By Lee Chin Wee 14A01B and Bryan Chua 14A01A
Perhaps the first thing that caught my eye when we walked into Mrs. Lim’s office was not the presence of certain items or objects, but rather the absence of them. Her hardwood desk lay bare, stripped clean of administrative clutter save for a solitary laptop that was powered down. Shelves that once held stacks of files were now lined with memorabilia and farewell gifts. Gone were the records of school policy and bureaucracy; replaced by handmade thank-you cards and little tokens of appreciation.
On paper, Mrs. Lim’s achievements as Principal of Raffles Institution speak for themselves – I would rather not condense the past five years into a trite list of accolades, for fear of reducing her success to a series of numbers and newspaper clippings. Instead, it is the person behind the principal that Raffles Press would like to write about – someone who firmly believes in RI’s social responsibility, whose drive to succeed has never flagged, and whose dedication comes through even in a casual conversation.
As promised, we sat down with Mrs. Lim for a lengthy conversation – about her tenure as Principal of RJC/RI, her aspirations for Rafflesians, and her plans for the future.
What would you consider to be the high point in your tenure as principal?
It would be in 2011, when we went in for the Singapore Quality Award (SQA). I sensed that the school was ready because we’ve done so much over the years and built such a strong foundation. What’s useful is that it served as a rallying call for all of us—students, staff, alumni and stakeholders to come together and be of one mind. And we did very nicely, because all of our staff—from the teaching and administrative staff to our canteen operators—came together and we were all so proud of the school. I think Rafflesians love being put to the test and we do very well when we are tested.
What would the low point be, then? Do you have any significant regrets upon leaving?
I wouldn’t explicitly pinpoint a low point, but I do wish I had more time to spend with students and staff to build relationships. I think if you spend enough time with people, trust is built and everyone can discuss issues like corporatisation more easily—there wouldn’t be any niggling feelings of ‘Why is the school doing this?’, and ‘Why were we not consulted?’. I actually found myself spending a lot of time with the parents—meeting them for town halls, and lunch and breakfast sessions—and I don’t get any difficult questions from them at all. They tended to be very accepting of explanations I provided, without second-guessing me, without being suspicious of the motives. I feel this just goes to show how important relationship-building is.
What was your vision for RI upon entering the school, and do you think you’ve achieved it?
When I came, there was indeed a purpose and a mission: the integration of RI with RJC. Back then, the Ministry actually wanted to see ‘transformative growth’. They saw the potential of the two institutions, and it was up to me to make us more than the sum of our parts. That was an exciting challenge, because anyone who knew both RI and RJC knew there was a lot of potential due to the quality of staff, students, resources, heritage and the alumni.
My main purpose was to work closely with staff and let them run with their ideas, rather than impose my ideas upon them. When I was principal of previous schools, most of the teachers would just wait for instructions. They would say, ‘What are your ideas? Let us know,’ and they would do it. But when I came to Raffles, it was a much bigger playing field. If I tried to push my ideas without any support from the staff, they definitely would have fallen through.
But I could work on their ideas, and provide them the support, resources, networks and connections to see their projects through. Honestly, I can’t take any credit for what has happened here—not the Gap Semester, not the E W Barker Institute of Sports, nor the Raffles Leadership Institute. These were ideas offered by the Deans and HODs. We came together a few times to do strategic planning and to formulate a set of common values and ideals for the school. I can’t claim credit for any one initiative in the school.
Some critics, especially old boys, have criticised the alleged corporatisation as alienating the students and staff of the school and a dampener on school spirit. What are your views?
Teachers often lament the fact that they don’t have enough time to know their students well. What we’ve done is to take away as much of their administrative work as possible, so that they can focus on teaching well. With specialised help, the school conducts itself more professionally. I think that has fed into the perception of corporatisation, because we have good staff who want to do things properly. Our Estate staff, for instance, are trained, have dealt with contractors and some have even worked in town councils. I think when you professionalise some corporate services, you will get a completely different feel than if you had largely depended on teachers who are trained to teach and not to do finance, estates, landscaping or signage.
Besides the aesthetic changes, some have also commented on the disappearance of a ‘homely’ school culture. Perhaps that’s because we’ve become such a big school, with all the management staff essentially handling a six-year job scope , and we have had far less time to interact and be personable. In my first meeting with the Students’ Council in 2008, they told me that the school was too cold, so we tried very hard to make the spaces more interactive for students. I think we’ve come a long way in becoming cosier—there are a lot more hubs where students can congregate.
