In their continuous search for talent, the Singaporean government hands out the ASEAN Pre-University and Undergraduate scholarship, of which I am a recipient. Thousands of Malaysians apply, but only two to four hundred get selected every year. I personally do not think the ASEAN Scholarship is very prestigious, but the average Singaporean you meet will make it to be quite an achievement.
I did not choose this path for myself. One day, my mum showed me an advertisement about this ASEAN scholarship in the local newspaper and encouraged me to apply. I was lucky to qualify for the exams, and surprisingly, I was the person they were looking for. After two years of pre-university studies, I continued on to the National University of Singapore.
Let me dispel the notion that Singapore and Malaysia have similar cultures. We are different; there are no two ways about it. They do not learn our national Malay language; they have pulled ahead of us in terms of GDP per capita years ago, and physical development by the government is literally everywhere.
They have no kampungs and no roadside mamaks. We will never understand National Service the way they do, and do not get me started on politics – it is not as perky as it is portrayed to be, but that is just a Political Science student speaking.
People will praise the public transport, the cleanliness, the tall buildings, and the ornaments on Orchard Road; but really, the first thing you will notice in Singapore is its sidewalks. There are sidewalks everywhere. The next thing you will notice is traffic. In Malaysia, you always wait for cars to clear before crossing. In orderly Singapore, cars wait for you! It is as if drivers in Singapore just got out of driving school. They have funny zigzag road markings at turnings, and the cars drive out to the middle of crossroads before turning.
They also have double-decker buses that are an absolute delight to ride for the first time. But nothing can compare to the most mind-blowing school culture that has evolved in Singapore: orientation. In Malaysia, orientation is one and a half days of walking around campus and maybe getting to know your seniors and potential classmates. Orientation in a Singaporean Junior College is several days of crazy games, mass dances, rehearsed cheering, and forced socialisation.
You will get to know the quirks of Singaporean life such as the Total Defence Day, where they blare the sirens in remembrance of the Japanese invasion. There is Racial Harmony Day, which is an excuse to not wear the uniform.
You will have to celebrate National Day with them – do you play along and wear their national colours, or are you going to feel vaguely traitorous? Oh, and everybody wears their secondary school uniforms for the first three months of Junior College. You will see the most outrageous school uniform variations they have here.
Some girl schools in Singapore have sleeveless uniforms – absolute blasphemy in Malaysia! If you are lucky, you will get a Junior College with a nice uniform colour. Unfortunately, I have heard that the latest educational reform abandoned this policy, so you will be buying your Junior College uniform as soon as you get in.
If you are not an athlete, you will either learn to love physical education or hate it. Junior Colleges have the duty of getting their young men fit for Postcard from Singapore National Service, so you will be included with the Singaporeans if you are a guy. If you are a girl, you get away with a slightly reduced regiment.
Most of us who came in January (at the beginning of the school year) were on a provisional scholarship pending our SPM results. Some of the provisional scholars quit because they could not handle the stress and the pace of life away from home. Maybe it is them, maybe it is Singapore.
People have their own reasons, and you will have to make the decision to stay. There are always going to be people who drop out, but if you can keep your chin up and put up a good fight, you are not alone. The teachers here are generally caring, and your classmates will help you if they can.
Many of my friends and seniors have found a good life; whether or not they use Singapore as a stepping stone to Cambridge, Oxford, or any other respected institution of higher learning is another matter altogether, but if you stay in Singapore to pursue education at university level, you are locked in because there is a three-year contractual obligation to work in Singapore. Many are offered Permanent Residency (PR) and end up marrying Singaporeans. Whether or not you feel that is the right thing to do, it is a decision you will have to make for yourself.
Ho Yi Jian graduated with Honours in Political Science from the National University of Singapore after spending two years in a bizarre alternate dimension called junior college. He deludes himself by thinking that he understands Singaporeans. He occasionally writes for the Kent Ridge Common website on Malaysia, Singapore, and campus issues.
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.
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