Saturday, December 25, 2010

Views from the Middle

My first blog - view from the middle.

So here I am, writing my first blog. Never thought I'd ever do this. Crazy as it may sound, I hate writing, mainly because I am not often well organized in my thoughts. I just wish I can transfer brainwaves directly to paper.

Anyhow, I thought this is the time to pen down my observations, feelings and opinions, of the goings-on around me. Views, which I hope, are reflective of those mildly quiet middle-class (like me), of those whose choose to remain silent except to grumble to their spouses, colleagues, bar-mates and kopi-tiam kakis (like me). And those who spend long moments deep in thought while waiting for the ERP gantry to go off peak (not like me).

Today, I dwell on the plight of the returning Singaporeans, of those who had the opportunity to live, work and perhaps enjoy life overseas. Ok, I know, I am not the authority on this topic. So I'll relate my own experiences.

I left Singapore to work in Frankfurt 14 years ago. My first daughter was only two months old. Since then, my job assignments had taken us to 4 other cities. We also also returned to Singapore for a brief stint in 2002.

In late 2008, we returned  to Singapore. When we were given our deposting orders, we were anxious about our elder daughter's education, who had,  through the years overseas, been studying in international schools. She had completed Primary 1 & 2 while we were back here between 2003 & 2004. At 13, she would have to start Secondary 1 when we come back.

Prior to our home coming, we found out from the Ministry of Education that all returning Singaporeans wishing to enter public schools have to sit for an "entrance exam".  Called the Secondary Schools entrance test for Returning Singaporeans, that was you take place in October. Without any PSLE results, Des can't apply for a place in any school except international ones.

Considering that international schools cost at least $15,000 per child (fees only), both my kids would set me back $30k~$40k a year. Blood drained from my head as I considered the option.  Swooning, and breathing now labored, we called a few international schools. "Sorry, no space for your daughters, sir". "We can put your daughters in the waiting list sir."  Sitting on the edge of my chair, I said "Great, please do so, and what's the wait like?"

"Queue number 254"!!! Thud. Large dent on the carpet as I fell off unceremoniously from my perch.

So we planned to make a special trip back for Des to sit for the exam. Two papers, we were told, maths and science. We'll send you instructions for the time and venue closer to the date, the MoE officer assured us. Three days before the exam, we still hadn't heard from MoE, and we were due to fly back from UK. Frantic calls, passed on from person to person, and finally, someone says we'll get a call back. One day passed and we still hadn't received word. Finally, after more calls, and more redirecting, we received the instructions - 10am to 4pm at Singapore Expo. Wow. There must be a lot of candidates for the exam to be held there.

We got to Expo and I was stunned to see about 2000+ candidates! But it was not just for Returning Singaporeans. There were masses of foreigners as well, from Korea, Japan, China, Indian, Philippines, Vietnam, as well as from far afield as USA, UK and Australia.

Des did pretty well, bless her little head, as she had put her whole heart and mind into preparing for the exam.  Three solid weeks of assessment book culture was well worth it.

Then the results came. "Des is eligible for express stream." Yippee. Hang on,  the secondary school selections available were for only Government schools.  Sorry, no Government-aided, secular or SAP schools allowed! Nada, Niet. Non. Why, we asked MoE?  No clear answer was immediately available. But what if we wanted a Catholic (or Buddhist, or Jedi, or Hogwarts) school for my kid? Sorry mate, you've had the good life all those years so now it's payback time. But my family is Singaporean, doesn't that count for anything? Pardon monsieur, you have no identity here, you have no religion and your kid doesn't deserve a place in the good schools here.  Count yourself lucky mate. Take it or leave it.

Living in the East, our preferred choice was naturally in the East.  Besides, the Primary School for our younger daughter is co-located at the same compound as the Secondary School for Des. Furthermore, since Des studied in the same Primary School, why would I want her in any other school.  Not that I have any issue with the Government-schools, but my allowed choices were Bedok North, Bedok South, Bedok Green, Bedok Brown, Bedok East, Bedok West, Bedok....ok you get the point.

Geesh.  Time to pay a visit to the schools of OUR choice, and put them on waitlist.

WAITlist - {verb} {used with object}. to place on a list of WAITING list.  So that's what we did... wait, and wait and wait, and WAIT.....

Finally, on 31Dec, we get a call from the school.  Come for an interview, the caller said.  All dressed up and a quick rehearsal later, Des sits in the Vice Principal's office.  40 nervous minutes later, the VP says Des should do an audition to assess her Drama, Acting, Singing talents.  Another 45 anxious minutes pass.

"Ok, we'll take her in".  Phew! Relief, and blood, flooded back into our already-white-knuckles, tense from the wait.  Good job the bladder wasn't full.

So, on the first day of school, Des couldn't even start but had to proceed to the MoE assigned school.  We head on to Bedok Green to de-register her from their rolls.  "She's not listed here,"  Huh?  But MoE says she's assigned this school, so what happened?  Shit happened, that's what it was.  My tiff with the MoE guy behind the counter could have "de-citizen'd" my kid.  Then it's off to buy uniforms, books, pain killers.

And so, my readers, is the kind of pain one goes through if you're a returning Singaporean.  Be prepared before you come back.

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