Stress, study and suicide: Why Singaporean students are suffering

Singapore stressful system

Evangeline Kinajil-Barfield

Society and culture | Southeast Asia

18 April 2017

For many, Singapore represents the modern face of Southeast Asia. Held as a global hub of commerce, culture and tourism, the city-state also boasts the world’s best education system, according to a 2015 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study.

It would be then almost unbelievable to think that this contemporary education system could be a “pressure cooker” of toxic cultural beliefs that are harming the nation’s students.

For most Singaporean students, academic success holds an essential place in their lives. For these students and their families, school is not only a place to grow and socialize – but an institution where academic achievement is king and capital for guaranteeing the best future possible.

Beginning as early as kindergarten, Singaporean children are groomed to practice and perform exceptionally. While most five year olds would be playing outdoors, many Singaporean children have already begun enrichment activities to ensure they surpass their fellow classmates.

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From Kindergarten, many Singaporean children begin CCAs to prepare for primary school.

This ferocious competition continues until a student graduates, often with parental support. This “support” normally consists of extra tuition and co-curricular activities, known as CCAs.

In 2014, it was reported that a OECD survey had found that at fifteen years old, the average Singaporean student was spending approximately 9.4 hours on homework every week – nearly double that of the global average of five.

These 9.4 hours seem minuscule compared to what students complete in exam periods, with some only sleeping three hours a night.

What is more alarming, in this modern education system, is that students have been suffering far worse than just exhaustion and sickness for nearly two decades.

In 2001, the New Straits Times reported on the suicide of primary school student Lysher Loh. A cheerful young child and a “top student” by all accounts, Lysher committed suicide by jumping from her fifth-floor apartment window in the face of mounting academic stress.

She was ten.

This horrifying incident was preceded by a survey undertaken by Singapore Press, which found that in 2000, students aged between ten and twelve were more afraid of examinations than of their parents’ dying.

If these unsettling findings do not highlight how insidious these academic environments have become, the fact that they continue across Southeast Asia should.

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These stress laden academic environments are not only isolated to Singapore but can be found across Southeast Asia. Image from Miltos Gikas

On the 22nd of March 2016, the South China Morning Post reported that twenty-two students had committed suicide in Hong Kong since the start of the academic year. The average suicide rate in previous years was twenty-three.

But what is it about these stress-laden environments that is causing such strain on Asian students and how can they be remedied?

For one, the competitive nature of Singaporean schools plays a substantial role. Judged strictly on their marks, students are often pressured to compete with one another for academic dominance.

The constant examination of students’ performance also increases the pressure on the youth. A prime example is the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). These exams determine whether a student may proceed to high school and, if so, what stream of classes they are allowed to participate in.

The limitations of this form of education can easily be seen. Children as young as twelve are faced with academic testing that essentially determines the course of their education, and in many aspects their future.

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Singaporean students face constant examination of their academic performance from an early age. Image from Richard Lee.

Although, in recent years, the Singaporean government has begun to address this system, it is the underlying cultural beliefs that exist in the Singaporean psyche that are the key to ending this “pressure cooker” environment.

The Mandarin Chinese concept of Kiasu, or the extreme fear of losing, is not only tremendously important to Singaporean students, but also to their parents.

It is this idea of Kiasu that leads families to pressure their children towards achieving academic greatness, not only to allow them to have the best opportunities possible, but to bring a sense of pride to their families.

Kiasu, however, is not the only traditional ideal that continues to plague modern Singapore. Within Singapore and throughout Asia, there still exists a stigma around mental illness, thus stopping many students from speaking out and seeking help.

Even in the most modern Asian countries, the importance of mental health remains overlooked and clouded with shame. For many, to have a mental illness is to be seen as weak.

To change cultural ideals, especially ones so deeply ingrained as Kiasu, demands years of purposeful re-education.

Whether this is through greater awareness on the part of the parents about their children’s mental health or communication between mental health services and Singaporean youth.

Although many families and teachers only want the best for these young students, this relentless environment of competition is not only stealing away the chance for these children to enjoy school, but in some cases, their lives.

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