SINGAPORE - By correctly spelling the word "zeitgeist", 11-year-old Justinian Guan has become Singapore's champion speller.
Earlier today, the Primary 6 pupil of Rosyth School, beat 21 others in a competition that came down to a two-way battle in the grand final of the fourth RHB-The Straits Times National Spelling Championship. The finalists representing 15 primary schools emerged from a record 1,654 participants this year, in the mind-sport event of the year organised in partnership with the Ministry of Education (MOE).
In the IlluminITE auditorium, Institute of Technical Education College Central, Justinian completed the word as the over 300-strong audience which comprised fellow student supporters, teachers, principals and parents and readers of The Straits Times held their breath before erupting into loud cheers of relief and jubilation.
That correct spelling displaced his opponent, Sng Hwee Woon, 11, from CHIJ St Nicholas Girls' School Primary, who was first runner-up, in a reverse twist. Both the pupils came from the North zone, where Hwee Woon - the zone champion - had bested Justinian, who was unplaced in that March 28 round.
In third place was Neil Goh Ken Tze, 11, from Anglo-Chinese School (Primary). The three ousted their competitors after a 2-hour showdown; after having made it through the preliminary on March 7 and the zonals on March 28.
Facing a judging panel from The Straits Times, MOE's English Language Institute of Singapore (ELIS), and the Speak Good English Movement, each finalist took turns to spell aloud the words enunciated by master teacher with ELIS, Ms Shakila Vasu.
Every time a single letter was misspelled meant that the participant was out of the quest. As the rounds progressed with increasing difficulty, they were eliminated one by one, some tripping on words such as "herbaceous", "ebullient" and "posthumous".
A group of Singapore Chinese Girls' School pupils perked up the audience with their loud screams and cheering for their schoolmate, Nicole Lim, 11. They won a hamper for being the Most Supportive School.
All the finalists of the RHB-The Straits Times National Spelling Championship 2015 with guest-of-honour Minister Lawrence Wong, The Straits Times managing editor Ignatius Low, RHB Banking Group Chief Governance Officer Puan Norazzah Sulaiman, and officials.
Justinian walked away with $5,000 and the Challenge Trophy for his school, while the second and third place winners respectively received $3,000 and $1,000. The top winners in the four zonal rounds each received $500 cash and $100 worth of book vouchers at the prize presentation today. Each finalist also received a medal for his achievement.
The top pupils of today's competition will also be invited to compete in a cross-border spelling competition, slated for November this year. The RHB Spelling Masters, as the friendly competition is named, will pit top Singapore spellers against Malaysia's champions from its Spell-It-Right competition, which is an initiative of event sponsor RHB.
Guest-of-Honour Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister of Culture, Community and Youth and Second Minister of Communications and Information, commended the contestants, encouraging them to go beyond just the competition.
He said: "Do it for the love of the language. Work hard consistently at it every day. This is the kind of attitude and discipline that will put you in good stead in the future."
Chief judge of the championship and editor of The Straits Times' Schools programme, Ms Serene Goh, said: "This year's Big Spell had all the makings of a thriller -- it is not just a show of skill, but sportsmanship and human endeavour. In addition to the expert handling of the words themselves, we can celebrate our competitors' sporting character, their stamina and their sheer determination."
In his opening address, managing editor of The Straits Times, Mr Ignatius Low, noted how The Big Spell had always aimed to inspire young learners to achieve a higher level of English language skill, "to read more, and then, find a voice to express themselves". He said: "This competition has stoked in young learners a continual desire to improve. To deconstruct its success is to look at its spirit, which is not to elevate just one champion, but encourage all young learners to engage in perfecting a language skill."
From RHB Banking Group, Dato' Khairussaleh Ramli, its Deputy Group Managing Director, said RHB chose to champion this competition for many reasons beyond financial services - it was about empowering and encouraging youth to excel.
"The growth of this championship has been overwhelming. What began with a mere 1,200 participants four years ago has now surpassed 1,600 pupils. Your presence here proves the younger generation has a desire to improve their grasp of the English language," he said.
Singapore's Minister of Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong cheers on Sng Hwee Woon of CHIJ St Nicholas Girls' School Primary, who was placed overall second in the finals of the RHB-The Straits Times National Spelling Championship 2015 on April 25, 2015.
MOE's Dr Elizabeth Pang, from the English language and literature branch of the Curriculum Planning and Development Division 2, said: "It was very encouraging to see so many pupils take part in the National Spelling Championship this year. The pupils' enthusiasm and sportsmanship were evident. Many participants were of a good standard and this made the competition even more exciting."
The programme director of literacy development added: "Through this event, we hope that our pupils have fun and also develop a love for the English language."
The contest is open to Primary 4, 5 and 6 pupils. It is co-organised by RHB Banking Group and The Straits Times, in partnership with the Ministry of Education. The Big Spell is supported by the National Library Board and Institute of Technical Education College Central. The venue sponsors were Sports Hub Library and Suntec Singapore.