Home ‘Sweet’ Home?: Academic Stress in Singapore

In late August 2016, I took my first long leave from Singapore and embarked on my University education in the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh. I had spent 15 years of my life in Singapore after having moved there with my family at the tender age of 4. It would be completely fair to say that upon my arrival in Edinburgh, and for the first few weeks, I found myself rather desperate (while covertly so) in creating and protecting the little Singaporean bubble I had constructed over the years.

Of course, it is not as if I had never been exposed to the outside world. Yet, as human experiences go, every aspect of a foreign country is more genuinely and vividly perceived if one finds himself/herself in the actual place. It is vastly different as having happened upon information on the Internet, read it on in the news or even, having met a person of the particular nationality in one’s own country. For this reason, it is a lofty and selfish dream of mine to one day travel and experience the entire world from within every distinct society.

Singapore is a predominantly Asian society that has successfully incorporated Western values and practices while preserving its many traditional cultures that stems from its multireligious and multiracial demography. It is praised by many outsiders as being a highly developed, almost miraculous economy with a peaceful society. While retaining much of my pride for the country that made me much of who I am, as well as for the ‘elitist’ school in which discourse had developed much of my opinions about the world, I could not help but few extremely alienated upon my return last summer. My experiences in Edinburgh had shaped me in manner that culminated in an inability to fill the mold I once used to. I felt like an outsider myself, with the only advantage in past experiences.

The way I viewed my own country had transformed.

 

Today’s Topic: Education

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In early August 2016, just weeks before I left for Edinburgh, 2 students of Raffles Institution committed suicide within 10 days of each other. They were A-level students, one in Year 5 and one in Year 6 (A-level year). The news is alarming in itself, but what’s more startling is that it has proven that there has been ‘an increase in the number of students sharing the same disturbing thoughts’ (The New Paper, 4 Sep 2016).

Why is it that in a country viewed by foreigners as being so advanced, with a meritocratic system so championed by its own government and people alike, such atrocities are allowed to happen without revolts? It is not to say that people aren’t upset about it – there is just a disproportionately mild reaction to it. In another country, especially the Western European countries, there would be social movements and protests for education reform. Reforms were proposed in Singapore, but in reality, the reforms were actually negative.

I, too, have been through depression. While never medically diagnosed, due to the fear of the repercussions in my unstable household, I have had contemplated and planned suicide many times. The effects of having experienced that lives with me today, as I still continue to lapse into depression every now and then.

The article I read brought up an interesting point – ‘Part of his depressive condition came from the embarrassment that he wasn’t doing as well as his peers, and it didn’t help that he didn’t have a strong support system at home’. This eludes to the crucial role that the family plays in exacerbating or counteracting the competitive nature of the Singaporean education system. The family can champion competition and condemn the child for poor academic performance. On the other hand, they can choose to reassure the child of his/her parents’ continuing support and that, no matter what, they can succeed. In the former, the child is more likely to cave into the pressure of the system, adopting the view that grades define his/her ability to succeed. In the latter, they are more likely to be able to see beyond the system that binds them.

It is rather like Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’. To exaggerate a little, the kind of society that the Singaporean education system breeds is rather like the group of people in his allegory that lives chained to the wall of a cave their whole lives. This allegation – that Singaporeans are the ‘cavemen of Plato’ – has been repudiated in the past. However, after listening to how my friends here in Edinburgh, most of whom grew up in Europe, experienced education, it is concerning and distressing that I find it to be an extremely accurate analogy.

In this post, I first seek to establish what are the major features in the mainstream Singaporean education system. Then, I will evaluate a few of the central issues and examine how it shapes an average Singaporean, ceteris paribus. I will move on to take into account the effect of parental influence and end it there because I know I will end up writing too much.

The Singapore Education System

The Primary School system was revised a while back so that class-streaming did not happen until at least Primary 3. I would argue that this does not remedy the root of the problem, which lies in the very fact that children are being sorted into classes based on their grades. At the end of every examination, when the report cards are given out, the student is notified not only of their own grades. Somewhere near their grades, there is the median grade and the top grade. At the bottom of the paper, you see your overall ranking in your class and grade.

A child, from the age of 9-10 (or for me, at 7), you are given the expression that success is relative. It gives rise to a dangerous conception – it does not really matter if you have done well enough for yourself; what matters if that you have done better than your peers. It breeds a culture of competition that, at its worst, can take on a merciless and ruthless dimension. Take the case in April 2015, of a Standard PhD student on an state-sponsored scholarship from Singapore who poisoned her classmates.

Was she simply a sociopath? No. ‘Despite her flaws, though, none of her classmates said they would have ever suspected the quiet Singaporean of trying to harm them.’ (Dailymail, April 2015)

Of course, I will not go as far as to say that the system forces people to become murderous or sociopathic. The PhD student (who I shall not name) had been seeing a psychiatrist and was taking anti-depressants. Depression is an incredible common ailment in Singapore, especially among students.

