by Liew Ai Xin (16A01A) and Qiu Kexin (16A13A)
Meeting Mr Reeves
It was a warm afternoon when Raffles Press ducked into the cool, plush interior of Coffee Bean, ready to interview Mr Jamie Reeves. It felt slightly surreal, as we had only seen him a few months ago before his retirement. But as he pushed open the doors to the café, we were once again confronted by the reality of his rather intimidating height and clear, forceful gaze; one that has rested across countless generations of students in the classroom and lecture theatre.
Clearly, retirement had not diluted the strength of that look, and he was very much the same: humble, direct and armed with his well-polished dry humour. These qualities served him well during his twenty-five years as a teacher in Raffles Institution, as he established a Programme that continues to attract passionate students of the arts. His influence was significant enough that, when he ended his tenure last year, he left behind not only students and fellow colleagues sad at his departure, but also a multitude of impactful changes. These include directing and shaping the Y5-6 Humanities Programme (HP) to include initiatives such as cultural visits, Combined Civics and annual marathon runs, as well as being well-known for being one of the institution’s best Economics tutors. Much of the thriving collegiate system that students of HP now enjoy can be credited to Mr Reeves, as well as — he hastens to add — ‘the terrific support from the [other] teachers in
However, who is the person behind the teacher, mentor and leader? What inspired him to enter the teaching profession? These were some questions that Raffles Press wanted answers to, and thus the aforesaid set-up: a teacher, four interviewers and three cups of coffee, to helps us through a chat about his life and career thus far.
The first thing one should know about Mr Reeves is that he has an incredibly varied list of interests. His first passion was football; he played semi-professionally, was a regular football commentator for ESPN matches, and was once ‘very close’ to playing professional football in Dubai. Besides that, he’s also played tennis, cricket and rugby — and is, in every sense of the word, ‘a real sportsman’, he says with a self-deprecating smile. Why then, did he tie up his boots and become a teacher?
It turns out that he did so quite by accident. As he recounts, ‘My masters’ dissertation was taking a bit longer than expected, and I was halfway inclined to do a PhD in economics, but when the dissertation was finished, I realised my heart wasn’t in the PhD.’ He then elected to apply for a teaching job, and discovered that he ‘rather liked it, so I never left’. It wasn’t because of the stellar salary either, as he’s never been particularly motivated by dollar signs. ‘You need enough,’ he says simply. ‘But it’s not been a key factor in my life.’ This simple approach to the material side of living was accompanied by a desire to explore the larger world — although the opportunity to do so fell in, once again, by accident. A colleague had shown him an advertisement for a job abroad at a time when, as it turned out, he had already been talking with his wife about moving overseas — and with an interesting description of ‘working with bright kids’, he felt that it was too good a chance to pass up on.
‘But the place itself?’ we ask eagerly. ‘Why Singapore?’ ‘Singapore – I didn’t know anything about apart from Lee Kuan Yew,’ he quipped. ‘I also knew you had road pricing policies even in those days, because it used to appear in economics papers!’
Thus it was on Christmas of 1989, the turn of a new decade, when he found himself making his way to Raffles Junior College.
Entering the College
We pause here to take a sip of coffee, and Mr Reeves clears his throat.
‘Actually,’ he says. ‘I do have a funny story about CCA, which you may or may not want to use.’
When Mr Reeves arrived, Mr Lee Fong Seng, the Principal then, who noticed him and took him in to talk about school duties. ‘Everybody has to do CCA,’ Mr Reeves recalled Mr Lim saying, to which he replied, ‘I’m fine with that.’ He continued, ‘On my application form, I put that I’ve played semi-professional football for thirteen years. I’ve been a track athlete I’ve played tennis, I’ve played cricket, I’ve played rugby, so I’m a real sportsman.’ Even 25 years on, Mr Reeves looked ready to start running around the track to prove his point, but evidently Mr Lee got it, and said, ‘Right, I’ll see what we’ve put you down for.’
‘He looked down the list and said,’ Mr. Reeves paused. ‘You’re on Library.’
‘That’s the God’s-honest truth!’ He exclaimed as we burst into surprised laughter. ‘He said, “You’re on Library.” I said, “Do you think we could — maybe — change that?” He did, that’s why I went to Track & Field.’
But besides being a CCA, sports also served as a way for Mr Reeves to connect with the local community. ‘The most surprising thing [about coming to Singapore] was how easy it was,’ he mused. ‘In the UK, if you move to a new area, it takes you ages to get to know people, because they’re all already established and living there for years.’ But here, he said, ‘I played a lot of sports, I played a lot of tennis, I played a lot of football with different teams. If people like you, they’ll invite you again. If they didn’t, they won’t. The job was such a pleasure too.’
