All Images by Brooke Lim unless stated otherwise.
19-year-old Brooke Lim, better known by her online handle @Sugaresque, has dealt with her fair share of controversy as a content creator and tuition teacher.
As Sugaresque, Brooke vlogs about her life and shares the occasional studying tips with students preparing for the ‘A’ Levels. Her throngs of supporters are inspired by her productivity hacks—but not everyone is a fan.
A messy heap of body-shaming hate comments, takedown Reddit threads, and drama-fuelled Tik Tok videos edited just to exploit the algorithms and explode nefarious sentiments into the online stratosphere; she’s seen it all.
It’s an unfortunate reality for a popular content creator whose TikTok and Instagram account commands a combined follower count of slightly over two hundred thousand. Inevitably, high online visibility stirs many sentiments, from the well-intended to the wicked.
Content creation aside, Brooke also runs her own tuition agency, Classicle, which specialises in helping ‘A’ levels students ace the General Paper. More specifically, the dreaded writing component.
But no sooner had it started, Classicle would find itself embroiled in a copycat saga when another tuition agency was accused of copying Brooke’s content ideas and branding. The other agency has since explained that while some ideas were influenced by Classicle, there was no intention of copying her.
The flames of the copycat controversy had barely settled into glowing embers when she agreed to chat with me.
Brooke greets me bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on a Friday morning over a video call to unpack if her online persona (and dramas) had affected her credibility as an educator and if there’s any question on her tuition centre’s legitimacy.
The Not-So-Secret Life of Sugaresque
As a content creator and tuition teacher, Brooke leads a double life that she tries to keep as separate as possible. “The last thing I want is for students to conflate my classes with fan meets with Sugaresque. That is not the point. I personally set boundaries and expectations with every student.”
24-year-old Lia, a model and an English and Humanities specialist, concurs. However, she posits that we should give students more credit.
“The students that come to me want to work on their subjects. I am very thankful and blessed that they are focused. Sure, they ask me what it’s like to be a model. But asking about my other life is usually done during our short breaks.”
Still, no matter how separate Brooke’s lives are, her students are not protected from the highs and lows of online commentary directed at her as Sugaresque. Overlap between her two lives is inevitable—but that’s perfectly fine, she admits, as long as it helps her students.
“Content creation is like a job at the office with the benefit of getting to meet new people and attend events. It has added a new layer to how I view the world. I can share fresh insights with my students,” Brooke opines.
“On a more superficial level, I get cool stuff. So I like to give freebies to my students. ”
Can Tuition Ever Be More Than Just Tuition?
Perhaps this perspective as a content creator lends itself to the seemingly strange ways that Classicle has conducted some of its lessons—shaped in the mould of the “influencer lifestyle”.
In September this year, Brooke’s students were treated to a one-off lesson in a hotel ballroom at Mandarin Oriental.
A picture on the agency’s website shows chandeliers hanging over students hard at work—laptops and notes splayed over pristine white linen. Students, seated around circular tables usually meant for wedding banquets, hunch over their laptops, furiously typing away, eyes inches away from their laptop screens.
It’s all incredibly extravagant and, some might say, unnecessary.
Brooke takes centre stage on an elevated platform at the front of the ballroom. Pointers about essay writing fill up the presentation behind her. The scene bordered uncomfortably on the surreal; the students looked out of place amidst this opulence—one student was in their school uniform.
I ask whether a hotel ballroom might be too decadent. Immediately, I worried that I might have crossed an unspoken boundary marker and could find myself shut down by a public relations consultant; both were silent and vigilantly watching over the interview.
“You’re exactly right. I preempted this kind of response. I’m no stranger to being criticised online,” Brooke answers as if reading off a script.
“We subsidised the cost of the class at Mandarin Oriental so that it was priced at the cost of a typical virtual class, $30, to ensure the students were not disadvantaged. Students could opt out of it as well.”
“The reason why we organised this was because the students could not experience a prom due to the pandemic. We want to go beyond just offering classes. It’s also a ticket to a community of driven and ambitious students.”
From Content Creation To The Classroom
Brooke’s tuition agency started humbly with one student in December 2021. Within a short span of six months, it reached an enrollment of a hundred students.
What started as a freelance hustle, typical for JC graduates looking to make money as a side hustle, burgeoned into a fully-formed tuition agency specialising in General Paper. She named it Classicle.
In fact, Brooke is so committed to the endeavour that she decided to take a gap year to pursue it instead of going to university.
“My parents supported my decision. My decision to take a gap year took only one or two dinner conversations. Being able to financially support myself definitely convinced them as well.” She earns a monthly take-home salary of about $2,000 from the business.
Classicle’s business model operates on a fee structure that has become increasingly normal today: a subscription plan.
