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Monday, December 6, 2021

Inside the ‘Oxbridge factory’ Singapore school… that only costs £160 a month

Every pupil is put in one of five houses named after a former headmaster, each with themed T-shirts and chants, and a colourful mascot. In their free time, they are encouraged to play badminton, water polo, rugby and “floorball”, a version of indoor hockey. Non-sporty children can try their hand at chess, guitar, military band or orchestra. Mentorship is stressed and pupils are offered opportunities to display their work at local trade fairs. Pastoral care is excellent, there is limited bullying, and the food is delicious, with halal and vegetarian options.

Little wonder, then, that the school’s motto is Auspicium Melioris Aevi, or Hope of a Better Age.

“It’s been the top school for as long as I can remember” says alumnus Linda*, “most politicians went to RI”.

But Singaporean education is no walk in the playground. “It’s tough,” as Linda puts it.

GCSEs have been eschewed in favour of a straight six-year programme without testing. This is no exam factory. But 16-year-old angst has been replaced by pre-teen anxiety as the school’s pupils are selected based on the results of their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), which all Singaporean children take upon leaving junior education aged 12. “The best will be creamed off to go to RI or the ACS and all Singaporeans know that this will determine their future. It’s a very linear route,” says Linda.

“It’s so stressful. Some parents even take unpaid leave for the last month [before the exam] to support their children,” she adds. “This year, parents wrote into the government, complaining. It was in the papers. Kids were coming out of their exams crying and vomiting. It was all over one maths question. It’s hushed up but every now and again there’s a suicide.”

‘Afraid to lose’

Those children who do get into RI are almost guaranteed a fast track to success. It’s enough to excite the parent of any child going there and dishearten those whose children don’t make the grade. RI pupils are being taught the skills required of the leaders of tomorrow from the off. Citizenship, politics, community, environment and sustainability and service are stressed but children are also taught independence, self-sufficiency and awareness; they are sent on foreign trips and encouraged to do charity work.

Discipline is important but no more so than in normal Singapore life. “You can’t buy chewing gum except over a pharmacy counter. Jaywalking is illegal. Taking drugs carries a death penalty, which is enforced,” says expat mum Lulu, while acknowledging that things are changing as a younger, savvier ‘iPhone’ generation is beginning to challenge the status quo.  

“As someone raised in a modern Asian household, I would say that many traditions are no longer present but traditional mindsets are,” says a recent RI student. “Many parents rule with an iron rod and drill their children to strive for excellence academically and in their future careers, with fewer encouraging children to pursue their dreams,” he says.

“There is this phrase ‘kiasu’, which means ‘afraid to lose’. Singaporean parents are often described as ‘kiasu’ – pushing their children in every way with enrichment classes, to study harder and doing anything they can to give their child a leg up.”

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