We’ve all read about the typical stellar Raffles student who gets into Harvard or Oxford just like how his entire bloodline did. And we all know of numerous politicians, poets, and athletes who graduated from the school.
Basically, most, if not all stories you hear about Rafflesians are that of success. Even the infamous porn star and ex-Rafflesian Annabel Chong was a high-flyer in her own right, having studied law at King’s College London before entering the world of adult videos. After which she starred in…a record-breaking film. *ahem*
But no one hears of the Raffles kid who suffers an early burnout, the former “Gifted” child that ends up performing worse than a “Normal” student at tertiary level. Perhaps it’s hard to believe we even exist – after all, we’re supposed to be the “cream of the crop”.
Here’s my story as a Raffles “failure”, and how doing badly for A Levels turned out to be one of the best things that’s happened to me.
Spoiler: I did not get to study overseas, nor did I become a stripper.
Life started out pretty easy for me. I had always been a smart kid, and I knew it – everyone around me spared no praise for how intelligent I was. Perhaps I had already been born with a higher-than-average IQ, but thanks to my then-housewife mum, I got to stretch my potential to its max with fun educational home activities like art and craft and journaling.
These were not forced upon me Tiger Mum style, but rather came about only because I was able to pick things up quickly.
While others were learning simple addition, I’d moved on to the multiplication table, and did P6 vocab assessment books in P3. I joined kiddy piano classes at 4 years old, but eventually quit for private one-on-one lessons because the teacher said my fast progress was being hindered in a group.
Waiting to go on stage during a year-end prize collection ceremony at Northland Primary, where I attained 1st, 2nd, and 15th in standard in P1, P2, and P3 respectively
Scoring 95%-100% for my tests without studying was a norm. First in class, first in standard? No biggie. I never understood why my classmates gasped in horror whenever the teacher said, “X students failed this test”. Not like they will be the ones failing, right? So why are they so worried over other people’s grades? Oh, 7-year-old me was so blissfully clueless because failing was foreign to me.
As fate would have it, I took a series of tests at 9 years old, and somehow landed myself in the Gifted Education Programme (GEP). Apparently, I was part of the top 1% of my cohort in the entire country.
And that was the beginning of my downfall.
To be fair, attending the GEP wasn’t a bad decision in itself, despite my initial reluctance to leave Northland Primary for Rosyth School, which was a whole hour away from my Yishun abode via public transport. The programme was a holistic one, where we got to study Literature, create prototypes for our own inventions, and get hands-on with all sorts of projects that weren’t part of the school syllabus.
Surrounded by others who were far more brilliant and studious than myself, I was no longer one of the top students, except maybe in English. That was okay. I managed my expectations and got used to scoring below 90%. I shelved lofty dreams of getting into an Ivy League school like princetongirl910 in A Cinderella Story. I still got by without too much difficulty, and caught up quickly in where I was lacking after a few scoldings and remedial classes.
TBH, I hadn’t expected my elite education journey to continue past P6. I was more than ready to enroll in Anderson Secondary, a “normal” school with other “normal” people. After spending 3 years among highly intellectual students whose idea of fun was to memorise pi and pore over quantum physics books, I felt I wasn’t cut out to be part of the tribe.
But such are the privileges of GEP students, that we all got a chance to try for Direct School Admission (DSA) into top secondary schools like Raffles Girls’ School, Hwa Chong Institution, and NUS High. Since everyone was trying, I, too, decided to skip the FOMO and sit for the RGS one.
Despite bombing my interview by proudly telling the panel I was aiming for a score of 250 when their cut-off was around 263, I inadvertently became one of the Chosen Ones to join the Integrated Programme (IP) – a 6-year “through train” course that would continue till A Levels. This coveted spot was extended to me even before PSLE results were out, even though my eventual score of 254 was, by right, not enough to make the cut.
The thing is, if you present a 12-year-old the opportunity to skip O Levels entirely and still be guaranteed a spot in the country’s top JC, they’re not likely to decline. Perhaps I should’ve gone with my initial hunches and exited the system right there. But when you’re barely a teen, your decisions don’t often come with much foresight.
If I felt different in Rosyth, I was defo out of place in RGS, and suddenly being in a prim and proper girl’s school after many years with boisterous male classmates was another thing I couldn’t get used to. Luckily, I still found myself a motley crew of fun, down-to-earth gal pals that didn’t entirely fit into the standard RGS mould.
I got through my first 2 years decently enough by my own standards, emerging with a final GPA of 3.0 – a number that would probably have made my high-achiever peers weep.
Then came the window for us to pick our subject combis. Despite being very much a Humanities-geared person, I picked Triple Science + Literature because of “practicality”. Big. Fat. Mistake.
While I aced Literature, I grew to hate Physics, Chemistry, and Math with a vengeance. The work was challenging to begin with, but the real problem lied in me realising that studying chemical compounds and trigo wouldn’t ever be relevant to my life in the future. Not like I wanted to be a doctor or architect anyway.
All I knew was that I had zero passion and little aptitude for what I was doing. The only thing I cared for in school were 1) Socialising, 2) Being the first to grab the new copy of American Seventeen from the library each month, and 3) My CCA.
Suddenly a switch in me flipped and I let myself go.
I started zoning out in class, choosing to write poems, sketch, or sleep instead of taking down notes. I threw paper balls at my Physics teacher because I hated his mumbling. Soon I got bold enough to walk out of Chem lessons, and subsequently the school gates, because I “just couldn’t stand another minute in there”.
