By Bryan Chua (14A01A) and Law May Ning (14S03O)
27 July 2013 marked the day we celebrated our 190th year of excellence as a school. The programme for Founders’ Day 2013 featured the Teacher Time Machine, an event where former teachers and students returned to reminisce about the ‘good ol’ days’ in campuses past—from Bras Basah to Mount Sinai, all the way up to our present day campus in Bishan. Beyond the splendour and cheer though, the occasion certainly seemed apt to pause for reflection: just how far have we come in 190 years?
The Old RI Lives On
The theme of change was certainly something that Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who was presented with the Gryphon Award at the Homecoming Dinner, addressed in his speech. Looking back on his days as a Rafflesian, he fondly recounted memories of RI, from the nostalgia he had with memories in the Bras Basah campus to even the picture of it on the back of our $2 bills.
Yet, for many alumni, perhaps the greatest legacy of the RI family is simply being known as a Rafflesian. The RI that ESM Goh remembered included students of all races, socio-economic backgrounds and histories, all completely different, but with precisely this thread to hold them together: the name, the pride of the name, and the sense of belonging that came with being part of Raffles. They were grateful, as ESM Goh put it, of the fact that they had qualified for RI on the basis of merit.
But what exactly is it that they were proud of? And are we proud of the same things?
Memories from a Time Past
At the Teacher Time Machine event, we asked Rafflesian teachers both past and present to share their fondest and most vivid memories of their time in RI. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not one of their favourite moments included accolades or awards or ‘A’ grades, but rather much more light-hearted and even almost dangerous occurrences. Here we list some of the anecdotes which we found most fascinating:
1. Promethean Flames
For some reason beyond mortal comprehension, the RI of times past certainly never did seem to have a dull moment—and many of these ‘eventful’ memories seem to involve fires. Two of these fires started with a group of rugby boys sneaking off to smoke some cigarettes near the art room. As luck would have it, the cigarettes ended up lighting some oil paintings the art club had left lying around. ‘Oh, the art club! There were so many fires and it always seemed as though it was their fault!’ remarked Mr Patrick Pestana, as he shared the stories with us.
The remark seemed pretty apt considering the second fire seemed to involve the same creative (but absent-minded) artists—this time, they left the gas for batik painting switched on in the art room, spelling disaster with all the oil paintings nearby. Fortunately, the billowing flames were no match for science—a brave Chemistry teacher allegedly applied his expertise and managed to cut off the flame’s oxygen supply during the heart-racing wait for the fire team to show up.
2.There’s a Bomb in RI
In an age where students still had ‘gardening exercises’, a group of students digging holes to grow new trees on the Grange Road campus found their shovels hitting something mysteriously metallic-sounding in the ground. It turned out to be a remnant of World War II which was then in the not too distant past—there was a bomb buried in the ground!
‘It was chaos,’ remarked Mr Pestana, the then-discipline master. ‘We evacuated all the students to the field.’ Amidst the flurry of activity, the civil defence came to the rescue, extracting the bomb and bringing it to a nearby clear zone where they detonated the bomb. The smoke attracted the attention of the press and Raffles was yet again in the papers.
3. An Interesting Morning Assembly
The students of the past were definitely more mischievous then, playing pranks at a level rarely seen today. One day, some boys were tasked to fix a flag line that had gotten tangled up in a tree. They ended up creating a contraption so complex that the unwitting boy in charge of raising the flag the next morning would have ended up pulling the string to release a clothesline of ladies’ underwear instead. The horrified expressions on the teachers’ faces might have made the probable punishment that followed worth it, but it was not to be—the trick was discovered and the students were made to take down the unmentionables.
4. The Rafflesian Spirit Lives On
Mr Tan Kim Yong (RI, 1948) shared how it was something of a tradition for students to hold annual dinners with their teachers, and even today a few of them regularly meet for lunch. As he proudly declared, the Raffles connections one builds certainly lives on beyond the two short years we have in the school. It certainly is a heart-warming story about ties that bind, even 65 years later.
ESM Goh in his speech addressed concerns about how the almost perceptible change in student demographic, with students being considerably wealthier and more privileged, could spell worry for a culture of elitism to ruin the Raffles breed.
In today’s Raffles, even beyond the profile of the average Rafflesian, there is something inexpressibly different about the school we go to. Perhaps it is a product of our culture of achievement and the nation-wide trend of exam fever; perhaps it is even the fact that facilities are less accident-prone and haven’t caught fire in a while! It is difficult to place, but somehow with globalisation and the upgrading of the school campus, school system and even curriculum, the carefree, jovial and, for lack of a better word, simple environment seems gone. There were no complex systems for tabulating results, CCA points or even grading ‘leadership’ then. It was simplistic, but it was also fun. In a way, it was almost as if they had a type of carefree childhood in their teenage years, something many of us never had.