In the last year of Primary School, we take the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE). PSLE grades are not taken as raw scores, but T-scores. To put it simply, and not touching upon the technicalities of how a T-score is calculated, the T-score tells you where your score stands on the bell curve of the entire national cohort. Again, your grades are not taken in their merits, but as a comparison to everyone else’s grades.

I am one of those that Singaporeans consider an ‘elite’, having been through the top school in country. Raffles is an Integrated Programme (IP) school and what that means is that IP students can skip the General Cambridge-Singapore Examinations ‘Ordinary’ Levels (GCSE ‘O’ Levels). The implication is that we proceed straight to preparing for the GCSE ‘Advanced’ Levels (‘A’ Levels). Entrance into Secondary Schools are based on your PSLE grades and it is often said that the top schools, such as Raffles, take the top 1-2%.

There is a disproportionate amount of focus on grades. It is so easy to grow up thinking that these values on your report card determine your ability to succeed in life. Furthermore, these values are not even taken in their absolute form; you are supposed to compare them with the values your peers obtain.

It is not so much that grades should not matter. Yes, they do, but not to the ridiculous extent that the Singaporean system promotes. An individual can utilise grades as a way to examine whether he/she has internalised and understood the content that has been taught. It does not and should not reflect his/her intelligence or ability to succeed (i.e. potential). A student should not be made to think that he/she is a failure simply because he/she has done badly in their examinations. Yet, this is what the Singaporean education system ingrains in its students.

In reality, no matter what Singaporeans may say, your grades matter so much. The fact that I graduated from Raffles has afforded me so many opportunities. While it does not immediately grant me these opportunities, it still played a significant role in lowering barriers. This means that my success at the age of 12, that allowed me to enter Raffles, continue to matter so many years later.

The Central Issues

 

  • De-humanising the human experience

 

Throughout an individual’s life, he/she goes through so many experiences, unique and varied enough to differentiate him/her from everyone else. When you reduce an individual to his/her grades, you end up overlooking all these unparalleled experiences and how it affects the individual. In my opinion, these experiences, that interacts with and affects the individual’s personality, are what creates the genuine human being. The authenticity of the human experience is compromised.

Of course, you can argue that when you write a personal statement, you are required to take into account and present your experiences. Even then, the truth is that you are forced to filter bad experiences from good ones, or learn to spin them into a positive. Especially in Singapore, where the common view of ‘failure’ is extremely harsh, it is treated as if every negative experience is a point taken off your value. In reality, positive and negative experiences are equally capable of allowing the individual to grow and develop. People should be allowed to make mistakes, learn and grow from it. Failures should not be condemning beyond its immediate effects.

In other words, the Singapore system is guilty of 2 things: (1) Using methodical and objective means to reduce the human experience into numbers, i.e. grades; (2) Treating failure almost like a ‘death’ sentence that one should be ashamed of and must conceal or warp. One cannot simply admit to having make a mistake without trying to defend it or hide it.

 

  • Causing emotional distress that can permanently damage the child’s confidence

 

Imagine being a young 9 year old in Singapore who did badly in her examinations – you are no longer ‘worthy’ of being in the same class as your best friend and you must be grouped with others who did just as badly as you. Your teachers remind you, almost on a daily basis, that your class is not as intelligent as other classes. You are told that you are less likely to make it to a good Secondary School unless you work hard and, more importantly, have that reflect in your grades. You are then told that you need to try to make it to a good Secondary School because your success depends on it.

At such a young age, a child should feel like he/she is capable of doing anything, that he/she can have any dream and possess the ability to fulfill it.

What happens in Singapore, though not intentionally, is that the education system tells those children who get worse grades that they are less capable. They get the impression that just because they scored less marks than their peers, they are somehow less competent. They are told about the doors that can be opened from having good marks and getting into a top school. The other side of the coin is that, if they don’t manage to do so, their dreams are unrealistic because they are unable to fulfill them.

Do you now see why I am so passionate about writing on this issue? It is almost inhumane to me. It is not just 9 year-olds, but generally, throughout the development years of an individual’s life. A child untouched by society, to me, represents the true authenticity of being a human – complete with their unlimited dreams for the future. As they develop in these crucial years and receive education, they should be handed the tools to be able to further discover their dreams and learn the skills that open the doors wider. What the Singapore system is doing is to limit the scope of a child’s dreams and close doors that they might initially wanted to go through. Why? Because they now think they lack the ability to.

2 suicides in 10 days; a PhD student who poisoned her classmates. These are not isolated incidents and while they must be felt for and understood on their own merits, one should also understand that they reflect a larger problem in society. The fact that depression is so prevalent in the top institution of the country, and that teenagers not even at the legal age see it necessary to take their lives because they have lost hope – that alone should ring alarm bells so loud as to call for immediate reforms.

