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‘Bread Girl’ Brenda overcomes poverty, abusive childhood to score at A-Levels

SINGAPORE — At first glance, 19-year-old Brenda might seem like your typical happy-go-lucky teenager who loves playing ultimate frisbee, photography, and watching Korean dramas.

Pioneer Junior College student Brenda overcame a turbulent childhood to do well in her GCE A-Levels. Photo: Koh Mui Fong/TODAY

Pioneer Junior College student Brenda overcame a turbulent childhood to do well in her GCE A-Levels. Photo: Koh Mui Fong/TODAY

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SINGAPORE — At first glance, 19-year-old Brenda might seem like your typical happy-go-lucky teenager who loves playing ultimate frisbee, photography, and watching Korean dramas.

Underneath her sunny disposition, however, lies a turbulent past. Despite having to overcome a difficult childhood, Brenda was rewarded for her grit and hard work when she collected her GCE A-Level results on Friday (Feb 23), as she scored three As in economics, general paper, project work, and two Bs in chemistry and math.

Growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father who would get drunk daily, her childhood was marked by violence and family turmoil as her parents’ quarrels over money often escalated into her father hurling threats or hitting her mother. At times, Brenda — who only goes by her first name — and her younger brother would have to call the police, or call their grandparents to come over to intervene.

The worst moments after the arguments, said Brenda, was stumbling on her mother cutting her wrists with razor blades late at night.

She told TODAY: “It’s not something everyone will see, so it was quite bad for me, as a primary school (kid). I didn’t know what I should do, how should I act, who should I side.”

Her turbulent home life also meant that Brenda had to grow up quicker than her peers and be strong for her mother, who is from Indonesia.

While things improved after her parents got divorced when she was Primary Six, their woes were far from over. The family of three could barely scrape by on her cleaner mother’s monthly salary of less than S$1,000, as the bulk of the money went to paying the rental for their two-room flat in Teck Whye. Reluctant to add to her mother’s burden, Brenda scrimped and saved from her own daily S$2 allowance to pay for her expenses such as school notes.

She bought loaves of bread to eat during breakfast and recess, earning her the nickname of “Bread Girl” in secondary school. While her Pioneer Junior College schoolmates ate out at KFC and Pizza Hut, she would smuggle S$2 takeaways into the restaurant. Her friends would sometimes share their food with her, or treat her to drinks and snacks.

In the lead up to the A-Levels, she spent long hours studying at PJC to escape the noisy environment at her rental flat, which also meant she did not have to worry about “wasting electricity bills”. She also had to miss out on a post-A-Levels class trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, last year as she could not afford it.

Brenda admitted that her life could have turned out very differently, as she said that it is “very normal for kids going through divorce to stray to the dark side”. Some of her older friends in the neighbourhood gangs had tried to get her to join in their activities, such as playing truant from school, when she was in Primary Six. “I thought to myself, is that what I really want to be in future, how I want to define myself?,” said Brenda. She added that she did not want her 36-year-old mother, whom she considers her closest confidante and “best friend”, to worry about her. The pair, who are sometimes mistaken for sisters, enjoy hunting down good food at kopitiams around Singapore.

The support of her teachers also helped tremendously as they gave her encouragement and guidance. As she could not afford tuition, her friends helped by coaching her in her weaker subjects such as Physics, or sent study questions to her over text message.

Not wanting people to take pity on her, Brenda tries to be “cheerful and positive”, and she admitted sheepishly that she is often the noisiest and most vocal student in her class. She added: “I’m actually quite competitive, because I want to prove to myself that I can do even better, despite what I have gone through. I would prefer to be a source of energy to the people around me.”

Aside from playing ultimate frisbee as part of her co-curricular activity in PJC, she was also a member of the college’s Sirius Scholars Programme, where she got to participate in the Member of Parliament (MP) Attachment Programme in 2016.

It was through the Meet-the-People’s sessions at the Yuhua constituency that she saw the “desperate and vulnerable” situation that some residents faced. She then decided to help out with other community projects, such as taking part in a blood donation drive, and fundraising for the Blue Cross Thong Kheng Home.

After her A-Levels, she found herself facing some personal demons when she took on a two-month internship at the Divorce Support Department at the Ministry of Social and Family Development.

She recalled how she teared up while attending talk sessions with parents who were applying for a divorce. “It was kind of a self-reflection time for me, because listening to everything they were going through, it was like the story of my life,” she said, adding that she wished her parents had gone through the counselling programmes.

It has come as a huge relief for her that her parents are now on “friendly terms”. The family of four now spend Sunday mornings eating breakfast together and shopping for groceries at the Teck Whye market. She has overcome her hatred for her father, and now “accepts him for who he is”. While her father still occasionally calls them when he is drunk, and quarrels with her mother over the phone, she said that “at least he calls and apologises the next day”.

While the 19-year-old is still considering her next step after her A-Levels, she is leaning towards a degree in social sciences or business. She will, however, have to find a way to fund her university studies.

But Brenda is not about to be deterred, and she told TODAY that her goal is to graduate and find a job so that she can comfortably support her mother.

She said with a smile: “I want to be a strong woman for my mum. My life has ups and downs, but being cheerful and positive is what helped me through all this.”

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