Memories like the ones shared with us seemed separated from us by a lifetime—ask any Rafflesian in school today about the most exciting thing that ever happened to them, and most would be hard-pressed to find an answer outside of their prescribed curriculum, be it in co-curricular activities or lessons. The whole phenomenon was really summed up for us as we interviewed Ms Lim Puay Miao, a Literature teacher who has been teaching for the last 15 years. In contrast with Mr Pestana, who was just bursting to share his plethora of stories, she remarked ‘nothing much happened’ to the agreement of many other of the ‘new-era’ teachers around her.
In striving towards excellence, have we crossed the line into that utopia, that computed, bubbled environment so perfect that nothing much is ever going to happen to us?
Why Have Things Changed?
That’s not to say, of course, that we should start setting fire to the art club’s room or start rigging flagpoles to reveal lines of lingerie; but one can’t help but wonder if, as the school has changed, there’s a deeper reason behind why these stories are gradually becoming few and far between. Have we lost something?
Our stories and experiences shape our school lives, and they also define what we will remember about our time in the school once we leave. Twenty years from now, will we remember that one time we tried to play our favourite school prank or the content of the Chemistry lecture notes we so laboriously committed to memory?
Perhaps, as the years have gone by, we have become more conservative—less willing to push the boundaries with fun, ‘harmless’ pranks that are now dealt with severely in the form of white slips and so on. Have we forgotten how to have a little fun? Perhaps the infiltration of books and notes has successfully orchestrated a coup on the (supposed) fun of years past.
Some attribute this to the rise of the academic culture that has not only crept its way into Raffles, but also Singaporean society as a whole. Ms Lim describes it as students now ‘(understanding) the value of an “A”’—not to say that ‘A’s weren’t important in the past—but as degrees become an entry-level requirement in a growing percentage of jobs and university applications become more tightly contested, it could be that we need more ‘A’s to gain an extra advantage.
Alternatively, Mr Joseph Wong, Year 1–4 Discipline Master, suggests that the different culture of today could have started with academic streaming, in addition to lists such as the Straits Times Annual School Rankings that began in 1992. This perhaps caused a shift in focus towards academic excellence, a key criterion in the ranking. Other forms were perhaps the featuring of top students that only recently has been removed from mainstream media— the prestige that came with having four out of five top ‘A’ level scorers hailing from Raffles causing greater pressure, if not from the school then the students themselves, to pursue excellent results, leading to the rise of the ‘paper chase’.
Amidst all this, one can’t help but notice that discipline in recent years has begun to take on a much greater significance in the school. The adage that ‘rules were made to be broken’ perhaps adds fuel to the fire—while rules are needed to maintain boundaries, the constant updating, revising and adding of the school rules create more lines that students, being young and perhaps rebellious, struggle to stay within.
Pranks and practical jokes are mostly played in the name of fun and usually lack malicious intent, yet with the rise of a strict discipline-oriented culture, it seems that we might be losing our ability to take a joke. Moreover, this fear of permanently damning consequences (in the form of white slips) for the sake of playing a harmless prank perhaps turns many students away from even attempting to add some ‘colour’ to their school lives.
Building Strong Memories
In talking to our alumni we discovered that they shared one thing in common—a powerful sense of community and common spirit that united the entire school and remained strong in their hearts even in the many decades since they left RI. This feeling, unfortunately, seems somewhat watered-down in our more recent cohorts.
When we invite old boys and girls back to give speeches at Prize Giving Ceremonies, Investitures and Founder’s Days, we hear a lot about what they remember of Raffles back then, and how much they treasured their time in the school.
We need to regain this sense of community; we need to build a family of Rafflesians, both past and present, that ties us all together.
Twenty years from now, the Raffles we see now will be vastly different. ESM Goh reflected on how the school had evolved since his graduation: ‘Much has changed since I left RI more than fifty years ago. for example, there is now a school anthem, which, sadly, was introduced only after my time. The school itself has twice relocated, regretfully, to many of us.’
When all the buildings in the Bishan campus we currently reside in have long been demolished, when perhaps Raffles has moved to another campus, all that will be left is our memories—not of the structures, but of the people: our teachers, our friends and our Rafflesian community. The Teacher Time Machine at Founders’ Day was a time for former staff and students not to reminisce about the interior design of the old classrooms at Bras Basah and Grange Road, but about the time spent within those classrooms, trying to pull pranks on the teachers or on each other.
We hold onto the memories of the Rafflesian community. However, if all we have left to remember is our books and our letter grades, then do we really have anything memorable at all?
When Stamford Raffles held the torch
That cast Promethean flame,
We faced the challenge of the day
To give our school a name.
In the end, we all speak of giving our school a name— but the question then is, what name do we want for Raffles?
Do we want a school only known for its on-paper achievements, or a school known for its spirit of togetherness and community?