By Andrew Hidajat (17S03I)
Additional reporting by Yang Siqi (17A01C)
School Code: 3009
Course Code (Arts): 28A
Course Code (Science): 28S
Ah, the Joint Admissions Exercise (JAE). Along with one’s GCE ‘O’ Level results slip comes a dull, grey information booklet. In it contains basic information regarding various tertiary institutions, ranging from location, special programmes offered, net aggregate ranges of recently-admitted students, and so on.
It was certainly published with the intention of assisting students in making informed decisions. But to the immature 17 year old I was, its sole purpose was to match my L1R5 aggregate with last year’s cut-off points of nearby schools, so that I could rank them according to my own perceived ‘prestige’ levels. I closed the booklet, went to the online portal to list my preferences, and set it aside.
The next few days were to be spent visiting as many Open Houses as possible, hoarding freebies and partaking in marvelous festivities before school strongly encourages me to get back to the grind again. So I passed through the Marymount gate for the first time, wondering if somehow, through my interactions with students of this school and those I would visit after, my preferences would change.
For some reason, they didn’t. Yet, my Open House tour guide’s recount of being overwhelmed by how incredibly talented and driven everyone is – so much so that being outshined by others is a norm one may have to accept upon joining the Rafflesian family – has planted this indelible question in my head:
“Being a newcomer, would I have the same opportunities as those who have already assimilated to the community for four years?”
Every encounter, every discussion and every experience so far has formulated my final answer to said question with respect to various areas.
Area 1: The opportunity to feel at home
The first day of Orientation reminded me of the very first morning of Primary One. Exchanging nervous glances, avoiding awkwardly lengthy eye-contact, enquiring about each other’s backgrounds as a way to strike conversation with potential friends. The only difference was that like many, I chose to quietly lament the lack of familiarity rather than sobbing uncontrollably as a child would. There were innumerable worries that plagued me. Will I ever fully integrate into RI? Will I ever be able to identify as a Rafflesian, beyond my white uniform?
By lunchtime, I realised that many of those who were from the Raffles Programme (RP) in Year 1-4 seemed to socialise a lot better than those who weren’t. If they hadn’t already known each other in one way or another, they at least had very similar experiences to bond over. I wasn’t the only one to find it a little challenging to interact with everyone else. One student I interviewed mentioned how “coming late as an appeal case” meant that “cliques” were already forming by the time she arrived. Indeed, at times some of us may feel like we would never be able to attain the same closeness in friendship with RP students.
Despite this, it’s definitely not the case that anyone is deliberately trying to be exclusive. My interviewees and I agree that most RP students are open towards meeting new people. At the end of the day, Orientation is simply too short a time frame – especially for those who are more introverted – to establish meaningful friendships. As JAEs befriend more RP students through platforms like classes and CCAs, our shared experiences in school would allow us to discover more commonalities than differences.
As Lim Rong (17S03Q) stated, perhaps that feeling of being left out “had more to do with our disposition and less (but still present) to do with RP students preferring to mingle amongst familiar faces. JAEs too have to be open to meeting and connecting with RP students and escape the prison of perception that RP people are intentionally excluding them from the equation.”
And for those willing to flee, Orientation is only one out of a slew of opportunities that JAEs have to do so. The JAE Heroes programme was started in 2013 by none other than two JAE student councillors from the 32nd Students’ Council, Sai Surya and Sumedha Madhusudhanan. Ms Michelle Kwok (Assistant Department Head, Student Leadership) explained to us that it aims to “help new Year 5 JAE students better assimilate in RI by giving them an additional support group, apart from the Orientation group.”
To be able to consider a place as home, one would have to at least know the people that reside in it. Yet even mere acquaintances can be cordial with one another without living together. To truly feel that RI is home goes beyond metamorphosing into a social butterfly.
“It is to recognise one’s significance in this large student body. It means feeling at ease when you walk through the aisle of a crowded canteen, feeling a sense of pride adorning the school uniform, and knowing with full assurance that the school isn’t a battle ground, but a place you can call home.” – Laura Ng (17A01E)
Ultimately, successful integration depends on one’s willingness to avoid the trap of self-loathing due to not meeting certain perceived “criteria” for being a Rafflesian. Perhaps I will never fully integrate into RI or be truly steadfast in my identity here – but it would probably not be because I had no chance to feel at home. Rather, it is likely to be a consequence of succumbing to a puerile ‘us against them’ mindset.
