UWC Locked: Singapore


by Cesar Almedia, United World College Maastricht
20th May, 2020


It’s Saturday morning and the day is surrounded by a ubiquitous air of monotony. Due to its closeness to the origin of the virus, the country- and consequently the campus – has been experiencing dramatic changes early in the year. Since the school first made departure optional in January, students gradually started to leave. Some because of parental pressure, some because of fear to get stuck in Singapore. Any reason to go seemed valid.

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“Departures weren’t immediate” she recalls “they began when more borders started closing”. They also did not happen within a margin of 2 to 4 weeks, they have been happening for 5 months now. “People got used to saying goodbye. Before we would all walk together and wish farewell at the campus entrance, now because of stricter measures, we can’t even do that anymore.” 

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Real quarantine commenced in April. It started when their spring break was moved forward a week overnight. From there onwards, everything has been online. 

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She reckons it was not that bad at first; “While we could gather, we came together more often than usual and did activities that bonded and energized us”. From games and movie nights in common rooms to the organization of a talent show and an international film festival, there was enthusiasm and even a greater sentiment of ‘UWCness’ than usual. In addition, houseparents even put out fitness challenges to students or tasks to complete in teams. “Competitions like ‘capture the flag’ in the sports hall are things that brought us together”. These activities helped keep the UWC spirit alive and kicking.

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Since April, quarantine has adopted different forms, from loose restrictions to allow events such as the ones listed above, to stricter periods where the canteen worked as a take-away service. It all came to an end a week ago. On Thursday, April 30th, Singaporean authorities unexpectedly entered campus for an inspection. Interrupting the usual morning study session in the library, they emptied the school facility ordering Grade 11 students to go back to their rooms while demanding mask use and better social distancing measures within campus. Afterward, they restricted movement from the library, the gym and other school facilities, only to the canteen and back to the residences. 

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As the Singaporean government does not contemplate boarding schools as a specific housing category, they have tagged the school as a hostel implying then more restrictions to mobility and assembly, like wearing masks even within the halls of the boarding house. On a more optimistic side, she is thankful for being categorized as a hostel and not as a workers’ dorm, which would have meant a full lockdown where movement is restricted solely to the halls. 

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Currently, the so-called “Circuit breaker” quarantine that the country is ruled by is supposed to end on the 1st of June. Schools will slowly reopen. However, a running theory suspects that because the school is now categorized as a hostel, it will take longer for the boarding to open. Day students would then be let in school while the residence might remain closed. These speculations showcase not only the ambiguity in the government’s communication with the school, but also the broader uncertainty that surrounds UWCs facing the pandemic. 

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The school has complied with governmental advice within campus by enforcing mask usage inside the canteen as well as social distancing dining tables since early March. As of now, students are expected to wear masks every time they go out of their rooms. Houseparents supervise abidance to these regulations while making great efforts to stay approachable to students’ needs and concerns. They enforce these rules seriously in order to avoid further intervention from the strict Singaporean government. In fact, two students at NTU and NUS -Major higher education institutions- have been stripped from their student passes (a type of visa) for disobeying contingency protocols.

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Interestingly, she believes that her daily routine hasn’t changed drastically, it has just become more lonely. Every meal has become split, Grade 11 students eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner one hour earlier than Grade 12. She attends online classes from 8 am to 3 pm, taking occasional walks around the hall in her free periods. Grade 11 students mainly spend their afternoon doing homework in their personal study rooms. “My study room is right in front of my room, I just cross the hall and sit with a different view. Seems insignificant, but a change of view helps me get through my day”. From 7 to 8:30 there is a mandatory study time and from 10 pm onwards every one should be in their rooms, following a normal life procedure.

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In the meantime, Grade 12 people used to spend their days playing video games in the video games room (Yes, there is one. No, it is not new.) Now, they mainly knit or exercise. As the maintenance workers are not allowed in, some have been assigned to water the campus plants. Though this change might have taken a toll on people’s mental health, she notes routinary attention to people’s wellbeing. “We have online counseling available and a weekly survey that a houseparent sends to us called the Wellbeing Tracker. The school can only do so much about it. Before, dynamic activities helped us take care of each other, now, that’s forbidden” 

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While some staff members are staying in the residences for sanitary and working purposes only, the sudden closure of the Malaysian border also forced the school to provide for them. Said country is home for some facility workers and teachers. This situation also sparked fears for insufficient food as a huge inflow of commodities and resources come from Malaysia. “Although food is not scarce, sometimes there is a lack of ingredients, which results in weird, improvised dishes provided. It does not go much further than that and we actually have rather nice food most times.”

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Graduation plans for the May 2020 year group have grounded to a halt. A very emotional clap out through the school takes place as many students have spent big parts of their lives in it. A small graduation ceremony for the Grade 12 boarders took place in March, with renowned chefs invited to cook special food to the graduating class in the school canteen and even an ice sculpture being brought in. However, UWC Singapore’s unique Grade 11 prom passing to Grade 12 has been postponed to September, something to look forward to.  

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Necessity is the mother of invention. Amid joblessness and boredom, prior to the strict rules, positive initiatives and projects have come out of this crisis. Students made masks for workers clustered in the work dorms. “With our sewing machines, we set the goal to make 500 masks.” Although gathering to work on it is forbidden,  some houseparents and students are currently still working on this, at a slower pace.

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Latent emotions on campus manifest when people come together. Days ago, when eating lunch a few other topics broke the silence besides school, family, and the virus. More often than not, there are sources of stress among boarders.

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In January, the project week was canceled and transformed into an Extended Essay week. She has three weeks from now to submit her final English IO and Physics IA, as well as delivering a first full EE draft before June 20th. “All in all, I am comfortable with online classes. Even with considerably more homework, for a period of time, I enjoyed it much more as it was comfortable to attend in pajamas. Deadlines have been flexible. There are plenty of resources and committed teachers.”

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All in all, residential students have great faith and confidence in the improvement of the circumstances. Everyone is making the best out of what they can and a feeling of caring is widespread among campus. “We take care of ourselves and of each other”. The attitude of “think beyond yourself” has certainly made the community realize they are stronger together.

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Special thanks to the interviewee and Eleonore Viatte for the article’s editing

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