(Good Hari Raya read and food for thought)
Was I really inferior to straight-A students?
The Electric Paper
September 27, 2008
By Ng Tze Yong
HE has walked the same cobblestones as JRR Tolkien, Margaret Thatcher, Steve Forbes and Bill Clinton.
Mr Lim Wah Guan, 28, belongs to a rare breed of Singaporeans to have studied at two of the world’s most prestigious universities – Oxford and Princeton.
Last year, Mr Lim, a happy-go-lucky chap with a hoot of a laugh, completed his master’s degree at Oxford in the UK. He is now a PhD student at Princeton in the US.
However, he did not take the usual Singaporean route to the hallowed hallways of these premier institutions.
He does not hold a prestigious scholarship. He is not a ‘GEPer’ (someone from the Gifted Education Programme). He does not even, well, come from a top junior college.
Mr Lim is, in his own words, an ‘NUS reject’.
He had to retake his A-level examination, after getting C, E and O grades for Mathematics C, Higher Chinese and History respectively. The second time round, he got B, D and D.
Four times, he applied for a spot at the arts faculty at the National University of Singapore (NUS) – and failed
Somewhere inside him was a hidden talent, one that was enough for the pinnacle of academia. But for a long while, that talent was undiscovered, not nurtured, and in danger of being lost forever.
Recently, Education Minister Ng Eng Hen said that it was time for Singapore’s education system to evolve, to recognise students who learn in different ways.
Shortly afterwards, The New Paper columnist Reggie J raised the question of identifying the ‘Churchills’ in our midst – students who do not do well at their O and A levels, but who excel subsequently.
Mr Lim seems to be a ‘Churchill’.
Initially, he did well in school, scoring 252 for his Primary School Leaving Examination, and 12 points for his O-level exam. But those were mostly for maths and science subjects.
It was in junior college, when Mr Lim pursued his interest in the humanities, specifically theatre, history and Chinese literature, that his grades started to slide.
At National Junior College, he was the only one in his cohort with a combination of Mathematics C, Higher Chinese and History, and spent his years there like a nomad, moving from class to class for the lessons.
His Chinese teacher, Mr Ng Thian Lye, said: ‘He knew what his interests were at a young age. Not many students can say the same. Most students just followed the science stream without much thinking.’
Somehow, Mr Lim’s passion did not translate into aces. After his first attempt at the A-level exam, his relatives encouraged him to switch to the science stream because they thought ‘it was easier to score well in it’.
Mr Lim struggled with this dilemma but deep down, he believed his goal – a spot at the arts faculty at NUS – was attainable.
‘The arts faculty was a place people criticised as a ‘dumping ground’. It didn’t matter to me, but I thought I would at least be able to make it to such a place,’ he said.
His idealism met with harsh reality when, a year later, Mr Lim’s improved grades still proved insufficient.
He said: ‘Looking back, it was ironic that I got the best grade both times for mathematics, the subject I had the least interest in. But I think it was because it was the subject which lent itself best to exams.’
Mr Lim applied to NUS four times, the final time with an appeal letter from his Member of Parliament.
‘I was still trying to find my way back into the system,’ he said. ‘In Singapore, if you’re not in the system, you aren’t anything at all.’
He could not help but look at his peers.
One of them, he remembered, was a straight-A student who had never heard of the Quran.
‘I could not understand why this was happening to me,’ he said. ‘I asked myself, was I really inferior to them?’
Mr Lim’s mother, Madam Lily Soon, 57, said: ‘He doesn’t learn well in a classroom and we were beginning to think that the Singapore system isn’t best suited for him.’
Still, when Mr Lim eventually decided to apply for the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia, his decision broke his mother’s heart. It was a tough decision then but today, Mr Lim jokingly describes his time at UNSW as when ‘I turned into Cinderella’.
Four years after his rejection from NUS, Mr Lim graduated from UNSW near the top of his cohort with a first class honours in Chinese and Theatre Studies.
In a referral letter, his supervisor, Dr Jon Kowallis, wrote that Mr Lim ‘is truly a unique student of the calibre that one comes across once every 10 or 15 years’.
Another, written by his Dean of Residents, Dr James Pietsch, said: ‘…it is not on the basis of his grades that I wish to recommend him for a postgraduate program – there are many residents here who can boast high grades.
‘However, Wah Guan stands apart in terms of his attitude to his study. Wah Guan has an intellectual inquisitiveness… (he is) not driven by grades or competition, but by a genuine desire to learn.’
Still, his glowing report card was muted by personal pain. In 2003, his parents’ business was hard-hit by the economic recession and a guilt-ridden Mr Lim forced himself to accelerate his study course to save money.
During his time abroad, he also missed the funerals of his grandmother and primary school teacher to whom he was very close.
There continued to be times when he saw himself as an ‘NUS reject’. ‘It was a huge mental block I needed to overcome,’ he said.
At Oxford, Mr Lim completed a master’s in Chinese Studies, focusing on the work of Gao Xingjian, the first Chinese recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and made it into the East Asian Studies PhD programme at Princeton University a year later.
His academic adviser, Professor Perry Link, praised Mr Lim as ‘better than the average among graduate students at Princeton – which is an extremely elite group.’
Usually eloquent, Mr Lim was stumped when asked just how exactly he made good.
‘I just don’t think a three-hour exam is the best way to test any student’s ability’ was what he finally said.
Does he plan to return to Singapore? Will he turn his back on a system that rejected him?
It is another question that vexes him. He misses home terribly, but it is evident he has not gotten over the disappointment. He will only say for now – maybe.