At this, he grinned and we knew another tale was coming. ‘Again, I’ll tell you a story.’ he said. ‘Apparently, before I came, they had another economist for a while, and he was very prickly — awkward with everybody and uncooperative — so when I came along, they were a bit worried I might be the same. When they said (he assumed a timid voice), “Do you mind lecturing?” I said, “Yeah, that’s fine!” “REALLY? … Well that’s great, thank you!”’ he recalled laughing. ‘Nobody liked to ask me to do too much at the beginning, and I seemed to have such a light timetable compared with what I had in the UK. It was great! Couldn’t believe it.’
Evidently the light timetable didn’t remain for long, as Mr Reeves eventually rose to the position of Senior Tutor, before becoming the Director of the Humanities Programme in 2008. It also didn’t take him long before he began to pour his boundless energy into executing and overseeing several ambitious projects. Those ranged from setting up a weekly talk session coordinated with external speakers (which later evolved to be called Combined Civics) to establishing an annual school exchange programme with the acclaimed Sciences Po Institute in France. That was, as he reminisces, ‘the scariest thing I ever attempted’, as there had been no template and no existing rules to follow. Everything from the itinerary to accommodation and transport had to be crafted from scratch, and the result was a brilliant week’s programme created with his partner in the Institute, Regine Serra.
Even with all that he has accomplished, Mr Reeves still felt that time was the main challenge he faced. ‘There were so many other things I would love to have done, if we could’ve found times where I could get people out to do things.’ He steepled his hands. ‘I mean, why didn’t we go to SAM? I never took you lot to Singapore Art Museum, did I? The reason was that I could never find the time.’ But he was also quick to clarify that it was never due to a lack of support from other teachers. ‘You can’t do it on your own.’ he nods. ‘There were things I didn’t do, and they did those. Mr Rollason and Mrs Perry handled the end-of-year trip [to Sri Lanka]. All I did was turn up with my passport and enjoy it. Ms Lye took responsibility for The Humanz Initiative. All I did was turn up at Chinese New Year, smile at people and pretend that I knew what was going on! Mrs Perry would take care of Lit Week and Shakespeare in the Park, so there was support from the team. I couldn’t have done it on my own, but with their support, it was doable. It was doable.’
‘Mr Purvis, too.’ he adds, referring to the English Literature tutor who had left the school in 2013, and who was well-known for his jovial quirks. ‘Whatever we did, wherever we went, there he was, supporting me: in Paris — where he was good emotional support — at Mount Ophir, in the Hodge Lodge, at the ballet… Always my right hand man.’
‘Time was the issue,’ he concludes. ‘Time was the big thing.’
Regardless of it all, what really motivated him was not just ambition, but rather a deep-seated love for the classroom and his students. ‘I like to think that the students in our Humanities Programme look forward to coming to school everyday,’ he said seriously. ‘I didn’t always feel like that when I was at school, and I don’t think it mattered to the teachers very much. I like to think that it’s been an enjoyable, interesting, challenging and enriching time, and that people have enjoyed doing it. I think that’s enough.’
He hastens to add. ‘Obviously, you’ve got to take away the results, you’ve got to get to the universities. I think that’s important, but — Singaporeans are really serious about life, aren’t they?’ He smiled wryly. ‘They don’t seem to be very good with having fun. I think fun’s quite important. I mean, I look forward to every day! I look forward to seeing you as much as I hope you lot look forward to seeing… me! And that all comes together, doesn’t it? If we’re all enjoying it, we must be doing something right!’
This evident enjoyment of teaching rubs off very well on his students, and after twenty-five years at the helm, he can count several prominent figures amongst his protéges: Lai Chung Han, the current Chief of the Navy; Jason Moo, the current Head of Private Banking for Goldman Sachs; as well as an esteemable platoon of lawyers, academics and social entrepreneurs strewn across the globe. But all these connections have not made him a swaggering socialite; rather, he demurs when asked about his ‘philosophy for education’. ‘Don’t call it a philosophy.’ he said, in his typically blunt way. ‘It’s much more prosaic than that.’ When we switched to calling it a legacy, he exclaimed, ‘Don’t call it a legacy either, it’s too grandiose! There is no legacy. I’m just a guy who did a job.’
Words from the Wise
But legacy and philosophy aside, after twenty five years at ‘the job’, as he calls it, there must be something that he had learned that was worth parting to us. When we posed the question as to how students could find the middle ground between pragmatism and passion, he took a few seconds to think about his answer.
‘I think the trick is to work smart.’ he finally said. ‘That means that when you work, you work. When you play, you play. You can get a tremendous amount of work done in a very short space of time, very effectively. But you need to be very focused. It’s not the amount of hours you spend, it’s the quality of hours.’
On a note more relevant to A Levels, he added: ‘Play in the first year, work hard in the second. From June onwards, it’s a long stretch. You can get a tremendous amount done between June and the end of the year. If you work smart at it, then you can do it — I think.’
As for a bigger picture, though, living in Singapore has also taught him that there are many different ways to do things. ‘We tend to grow up with one way and assuming that is the way,’ he said, spreading his hands for emphasis. ‘It’s very important to recognise that there are different ways of doing things, and other people are entitled to their opinion and their way of going about things.’
