Heads bowed, students whispered among themselves as they pored over pages of multiple-choice and true-or-false questions.
At stake was not an A-level grade but school pride and a place in the quarter-finals of The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz. In short, The Big Quiz.
Yesterday, 23 pre-university institutions each sent a team of three students to the preliminary round of the inaugural contest co-organised by the newspaper and the ministry.
At the auditorium of the Singapore Press Holdings News Centre in Toa Payoh, they answered 50 questions based on news reports in The Straits Times this year - all within 30 minutes.
Some teams, like Hwa Chong Institution, chose to attempt the challenge question-by-question while others, like National Junior College (NJC) and Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), split the question paper among their members.
NJC first-year student Phua Tzai Wei, 17, found the questions 'quite challenging' but was confident about his team's prospects.
'All schools are equally strong. For all you know, maybe we could be the favourites,' he said, smiling.
His team's strategy: reading The Straits Times every day and assigning team members to do research on topics such as international news and sports.
Mr Simon Reynolds, MOE's assistant director of the English Language and Literature Branch, Curriculum Planning and Development Division, said the quiz was the 'icing on the cake' for the news outreach programme that led up to it.
The Big Quiz comes after six talks at various junior colleges that covered topics from sports to economics to politics. The Straits Times is also running a series of primers on different topics every Friday for use in classrooms.
Eighteen teams with the highest scores and shortest times will proceed to the quarter-finals next Wednesday. The results will be posted on the Big Quiz website by tomorrow.