Rafflesian Times #1: Black Holes and Revelations

By Allison Choong 14S05B , Bryan Chua 14A01A, Jeremy Khoo 14A01B, Law May Ning 14S03O, Lee Chin Wee 14A01B, Justin Tan Tse 4G and Khairillah Irwan 3B

It is the new form of confession: the anonymity of the confessional booth replaced by that of the Internet, and fellow Facebook users collectively donning the robe of the priest.  As they say, vox populi, vox dei.

We refer, of course, to the rise of Facebook confessions pages—originally conceived by varsity students in the US as a place where the normally unsayable could be broadcast to the world (or at least some fraction of it) under the guise of anonymity. The trend spread, and in February this year some enterprising Rafflesians took it upon themselves to set up the RJ Confessions page on Facebook.

At its inception RJ Confessions was dominated by two kinds of confessions: the ardent declaration of love, and its ne’er-do-well cousin, the ardent declaration of love on behalf of a friend. While it is unknown exactly what proportion of the early confessions were pranks rather than actual missives from the besotted and lovesick, we’ll go out on a limb and say that most of them were in jest. A choice morsel for your delectation:

 Hands off KJY please. I’ll be bearing his children, not you.

It seemed at the time that RJ Confessions (and sister pages like Raffles Confessions, a combined forum for both the Year 1–4 cohort and their future schoolmates from RGS) would simply be the latest in teenage infatuation and inanity on social media—hardly worthy of an entire article on the trend. Yet, standing as testament to the fluid nature of social media, RJ Confessions has become a place for people to share light-hearted moments from their lives, offer valuable advice to juniors, polemicise on controversial issues, vent their frustrations, give voice to their misery, or, as many do, profess their affection.

 From a sociological point of view, the Confessions page offers insight into current topics of interest among Rafflesians. It is perhaps analogous to someone who dedicates their time to moving about the corridors of the school listening in on conversations and broadcasting choice morsels to everyone else. Interesting issues have surfaced as a result; we examine some in greater detail below.

RAFFLESIAN IDENTITY

The popular and persistent notion of Rafflesian elitism has dogged Rafflesians for many years. While we are confident that many Rafflesians strive to act with humility in their daily lives, we also have to also acknowledge that Raffles is a bubble, and there is probably a cultural disconnect we have to overcome, especially for students who spend six years in the Raffles schools.

 A common complaint shared by quite a number of confessions is that Raffles breeds a suffocating, elitist attitude. Bluntly worded confessions such as ‘To the guy/girl who posted “I find the single digit acceptance rate among Rafflesians for Harvard, Yale and Princeton depressing”, I find this so sickening because it just shows how ignorant kids who have been living in the elite society since young are of the world out there’ have sparked meaningful online discussion on the prevalence of elitist mindsets in RI.

While it certainly must be noted that a vast majority of Rafflesians are actively aware of the advantaged school environment they enjoy, it is very thought-provoking to observe the subconscious biases and assumptions which some Rafflesians hold being revealed online. As a storied institution with a strong history of excellence and a campus populated by many of the top students in the nation, it comes as little surprise that the constructed reality perceived by some Rafflesians is not always congruent with the actual situation on the ground. In an environment with a staggeringly high college admission rate and where stellar GCE A-Level Examination results are produced each year, it is admittedly easy to view the rest of Singapore through lenses tinted by privilege.

Some students have taken to RJ Confessions to voice their concerns about the erosion of school spirit and a sense of belonging as the school strives to be seen not just as the nation’s best school but one of the finest educational institutions in the world. Many are of the opinion that we have lost a sense of identity and the warmth of a school community in the relentless pursuit of excellence. Representative of this is the sweeping transformation that the school itself has undergone. Out have gone the traditional, green velvet-backed notice boards, the warm red-bricked walls and student-produced videos — replaced by high-tech LCD television screens, sleek glass and steel facades, and professionally produced open house videos with a touch of class. While there is no doubt that students do benefit a great deal from such modern surroundings, the more nostalgic may feel an instinctive aversion to change, and yearn for a campus that is more familiar and homely.

