By Serene Luo
IN A break from tradition, one of this year's President's Scholars will be going to university in China - the first to do so.
All the previous winners of Singapore's most prestigious scholarship have gone mainly to Ivy League schools in the United States, or to top British universities.
Piqued by her interest in the 'Chinese psyche', Miss Tan Bao Jia, 19, picked Peking University over the Wharton School in the United States.
The former Dunman High School student council president is from the first batch of PSC China scholars, a new category of scholarships introduced this year.
But it was not smooth sailing all the way for her. She admitted with a laugh that at one point she had second thoughts about doing Chinese Language and Literature, as well as China Studies, at the A-level standard.
Miss Tan, who speaks English, Mandarin and Hokkien with her father, a shipping manager, and mother, a housewife, found the first few months tough going.
'It was harder than I thought it would be to love the subject,' she said of Chinese literature. 'But the teachers helped, and I grew to love some of the China writers.'
Among her favourites: major 20th-century writers Lu Xun and Lao She.
The avid trekker, who also enjoys solving Sudoku puzzles, is the eldest of three girls. Her younger sisters are at Tanjong Katong Girls' School and Victoria Junior College.
She will study economics, and believes that Singapore will benefit from having people who understand Chinese culture first-hand and how the country operates.
Being part of Dunman High's pioneer batch of integrated programme graduands, she had a taste of life in China - having spent five months there under the school's bicultural studies programme.
Dunman High principal Sng Chern Wei, a President's Scholar himself, told The Straits Times that the teachers at Peking University and other top Chinese universities were top-grade teachers.
'It is just as exciting and vibrant as in Ivy League or Oxbridge schools,' he said.
Mr Sng said Miss Tan, who entered Dunman High as a very shy student, 'has really blossomed into a very articulate young lady'.
Miss Tan and the five other President's Scholars this year were picked from a pool of 87 PSC scholars.
They were presented their scholarship awards by President S R Nathan at an Istana ceremony yesterday.
Mr Nathan called on the six to not just excel in their studies but to also be active in community work and help the less fortunate. This would help them to understand the concerns of ordinary people when they return to Singapore.
One of the scholars, Mr Alexander Joseph Woon, 19, will be following in his parents' footsteps.
He will be reading law in Cambridge University - the alma mater of his father, Attorney-General Walter Woon, and mother, Mrs Janis Woon, a deputy registrar with the Family Court.
He will have company at Cambridge as his fraternal twin brother Adrian will also be there, reading law too.
Asked if law ran in the genes, Alexander, 19, quipped: 'My grandparents are all teachers actually.'
But the former Raffles Junior College student added that 'living in a household where there are two lawyers, when they talk about law all the time...you know there is going to be something there'.
But he also felt that practising law had tangible results. 'When you go to court and put away a rapist or a murderer, you go to bed feeling good about yourself,' he said.
He may end up working alongside fellow scholarship winner Jonathan Au Yong, 19.
The Singapore Police Force Overseas Scholarship holder cannot wait to don his policeman blues. 'I definitely want to see the effects of my work. I want to solve crimes, and give victims' families catharsis. I can make a difference to the everyday Singaporean on the street,' he said.
Also in uniform is Mr Nicholas Tay Weizhe, a Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholarship holder with the air force.
As a young boy in Catholic High School, he never imagined he would travel overseas to study, let alone be named a President's Scholar.
The elder son of a crane operator and construction company director, he felt he should aim for a scholarship to pay for his studies. His younger brother, Nixon, is in Secondary 3.
He had never been a straight-A student, and his mother, Madam Tan Chui Hong, 48, a director at a small construction firm, recalled how he struggled with some of his classes and his teachers despaired over him.
That is all in the past. 'I'm so happy for him that even as I walk on the road, I will laugh,' she said, beaming.
The remaining two winners will continue the scholarship's time-tested tradition of studying in top British universities.
Former National Junior College student council president and former Girl Guide Gan Su Yi, 18, will be going to London's University College to study economics, while drama enthusiast Claire Soon, 19, will join the Foreign Service on returning from reading history at Oxford.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.