 

  • Social division

 

‘Elitism’ is the unfortunate result of meritocracy, but that term itself implies so much more. It implies the presence of a group of ‘elites’ whose very existence is separate from that of the rest of society. Back in my Junior College days, and even in Secondary School, wearing my Raffles uniform in public had so many ramifications. We are expected to behave in a certain manner and scrutinised by those around us. This active rooting out and close examination of a group of students simply because of the school they belong in reflects that ingrained cultural belief of ‘them’ and ‘us’.

We, as a school, perpetuate that problem. I would not say that it is a bad thing that we are supposed to act appropriately and as ‘good examples’ to society. However, the side effect of that is where my focus lies – alienation. The more we are told to ‘champion’ a certain set of behaviours, the more we innately see ourselves as being separate, and even above, non-Rafflesians.

Even 3 years after my graduation, the fact that I am a Raffles alumni still strikes a chord back home. Here, in Edinburgh, of course, where I studied does not matter and I appreciate that a lot. There’s a huge culture in Singapore where your identity as a person is very much related to the school you come from. Again, the individual loses his/her identity to favour a more easily observable and less abstract concept – the school your belong to.

In other words, the top schools and the society as whole aggravate the divide between ‘them’ and ‘us’. The fact that an individual’s identity can be defined as the school in which they study further grounds them into that social divide.

It is ridiculous to me, that 2 years into being in Raffles, a friend who I used to get along with told me that she was not comfortable with me anymore because I am in a rival school. I am not my school; she is not hers. That is a concept I think is lost, simply because Singaporeans somehow reject the assertion that we do think in that twisted manner as a result of the education system being so entrenched in society.

The Role of Family

Whenever it comes around to the day of grades being released, I start planning what I need to say to my parents. It is not just me, of course, it is a stressful day for all students. Because of the emphasis we put on grades, it is like judgement day has descended upon us.

The next day, I would show up to school and immediately, you can observe the effect that parents have on their children. For those friends whose parents have avoided being assimilated into the common thinking of ‘grades are everything’, they show up smiling and happy as usual, ready to learn. More common, however, are friends who show up as if they have just been through a disaster. At its worst, I have seen close friends show up with cane marks.

Yes, caning is still a very common thing in Singapore, and no, we cannot sue our parents for violence. The defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’ in Singapore has incredibly low threshold. In other words, the level of violence required for a child to accuse of their parents of assault in Singapore is incredibly high. From a perspective of having studied Criminal Law in Scotland, there is a disproportionately low rate of claims being successful against parents using violence against their children.

It might be revolting to those who grew up in societies that condemn such punishment. Yet, in Singapore, many households possess canes just for that occasion – the results day.

I had friends who did not want to go home, who loiter around aimlessly for hours after they receive their grades. Those friends who are so terrified of facing their parents’ wrath that, at the tender age of 8 or 9, they cannot return home, the place that is meant to be a sanctuary. Yet, I also see friends who know that they have done badly, few regretful, but know that their parents would not punish them. As the years go on, a trend to develops as to which group becomes more susceptible to becoming withdrawn and even depressed.
Concluding Remarks

This is a society where the meritocratic education system has entrenched into society a culture where grades play a disproportionate huge role in defining the individual. Children’s dreams are quashed and doors are slammed shut at such a young age, when they should really be the most hopeful about their futures. As they grow older, they learn to form their identities around their grades and the school they study in, even though these are ultimately arbitrary in nature. Society enforces the rift that grow between them and their peers who are sorted into different ‘streams’, as do their schools. In such a society, it is my opinion that it will take a lot for reform. People must first acknowledge that this is a problem – we claim that ‘grades do not really matter’, but what reality expounds is the opposite. We must see that this problem exists and must be remedied. Still, that will take time. I feel that it might be imperative that, as an ‘injunction’, families should play a larger role in counteracting the effect of this negative culture. Parents should not bend to the will of society and enforce the habit of condemning their children for poor academic performance. Of course, grades are still important and they must make that clear as parents, but more importantly, they need to ensure that their children do not cave into the cut-throat nature of the education system.

Some may believe that the government’s discourse on this matter has changed things, and maybe it did. However, having spent more than a year in Edinburgh, I see that more can be done. When I hear how my friend’s parents genuinely support her in pursuing her interests, regardless of her grades in the relevant courses and regardless of the career potential in the field, I have hope that the Singapore society can one day become the same. Here, I feel as if my failures can simply be taken as part of life and as treated as authentic an experience as my successes. Reforms in Singapore in the recent years are a decent start, moving to take into account achievement in other fields. However, it has been said that this is simply a cover-up – the system is even more stringent now: not only do you have to succeed academically, but you must also be talented in all other fields to be competitive.

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