On the Stand: Thomas Titans

by Chua Jun Yan (13A01A)

This is the latest installment in our collaboration with MediaCorp’s ilovebooks.com. Jun Yan interrogates the claims made by Adeline Foo’s latest offering, Thomas Titans.

Being subtle is not a virtue of Adeline Foo’s latest book. Her latest offering comes on the back of her best-selling Diary of Amos Lee series. Her latest coming-of-age tale, Thomas Titans: Men Among Boys, is instantly recognizable as a book about RI. There is a chapter about “Life in One of Singapore’s Oldest Schools”, creatively named the “Thomas S.R. Institute”, which was “set up a couple of years after the founding of Singapore in 1819.”

Author, Adeline Foo

In her defense, Adeline admits, in our email correspondence, that the novel is loosely based around RI – the alma mater of her husband. She explains, “The school is but a metaphor, a sanctuary for a character who’s forced to seek solace from a shady past that threatens a new beginning; and as the story unfolds in the series, it will be obvious that being in this school is going to shape Ayush’s outlook in life, to force him to make the right choice in addressing the shame that had hung over him for years as a child born out of wedlock.”

Moreover, Adeline also told us that her portrayal of RI is pseudo-historical, rather than a representation of the school today. She added that it’s meant as a vehicle for the plot, above all else.

In this installment of our book review column, we put her portrayal of RI on trial by calling upon expert witness, Chua Jun Yan, to testify about the veracity of 4 excerpts from the book. In particular, we look at what has been changed – and what hasn’t been.

1) On Income Inequality

“When I first got in, I realized that there are two distinct classes of students. One is an elite class whose parents are the top brass of society. These boys are also either really smart or naturally sporty. And they are worshipped by girls from convent schools.”

“There is another class of students, the majority of whom are ordinary boys from average, middle-class homes. Their only bragging right is that of being worshiped by their mothers for making it to the top boys’ school in Singapore.”

There is some truth in the view that children from upper-middle class families are disproportionately represented in RI, reflecting broader national trends of skewed socio-economic demographics in top schools. And it is undeniable that some RI students have parents who hail from the upper echelons of Singapore, be it in politics, business or academia.

Nonetheless, the allegation of a divide between “two distinct classes” is probably unfounded. If anything, all the talk about meritocracy and inequality has made it politically incorrect to flaunt one’s wealth ostentatiously. Perhaps lessons have been learnt from the Wee Shu Min elitism scandal, in which an RJC student was castigated for telling low-income Singaporeans to get out of her “elite, uncaring face”. Recent years have seen an increase the language of empathy, humility and inclusiveness, be it in Principal’s Assemblies or school collateral, as opposed to the rhetoric of excellence and exhortation.

As Year 5 student, Master Jervan Khou, put it, “Class differences I concede do exist, but in Raffles, we hide them behind the distinctive and plain white uniform. To point out that there are class differences in school would be akin to pointing out the omitted swear phrases in the dictionary; interesting, yet grossly and completely unnecessary.”

As a consequence, many of the so-called “elite class” do their best to blend into the background. For instance, Jimmy (not his real name) is the son of the owner of one of Singapore’s biggest electronics firms. All his siblings went to Raffles schools, and he lives in a 10-bedroom mansion complete with a swimming pool. Despite this, he takes the MRT, rather than being chauffeured home. Similarly, Samuel (again, his name has been changed to protect his identity) is the descendant of an elder statesman. Yet, he makes it a point never to discuss his lineage, and engages in the full range of commoners’ activities like LAN gaming or playing bridge.

And unfortunately for both Jimmy and Samuel, they are not worshiped by convent girls.

Indeed, RI is a far cry from comparable global educational institutions like Eton, where recipients of bursaries are made to wear a special cap and are forced to live in special dorms. By contrast, RI disperses significant amounts of financial aid as well, but tactfully and sensitively. On average, 90 students receive grants from the 1823 Fund every year – on top of MOE’s financial assistance schemes.

Verdict: An exaggeration. Might have been made in good faith, but not quite a fair comment.

2) On Bullying

“His cronies dragged us to an unused toilets at the back of the schoolyard…we were pushed into the centre of the toilet and made to squat. The five boys spread out around us in a ring. Edward [a school prefect] stood smirking…I turned and saw Edward and three of the boys stripping Lasso. They tore off his shirt, then his trousers…Lasso was hauled into one of the cubicles. After five of them took turns to pee, they dunked his head in the urinal.”

Some form of bullying happens in every school, but the description here seems extreme and unrealistic. The threat of penalties like caning, suspension, and a blemish on one’s disciplinary record is enough of a deterrent for most. Speaking in his personal capacity, Master Tommy Koh (not the Ambassador-at-large, but the Secretary of Resources of the Student’s Council) said, “Considering Raffles is a premier school in Singapore, it may seem alright, natural in fact to consider problems like bullying as something which does not affect an institution of this caliber.”

