With his top honours in finance and economics, Singaporean Edwin Chaw, who recently graduated from the University of Melbourne, should enjoy good job prospects when he returns home.
But the 26-year-old is applying for jobs in Melbourne, Australia, instead, as he believes that his past as a “dropout” from the elite Integrated Programme at Hwa Chong Institution still haunts him.
He recalls how elated he was when he made it to Hwa Chong after getting an aggregate score of 258 in his Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) at St Andrew’s Junior School.
“You feel really good… You are told from day one, you have made it, you are the elite and you have entered a school that is known to produce political and industry leaders of Singapore.”
He was expected to stretch himself. “The teachers were good. They pushed us to work hard, to go for an A in everything.”
But soon he began to feel the pressure to stay on top. “There is no let-up… You are expected to keep scoring top grades. Only As will do.”
On top of their studies, students were encouraged to take on leadership roles, including heading co-curricular activities to build soft skills, such as communication and organisational skills.
“I took on various leadership roles, and was active in softball and the guitar club. But for students, it wasn’t just about exploring other interests and building soft skills. A lot of it was also about building up your resume for top scholarships and universities abroad.”
Mr Chaw says the competition builds up and, in one case, a schoolmate tried to sabotage another team’s project work.
He adds: “By Secondary 4, everyone is already discussing whether to study law, medicine or dentistry in uni, and Ivy League unis or Oxbridge.
“I remember picking Yale, despite knowing nothing about it, other than the fact that it is renowned.”
He was keeping pace – he has a string of As in Secondary 4 from his school-based examinations and continual assessments to show for it. The only subject in which he did not score a perfect A was Higher Chinese, where he was graded C5.
He even won the outstanding student award for that year as well as the Eagles (the Edusave Award for Achievement, Good Leadership and Service) that same year.
But the year after, he was faced with problems at home and started suffering bouts of anxiety.
By the end of Junior College 1 (JC1), his results had plunged to C, Ds and Es, and he, along with the other “under-performers”, was called in for a pep talk.
“I left that session convinced that if I stayed on, I was going to fail my A levels. And without an O-level cert, I wouldn’t have a future.”
He decided to leave Hwa Chong at the end of JC1. To get back on track, he first enrolled in an events management diploma programme at Singapore Polytechnic and then a music course at LaSalle College of the Arts. Both turned out to be the wrong fit.
In the end, he took up a diploma in counselling at a private school and did relief teaching, even doing a stint in Hwa Chong Institution – teaching a range of subjects to the secondary school boys, while he waited to enlist in national service.
He says it was during the relief teaching stint that he saw first-hand how IP students “became obsessed with grades and achievements”.
“Perhaps the school teachers don’t mean to do that. But that’s what happens.”
After completing his national service, he decided to leave for Australia to take up the nine-month foundation studies so that he could move on to the degree programme at the University of Melbourne.
“I had to go overseas because I felt like such a failure and people never stop asking you… You were from the IP in Hwa Chong, what happened?
“The funny thing is, I wasn’t the only IP dropout in the foundation programme in Melbourne. It is a common route that IP dropouts take,” he says.
Mr Chaw graduated recently with top honours in his degree course and is currently applying for various positions. He attributes his good performance to the rigorous secondary school programme.
“Being in Hwa Chong was tough, but it taught me good skills. I write well and am able to do presentations easily, because of the training I received in school. And the hard work ethic stays with you.”
But based on his past experience of applying for temporary jobs and internships in Singapore, he says his IP past still haunts him and will disadvantage him.
“Employers still ask for my O levels, and when I tell them I didn’t sit the exam, they ask for my PSLE.
“And when I tell them I was in the IP in Hwa Chong, they will ask: What happened? You got into Hwa Chong and you dropped out. How come you failed?”