Why are we so stressed?

In the past few weeks when the haze came, I remember lamenting to my tuition students, “How I wished the haze would go away!”. To my surprise, I was returned with responses such as “How I wished the haze will NEVER go away, so we don’t need to go to school!” My heart sank. The natural question was: What makes school so undesirable that students do not wish to go to school?

Today, when I was revising for my Sociology of Education course, I read this reading, “Children, Population Policy, and the State in Singapore” and fully appreciated how it made me understand the sentiments of these children in the broader context of Singapore. The following is basically a short summary of relevant parts of the reading which answered my question.

First, it is a well-established fact that Singapore is a secular one-party- dominant state, where PAP ruled since 1959. Thus, the state is the most powerful influence in the lives of the nation’s children.

One of the most significant ways in which the state can alter the future of the nation is by means of population planning, because a nation’s politics select which children are to exist, and to some extent whether or not some children are to exist or not.

There is an explicit focus on eugenics in Singapore’s population policies. Eugenics is the greek word for “well-born” and it involves a set of beliefs and practices aimed at improving the genetic quality of the human race. This is best illustrated by the implementation of the Graduate Mothers’ Scheme in 1984, in which the third child of graduate mothers were given priority in primary school admission, in response to falling birth rates of educated women. This scheme assumes: (1) graduate mothers are graduates because of superior genes and (2) educated middle-class parents would automatically reproduce educated middle-class class children.

Eugenics had further implications on the school system. The objective of education is consequently not training, but testing, to filter innate future leaders among the general population. This is done through streaming. Stress is not merely an accidental outcome of streaming, but a mechanism that will reveal innate qualities of children.

Additionally, the rhetoric of meritocracy works in tandem with the discourse in eugenics. Meritocracy assumes an equal playing field and equal opportunities for all. Hence, any individual differences in achievement is solely attributed to ability, which in this case, imply one’s superiority of genes. (On a side note: That is why meritocracy legitimises inequality, since it assumes that everyone is located where they are in the hierarchy, solely by virtue of their own merit. This is easily refutable by evidences of visible and invisible barriers working class children may need to overcome, such as the having to do part time jobs to support their family.)

The eugenic discourse, however, marks a contradiction between the state and parents. The state is interested in establishing a pyramid by sieving out superior children from inferior children. However, no parents wants their child to sink to the base of the pyramid because (1) no parent out of good-will wants that of his or her child (2) a child who fails in the education system is genetically inferior, and by implication, the parents’ genes must also be genetically inferior.

Thus, parents place great pressure on their children towards the top of the pyramid. One of the strategies parents do so is through private tutoring through which they can intervene, and which is a process that I am regrettably (?) part of.

Apart from stress derived from these processes such as tuition, the author argues that the result of the eugenics discourse is that children (and parents) are constantly being judged fit or unfit, wanted or unwanted, and this leads to a grave state of dialectic between arrogance and shame. People who fit well in the preconceived mould of the eugenics discourse feel destined with superiority, while people who do not fit well feel ashamed, even of their very existence. As a result, a nation of the arrogant few and the self-doubting and shameful many may be formed. This is where the real battle is, where the real stress comes from: the system that results in these processes.

The even graver thing is realising that, it does not matter if children are sorted out into different hierarchies as the state is concerned with, or children are pushed up on the hierarchy to destabilize this hierarchy as parents want their children to. Because in either case, children seem to lose. First, in terms of shame or arrogance, and second in terms of extreme stress.

Well, of course, not every parent colludes in sharing the eugenics values and the situation is not homogenous. (At this point, I really thanked the author for pointing out that not all is lost.) Some parents choose homeschooling as an alternative, or others focus on different definitions of success such as vocational training. Furthermore, the more recent discourse in education seem to tend towards nurture via nature, and focus on genes as the sole indicator of merit or success does not seem so apparent any more.

But in any case, this reading has truly opened my eye in understanding the effects of structure on individuals. This reading may not be a ground-breaking one, and concepts such as population control, meritocracy, eugenics have always been taught to us in class. Yet, it still takes such a reading, at least for me, to finally link individual occurrences such as the one I have encountered, with broader national issues to understand them as interrelated to one another.

If not, I believe, laymen instincts will overtake such knowledge, and I will simply answer the above question with “It’s all parents fault for being so kiasu.” or “It’s all the education system’s fault for all the exams.” But to understand the mechanisms and processes behind them is key.

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Author: Cheryl Tan

21 // +65 A closet thinker. Documents her life in words and songs. Hopelessly obsessed with skies, and oh, FOOD.

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