By Tan Yu You (21S03H)
On the first day of Orientation last year, I remember one of the girls in my group sharing that one of her fears coming into RI was the divide between us and the students from the Raffles Programme (RP).
Perhaps it was an offhand remark and she did not mean for it to be taken seriously, but this fear resonated well within the small, mismatched group of five students from the Joint Admissions Exercise (JAE) anxiously waiting to meet the RP students for the first time.
A Google search immediately reveals that this fear is very common among hopefuls aiming to enrol into Raffles Institution after receiving their O-level results. Yet, stories shared by ex-Rafflesians on online forums and discussion threads seem to offer conflicting views on whether this so-called divide is something worth fretting over. Case in point, a previous article published in 2018 on Raffles Press claims that “the RP/JAE divide dissolves very quickly” while this post on Reddit claims the other extreme.
So, what might be the cause of this “RP/JAE divide”?
The answer, unsurprisingly, varies from student to student. For both RP and JAE students, the most commonly cited reason is the awkwardness of interacting with new people. RI and RGS students alike would have known each other to some extent before entering Year 5 and admittedly, it is very tempting to gravitate towards hanging around with their usual friends instead of their newly-joined JAE peers.
“A great deal of RP students have at least one classmate in their JC class that they knew beforehand, either through [their] Y3-4 class, CCA, or even Y1-2 class,” Ang Rui Kai (21S03H), a RP student, explained. “So they will naturally gravitate towards them at the start of the year.” He added that this unintentionally ends up “alienating” JAE students who “[do] not know many others to begin with.”
As for JAE students, many find it much easier to converse with fellow JAE students—even if they come from vastly different backgrounds—because it is naturally easier for JAE students to relate to each other over common experiences such as the O-levels. Coupled with the fact that JAE students are oftentimes separated from their secondary school friends (unlike their RP peers) and that RP students being perceived as more “cliquey”, many would perhaps prioritise getting to know their new JAE classmates first. Hence, this could possibly result in the creation of a JAE clique in the class making it even harder for RP students to connect to JAE students.
“JAE students do not have cliques of their own and therefore have to interact with new people because they actively seek friendships, while RP students wouldn’t really go out of their way to interact with people outside their circles,” Ng Yan Jie (21S06O) said in regards to the class dynamics at the start of the year. In a similar vein, an RP student, who declined to be named, brought up how “class cliques [can] contribute to a divide between the RP and JAE [students]”.
The perception of RI and RGS students as being elitist is another cited reason, particularly among JAE students. Notwithstanding our principal’s commendable efforts in rebranding “elitism” as “exceptionalism”, it suffices to say that many students outside of RI still view RI as a glaring symbol of elitism, a representation of privilege in Singapore’s education system which runs counter to its meritocratic foundation. This perception of RI students can cause some to have reservations about whether they can easily assimilate into RI. “Before going to RI, I always had the impression that RI students were snobbish and rich,” a JAE student, who declined to be named, admitted. “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid [of not being able to fit in].”
Beyond having such doubts, JAE students might feel hesitant to mingle with their RP peers because of their apprehension of elitism and the privileges that go with it. One such privilege, as pointed out by a RP student who wished to be anonymous, is the likelihood of RP students taking up leadership positions instead of JAE students—despite the fact that the latter makes up one-third of the school cohort—which antagonises some students.
“[A]lthough this is not something that many people openly talk about, leadership elections are as much of a popularity contest as they are a measure of one’s ability to lead,” the anonymous RP student asserted. “This tips the scales against JAE students, including but not limited to Student Council elections and CCA Leaders elections.”
Of course, it may seem like RP students and JAE students inherently prefer to bond with their own respective peers, thereby creating a rift between these two groups. However, most of the students interviewed disagreed that it is permanent. “Perhaps at the start of the year there may be some initial awkwardness,” A Year 5 student, who chose to remain anonymous, shared. “[B]ut I mean personally I don’t really care what school you’re from when [I’m] talking to people.”
