By Muhammad Khairillah (4B) and Muhammad Hameem (4C)
The practice of seniors helping juniors has had a long and established history in Raffles. In the days before RJC, the Pre-University students (the equivalent of our Y5–6) took on the mantle of leadership and were the de facto big brothers and sisters to which all others looked up to for advice. After RI and RJC separated, the Year 4 Peer Support Leaders (PSLs) took over this guiding role, but how relevant is the PSL system today, given that RI and RJC have now re-integrated into a six-year school, and that we now once again have Year 6 students on our campus?
From the Top
Following the RI-RJC split in 1982, the role of seniors naturally fell to the Sec 4s. Mr Eng Han Seng (Dean, CCA & Physical Education) recalls, ‘When I joined the school in 1986 as a Sec 1 student, there was already an existing system that was similar to the PSLs. We had prefects who were divided into pairs, and each pair was put in charge of a class. They were the big brothers for the class and would spend about a term checking on the class and making sure the young Rafflesians were fitting in alright.’
The Peer Support Programme was officially launched in 1991, in which 30 Sec 3 boys were selected to become ‘Peer Supporters’, as they were known then, and they underwent training to become guides for the incoming batch of Sec 1s in 1992. Similar to today’s PSLs, they were in charge of organising the Orientation programme for the Sec 1s, and they were also attached to Sec 1 classes in order to acquaint their juniors with life in Raffles.
The PSL of today shares largely the same responsibilities, but the PSL selection process is arguably more stringent. ‘In the past, PSLs were only made up of prefects and CCA leaders,’ says Mr Eng. ‘There wasn’t as much preparation and training as compared to now—I remember PSL training used to be part of the CCAL camp.’
Now, any aspiring Year 3 is eligible to become a PSL—provided that he first completes a two-month probation, during which he has to consistently maintain the mind-set and standards befitting a Rafflesian leader. Given that the PSLs have to bear the responsibilities of planning the Year 1 Orientation Camp and being exemplary role models for their juniors, the highest of standards are expected of them. The failure to attain these standards may result in pun- ishment, or in worst cases, termination of one’s status as PSL. A PSL is expected to uphold good conduct in all situations: a bad word from a subject teacher to a PSL teacher may be enough for his position to be reconsidered.
From the Bottom
Like any other student leadership body, the PSL board plays a necessary role in the school macrostructure. What distinguishes the PSL board however is the direct and tangible impact it has on the lives of every Year 1–4 student; no Rafflesian on this side of campus can say that his journey did not start with a PSL. With every Rafflesian having had interacted with a PSL at one point or another, if not being one himself, there are naturally a wide range of views offered on the PSL.
On the Year 1 side at least, it is natural that as per the PSL’s unofficial but firmly established role as ‘big brother’, the Year 1 looks up to the PSL with a sense of awe and admiration, perhaps even to the point of reverence. For the Rafflesian, no matter how old and experienced, his PSL is even more so, since it was he who initiated the Rafflesian’s journey. As Martin Ong (1L) says, ‘The PSLs have been wonderful to have. Speaking as a Year 1, I think that they have been the light in the moment of darkness, especially when we first entered this mysterious place known as Raffles. They’ve been with us the whole way through and helped us with the transitions we all dreaded. So even though they are leaving us now, I know that I can say that they will always have a special place in our hearts.’ Even seemingly mundane matters like time management can be areas in which the Year 1s look up to in their PSLs, as Martin’s fellow classmate, Eric, admires his PSLs who have so much work and yet can still balance PSL commitments.
And indeed the mark of a PSL does linger well beyond Orientation Camp: when we (the writers) were in Year 1, our class acquired a soft toy and named it after our own PSL, much to his amusement and consternation. At times, Year 1s would also complain to their PSLs that they ‘miss them’ and urge them to come over to their classrooms more often.
Like every other body of individuals, the PSL body has its respective supporters and sceptics of the established goals, objectives, vision and values held by it.