There have been some concerns raised over the way RI has tried to make itself seem like an attractive destination for new students, with one confessor feeling that that ‘RJ went overboard with its self-celebratory news release about Oxford and Cambridge admissions after the A-Level results were announced’. To use a popular civil service buzzword, there will always exist a ‘trade-off’ between informing parents and alumni about our outstanding achievements, and trying to be modest about these results.

It would help for us to be actively aware of such distinctions, and dissociate such marketing messages from the school culture we collectively construct. As we strive to live up to both the co-curricular and academic standards expected of a Rafflesian, it would pay to take a step back and re-think what these standards truly are.

GENDER

There have also been debates of a more personal nature on Raffles Confessions pages – that of gender politics within the school. Confessions like ‘I can’t believe that so many Rafflesians downplay the importance of feminism in Singapore’ have generated heated debate among Rafflesians who would otherwise have never spoken out about such topics. For a majority of Rafflesians who have grown to be accustomed to a single-sex school environment, suddenly being thrust into the co-educational jungle that is the Year 5-6 campus would certainly be a disorienting experience. Although genuinely well-intentioned, this abrupt change in school demographics and culture has led to some Rafflesians making remarks which could be construed to be tactless and sexist. Nevertheless, both in their anonymous confessions and their responses to perceived sexism, most Rafflesians have adopted mature attitudes toward gender issues, and the discussions that take place on the site have been largely civil.

ELECTIONS

If we are to be completely honest, it must be said straight from the outset that student democracy in RI is not student government. In fact, if democratic government is to be our metaphor, then the Prefectorial Board and Students’ Council are rather more like civil servants than politicians. doubtlessly, they perform several integral functions, and many councillors and prefects serve the student body with dedication and humility. the problem is that in the eyes of the student body, the impact of the things they do is not equal to the vaunted method of their selection—in other words, electoral processes only work to find the best candidates when people genuinely care about whether or not those elected will do a good job, and the work councillors and prefects do is underrated because it doesn’t seem as though it will enable them to change school life in any significant or meaningful way. It is our suspicion that students would take the election process a lot more seriously if those elected would wield actual political power.

Many confessors fulminating about the reduction of the democratic exercise to a mere popularity contest were clearly thinking along the same lines. Confessions such as ‘it’s quite sad to see council elections being turned into a massive popularity contest’ and ‘the only way to win votes is through style, not substance’ reflected worries that electing school leaders was an exercise in futility.

At least on the Y1–4 side, it also seems that being a prefect is no guarantee of meritorious behaviour (perhaps this can be explained as the general mischief and immaturity of younger students as a whole). one confessor, who submitted the confession: ‘Cheating together with school prefects. YOLO’ attracted the condemnation of many. Upon a quick inspection of the confessions page, this was clearly not an isolated incident, as confessions like ‘prefects should just stop breaking the school rules’ and ‘the prefects in my class play with their handphones during lessons and sleep during class’ regularly surface on its Facebook wall.

CO-CURRICULAR ACTIVITIES

We recall one assembly when, as yet another student stepped up to the podium to announce that we had done well in some competition or the other, something unusual happened. Instead of imitating the standard format of these celebratory announcements, he tripped on ‘I am pleased to announced that we have achieved commendable results…’ and bowdlerised ‘commendable’ into ‘condemnable’. It was hilarious at the time, and still amusing now, but the memory also makes us think of the countless times we’ve heard that line delivered without mistake. Success is as integral to the Rafflesian identity as air and water are to life—in fact, the place of success at the centre of what it means to be Rafflesian is only questioned on that rare occasion when we fail to succeed.

The problem herein lies in the notion that CCAs exist insofar as they are able to bring glory to the school, as the never-ending stream of commendable successes at morning assembly may attest. Unfortunately, because the school is forced to operate within the constraints of the limited resources available, some CCAs have to be shut down or streamlined for a range of reasons. Popular belief and Rafflesian gossip (often closely aligned) holds that the controversial closing of the Gymnastics CCA was due to them not bagging any gold medals over the past few years, with the same belief also put forward for the decision to shut down Bowling.

What is seen by the Rafflesian body as the unjust closure of CCAs due to an overemphasis on achievement has sparked controversy. In every few posts in Raffles and RJ Confessions, at least one post about CCAs is bound to crop up. Confessors are up in arms over this focus on results: after all, aren’t CCAs supposed to nurture the interest of students? One confessor confesses that it’s just ‘plain demoralising when you put in the most effort you can for a CCA only for the school to close it down’. Another remarked that so long as there is interest in the CCA, there is no reason ‘to crush people’s dreams and take away their opportunity to develop their area of passion’.