The lack of homeliness may also stem from the fact that Mount Sinai was a small, cosy set-up, and the staff and students saw a lot of each other, and their paths tended to criss-cross getting from one point to another. Now, we’re on a sprawling campus and thus see less of each other. So I think the lack of homeliness could be due to size, and we must overcome that by building closer relationships. I think now that we have done most of the strategic and structural work, the focus should shift towards building emotional connections.
Was the disjoint in culture between Year 1-4 and Year 5-6 an obstacle to integration?
Integration is an evolution, rather than simply an endpoint. It allows us to ride on the advantages of size, or economies of scale, and merge two strong institutions, but I do not want to force it by saying, ‘let’s integrate in six years’ time’. Those of us who have taught in JCs know that the JC population is very different from the secondary population, and we can’t treat the students in the same way. For those who experienced a six-year RI (before 1982, when RJC was formed), it seemed only natural to have completed one’s education in one school, with a shared school ethos and culture throughout. However, when two institutions have grown apart and have developed independently for 28 years, putting them back together just doesn’t occur overnight. I’ve always reminded the Year 1–4 RI boys that, in the six-year IP, they are the minority—only 450 out of a batch of 1,250. How can they then impose their past on the Year 5–6 cohort?
Did you face any difficulties as the first female principal of the school?
I’ve never thought of gender as an issue, especially because half the JC population is female! Clearly, the Board of Governors didn’t think it was an issue either, because they were the ones who agreed to a female principal in the first place.
When I first came, I asked the students in Year 1–4 about this, and they had absolutely no issue. What was most important to them was having a principal who was approachable. I don’t know whether the older alumni have an issue, because the younger alumni don’t seem to have much of a problem. If they do, it’s never really been something that has been surfaced.
In your opinion, what defines Rafflesians?
We are very task-oriented and focused on our goals. Because we’re so ‘indefatigable’, which is a word the Deputy Principals use to describe me, we obsess over winning, no matter whether it’s a debate or a project. The other side of the coin is that we never lose sight of our goals, and we do not let the things around us hinder us from attaining our dreams. Frankly, that defines the way I work. It doesn’t bother me at all if I hear things like ‘this is the first female principal’, because I feel I just need to get the job done.
What are your key wishes for Rafflesians?
The first word that comes to mind is ‘kindness’. We can be so critical of so many things: the government, the school administration, our own peers, ourselves. If Rafflesians were kinder, we would be able to receive more kindness in return. We intellectualise lots of things—myself included, I’m always searching for the critical argument—and we let our minds control our hearts. We get quite a lot of flak from others about being elitist and arrogant, but maybe if we were more empathetic and kind, we might receive less criticism.
In our assemblies, we always talk about giving back and being conscious of the fact that you have the talent and the strengths and must help others along. We have also urged Rafflesians to be grateful and realise that whatever we’ve achieved is not solely by our own merit but facilitated by many others. That rhetoric remains the same, but because of the current landscape, this has been brought a lot more to the fore.
I don’t know if you’ve read the book, The Twilight of the Elites. It talks about how America has lost faith in its elite, in the wake of a series of crises. There is now a lot of focus on making sure that there’s more equity, and that those who are more privileged should have to spend more effort and share their resources with the rest. I think there’s going to be a more conscious effort to let our actions show, not simply through words.
RI does come under some criticism from some quarters that our socio-economic profile is one that is skewed towards people who are wealthier and that we have significant barriers to entry. What’s your opinion on this and do you think we have a key role to play in promoting equity?
Yes, that’s why we came up with the RI Junior Scholarships where we reach out to primary school boys who may be in need of educational resources that we can help with. We give out over 20 scholarships every year. Through self-help groups such as SINDA, we have also started mentoring programmes for Primary 5 and 6 students, to build confidence and help them improve academically. And we do see them get into good schools, even though it may not be RI.
The fact that more of our students are from better families is a reflection of Singapore society. It has become more affluent, so we can’t go back to the days when we were in school and say that our peers were from poor families. Even for myself and many others, we are now much better off than our parents. There is a new idea for the DSA (Direct School Admissions) now to broaden the criteria for admission. I don’t think any educator would fault these policies aimed at increasing social mobility, I think they’re all good. The difficulty is in the implementation, to make sure that people don’t abuse it.
Many have actually criticised the Raffles Diploma as exacerbating the paper chase. What are your thoughts?
I think it’s a natural thing to say, because anything that requires people to show what they’ve done can be taken in a negative light. It all started because of the Raffles Programme, and the A-Levels just do not do justice to all the things that our students do. So we decided to come up with our own accreditation, something that sets us apart from other schools. The Raffles signature is one that reflects excellence. When you have a Raffles Diploma, it does draw attention to the quality and standards that we’ve set for this programme.
