Twenty-eight years ago, my family and I were living in a sleepy suburb outside London when my dad decided to take up a job offer on the other side of the world, in Singapore. My parents wanted a change of scenery, and it would be a chance to spend a bit more time with my mother’s side of the family in Malaysia. “It’s just for a couple of years,” my parents assured an anxious, seven-year old me, who just couldn’t figure out why any sensible parent would want to uproot their perfectly happy child and force her to leave friends, family and school so far behind (ahem).
Fast-forward those twenty-eight years, and I found myself in a state of déjà-vu recently when we packed up our life in Edinburgh, Scotland and moved, for the second time, back to Singapore – this time with my own slightly reluctant kids in tow. My eldest daughter is just a year younger than I was when I first moved here, so it feels like my life has just come full circle and I find myself back where I started, one generation later.
But it’s different for them. My children are both British and Singaporean, both expat and local, still trying to find out where they fit in. And school is going to play a huge part in that.
I lived a totally expat life here in the 80s/90s and attended international schools. I have really fond memories of my time at Tanglin Trust and UWC, and when we first considered moving to Singapore, we looked into the possibility of enrolling them into one of my old schools. However, aside from the hefty fees and long waiting lists, we were surprised to find that they were not even eligible for entry. The girls have dual citizenship, and it is compulsory for all citizens to attend local school at primary level – they are actually prohibited from entering international schools barring special circumstances.
I was a bit shocked at first that we didn’t have much choice over our children’s educational options, but I guess the Singapore government has a very clear agenda when it comes to moulding their young citizens. Identity-building has been a major, ongoing government project since Singapore gained independence in 1965 and the education system is key to implementing it. “Character and Citizenship” is a formal part of the curriculum, its goal being to “inculculate values and build competencies in our students to develop them to be good individuals and useful citizens.” Bet that’s going to be interesting!
Many of you know that the reason we dashed back to Singapore at the end of June 2015 (rather than hanging around to enjoy the Edinburgh Fringe as originally planned) is because we discovered that we needed to register Miss Chu for a Primary One spot in July. Miss Chu is 6, and under the Singapore system, she will be starting her first year of compulsory education in January 2016. School registration here is a particularly long and complex affair that runs throughout the months of July and August, as children are registered in seven phases based on varying levels of priority. With no ties to any schools, we didn’t qualify for registration until the 5th phase (2C), by which time several schools would only have a handful of places left, to be contested via ballot.
So we diligently spent a few nights researching the options and turned up a couple of schools that seemed like a good fit, and were unlikely to be oversubscribed by phase 2C. The week after flying back here, we found a flat within catchment and put down a deposit. Soon after, we filled in our school application and… I am pleased to say we are now the relieved parents of a little girl with a confirmed Primary One place for next year. Phew.
Now I’m just hoping that the Singapore school system is not going to be as tough as the media likes to make out. And wondering what the next step to Becoming Singaporean will be…