Failing was something I became so desensitised to that I actually laughed after seeing a big red “3/50” plastered on my Chem script. I was no longer the cream of the crop. I was that bad seed that germinated a little too early and shrivelled up before my time, while others thrived and bloomed far above.
Perhaps lack of passion was one thing, but one could also say that life had been so easy for me prior that I didn’t know what it truly meant to work hard. I absolutely hated how I had to sacrifice so much of myself for something I didn’t give a hoot about. Why am I here? Who am I even doing this for? were questions that plagued my mind daily.
Eventually, my parents and the school caught on to my dismal performance and thus began an endless series of meetings at the principal’s office and scoldings. If I didn’t buck the heck up, there was grave danger in me getting expelled and/or not making it to JC – which meant that my highest educational qualification would be a mere PSLE cert.
Transferring to a neighbourhood school at that point wouldn’t have been viable. Other than the paiseh-ness of it all, I wouldn’t have been able to grapple with last-minute O Level prep with shaky fundamentals. Switching routes to Poly after sec 4 wouldn’t have been possible either, as my end-of-year results weren’t going to be good enough to snag me a place.
Stuck in this rut, I plodded on – but only out of fear rather than the desire to prove myself. I was simply going through the motions while stifling my arts-related interests because there was no other option. With the help of hawk-eyed teachers who gave me one-on-one remedial, strict parents, and lots of tears, I scraped through with a meagre 2.74 GPA and made it to RJC.
As A Levels approached I found myself deeper in a state of despair, sure that I was going to flunk. I just couldn’t seem to grasp what I needed to. Or perhaps I had already gotten too jaded over the past 4 years that I didn’t have much steam left to complete the journey. The 2 years were quite a blur, but all that’s inconsequential now. Ultimately, what’s most important in this story is the end.
On 1 March 2013 – unfortunately also my 19th birthday – I trudged off to receive my A Level results with a heavy heart. I didn’t fail, but one look and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to make it into NTU’s Mass Comm course (also known as “Wee Kim Wee”) – the only one I really wanted to get in.
For months on end, everyone was yakking on about their Ivy Leagues and prestigious scholarships. Those who didn’t do well enough to get into NUS, NTU, or SMU still had options at lower-tier unis abroad. I had no such luxury; my family’s finances didn’t allow for such opportunities, and we still had my 2 younger siblings’ education to think about.
Fortunately by then, Singapore had no shortage of private unis, and I signed up to do Mass Comm at Kaplan – a default choice as it was the most affordable private media course at around $20k.
“Kaplan, what’s that? Never heard of it leh. But you’ve checked that it’s like, legit, right?” I got questions like these each time I told my friends where I was going for uni. But I had never been one to put my self worth on my studies, and if anything I was thankful that I even had a uni option at all.
Turns out, going to a private uni was a huge blessing in disguise.
I had classes only thrice a week or less, with each one just 1-3 hours long. Assignments required extensive writing and brainstorming, but they were more tedious than tough. I no longer had to push myself to the point of tears, and for the first time in ages, I was studying something that would actually be relevant to what I hoped to make a career of. And with this renewed sense of purpose, I scored mostly distinctions and high distinctions.
Image credit: @caramellechaos
Having a relaxed school schedule allowed me to re-explore my hobbies and I finally had space to be my true self. I read, painted, passed my piano Diploma, and struck up a gym routine. All these were things I never managed to do during the course of my elite education – and I probably wouldn’t have had time for them if I’d gone to a major uni. Finally being free of the shackles of the system was a refreshing positive change in my life and I relished every minute of it.
Most importantly, though, I managed to build an extensive portfolio through freelance writing gigs, thanks to industry connections made during my first editorial internship for a popular homegrown lifestyle/entertainment magazine for teens right after A Levels.
Image credit: @caramellechaos
During that 7-month stint, I met people from all walks of life – I had colleagues who graduated from NTU and NUS, yet there were many others who never went to University. But one thing was common throughout: Everyone was super driven and capable – living proof that one’s educational background doesn’t necessarily determine where they end up later in life.
Singapore has been trying to move away from placing such a heavy emphasis on academics (e.g. abolishment of streaming), but we still have a long way to go. Ingrained elitism still exists, and we’ve seen reports of kids as young as 8 becoming depressed and suicidal over their studies when they should be enjoying their innocent childhoods.
Hopefully, more parents will realise that getting good grades or having a conventional white-collar job isn’t the only measure of their children’s success – after all, such mindsets are first inculcated at home.
Image credit: @thesmartlocalsg
Some of you reading this would have received your A Level results recently and are waiting for your uni placings to be out. If you scored a less-than-stellar grade or end up not getting into your uni of choice, remember that there are always other options and alternative routes out there. A bad grade doesn’t mean you’re doomed to fail for the rest of your life – you still have a chance to excel in your future career even if you once did badly in school.
Similarly, just because you were top student once doesn’t mean you’ll always stay at the top in other aspects of life. Some people can be so brilliant and book-smart, yet lack people skills and moral ground. That’s not who you wanna be either.
My advice? Find something you’re passionate about, and try to build up as much knowledge in it as possible with internships, job-shadowing, or even a portfolio created in your own time. My own internships opened up numerous doors for me and today, I have my dream job as a Sub-Editor in the competitive media industry.
And one thing I know is this: It wasn’t my Raffles background that got me so far, but the sense of determination and work ethic I gained beyond it.
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