When Ben was studying at a top boys’ school, he felt that there were too many expectations placed on him. But the 26-year-old did not know how to deal with it then.
Because of that “painful and trying period”, his self-esteem took a hit.
“The academic pressure at my school was high… My parents were anxious, stressed and worried about my underperformance in school,” Ben tells The Pride. He adds that his experience wasn’t the most enjoyable, given the ultra-competitive Integrated Programme at his school where Ben spent six years, from 2007 to 2012.
Most of his peers studied “all day, every day”, said Ben, adding that hanging out at malls after school or going to the movies with friends was a foreign concept to him. This left him wondering if he was a “weirdo or loner”.
“I did not fully realise how much I had missed out until my national service and university days, when I learnt more about the vibrant experiences my peers from other schools had.
“I believe my social life would have been much better (had I gone to a different school)… I would probably also have had a much more memorable and positive experience. I think I would also have felt less helpless and left behind,” Ben shares.
Ben is not alone. In Singapore, there has long been an emphasis on students to study hard to get into a good school, in the belief that it paves the way for securing a good job and a comfortable life in future.
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As a result, parents push their children from a young age. Getting into an elite school becomes an achievement to boast about.
Kevin Wee, 25, another top-school alumnus who now runs Rebound with Resilience, a social enterprise that inspires youths to rebound from their failures and find ways to achieve their dreams and aspirations, finds that Singaporeans tend to glorify the idea of being in an elite school.
While he was still a student, his relatives were often amazed at his making it into an elite school. They would look at him as though he were “an alien species”, he says
“They will say things like, ‘since you’re a student of this school, you must be some sort of special breed’, and that wasn’t nice to hear,” Wee says. But because such a mindset exists, it creates the impression that students in elite schools “are better than others”, which leads to the culture of elitism in Singapore, he adds.
“The praise gets to your head, and when everyone says the same thing to you, you will start thinking that you are really good and above the rest,” explains Wee. “Some of (the students) really relish such praise. Even for myself, I didn’t mind it as, after all, stereotypes do carry some weight.”
But Wee’s world came crashing down during his A Levels. Apart from battling anxiety over not being well-prepared for his exams, he also ended up scoring only two Bs – far from the straight As he had been aiming for.
“It was devastating. My self-esteem took a major hit. I really struggled with mental health issues for a few months – I was in and out of depression and it was very difficult for my family,” recalls Wee. It took him about two years to fully recover, and thankfully for him, his parents, both teachers, cared more for his well-being than his grades.
Not everyone has understanding parents like Wee does, however. Shaun, a schoolmate of Ben’s, believes that there is a lot more to just being an elite or non-elite student. Elite students are typically viewed as book-smart, but they can also lack street smarts.
“I feel like my peers tend to be really good at studies and less aware of the outside world in general. I think this was even more apparent when I went for national service and got to meet people from all walks of life… meeting people in NS really showed me how ‘un-smart’ I was,” explains Shaun, who adds that being an elite student does not automatically translate to success in later life.
Yet that elitist stereotype has heavily influenced parents to push their kids to get into those schools and this leads to the “kiasu” culture we see today, says Shaun.
That is why Wee believes there needs to be a larger conversation about accepting different pathways to success.
This mindset change can go a long way in relieving students of the undue pressures of academic excellence. And parents, especially, can play pivotal roles in helping their children to see that straight As are not the be all and end all of their education.
Wee says: “Some youths don’t find it possible to go against their parents. As such, even if their hearts want something else, they don’t want to disappoint their parents. It leaves them frustrated, and this can take a huge toll on them.
“It is one thing to strive for excellence, but it should not come at the expense of mental health and sanity.”