When pressed for an example, he elaborated, ‘On a very trivial level: Parking your car. Now, in a car park, you can always tell who the angmohs are, because they always park front-end in — whereas the locals all reverse-park in. I mean, I go to Tanglin Club and I can see — oh, angmoh, angmoh, angmoh… I’m going to go in forward. Am I right? Are they right? Well, it’s just different ways of doing it. Nobody’s right or wrong, it’s just what you do!’
The Parting Shot
As the afternoon went on and the coffee cups began to show signs of the dregs, the interview started to draw to a close. Our final question ended on the topic of the Humanities Programme — or, more specifically, what he felt it would become in the future.
When asked, Mr Reeves had a firm answer. ‘When my children were young, I tried not to burden them with expectations in order to allow them to become who they wanted to become.’ he nodded decisively. ‘I feel exactly the same about HP; that it became what it became because I was given a free hand and chose where I wanted to take it. We went running because Mr Rollason and I like running. We volunteered to go to the Outward Bound Camp because we liked doing that sort of stuff. It’s a reflection of who we were. What it will become will be a reflection of the people who are running it then. That’s fine, and that is as it should be. I don’t burden them with any expectations, and if they scrap everything I did then, that’s fine with me.’
He adds, ‘Now that I’ve gone, Ms Lye’s taken over and I hope that — and I know — she’ll take it where she thinks it’s appropriate to take it.’
With that, our interview ended, and we took a deep breath as if waking up from a dream; a dream that had been filled with exciting stories, drops of wisdom and valuable takeaways.
‘Cheerio,’ Mr Reeves said with a short wave, and walked out of the café.
In 2016, Mr Reeves was succeeded as the Director of the Humanities Programme by Ms Lye Su-Lin, one of RI’s English Literature tutors, who has also been serving as a key staff member in the Humanities Programme since 2010.
Ms Lye is no stranger to the Humanities Programme. Indeed, not only is she a former Humanities student herself (from 98A01A), she was also Mr Reeves’s student, later becoming his colleague after she became an English Literature teacher for HP. This put her in the enviable position of being able to bear witness to the changes in HP before and after Mr Reeves took over the reins, thus Raffles Press took the opportunity to ask her to share her unique experiences.
As Ms Lye puts it, ‘One of [Mr Reeves’] greatest contributions to HP was his vision for what enrichment means for the Humanities.’ While the Science stream has relatively more established avenues for enrichment, such as opportunities to participate in Olympiads, competitions, and to carry out research attachments with universities, Mr Reeves came up with his own model for the HP. His vision was to create a model aimed at inculcating a willingness to explore the Arts and Humanities within students — but outside of their normal academic sphere. ‘Mr. Reeves wanted our students to be more aware of what it meant to love the humanities — not just to write brilliant essays for exams, but to take advantage of the rich cultural opportunities available to us in Singapore,’ Ms Lye comments.
Changes aside, however, some positive aspects remain much the same. To Ms Lye, what she had most enjoyed as a Humanities student all those years ago had been the ‘intellectual environment’, which thankfully still resembles the Humanities Programme of the present day. This curiosity owes its driving source not only to passionate students, but also to dedicated teachers — something which Ms Lye had benefitted from when she was a student. As Ms Lye recalls, ‘The teachers are all genuinely passionate about their disciplines. If there is one defining trait for all the Humanities tutors — and that is also true now — [it] is that we each love our subject and think it is important.’ She pauses, and grins. ‘Sometimes we think it’s the only one that’s important, and stay too long in the lesson! I am not referring to Mr Rollason at all.’
‘But I think it really makes a difference to the students, too — to know that the ideas we discuss are important to us, not just for the exam’ She added.
The Humanities Programme, however, has hardly reached its zenith; there are still many tweaks it will undergo in the future to better fulfil its goal of providing enriched education for Arts students. Despite having been in her new position for only a few months, Ms Lye already has many new ideas for her intended direction for leading the Humanities Programme. Among them is a desire to capitalise more on the ‘local cultural flavour’, as well as deepening common avenues for HP’s culture of inquisitiveness, such as inviting Combined Civics speakers who bring along topics that will spark more debate and discussion.
Arguably, each generation of HP in RI has often taken after the attitudes of its presiding Director. For instance, Mr Reeves played a major role in determining the type and regularity of cultural events for students, using a system he called the ‘Seven Pillars of Culture’, i.e. an Art Exhibition, Shakespeare, Modern Play, Orchestra, Ballet, Modern Dance and Opera. Ms Lye seems happy to continue with this principle, albeit with a keener eye towards local productions. With this new change in leadership, the future holds unlimited possibilities for how HP could grow to better accommodate the needs of its students.
Perhaps Ms Lye says it herself best: ‘There are many brilliant teachers, and brilliant students [in HP]. I hope [to see] not only what the teachers will be doing, but also what the students will be doing and what they will bring: a sense of vibrancy and new ideas.’