Tales of the Pandemic

A student’s perspective: What I learned from Singapore’s schools closing

Singapore is a country famous for having among the most rigorous education systems in the world. So when all its schools were shut in recent months as the pandemic took hold, student Charmaine Sew acquired a valuable life lesson of her own

Written By:
May 18, 2020
A student’s perspective: What I learned from Singapore’s schools closing
Charmaine (third from left) with her cross country team before the pandemic hit. Photo: Supplied

Charmaine Sew lives in Singapore with her family and is a student studying at Victoria Junior College. She is a member of the school’s Outdoor Activities Club and Cross Country Team. While the Globe takes the utmost care to publish accurate information, by the nature of these first-hand accounts we are unable to independently verify their accuracy.

Even when news of the first Covid-19 case hit our shores, it still seemed far removed from the daily life of many Singaporeans. For students like me, it felt even further. What was there to worry about? Surely we would be safe in the confines of our campuses, protected from the outside world? No one expected it to infiltrate our lives – but we were wrong. 

On 7 February, my school became one of the first to register a positive case. When news broke, I remember that initial shock, that chill coursing through my spine. That was only a precursor to everything else that was to come. 

I noticed that the public would purposefully keep their distance if they spotted us in our school uniform. For the first time in my life, I felt ashamed to be associated with my school. I realised that what we had been practicing, had come back to haunt us.

When China was first hit, xenophobia spiked in Singapore. Now we were experiencing that distancing, that societal rejection, first-hand. We were placed into the shoes of ostracism, a glaring “us versus them” mechanism that society had developed, a form of psychological self-defence in the face of uncertainty. 

Things in school came to a standstill. Safe-distancing measures were rolled out. Lectures were stopped, school assemblies cancelled. What hit the hardest, however, was the cancellation of all co-curricular activities (CCAs) for two weeks. Just like my cross country team and outdoor activites, most CCAs were gearing up for competitions, events and ramping up on training intensities. CCAs were what we found excitement, purpose, and most importantly, belonging, in – it was a huge part of what made school, well, school

The next few weeks were paradoxical. Days seemed endless. When CCAs – the one thing that preoccupied us the most, stopped –  it left us with so much free time in our hands that boredom engulfed us. Yet, days were also moving so quickly. Plans were always changing, activities had to be shelved and days were unpredictable. It seemed as though we were living minute-by-minute.

For Singaporean students, we have been so accustomed to the hectic rigour of our education system, that to suddenly be ‘gifted’ with so much time left us at a loss

But things could not stop. Plans had to be rethought, to find a Plan B and a Plan C and a Plan D. Whatever it took to make the best out of the situation. 

For Singaporean students, we have been so accustomed to the hectic rigour of our education system, that to suddenly be “gifted” with so much time left us at a loss. Many of us were forced to recalibrate our lives. Though my voice is not representative of the whole student population, I do think we have all been forced to take a step back and look at how we have been leading our lives. 

It’s always been true that you do not know what you have until it’s gone. School really is not itself without the multitude of activities that come along with it and the friends that you have to tide you through the times. I have learnt to be more appreciative of our “pressure-cooker” education system. Looking back, all those instances of petty complaints about school are mere reflections of how sheltered and thankless we have become. We take for granted the things that we have but when we lose them we realise how blessed we had been with them. 


But now that life has been stripped to its bare essentials, we have been forced to dig deeper into our own lives, to do some soul-searching and find out what it means to live a life that you are content with – without all that  ‘glitz’ and ‘glamour’. 

Perhaps this is what life is meant to be like. Perhaps it is meant to be something that you live by yourself – to take things as they are and to go at your own pace. Yet, it has become a concept we are so unfamiliar with.

It is only with this realisation that I have seen the importance of finding joy in the littlest of things. Simple things, like a blue sky, food on the table, understanding something new. I have learnt to cherish life for what it is and to be grateful for everything out there. 

Looking beyond the gates of the school campus, the pandemic has opened my eyes to the world. The world out there is so much bigger than myself and there are bigger things out there worth fighting compared to the little losses of mine. All those grumbles, laments of unluckiness and petulance mean nothing.

I may only be a student, but as I sit behind my desk doing home-based learning in the sheltered bubble I live in, I will continue to count my blessings and have faith in Singaporeans and the world beyond myself. 

This story is part of the Globe’s Tales of the Pandemic series, a collection of personal essays from across Southeast Asia called published each Monday covering different aspects of life during this unprecedented time in human history. All of these Covid-19 stories can be found here. If you’d like to contribute a personal essay of your own, please email your story of roughly 1,000 words to

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