More often than not, be it in school or outside school, there are plenty of opportunities to get to know each other better. Yet, in a year that actively promotes isolation and staying at home as much as possible, have things changed for the RP/JAE divide?
The RP/JAE divide in a COVID-19 year
In true 2020 fashion (as of writing this article), nothing would ever be complete without mentioning COVID-19. From Orientation to CCA, the pandemic has effectively shut down all sorts of mass activities—not even normal school lessons were spared. Inevitably, COVID-19 has prevented both RP and JAE students alike from fully immersing themselves in the JC experience, especially because most activities and events occur in the first half of the school year. “We never got the chance to attend many school events in person,” Yan Jie said. “COVID-19 has really diluted the school experience in that regard.”
Other students interviewed agreed that there was a sore lack of opportunities to interact with their peers as a result of COVID-related safe-distancing measures. This was especially the case outside of their classes, such as in CCAs and Monday Elective Programmes (MEPs). One CCA ExCo member remarked, “It’s regrettable that we aren’t able to meet and bond [with one another] over fun games and activities which our seniors did last year.”
The arrival of Home-Based Learning (HBL) spelt even more bad news for the newly-matriculated Year 5s, with all lectures and tutorials being moved online and conducted via Microsoft Teams. “I feel that HBL made me more distant from my class,” Joel Lim (21S06I) admitted. Other students, regardless of their preference for school-based learning or HBL, concurred with the sentiment that HBL and the lack of face-to-face interactions with peers was a notable challenge in forging bonds with new people in school.
Nevertheless, it seems that not all hope was lost in the midst of the pseudo-lockdown known as “circuit breaker”. “I think if anything, COVID-19 actually helps to lessen the divide,” a Year 5 student argued. “Because now, we spend more time as a class, and there are less opportunities to seek comfort in those that we know because inter-mingling between classes is discouraged.”
And, despite the amount of hate it may receive, many students acknowledged that Project Work (PW) did help bridge the gap between the RP and JAE students in their individual groups and make them more comfortable interacting outside of their comfort zones. After all, PW group meetings—be it online or physical—enable students from both sides to talk and understand one another better.
“I think Project Work is a great way to overcome the RP/JAE divide, because it provides the base from which many other interactions can emerge,” Rui Kai said. “While interactions may seem rather clinical at first, they often develop into something more. This is helped by the academic nature of PW, which ensures that the two groups of people always have something to talk about. This helps create new friendships, ones that [might] not otherwise be possible.”
However, one student did point out that PW only allows one to interact with a very limited number of people in a manner that discourages conservations outside of PW-related topics. “While it does help to provide opportunities for interactions between RP and JAE students, [most] of the time spent in PW is spent working and not trying to reconcile the differences between these two groups of students.”
“I hope that I can vibe with my class.” This is a comment I’m sure many of us would have come across, or even said it ourselves, at some point in time as we move on to a new class and embrace a new school year. It perfectly sums up one of the many fears weighing down on most of our shoulders—whether we are able to successfully make friends with everyone else.
Naturally, we have to put in effort and have the courage to reach out to others ourselves, but there would be times when our efforts fail to be reciprocated by others. As one anonymous Year 5 student puts it, “to a certain extent obviously you have to be active in reaching out and interacting with your classmates, but if your personalities are completely incompatible, then no degree of interaction will help you bond with your class.” Nevertheless, whether or not one can “vibe” with others is truly out of one’s control—and more importantly, these are mere exceptions to the norm, and do not necessitate that the divide is utterly unconquerable.
COVID-19 has changed many things, some for the better, some for the worse. However, it does not change the fact that the RP/JAE divide is a mere manifestation of our underlying fears. We all are human beings who seek acceptance and validation from others, after all. Bridging this divide requires a conscious effort—from both sides—to set aside their differences and be open to others outside of our comfort zones. Perhaps this is the deciding factor behind whether the RP/JAE divide can truly be reconciled or simply buried under polite conservations and pretenses.