‘Mr Chan, it’s still the A-Level scores that matter the most.’ So if they get a ‘B’ instead of an ‘A’, they get depressed.

True, I understand they get depressed because they feel, due to the great demand for and the limited availability of places in the top universities or industries that they’re aiming for, that they are going to lose out. But I feel that if one is resilient and can look beyond the grades, it will end up better for everyone involved. We have to come up with a way to make sure people understand that an education is so much more than just grades.

The other challenge, though, would be in implementing alternative forms of assessment outside of standard examinations. The difficulties are, firstly, that the general public is unfamiliar with the validity and rigour of such assessments (like Project Work, for example). Next, employing alternative assessments can result in a situation where people who are better off financially and who can afford earlier exposure, may be better prepared to take these alternative tests. How are you going to ensure a level playing field for people from ordinary or less-privileged families? They will feel more deprived. That is the challenge—we see the value of having alternative assessments, but we are quite concerned about whether it will have other unintended consequences.

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