Where are the psle top scorers now?

They may have topped their cohort in the high stakes exam, but did it set them up for success in life? We find out.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

They may have topped their cohort in the high stakes exam, but did it set them up for success in life? We find out.

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Remember when PSLE top scorers were so admired that they became poster kids for tuition centres and brain friendly chicken essence? Parents and kids tuned in to the media to listen to them share their secrets of academic success.

Muhammad Saad Siddiqui, (pictured left) who was the top Indian pupil in 2009 with a score of 277, recalls his 15 minutes of fame, right outside Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) where he studied.

He told The Straits Times (ST): “The poster was up in front of my school for the first six months of Secondary 1. It was novel and it did get me noticed a little.”

The 21-year-old will be starting a human, social and political sciences course at Cambridge University in September.

Rebecca Jeyaraj topped her cohort with a score of 281 in 2006. In interviews on TV and newspapers, the Raffles Girls’ Primary School pupil shared her ambition to be a doctor, like her mother who worked as a general practitioner and father, a transplant surgeon.

Now 23, Rebecca is fulfilling her dream as a medical student at University College London.
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Just one of many

Like Muhammad and Rebecca, these high achievers are the first to admit that snagging the highest scores at PSLE does not necessarily guarantee a cushy future.

Never mind that they get to pick from good secondary schools. As several discovered, being the top student can pile on the pressure

Peggy Pao-Keerthi Pei Yu, a legal service officer, sat the PSLE in 1995. She scored 286, the highest for that year.

Now 34, she told ST: “I did feel some pressure to continue performing well... Thankfully, my parents always told me that the most important thing is to try my best.”

No preferential treatment was extended to outstanding students. Livia Teo’s (pictured right) PSLE score of 290 in 1993 gave her a place in Raffles Girls’ School, after which she studied at Raffles Junior College. The former Nanyang Primary pupil was third in her cohort.

“I was initially quite excited to be labelled a top student,” said the 36-year-old consultant ophthalmologist in an interview with ST.

“But the excitement soon wore off when I started secondary school, where there were many new challenges like making friends and adjusting to a new environment.”

“The PSLE might seem like the most important thing when you are 12,” she added, “but people will soon forget your score. By the time I entered JC, everyone had forgotten about the PSLE. And it definitely did not come up at my job interview.”

Academic achievement was not always a breeze. Rebecca said that getting into medical school was especially tough. The RGS and Raffles Institution alumna had failed her chemistry preliminary paper a month before the ‘A’ levels.

“It made me more determined to work hard,” she shared with ST. “Things definitely don’t come easy to me. There are times when I have found my studies difficult, but in those instances, I have taken my time to understand things and have never been afraid to ask for help.”

Being a top scorer have encouraged some top pupils to take a road less travelled. Many have gone on to be civil servants, lawyers and business consultants but not Bjorn Lee Varella, 23.

The top Eurasian pupil in 2006 with a score of 270, he is a second-year art history student at Columbia University. The Maris Stella High and RI alumnus wants to work as a performance artist and curator in Singapore after graduation.

As he told ST: “I am probably one of the more striking examples of someone who has pursued an unconventional path in the arts.”

“The PSLE might seem like the most important thing when you are 12, but people will soon forget your score. By the time I entered JC, everyone had forgotten about the PSLE. And it definitely did not come up at my job interview.”

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Celebrating other achievements

For the last six years, however, names of top PSLE pupils have remained a secret. The Ministry of Education announced in 2012 that it would no longer list the top scorers when releasing national examination results.

Soh Qian Ying (pictured above), 19, garnered a score of 275 that placed her among the top 10 in 2011. That was when the last batch of top PSLE pupils was announced.

The alumna of RGS and RI told ST that while it was nice to be recognised: “I also feel happy because the unnecessary expectations and pressure can be taken off the shoulders of some students.”

Schools now celebrate their good performers in groups. They also recognise pupils who overcame the odds in their lives or did well in nonacademic areas such as sports.

Emergency medicine physician Dr Nur Diana Zakaria, the top Malay pupil in 2000, believes this is the right way.

Every child can excel in his own way, said Dr Diana, 30, who scored 287.
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No more T-score

In an endeavour to reduce the emphasis on results, the PSLE will be revamped.

In 2021, the aggregate score, which has often been criticised for causing excessive stress among pupils, will be removed.

The new scoring system converts marks into grade bands 1 to 8, so a child’s PSLE scores will be the sum of grades in all subjects, with 4 being the best score.

Mridula Sairam (pictured right), who was the top Indian pupil in 200 with a score of 281, believes these grade bands can help to reduce unnecessary competition, and the stress that comes with learning.

The 21-year-old, who is pursuing a double degree in business management and economics at Singapore Management University, aspires to become a management consultant.