Even rougher pranks and other forms of ragging like taupok have died off in recent years, thanks to concerted efforts by school authorities. This was after “a top JC in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio” landed in the news in 2005, when a video of students tau-poking themselves during Orientation went viral online. Named after the popular hawker dish, taupok is a popular prank in which students pile themselves up over each other.

And the image of abusive seniors and prefects (or for that matter, student councillors) could not be further from the truth. The most serious cases of “abuse” probably involve controversies over bookings and demerit points. Even then, these disputes are usually the product of misunderstandings rather than malice. In fact, since 2006, regular Peer Support Leaders have even been barred from making Year 1s perform physical punishments like push-ups.

Nonetheless, this is not to say that bullying is non-existent in RI. Rather, it is likelier to manifest in subtler forms. You are far more likely to encounter name-calling, teasing, ostracization or even cyber-abuse, rather than outright physical harassment. In Master Koh’s words, “Being at the top presents its own set of problems – especially in the midst of others competing to be at the top, it is easy to be sidelined and isolated, victims of others’ insensitivity and lack of empathy. So while bullying may not present itself in the traditional forms of black eyes or broken bones, similar effects manifest in the isolation or insults that one has to face from those who only have eyes for results and not people.”

And Master Koh should know – he was formerly Deputy Head of Discipline in the Raffles Institution Prefectorial Board.

(in the interests of full disclosure, this reviewer would like to clarify that he was previously the Head of Discipline in the same organization.)

Verdict: Largely embellishment – but with a grain of truth.

3) On Girls

“I knew lasso had sat in the desk before me. How did I guess? There were at least five carvings of the name ‘Ariel’ all over his desk top! They were so tiny that you would have missed them if you weren’t looking. I was amused to see one that read, ‘Lasso loves Ariel’. Man, he was really infatuated with the mermaid.”

The image of girl-starved teenage boys being desperate for the companionship of the fairer sex is a popular stereotype – but also one which is easily debunked. No, contrary to what the book suggests, RI boys do not hang around in Orchard Road to catch a glimpse of (oh!) those mermaids called RGS girls! In fact, girls from RGS and RI (Year 5-6) are better described as eagle-eyed lionesses rather than mermaids – focused and goal-driven, rather than vain and vulnerable.

Having said that, it is true that Year 5-6 boys buy roses, chocolates and balloons for their significant others on Valentine’s Day. And it is not uncommon to see couples walking around on the “greener” side of campus – to the extent that the 2012 edition of the Code of Conduct lists “Inappropriate conduct between students” as a serious offence.

Verdict: Perhaps, but certainly not “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

4) On Corporal Punishment

“I turned back to the front and almost wanted to stand when I saw the principal whipping out a long metre ruler. It was a wooden one and it looked meancing cast in the yellow glare of the stage lights… ‘Please, sir, don’t cane me! I beg you!”

This would surprise many, but caning continues to exist in RI. However, it is restricted to boys on the Year 1-4 campus; presumably, it was felt that Year 5-6 students were too old for such an arcane punishment. According to the 2011 edition of the Year 1-4 School Rules, “Serious offences can be (sic) punishable by caning.” However, as far as can be ascertained, canings are very rare, and are reserved for the most severe offences like stealing, cyber-bullying, and defiance against teachers. The last recorded public caning in the hall was held in 2008, when the current cohort of Year 5s was still in Year 1.

In fact, one of the school’s most famous alumnus, Lee Kuan Yew, was caned. In his memoirs, he mentions being whipped for repeated latecoming in the 1930s by headmaster, D.W. McLeod (one can only assume they didn’t have White Slips back then!). In 1956, a former RI prefect wrote that, during his time there, “boys were caned on their bottoms for even winking at the girls. We did have very good discipline in our time and the boys became good citizens, lawyers, doctors, etc.”

Having said that, the caning proceedings are nowhere near as dramatic as described in the book. The vast majority of punishments are conducted away from public eye, and are solemn, well-planned ceremonies – not impromptu melodramas.

In the words of retired Headmaster Eugene Wijeysingha, “There were occasions, very few though, when I had to cane boys. Only once did I do so in front of the entire school. Others I caned in my office or before their respective classes but made it a point to reveal neither malice nor vengeance but tempered it by following up with a special relationship with those whom I had caned.” In other words, these punishments were – and still are, one would believe – conducted with dignity and control.

Verdict: Not an unreasonable claim, but clearly sensationalized.

So, is Adeline Foo’s latest book more truth or embellishment? The jury is out. Read the book and be the judge!

The writer’s e-book was sponsored by Mediacorp Interactive. To purchase the e-book and read other reviews (including an exclusive interview with the author), please go to: http://www.ilovebooks.com/ebooks/home/F5552438-BE3E-4553-9105-4B9F4C8B9023/Thomas_Titans_Men_Among_Boys. As part of this collaboration, all RI staff and students are eligible for an exclusive 10% discount from November 12 to November 25. Simply key in the promo code (F5552438-BE3E-4553-9105-4B9F4C8B9023) at the checkout by filling in the blank, and click APPLY.

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