When it comes to English literature, it seems that Singapore students are world-beaters.
They have won the Angus Ross Prize - given to the top A-level English literature student outside Britain - almost every year, since it was first awarded in 1987. The only year when it was not given to a student here was in 2000.
Examiners, teachers and past winners say the winning streak may be due to the use of English as a first language here, teachers' focus on getting students to think beyond the text and, ultimately, students' passion for literature.
The high standards shown by students here has even made the University of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), a department of the renowned British university that gives out the award, narrow its search for the winner to among the pool of Singapore candidates since 2010.
The CIE told The Straits Times that this is because past experience showed that the "clear winners were always amongst Singapore candidates".
This year's review of the results for some 12,000 candidates also confirmed that top students here have outperformed their peers from about 100 countries, such as New Zealand, Mauritius and the United States, it added.
Last year, Singapore had about 1,500 candidates who took H2 Literature in English, which is equivalent in rigour to the A-level subject. In May, Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) alumnus Raymond Scott Lee, who sat the exam last year, bagged the award.
Mr Lee, 19, who would visit the school library during study breaks to read anthologies of poems from the Victorian period, said: "I wasn't the best literature student in school, but I love the subject."
On CIE limiting the search for the winner among candidates here, Mr Lee said: "It is an affirmation of Singapore's high standards in the subject."
He noted that the move is understandable as it would be tedious for examiners to go through more than 10,000 scripts, but that it might be "unfair to candidates from other countries".
CIE senior examiners commented that this year's winning works were "beautifully structured" and "informed by an excellent understanding". A panel of examiners select the winner based on criteria like "maturity of thought and brilliance of expression".
The senior consultant of HCI's English department, Ms Heng Siok Tian, who has been teaching English literature for over 20 years, said there is no formula for producing top literature students.
HCI has produced half of the 28 Singapore winners.
"We teach them the different styles of writing, and encourage them to find their own voice," said Ms Heng.
Her colleague, Mr Mark Tan, who has been teaching literature at HCI for five years, added that his students would write extra essays just to get feedback. "The students are curious and they want to know more. They would often stay back after class to discuss the texts with us," he said.
Ms Rathiga Veerayan, a literature tutor at Raffles Institution, highlighted her students' proficiency in English.
Literature requires analysis and application, instead of rote learning and memorisation, she added.
She said her students attend theatre performances and poetry recitals to explore the subject outside the classroom.
Last year's winner, Ms Claire Yang, 20, admitted that she did not read much beyond her literature texts, but she would ask questions in class. "Instead of spoon-feeding us, the teachers would get us to share our perspectives, allowing us to build confidence in our own independent thoughts," said the HCI alumna, who is now alaw student at the National University of Singapore.
Past Singapore winners include theatre actress Emma Yong, who died of stomach cancer at age 37, and Mr Li Shengwu, 30, who is a grandson of the late former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Ms Heng said her teachers merely build on foundations that students have developed over time.
"The students, and their former teachers, have also worked hard," she noted. "Their success doesn't happen overnight. We are not miracle workers."
This article was first published on Aug 24, 2015.
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