Lessons range between $85 to $95 a week, depending on a student’s chosen plan. Students have unlimited access to a personally curated online learning library and no limits to the number of essays they can submit to her for grading; the essays are returned in no less than 24 hours.
All of Brooke’s swift success comes as no surprise. Content creation and teaching is her calling card. After all, she single-handedly developed her brand, growing her TikTok account to a hundred and eighty-five thousand followers within two years. Her content is a unique brand of lifestyle vlogs that portray her everyday life as a student at Raffles Junior College.
However, she is still getting used to heading a tuition agency. It’s sometimes easy to forget that Brooke is 19-years-old. Her confident and calm demeanour leads you to think otherwise.
“I was hesitant and lost when I first started the agency. I didn’t know how to file my taxes or do bookkeeping. I outsource things I cannot do, like marketing and accounting. To make sure I don’t make dumb financial decisions. ”
Perhaps, it’s the same display of maturity that online commenters, hellbent on directing online vitriol towards her, forget when they’re twiddling their thumbs, poised for the next pointed remark.
“I once posted a TikTok video of me in a dress. Someone said I looked as if I was pregnant. That didn’t make me very happy. I ignore these comments or delete them,” Brooke explains matter-of-factly, alluding to the criticism she’s gotten over the years.
The video in question was a twenty-second clip of Brooke showing off her outfit of the day—a striped dress.
“That video made me feel unattractive and unappreciated even though there were twenty other really nice comments saying they liked my dress.” She deleted the video the following day.
Singapore’s Bloated Tuition Industry
Brooke belongs to a collective of individuals making a profitable living in Singapore’s thriving after-school tuition industry. But times have changed—it’s no longer as straightforward as helping a child score distinctions.
Tuition franchises and agencies have shifted their focus towards a holistic approach to keep up with the Ministry of Education’s turn towards holistic education.
In response to a query about what MOE is doing to track the efficacy of its shift towards holistic education, a spokesperson from MOE responds, “We are cognisant that mindset and cultural shifts will take time. Since we embarked on reforms to the education system, we have already seen encouraging signs among our students.”
“For example, many have told their teachers that they are now able to learn at a more comfortable pace and explore different areas of interest with the time freed up from the removal of mid-year examinations.”
Classicle is also attempting to align itself with these efforts. Its marketing point of being a ticket to a broader community of ambitious students—think exclusive member-only events—is one part of a more significant trend in the local tuition industry.
With 779 registered tuition and enrichment centres as of December 2022, agencies cross swords for the attention of students and parents alike. Fierce competition is understandable and par for the course.
After all, there is money to be made in the local tuition industry. According to the latest available figures, Singapore’s tuition industry was valued at $1.4 billion in 2018.
Thirty-something Maverick, who started private tutoring in 2004, tells me that the local tuition industry continues to thrive despite MOE’s shift towards holistic education. Unlike Brooke, he gets his students the traditional way in the private tuition industry: word-of-mouth and referrals.
“As a selling point, holistic education comes second,” Marcus elaborates. “It might even be a marketing gimmick. At the end of the day, the strength of a tuition agency is evaluated on how many of its students can produce distinctions at the national exams.”
And while changes to the PSLE scoring system or the removal of mid-year assessments have been introduced, they will take time to full come into effect. As long as we continue to predicate success on grades, and we do, holistic education is nothing more than a feel-good afterthought for both parents and students.
“The education system hasn’t really changed from the student’s perspective. This system breeds demand for private tutors. It’s definitely a very saturated market which is why some teachers have tried to come up with more innovative ways to market their services.”
The Tuition Singularity
While Brooke started her Tik Tok account before she taught her first student, there is no doubt that her tuition agency will continue to grow alongside her online influence. For now, she waits for her inaugural graduating batch’s ‘A’ Level results and makes plans for university herself. She could very well be a course mate with one of her students.
“I would like to study business at university. I doubt I’ll be going overseas because of financial constraints. More importantly, Classicle is something I don’t want to leave behind,” Brooke wistfully intones.
Online vitriol has done little to deter Brooke from doing what she wants.
Online spectators have tried desperately to understand Brooke-Sugaresque. But there’s only so much you can grasp of a person from thirty-second clips. They catch at the most straightforward possible conclusions, much like a stranded survivor wading through the desert only to rush to the mirage of an oasis of water.
And like the mirage, those conclusions—especially the ones borne out of spite—are things that they would like to see; incomplete and wrong representations of the person behind the persona.
After all, managing an online persona and starting a tuition agency are ventures that look and feel like they’re worlds apart. At first glance, at least.
But for Brooke, those spaces are much closer than people give her credit for. They are bound by a common thread that embodies the essence of the teaching profession—a calling to positively impact the lives of others. And who can fault anyone, much less Brooke, for that?