Tue, Aug 18, 2009
The Straits Times
Three S'poreans come out tops at Oxford

by Lynn Kan

Three Singaporeans topped their respective courses at Oxford University this year, in a rare and extraordinary showing.

They did politics, philosophy and economics (PPE); physics; and law.

And one of them is the grandson of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

Mr Li Shengwu, 24, whose father is Fraser & Neave chairman Lee Hsien Yang, took top spot in his PPE class of 240 students.

Mr Shyam Srinivasan, 22, was first among 70 who did physics, while Mr Colin Liew, 23, scored first in law and bagged a £1,250 (S$2,900) award.

Mr Liew's achievement was reported in The Sunday Times on July 26.

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The three top scorers are among 13 Singaporeans who graduate from Oxford this year.

The trio's achievement is unprecedented, said Mr Chim Yi Hua, a fellow PPE graduate with Mr Li.

The former president of the Oxford University Malaysian and Singaporean Students' Association said he could not recall such an unusual outcome in recent years.

'It's not easy to top one's cohort - not at all. To have three this year is very rare,' said Mr Chim, 22.

Added Mr Li: 'It's one of those things where the element of chance featured a great deal in the outcome.'

Mr Srinivasan said he was not overly surprised by the coincidence. 'Singaporeans generally do very well in Oxford.'

Besides topping PPE, Mr Li was named the top overall economics student across Oxford's 30 colleges that offer PPE and 18 that offer a joint degree in history and economics.

He received the Hicks and Webb Medley prize and £300 in prize money for his achievement.

Mr Li, who is not on a government scholarship, graduated from Balliol College. He attributed his performance in the examinations to the quick-thinking and cool head honed by many years of debating since secondary school.

At the college, he debated with Oxford Union, the university's debating club whose famous past members include the late former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto and former British prime minister Edward Heath.

Said Mr Li: 'Oxford exams reward people who can write off the cuff. In that sense, debating has some overlap with it. You need to organise information and come up with ideas quickly under time pressure.'

On Aug 5, he and a fellow Oxford debater won the European Universities Debating Championships, outperforming 163 other teams in the English as first language section.

His parents are both graduates of Cambridge University. His father got first class honours in engineering while his mother, corporate lawyer Lee Suet Fern, took a double first in law.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang credits his son's self-driven and independent nature for his achievements.

'Whatever he's done and accomplished, he's done on his own and it's very much to his credit,' he said.

Mr Li returns to Oxford's Keble College next month to pursue a Masters in Economics. He said: 'I liked both philosophy and economics, but I'm specialising in my comparative advantage - I am relatively better at economics.'

As for Mr Srinivasan, a former Indian national from Chennai who became a Singapore citizen in 2006, his interest in physics was sparked at an astronomy competition during his years at Geylang Methodist Secondary School.

The holder of an Overseas Merit Scholarship for teaching was 'very stimulated and encouraged' by his tutors at St Hugh's and hopes to inspire his students later.

'Physics isn't a popular subject, but it has a lot to offer - the chance to probe fundamental scientific processes and how to explain things right from first principles.'

He will return after completing his Masters in Applied Physics at Columbia University in the United States, and embark on a teaching career after he does his national service.

His passion for physics culminated in the Scott Prize for best performance in physics and £300 in prize money.

While the prizes are given out every year, none of the numero unos had aimed for the top spot from the outset.

Said Mr Li: 'I knew academic prizes existed for top students, but I didn't make it my goal. My only goal was to do as well as I could.'

Added Mr Srinivasan: 'In the end, it was the support from parents and friends, the little things, like a friend cooking for me during the finals, that helped us out.'

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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