However, these confessions often attribute every CCA closing to an institutional thirst for glory, a hasty generalization which has already been debunked by teachers and other members of staff. The lack of instructors willing to work within a certain wage structure or dwindling membership numbers all factor into the school’s decision to close a CCA down. After all, while it may seem incredibly laudable in theory to set up a completely new CCA even if only one student were interested in it, very practical considerations mean that underperforming or undersubscribed CCAs do have to shut down.

Confessions 1

To find out more about the school’s take on the confessions fad, our journalists spoke to Mr Dominic Chua and Ms Chelsia Ho from the Department of Communications, Alumni Relations and Advancement (CARA) where Mr Chua is the Head of Creative Direction and Ms Ho is the Head of Communications. As it turns out, some members of the school staff actually do read the confessions page! Most interestingly, we discovered that they do review the more pressing issues discussed, adding a new dimension to the confession pages as a view into the mind of the student body.

How did you first hear about the confession pages?

Ms Ho: I heard about the confessions when I was in the States, but in Singapore, I only found out from a Straits Times article about universities setting up their confession pages. I never really thought it would catch on here.

So, why do you read RJ Confessions?

Mr Chua: As members of the Communications Department, we read because we want to understand what’s going on in the hearts and heads of our  students. If we see that there are multiple posts regarding a certain issue, we would try to direct that as feedback to a relevant department. That having been said, we would still encourage students to raise concerns about specific issues to the relevant members of staff. We know there’s comfort in anonymity, but if a particular issue is significant enough, we would want Rafflesians to deal with the issue constructively. Mrs Lim, for instance, regularly invites students to email her directly.

At present the page has over 3,000 likes; from some of the posts it appears that not all those following the page are current students, some are outsiders or even old Rafflesians. What do you think this does for the school’s reputation?

Ms Ho: At the end of the day, the majority of the posts do reflect what is actually going on in the school. It’s part and parcel of a typical school environment…

Mr Chua: I think it was during the first two weeks, when some parents, at that point, were thinking, ‘Should this be allowed?’ I think Mrs Lim reassured those parents that it’s really nothing that we should be too concerned about.

What were parents actually concerned about?

Ms Ho: ‘Isn’t it a bit young, at the age of 17 and 18, to be thinking of romance when they should be studying?’ It’s a typical reaction. It’s also an eye-opener for these parents, if they haven’t thought about this issue with regard to their own kids…

Mr Chua: You do see some differences in generational concerns there.

Occasionally, there are some more controversial confessions posted on RJ Confessions like LGBT issues, family problems, complaints about the school etc. What do you think about this?

Mr Chua: It is what it is—it’s a snapshot of school life, and it really is, perhaps, a more true-to- life, nuanced and complex picture of school and society that’s emerging from these posts. These are things that, as a
school and society, we should learn to grapple with rather than entertain a very simplistic notion of what life is.

Based on Ms Ho’s and Mr Chua’s candid responses, one sees a picture far different from that often painted by many a complaining confessor—far from being overly restrictive and against the confessions pages, one instead sees members of staff who are more receptive towards and in fact encouraging of student voices. While the cynics among us may be sceptical, perhaps this is a sign of changing times as the school increasingly adapts to social media. As Mr Chua puts it, if confessions are actually ‘given due consideration and weight’ the confessions pages will provide a useful and effective platform for vocal students with much to say about the way our school is run, but no formal avenue to do so.

 IN CONCLUSION

It must be acknowledged that neither absolution nor requital is the defining goal of the confessions page; rather, we are witnessing the positive effects of anonymity in encouraging honesty. We see this as a near-absolute good: it allows everyone, including the school, to get a better handle on the true sentiments of Rafflesians. Even where questionable opinions or behaviour are put on display, we can trust in the wisdom of the Rafflesian crowd to tear down the bigoted, praise the deserving, and lift up the depressed and down-trodden.

A confession of errors is like a
broom which sweeps away the dirt
and leaves the surface brighter and
clearer. I feel stronger for confession.

– Gandhi

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