I’ve always told people to do it not for the sake of the Raffles Diploma, and that it doesn’t matter if you don’t get your Distinction or Merit. It’s just an encapsulation of what you’ve done as a student. People outside like it, as far as I’ve heard, because it helps them better understand our programmes, and they are able to pick out the different things that our students do, which sets them apart from the rest of the schools. The institutions outside have also said that they look at a graduate holistically. It doesn’t mean that your RD grade represents the person you are – it’s just one among a few things they look at.
A lot of people say that alumni and parent relations have improved during your term in RI and it’s something you’re very proud of as well. How far do you think these relationships are important, and how much more is there to go in terms of improving it?
It’s never about fundraising; it’s the building of trust. When you have alumni who are well-disposed towards the school, they will come forward to support the school when it receives criticism or if it needs help, like contributing to their former CCAs and school events. It is really about building emotional ties and getting people to contribute back towards any area that interests them. When we do strategic planning, we would invite old boys and girls to come and give us ideas, especially those who’ve been in government or in key private-sector positions. They are readily available. They all want to help shape the future of this institution, and they are a very valuable resource.
For a place like RI, it never really belongs to any one of us, and none of us should presume that it belongs to us. You can’t claim ownership over a school like RI. You can only be a part of it, and help to contribute to its growth, and of course, be inspired and transformed by it whilst you’re here. I think RI has transformed me a lot. When I talk about giving and the Rafflesian spirit, it’s made me a lot more conscious about my own social responsibility. I have never been more proud of my Rafflesian heritage than I have been in the last six years.
Let’s shift back to the local perspective—with the RGS campus soon moving near RI, do you envision closer cooperation between the two schools, and do you think that would be a good thing?
Our relationship with RGS has been good the last few years. I think it’s been quite strategic that I’m also from RGS, which helped, in a way, when RI and RJC re-integrated. So they’re coming nearer, and it has given us some ideas such as joint CCA practices, joint seminars and even joint modules. But we have to work on these carefully, because scheduling is one issue, and whether we want to get the boys and girls to mix so early is another matter for consideration.
You mentioned that you can’t imagine being a principal of any other school—is that part of the reason you’re going to SMU and not anywhere else?
When the idea for me to join SMU came up, I was quite excited about it. I liked the idea of a new leadership initiative to be focused on Southeast Asia that would get youth to serve the countries in the region. I will be Senior Advisor to this new initiative and also a Fellow of the School of Social Sciences to teach a course or two.
What do you feel about leaving the school?
I’m happy that I’m leaving it at a high point. I wouldn’t say I was sad or sorry—I know that I can’t stay forever, because the school will not grow if a principal stays on for a long time. I’m just appreciative of the students and staff and the passion I’ve seen amongst them. I am grateful for the experience of having interacted and grown along with them. And I feel I have grown, and just like you guys who will graduate, I have to move on too, and take on new responsibilities and grow new competencies.
If you had one last thing to say to Rafflesians, what would it be?
Don’t be deterred by what other people say. Just do what you believe you need to do, and do it well, and be kind along the way!
Mrs Lim: Up Close and Personal
Q: Least favorite noise? A: Nails against metal.
Q: Favorite soft drink? A: Coke.
Q: Favorite color? A: White.
Q: Favorite outfit? A: Hmm… The Red Dress (of le Chevalier fame)
Q: Favourite meal to buy from the RI canteen? A: Definitely chicken rice from the year 1-4 side. I only eat that.
Q: Year 5-6 side? A: I usually eat the Yong Tau Fu.
Q: Favourite superhero? A: Like I told the Year 1-4 guys in my last assembly that day: Batman!
Q: Your office aside, favourite spot in the school? A: The Y5-6 track and Y1-4 field
Q: What does the fox say? A: Err, what? Your tail is bushier than mine…?
Q: Which house in RI would you want to be in? A: Morrison! Simply because I was from Richardson in RGS.
Q: Favorite movie? A: The most recent movie I’ve watched was Enders Game! I thought that was very interesting. My favourite movie of all time would be Doctor Zhivago.
Q: Real life hero? A: Stamford Raffles. I mean that honestly. I think he’s a misunderstood man. He did things that did not follow what the establishment wanted, because he believed in what he needed to do, and he sacrificed a lot for that.
Q: Favorite musician? A: My favorite singer would be James Blunt.
Q: Ideal place to live? A: I like Barcelona! The colour, the arts, the football and the architecture.
Q: Favorite author? A: Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote The Remains of the Day.
Q: Favorite motto or quote? A: As I put on my Whatsapp, “life is short, live it.”
For the complete, unabridged version of this interview (along with the full transcript of our interview with Mr. Chan), do pick up a copy of the Rafflesian Times #2 when it is published.