SINGAPORE - None of the 113 pupils from 42 primary schools would give up easily without a fight.
In four simultaneous zonal rounds this morning, the pupils battled it out to make it to the final of the RHB-The Straits Times National Spelling Championship 2015, attempting to outspell one another for a coveted spot.
Unlike the preliminary round, in which 1,654 pupils sat a written test at Suntec Singapore, zonal competitors had to verbally spell rounds of tough words on stage -- facing an audience and a judging panel -- each having to overcome nerves as they took turns to respond to words uttered by official pronouncers.
They breezed through words such as "capillaries", "versatile" and "taxidermist", but kept their supporters on tenterhooks, gasping or murmuring at words such as "onomatopoeia" and "spelunker".
Four zonal champions emerged from the nail-biting battle:
North zone (held at Woodlands Regional Library): Sng Hwee Woon, 11, Primary 6, CHIJ St Nicholas Girls' School
South zone (held at SPH Media Centre): Goh Shen Ee Matthew, 11, Primary 6, Anglo-Chinese School (Primary)
East zone (held at Tampines Regional Library): Selina Peh Yuet Ning, 11, Primary 6, St Hilda's Primary School
West zone (held at SPH News Centre): Jerome Thomas Ng Tze Loong, 10, Primary 5, Henry Park Primary School
Each is guaranteed a place in the grand final on April 25; they also won $500, and additional $100 in book vouchers, along with a certificate.
All other participants will be nationally ranked, and the top 20 or so bound for the grand final.
The championship is co-organised by RHB Banking Group and The Straits Times, in partnership with the Ministry of Education. It is supported by the Institute of Technical Education College Central and National Library Board; Sports Hub Library and Suntec Singapore are the venue partners.
At the start of this year's zonal round, competitors, officials and audience observed a minute of silence simultaneously in each of the four venues, as a mark of respect for Singapore's founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who died on March 23. A video montage celebrating his life and achievements was also played.
Ms Serene Goh, Editor of IN and Little Red Dot, The Straits Times' weekly publications for schools, said: "This year's zonal competitors can be proud for beating a greater number participants than ever for their spot on stage. We're seeing a spread of higher-skilled spellers across the board, not just a concentration of one or two from specific schools, so the fights were intense."
She added: "As a mind sport, The Big Spell stands for diligence, honour, resilience and excellence -- attributes that Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself stood for throughout his life. On Saturday, in four zones across the island, we simultaneously observed a moment of silence to remember not only his legacy, but the positive values he stood for."
Mr Jason Wong, country head of RHB Bank Berhad Singapore, said: "I am very proud of all the students who managed to gain an entry to the Zonal Rounds from a pool of more than 1,650 participants this year. Ultimately what I hope they can really take away from this competition is to learn to enjoy the journey, gain the experience and recognise that on top of hard work, sometimes luck plays a part in life too.
"As long as they have tried their best, they do not need to feel disappointed over the results. Try again next year!"
The zonal champions, along with other finalists with the best zonal scores, will fight for spelling supremacy in the final round on April 25 at ITE College Central. Minister of Culture, Community and Youth, Mr Lawrence Wong, will be the Guest-of-Honour at the finals. Mr Wong is also Second Minister for Communications and Information.
The champion speller on April 25 will take home $5,000 cash and win the Challenge Trophy for his or her school . The first and second runners-up will win $3,000 and $1,000 cash respectively. All finalists will each receive a medal.
The organisers hope the competition will develop a greater appreciation of the importance of spelling in literacy development among primary school pupils, as well as help to promote a healthy competitive spirit.
To follow the NSC, go to www.straitstimes.com/bigspell