But the mindset that academic achievement is all that matters will take time to change, she told ST.

“The PSLE might seem like a huge milestone, but years later, I can say with confidence that it does not define you. It would be very unfortunate for anyone to limit his selfworth to the numbers on a certificate.”

According to National University of Singapore economics lecturer Kelvin Seah, research shows that people who do well academically early in life tend to also excel in their studies and jobs later in life.

A good PSLE score creates opportunities for students to study in selective secondary schools, where peers tend to be higher-achieving.

But there can be exceptions, he told ST. “There are now multiple education pathways, which means that it is possible for a person to acquire a degree and be eligible for a higher-paying job even if he or she does not do very well for the PSLE.” That’s one lesson parents might want to pick up, too.


6 ways to help your child during PSLE year


Encourage your children to develop hobbies that don’t relate to their studies. “If they have a reason to finish their work on time, it will give them the incentive to work smart. Also get them to set achievable targets and reward them with positive comments,” says Helen Marijan, CEO and director of studies at Lorna Whiston Schools.


Remind him to breathe Ask him to close his eyes for a few minutes and take slow, deep breaths whenever he feels stressed. If need be, get him to do a physical activity to take his mind off his studies for a bit. Squeezing a stress ball may also work, especially for kinaesthetic learners, who crave bodily movements while studying.

Let him practise mental relaxation “Tell your child: ‘Think of a place, either real or imaginary. Close your eyes and make your mind go blank. Imagine that there’s a movie screen at the back of your eyelids. Project images and sounds onto it using your senses, to ease yourself into total relaxation. Remember these images and feelings,’ “ suggests Alan Yip, founder of Mind Edge enrichment centre.

“Your kid can practise this three times a day for the first month and subsequently once a day or as often as needed.”

Tell him to remain positive Remind your child to accept his limitations. “Not everyone can get straight As so tell your child that he can only do his best. Remind yourself, and them, that nobody is perfect,” says Helen.

Alan adds: “When your child has set his goals, he must press on even when he’s tired and there are many challenges ahead. Get him to practise positive visualisation – ask him to close his eyes and think of an occasion when he was engaged in a very successful activity, and was feeling confident, happy and in control – the same feelings he’ll experience when he achieves his goals.”

• Listen without prejudice Encourage your child to ask questions and to express his concerns and fears. Build up his confidence by using encouragement and affection, instead of punishment.

“Allow your child to make choices and have some control in his life. The more people feel they have control over a situation, the better their response to stress will be,” Helen advises.

Plan a family outing each week Visits to the science centre, zoo and bird park not only help your kids to de-stress but will also expose them to science topics. “This way, your children are learning and enjoying themselves at the same time,” says Alan. “I’d also recommend sports activities. Exercise releases serotonin, a chemical which helps to reduce stress levels.”


Bedtime should be consistent. “A lack of sleep can lead to decreased attentiveness, poorer short-term memory, inconsistent performance and delayed response time. Make sure that there’s enough time for your children to unwind before they sleep,” Helen says.


Provide him with healthy meals and snacks to raise his energy levels. “Too much sugar will turn him hyperactive while too little sugar makes him tired and irritable. Replace biscuits and cakes with a fruit bowl and make sure he eats lots of vegetables. Don’t buy sugary drinks – encourage him to drink lots of water instead,” Helen advises.

Limit his intake of fast food and encourage him to eat more oats, brown rice and bread, wholewheat pasta as well as seeds and nuts. These, along with oily fi sh such as mackerel, sardines, tuna and salmon, are all good sources of essential fats, necessary for developing a healthy brain.


Colours stimulate the brain, increasing productivity and accuracy, says Helen.

“Cool colours like blue, green, purple and silver can help people to concentrate better. You may have noticed that libraries often use a pale colour or light green to create an effect that enhances quietness and concentration. You can do the same with your child’s bedroom or study room walls.”

Alan also suggests using different coloured pens. “Brighter colours like red and orange release happy chemicals in the brain, stimulating it to remember better.”


Alan says: “A day before the exam, get all the study materials together. Spend 30 minutes doing an overview of the materials with your child before intensively reviewing only the most important ones.

“Then, spend time creating mind maps or reciting the main points out loud. Put the points into a song or draw pictures if you need to, if such ways will help the child retain information better.” He also advises that children should get plenty of sleep on the eve of the exam.

Alan advises you to remind your child: “In the hours immediately before the exam, do not try to learn anything new. Use positive images in your mind and talk to yourself in a positive way.

“Review what you need to do if you are nervous – avoid talking to other nervous students. During the exam, don’t pay attention to what others are doing. Budget your time wisely and tackle the questions that you’re confident about first.”