My post-SPM story has its preamble in April 2006, the year I sat for my SPM examination. I was schooled in Lodge School, an English-medium private institution in Kuching, and I knew about the bond-free ASEAN scholarship because my cousin had successfully applied for it the previous year.
So I submitted my application and made it through the English, Mathematics, and General Ability entrance tests, as well as an interview. I advise applicants to read widely and improve their English comprehension skills, and to obtain some exposure to problem-solving mathematics in order to prepare for the tests. Singapore reputably has the second-toughest A-levels examinations system in the world.
General Paper is a compulsory subject, analogous to Am in our STPM system, and you generally take four other core subjects. Many other students go on to take another unit, which is an advanced module in a subject of your interest. Six subjects at A-levels can be challenging in terms of timetabling and workload, so you should only take an advanced module if it interests you.
Initially, everyone will be caught up in the ‘rat race’ – tempted to fill their portfolio with all manner of achievements, co-curricular activities (CCAs), and medals – but I advise the prospective ASEAN scholar not to do so. Only do things that are meaningful to you, and try to be better than yourself instead of comparing yourself to others.
I should mention that the General Paper requires you to be well-read on current issues such as global politics, economics, science and technology, and the environment. The Economist and The Guardian are good publications to peruse.
In Singapore’s junior colleges, CCAs are a serious business. I was the President of the Mathematics Society in my college and a member of the Strategic Games and Malay Dance societies. You should choose a combination of co-curricular activities that reflect your passions, challenge your personality, and allow you enough time for studies. In my case, I liked mathematics and chess, but also gave Malay Dance a go as I had never taken part in a dance CCA. We performed contemporary dances based on arts system, at many high-profile Singaporean events and competitions.
The Mathematics Society allowed me to organise weekly recreational math activities, such as cast puzzles and tangrams. Being a math and problem-solving enthusiast, I also participated actively in math competitions, the main ones being the Singapore Mathematical Olympiads, the American Mathematics Contest, and the Australian Mathematics Competition.
The Singapore scene is full of academic competitions you can participate in, and these are not limited to the sciences. There are economics and English-essay writing competitions on a national scale as well. The vibrancy of extracurricular academic competitions emphasizing critical thinking and problem-solving is something not widely found in Malaysia. There is even a culture of organised Olympiad discussions, and I was an active participant in mathematical problem-solving discussions.
In the end, these discussions are more important than the paper certificate or medal you earn from doing well in the competition. Singapore is a repository of talent because its government offers scholarships to students from all over Asia, and you get some immensely talented students and occasional geniuses. I have two schoolmates headed to MIT and Harvard respectively. Debating and discussing with great contemporaries is the high road to intellectual stimulation and progressive thinking.
Of course, studying in Singapore was tough. CCAs inclusive, I averaged 11 hours a day at college, and spent 14 hours at college on some days. Time is scarce; I recall eating my breakfast (pastry and Milo from a plastic cup) while walking to school on several occasions. There are frequent tests and assignments. Juggling so many responsibilities can be unwieldy initially, but one adjusts with time.
You will build flexibility and resilience as you pass through this system. You will also experience additional dimensions through community involvement programmes, leadership camps, road runs, and an Enrichment Week full of activities like investment seminars, cooking demonstrations, and food-tasting ‘trails’ through Singapore, designed to complement your education in as many ways as possible. It is a manifestation of the belief that the path to a holistic mind is diverse stimulation. There is indeed something for everyone in the ASEAN scholarship.
I believe I learnt a lot more during my two years in Singapore than in the previous five years of secondary school. If you are up for a challenge, go for the ASEAN scholarship! Be process-oriented as much as you are results-oriented, and you will find it enriching.
Aidan Chan Tiong Eyong reads Mathematics at Cambridge University under a Yayasan Khazanah scholarship. He studied for the Singapore-Cambridge A-levels examinations at National Junior College, Singapore, under the ASEAN scholarship. Click here for more articles.
Note: The above entry was written in 2010 for What’s After SPM?, published in 2011. This non-for-profit book project is a collaboration between Leaderonomics and a team of young Malaysians. Click here for details on the project and authors.