On 30 December, as everyone got ready to bid the year goodbye and welcome a new one, the Straits Times published a story which got quite a bit of attention – how a student of the Integrated Programme (IP) from a top school quit the programme because he could not cope.
“‘I flunked the IP’: Integrated Programme dropout shares his story”, the article screamed, no doubt trying to stir up emotions among its readers. Indeed, the article did, going by the reaction to it online.
26-year old Edwin Chaw, the former Hwa Chong Institution student in this story, has now graduated with top honours in Finance and Economics from Trinity College at the University of Melbourne.
Incidentally, he is featured in the 2019 prospectus for the university.
Edwin recalls how elated he (and his family) was when he made it to the prestigious IP programme in Singapore through which students would bypass the “O” Levels examinations in Secondary school, and head straight to the junior colleges. Only the creme de la creme of each year’s cohort are given such a privilege. So it is no surprise that these IP students are seen as future leaders. In fact, that was precisely what Edwin and his peers were told from the first day in IP.
“You feel really good,” Edwin says. “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 had scored 258 in his PLSE exams, and was among the top students in St Andrew’s Junior School that year, he tells the newspaper.
Things, however, did not turn out the way he had hoped.
Competition among the students and the high expectations of the school soon weighed on him, but he was keeping pace with his peers, obtaining a string of A’s in his 4th year in the 6-year programme. He even won the Outstanding Students Award.
The next year, the situation deteriorated as he struggled with personal problems at home and anxiety in school. At the end of JC1 (the 5th year of the programme), his results had dived to Cs, Ds and Es.
The school sent him to counselling.
“The same message get pushed back to you,” Edwin says. “Whatever is going on in your life, you are here now. You have one thing to aim for, and that is to score for “A” Levels. Everything else is secondary.”
Edwin recalls how the school “pulled out” all the students who were “problematic” or who were not doing well in the school, packed them into a lecture theatre and “gave them the talk”.
“And the talk goes, ‘If you keep up this way, you are going to fail. We have set you up to have a brilliant, bright future, and you’re squandering it, you’re wasting all these opportunities,” he says.
“And I just sat there thinking, well I don’t see any way my brain is going to start working. I don’t see any way I am going to magically start coping with life. And here I am being told.. don’t care about it, it doesn’t matter. Grades matter. The “A” levels coming up next year matters. I’m being told I am going to fail. So I believed that.”
On the first day of the last year of IP (JC2), he made the momentous decision to leave school. To get back on track with his studies, however, he enrolled in Singapore Polytechnic, and later with the LaSalle College of the Arts, both of which did not work out. He then took up a counselling course, and also did some relief teaching – in Hwa Chong – while he awaited to be enlisted for National Service.
But his (recent) past would not let him forget that he had failed in Hwa Chong, he couldn’t make it in IP.
“Every single place you go to, every single person you meet, that’s the way the conversation goes,” he says. “‘How did you do for ‘A’ levels?” Oh I didn’t finish ‘A’ levels. The name Hwa Chong for me didn’t become a point of pride anymore.”
Some of the people he met would wonder why as a Hwa Chong student he did not complete his ‘A’ levels. And since he had come from a top school, and was expected to be a future leader in society, the questions from others about his perceived failure in the ‘A’ levels was a constant reminder to him that he was indeed a failure.
It came to a point where he had to hide the fact that he was a Hwa Chong boy.
“I did for a while [hide this fact] but words get out,” Edwin says. “Oh, he is a Hwa Chong boy who’s here [in Singapore Poly]. What’s wrong with him?”
The questions did not stop even after he left school. Years later, when he applied for internships and jobs, all that his prospective employers wanted to know were what schools he was from at ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, and why he didn’t have either certification.
“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.
Edwin recently graduated with top honours in his degree course.
He attributes the achievement to his time in secondary school, and “the loads of opportunities” he was given to hone certain skills.
“Being in Hwa Chong was tough, but it taught me good skills,” he says. “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.”
His experiences, however, has made him decide to remain overseas nonetheless.
“When I come back, no one seems to care about what I’ve achieved so far,” Edwin explains. “No one seems to care what insights or lessons I’ve learnt from leaving school and exploring and everything.”
And even though he has left school for seven or eight years, Edwin says people still judge him on his decision then.
“They were still asking, ‘You seem like a quitter.’ Society here doesn’t seem to want to let me forget it.”
Reactions to Edwin’s story online has been most encouraging, and can be summed up by these words of support from one Raymond Lee, posting on the Straits Times’ Facebook page:
“Follow your heart .. It is You who hve to walk your own path .. Let them said or judge whatever .. You and You alone decide your own’s destiny .. No one else .. not even your parents or your mentors ..etc .. Follow your heart and listen to your intuition .. walk your own’s path .. it may be lonely snd tough .. but at end it will defintely make you stronger.” [sic]
Indeed. There are many paths to success in life. Believe in yourself and strive as hard as you can. As some have said, you need to be insistent that the universe bend to your will, and don’t give up. IP programmes are a great motivation, and many thrive in them. But not everyone is made for it. That however does not mean you cannot succeed in other ways, as Edwin has shown.
The IP programme, as it is commonly called, was introduced in 8 schools in 2004 in Singapore. Later, it was expanded to more schools.
According to a Straits Times report in 2016, the Ministry of Education (MOE) revealed that “around 6 per cent of students leave the IP before graduation.”
The Straits Times reported:
“[MOE] also revealed that of those who complete the six years leading to the A levels or the International Baccalaureate exams, less than 5 per cent fail to qualify for local universities.
“It declined to give more detailed figures. But putting together the two figures, between 200 and 300 youngsters of the 2008 batch failed to thrive on the programme.”
Those who quit the IP would either switch back to the ‘O” levels track, or go on to the polytechnics or private institutions, or even venture overseas.