Its supporters have largely agreed that the PSL experience has benefited them in getting to know their Year 1 juniors and in being able to feel proud of passing the baton of their legacy on to the next generation. Some have said that this is part of the natural process of giving back to the school as they were also inspired in the same way by their PSLs when they were Year 1s. In general, they also concurred on the importance and significance of the PSL body in the school’s leadership framework, alongside other student leaders like CCA leaders and house captains as well as the Prefectorial Board (RIPB) since they have the important task and honour of initiating the Year 1s into the school tradition.
The PSL Steering Committee Chairman and Vice-Chairman Jarret Ng (4Q) and Sheikh Izzat (4C) feel that the importance of the PSL board is evident from its role ‘as a leadership body of 162 Year 4s serving one purpose—to guide, inspire and nurture the Year 1s, and thus inducting them into the Rafflesian way of life.’
Furthermore, they are confident that the PSL experience has definitely been worth it despite the ‘test of fire’ they had to endure to become one: ‘Although at times it is extremely difficult and tiring to keep up standards and to be role models of character, at the same time we know that our own PSLs also went through the same challenge of constantly reminding themselves to keep up a good image. After all, if PSLs don’t uphold school standards and expectations, why should the Year 1s?’
Some cynics have argued that there is an overemphasis on upholding high standards among the PSLs, and that the school may be too strict in actively enforcing these standards. Some feel that these high standards are merely superficial simply because the emphasis is on image: what is shown on the outside seems to trump the individual personality of the PSL. For instance, Tzen Wei Tseng (4H), a member of the Orientation Camp Committee and also a PSL of Class 1J, echoes this sentiment: ‘Sometimes I feel that we have to mask who we really are in order to uphold a good image of what a PSL should be. I think being a PSL should also be about being yourself and showing your personality, because the most important part of any interaction or friendship is to get to know more about the other person and his personality.’
There is also the question of whether PSLs actually internalise the values they espouse. Do they continue to maintain these high standards, or do they get progressively lower as the school year trickles by? Jason Jia (4P), who is PSL to class 1C, says, ‘When we talk about setting standards, even though we may be unable to meet them at the current point in time, this gives us the perfect opportunity to set a goal for ourselves to do so. Even if we cannot meet them all the time, being role models for the Year 1s gives us the motivation to stay true to our goal.’
However, Mr Low June Meng (Head, Character & Leadership Development & Boarding) maintains that upholding high standards and staying true to oneself need not be mutually exclusive. ‘Standards define tradition, and for what the Rafflesian tradition is worth, in all its 191-year-old history, we cannot waver in this endeavour of upholding standards. This is why our PSL selection criteria are always set with exacting benchmarks. When choosing a candidate, we seek feedback from all staff who have interacted with our potential PSL, be it form teachers, Research Education mentors, or CCA teachers, so that we can form a genuine picture of his everyday life—how he speaks, behaves or responds to certain situations. If he is truly one who holds himself to high personal and school standards, there is little need for him to put on a mask in order to be a PSL.’
While there may be some criticisms of the PSL system, most PSLs would agree that the fruits of their labour—seeing the Year 1s grow and develop in their Rafflesian journey and realising that their efforts have made an impact on the lives of their juniors—are well worth the sacrifice. Mr Low adds that being a PSL often benefits the PSL himself too. ‘It’s a journey of self-discovery,’ he says. ‘Through the carrying out of their duties, PSLs often find in themselves hidden talents such as in the areas of communication, organising, and being positive influences on other peoples’ lives, and these discoveries will stick with them far beyond their schooling lives.
Looking to the Future
Five years into reintegration, students on both sides of the school are still largely separate, although some CCAs have taken the laudable step of working together or even having joint trainings (see our Cross Country article). Therefore, it seems unlikely in the near future that the Year 5–6 students will take over the role that the PSLs have been playing for the past 23 years.
The PSL system has definitely done its duty in helping generations of fledgling Rafflesians find their wings in RI, and it likely will continue to do so for many generations to come. But who is to say what the future holds? Will the Year 6 students become our PSLs instead? Will they still be called PSLs? Only time will tell.