Area 2: The opportunity to compete on a level playing field
It wouldn’t be an authentic J1 experience without listening to a lecturer drone on and on about what seems to be the arcane arts from Mount Mary. From my perspective, everyone spoke faster, wrote faster, thought faster. I was a Windows 98 trying to run Grand Theft Auto V! This was especially felt in the Science subjects I took, where words like ‘hydrophobic’ and ‘hydrophilic’ – central to crucial fundamental concepts – were completely foreign to me. Not that it was practically reciting the letters of the alphabet for the RP students, but it was at least introduced to them before to help bridge the gap between secondary school and junior college.
Unfortunately, this is inevitable given how the need to prepare for ‘O’ Levels means that the syllabus would have to conclude around half a year before the beginning of the papers. That means no time for enrichment programmes or useful expansions to the standard curriculum. It must also be acknowledged that at the very least, the teachers are willing to discuss the topics in “great depth for the sake of JAEs”, as Leong Kay Mei (17S07C) described.
Looking back, there may not have been that many disparities in terms of academic opportunities. After all, a student recounted to me how “many of the RP students in [his] class were alien to the Binomial Theorem” at the beginning of Year 5, whereas JAEs would’ve learnt that at Secondary 3/Year 3. Perhaps when it comes to JC, most understandably start off with a certain degree of incapability which contributes to a sense of uneasiness about the opportunities they have been given.
While the playing field may be somewhat level for intellectual pursuits, many doubt that this is the case for leadership positions in the Student Council and CCAs. We vote for those whom we think are capable to lead, those we trust to run the initiatives of the student organisations they head. But to finally decide to vote for a candidate often involves knowing the candidate first – understanding his or her mission, how it is articulated and most importantly, his or her character.
How would a short few minutes with a candidate one has never met before ever be sufficient to convince one to vote for that candidate? The truth is that connections often do matter and having friends who are already familiar with the candidate and what he or she stands for for quite some time makes the candidate far easier to believe in. It is only natural for one to place more faith in a familiar face, someone associated with less uncertainty.
However, this is an inherent problem that is nearly impossible to fully resolve. At the very least, the advantage of RP students is negated to some extent by the interview stages where a panel of teachers and seniors attempt to judge a candidate’s mettle and potential, regardless of background. Council Elections, according to Ms Kwok, are made as “JAE-friendly” as possible in that “student nominees are put in mixed JAE-RP groups so as to minimize any advantage that may be gained by an all-RP group who may have worked together before. This is not to say that JAE (or RP) students are unfairly ‘protected’; rather, the Elections process is impartial and does not particularly favour RP or JAE students.” And the fact is that JAEs do get elected to Council. CCAs like Photography Club, for example, even have their EXCO filled with many JAEs.
Another interviewee who unsuccessfully ran for Council had an interesting viewpoint to this issue that changed my initial opinion: “I feel that being a councilor or a CCAL is to be able to earn the trust of the electorate, and this is where the personality of the candidate comes into play. I believe that as long as the candidate [has] the personality to inspire confidence, trust and warmth within people they talk to, they are fit for the office of councilor or CCAL. I felt that a large part of that failure had to do with my personality, an innate inability to connect with people on a personal level and that would make me, JAE or RP, a poor candidate for Council nonetheless.”
I’m not saying that a candidate’s failure would be entirely attributed to his or her personality. Popularity is undeniably a major factor. What I’m saying is that in a way, the electorate does take everyone’s abilities into account, whether they are relatively unknown or not. If a candidate is unable to connect with voters within that few minutes of interaction through his or her speech, Q&A segment, video and exhibit, who is to say that the candidate ever will?
I have thus come to the conclusion that whether or not the playing field is even depends on perspective. Just because one side has an advantage over the other doesn’t mean that the latter would surely lose. And in this case, both sides get to run the same elections, with the same processes. Familiarity is only one of the many tools a candidate can utilise to win people to his or her side.
At the end of this year-long musing, I’ve realised that the opportunity to feel at home has always been there, but whether or not I see it depends on my willingness to be at home. I could be surrounded by hundreds of friends and still feel isolated from the entire world, so long as I never accept that I belong here, deeming myself to be a struggling nonentity among champions, a wandering soul with no purpose among those already seizing greatness.
And the playing field is quite level. It just seems a little uneven – for a moment – when I’m standing on the side that didn’t win at the end of the match and I’m desperately thinking of why all the blood, sweat and tears amounted to a loss. But when the blood dries, and the sweat and tears stop clouding my eyes, that’s when reality sets in. Sure, there may have been more bumps and rocks where I stand, but that doesn’t mean that I am destined to stumble. It also doesn’t make my opponents any more adept than they already are.
My answer to the one question that persistently nagged at me throughout the year is therefore simply a ‘yes’. So yes, I have the same opportunities that those already assimilated into the Rafflesian community have. And yes, my preferences would never change. My school code is 3009, and my course code is 28S.