The IBO Post

Last updated 2012-07-19 00:31:27 SGT

I've just spent a week helping out with IBO 2012, organised in Singapore this year, at the invitation of Jeremy Lim, an old friend of mine. Having come from a Physics/Informatics Olympiad background myself, I went in with several preconceived notions about what it would all be like, all of which got promptly demolished after a few days.

The thing about biology as a discipline is that it demands significantly more right-brain activity than, say, olympiad mathematics. Consequently I think the IBO attracts quite a different participant demographic than do the other olympiads, which results in a substantially higher fraction of normal, non-nerdy people. That's not to say that these people aren't smart; it just means that they're less sacrificially smart than the physics/informatics people.

So instead of the amazingly geeky nerdfests that I know and love so well, what I got was something that perhaps more closely resembled a summer camp than a gathering of geeks, which is all the more amazing given that every single one of the participants were themselves winners of Biology Olympiads in their home countries (and had to be, to get here in the first place). But that's IBO for you, I guess.

Because of this, I found the event on the whole an extremely intense experience. It lasted ten days, but those were (aside from BMT and NS stuff) probably the longest ten days of my life.

When I got my assignment as a Team Guide for Cyprus, I do remember feeling vaguely disappointed that I wasn't a Senior Guide (like the rest of my classmates who signed up for this), since obviously I'd have to discard some of my antisocial tendencies in order to do my job properly. This seems to be a recurring theme in my recent history, given my combat grunt vocation during my National Service, but, well. The past week has been wonderful, and it would not have been quite so had I not been working directly on the ground instead of from some higher echelon.

Meet the Soldiers

As it turned out, Team Cyprus was pretty interesting. Two of them were big beefy guys, huge enough that Dr. Teo nicknamed them the Biker Gang, and huge enough for the name to stick. The other two were somewhat more gangly but no less badass (one of them had an eyebrow piercing). Their aura of badassery was exacerbated by the fact that, like Singapore, Cyprus has a conscript military, and these boys had enlisted two days before disrupting to fly over for the IBO. So they were all crew-cut (not Tekong-recruit bald, fortunately for them).

Unlike most of the team guides, however, I managed to discover my team allocation way beforehand, which prompted me to embark on a misadvised attempt to learn Greek in a week, much to everyone's amusement. It was a total failure as far as conversational Greek was concerned (I got as far as Chapter 3 of 16 before the event started and I ceased to have time to keep reading) but at least I was able to say “καλος ορισατε στιν Σινγκαπουρη!”1 when they arrived, and write Ιωηλ on my nametag, so it wasn't all that bad.

On the other hand, they had this annoying tendency to amble away and vanish moments before everyone would start boarding the bus, prompting me to rush around madly to attempt to discover their whereabouts. In fact there was this time when we were at the Marina Barrage and they were asking me how much it would cost and how long it would take to go once around the Singapore Flyer, which (I am not kidding) caused me to freak out and pull extra resources to keep an eye on them.

But that aside, they were really great people, and I wish I had more time to get to know them better.


If I learned anything from the IBO, I learned that it is a logistical nightmare to organise any truly international event competently. Singapore prides itself on being a cultural melting pot and culturally diverse border nation, but in truth our cultural composition is considerably more homogenous than some of the world's true metropolises. To make special arrangements for every demographic group which required them would be prohibitively demanding. We take our Four Major Ethnicities for granted.

One constant complaint from the participants throughout the IBO (and not just from my team) was that the food sucked. Of course, it helped that we (volunteers) ate the same food that they did, but I would tend to agree with them.

For example, our breakfast on the second day of the competition was porridge. Now, most of the participants don't eat rice on a regular basis (except for the Asian countries, obviously) so porridge was in itself a pretty unusual encounter. But my team (and the Greek team) refused to eat it because for them, porridge was a food reserved for sick people. On top of that, most of the locals also left it alone because for some reason it was served with (sweet) green beans, (over-salty) eggs, (savoury and somewhat oil-soggy) dough fritters and (semi-sweet) meat floss. It was … pretty poorly received.

Also, the food court has a grand total of one halal food shop (which served fiery Thai food). Since the Central Asian Muslim countries weren't used to spicy food, this created all kinds of problems. I suppose the intention of letting the participants eat at a food court was to let them have a taste of bona fide Singaporean food. The problem was that the food court wasn't quite a representative sample of Singaporean food.

In fact, most of us felt like we'd gotten the short end of the stick, especially because they printed the daily menu for both the participants and the jury in the same programme book. It's not very pleasant to eat PGPR food court food if you know that the jury would at that moment be enjoying a seven-course Chinese restaurant dinner.

Thankfully, my team was quite gracious about this (although I could tell they were getting sick of the food when they decided to start eating potato chips for lunch and dinner and buy char siew bao with their lunch coupons for breakfast). Some of the teams weren't.

Food aside, I was quite surprised by some things which revealed a lot about our cultural assumptions. I think almost all of our participants spoke more fluent English than our bus drivers; yet we would keep missing each other's cultural references. But it was also interesting to realise that everyone with Internet access knew what 9GAG was2, and that Ticket To Ride had fans around the world. When I was DJ for Social Night, I found it interesting, too, to watch people singing and dancing their hearts out to songs I had never heard before (Danze Kuduro and Ai Se Eu Te Pego, for instance), and to find myself humming along. Truly, music is universal.

Huh what pad?

As Dr. Moralis would say, make new friends and keep the old. I made a lot of new friends in a week! I must have broken a record or something. It is a great pity that won't be seeing them regularly anytime soon, but I sincerely wish that we get to keep in touch somehow.

I missed out on a lot of things to go for the IBO: work3, university orientation camps, two weeks' worth of pre-university preparation, Advanced Placement Credit exams, dinners with the guys, and so forth. I managed to miss out on sending Guo Wei off to Australia, too, and I feel quite guilty about that. But I wouldn't have done anything differently or missed a moment of it for all the world, because it was nothing short of amazing: singing along to the music of SCGS's dance with Zhi Hui; getting victimised by Chewy's “IQ question”; trying and failing to learn the lyrics to Катюша; playing with the Grand High Supreme Master Archon Guide's hair4; running around the zoo and the Bird Park like a headless chicken; using a high-powered torch as a strobe light and pointing a 2W blue laser at Malaysia; learning how to Bhangra from Bob … totally worth it.

I could go on forever and still not adequately capture everything. All good things must come to an end, and so must this. But it was amazing, and I am grateful to have been a part of it all. Goodbye, IBO 2012! Goodbye, everyone! Perhaps someday we'll meet each other again.

  1. “Welcome to Singapore!” 


  3. I'm probably the only International Baccalaureate Astrophysics tuition teacher in the whole of Singapore 

  4. Video here 

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