Go with a smile!

Sunday, November 05, 2017

A New Building

I don't really have a lot of memories of the first few days in the new building. It was a grand structure. It was originally supposed to be Bishan Junior College. (Thank god it wasn't, because it would probably have met the same fate as 5 or 6 Junior Colleges getting closed down.) I think RI took the spot because they were getting chased out of Grange Road, or there wasn't any room for Grange Road to expand, I don't know.

It was a large building. Everything smelled fresh. I still remember when the running track always smelled of rubber. I did not participate in the move, something that I regretted forever. My mother booked a holiday without discussing it with me, and I was somewhere in South Korea when it was time for that great white contingent to march / take the MRT from Grange Road to Bishan. But ultimately, I found, it did not matter.

1990 was an unhappy year for me for many reasons that I won't elaborate at this point. But I knew that there was something in the air: some kind of change. People called it a New Decade. The 21st century was approaching. But it was an alignment of stars. Lee Kuan Yew was stepping down. RI was moving to Bishan, and experimenting with independence. The Cold War was ending. And we were moving into a new house. As per the title of that Burt Bacharach song, a house is not a home. What we had was a house, with concrete walls, workers doing random stuff here and there, patching things up. What we had was a house, and we were going to turn that house of ours into a real home.

I remember even walking through the drains around the running track when they were new. Empty fields where the soil has yet to settled, that have since been turned into huge gardens. Even a foot print or two being left on top of the ceiling.

We knew we were some kinds of pioneers, and that we would leave some kind of a mark on this new chapter in the history of the school. Perhaps this was illusory, and perhaps nobody really cared when we graduated.

But new lives, and new universes were beginning to flower. New sensations were being awakened in all the souls who passed through there. New questions were asked. New frames of references were pondered over. All that is awe inspiring. The principal called himself “headmaster”, in a throwback to Victorian days. Maybe that was toned down. But he had oratorical skills, and although I hardly listened to most of his speeches, I remember the part where he said that many of us had the seeds of greatness within us, and that individually, we were all forces to be reckoned with, and RI was also a place where this potential was let loose, and the combination could be an explosive one.

I think of all the things some people have done since leaving the RI of that period. We had somebody turning into one of Singapore's most prominent playwrights. We had somebody turning into one of the top artificial intelligence researchers. We had somebody founding a famous gaming company. Somebody reaching the top of Everest. Probably lots of stuff I don't even know about. We had people believing that they could do anything they wanted to do. Myself, I passed through life in a bit of a daze. I started on the wrong foot, but by the end of it, I felt that I, too was capable of quite a few things. It felt like the doorway to the rest of my life.

When I first entered that school, it felt like something – if not awesome, then pretty intimidating. It was an atmosphere of fear and dread, and I didn't feel like I could step out of line. Maybe RI could do that to you. Something was always going to give. Raffles Institution is a place that moulds you into a certain character. But sieteocho never allows anybody to mould him into anything. So what eventually transpired was some kind of a compromise.

There was a hint of the British public school system about that place. In case you didn't get the message that it was an establishment place, it's called “INSTITUTION”. Not institute, institution. Characters were moulded. Whatever people wanted society to be, you made people in RI into a certain type of character, and then you held them up as examples to the rest of society. So you had a lot of the “good old boy” and the “good old chap” and the British bulldog spirit and the “Raffles Spirit”. It wasn't a bad moral example by any means, but I sure as hell wasn't going to follow it to a T.

I knew there was the RI that showed its face to the world, and there was the real RI, and there was also the RI that I remembered. All of these three version are different, and I can only talk about the one that I encountered. I'm wondering if those days seemed great to me because I was young and seeing things for the first time, or whether they were really great. Make no mistake, a lot of it was dreary and boring. Because I didn't really fit the mould, I wasn't the centre of attention. Because I neither excelled or fell behind, I wasn't paid much attention to. RI did all sorts of things we thought were vain and silly, and only looking back, I might understand that they had an image to upkeep, and that was how society really worked. But I still think that those things are vain and silly.

It's a privilege to be able to say that you were one of the people who moved the school. At that time it was the second move in less than 20 years, but there may never be another move as long as I live. You could contrast this situation with anybody else. Anybody who's lived in an aging housing estate – and RI is not too far away from Toa Payoh – would know that a lot of schools either get closed down or moved a lot. MacRitchie Primary School is gone, Braddell Secondary School, Westlate Primary and Westlake Secondary were folded into Guangyang. Everybody gets the opportunity to live a rich and fulfilling life (obviously rich here means rich in experience not money) but not everybody gets the super smart classmates, the better facilities, and perhaps quite significantly, not everybody, when asked “where did you go to school”, will be able to point to something that is eternal and still exists. Not every famous school remains famous forever. The natural thing is that the fortunes of schools will ebb and flow. But some schools have an alumnus so powerful that they'll be propped up, no matter what. So yes, my memories of the school are personal, and there's a part that has everything to do with the road that I travelled myself. But there's this other part that somebody else will help prop up, no matter what. That other part will be tethered to this crazy mystique that certain groups of people will work hard to cultivate and foster, no matter what.

A new building, and a doorway to the rest of my life. It seemed intimidating to me at first, and by the time, I graduated, I seemed to have done well enough to keep pace with the crowd. I don't think I excelled, but I didn't do too badly either. During those years, my first crush, my first full length play, an above average record in mathematics competitions, my first cassette collection, my first forays into philosophy, my first rope crawl, my first pull up, my first time behind a wok, my first hike of more than 15 km.

Those were glorious days. My mind was being opened and stretched. Yet somehow, looking back, I wondered if I still had underachieved. Back then, because there was so much I hadn't yet learnt, there were so many questions I never asked because I didn't know to ask them. That's why sometimes, I might meet an old friend from back then, and just pepper him with questions. He might do something unexpected from what I remember from our old days and I'll be wondering if I had missed something because I wasn't looking closely enough. Perhaps in part because I was sleepwalking through those days, in many ways I was learning a lot about the meaning of life, and in many ways, there are lots of clues that I missed out on. That's the argument for putting smart kids together - because the smart kid will learn more and learn more quickly, and if you're not smart, you're going to be taking the place of somebody who will learn better than you. Then again, there are counter arguments to this, and other than the obvious social justice argument, there is: are the ones with the best PSLE scores necessarily the ones who learn the most from their peers? Many people look back upon their lives, and a lot of them are like "if I only knew back then what I know now". But then again, what if I were to travel back in time to those school days and listen in on all the conversations that people had with each other, and find out that I'm none the wiser?

Like the famous Roy Batty once said, “all these things will fade in time like tears in the rain.” Those were some of my most vivid experiences – not to say that I didn't have some of them later on in life. But maybe things are always different when you see them for the first time. Maybe that's why some people struggle with midlife – because your supply of “first time”s are coming to an end, and your memory of those “first time”s are fading fast. And maybe that's also why I might have to write this essay today, because there will come a time when I won't be able to do that anymore.


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