The recent coroner’s ruling of the Primary 5 boy falling to his death as “a deliberate act of suicide” (Friday, Oct 21) reignited sparks of fresh debate about youth suicide and exam pressures. With exam period impending, various media outlets have published several informative articles guiding parents on how to handle childrens’ exam stress and to observe them closely for suicidal tendencies.
What many fail to realize are that these stress coping solutions only serve to treat the symptoms of youth suicide and not the cause.
Recent statistics show youth suicide rates increasing among those aged 10 to 19, with a 107% increase in suicides in that age range between 2014 – 2015. With a staggering increase in youth suicides, it is easy to direct the blame on obvious parental pressure.
However, we neglect to realise that parents are merely victims of a herd mentality – to do well for exams or fail in life. Most parents fall into the baby boomer generation that witnessed the exceptional transformation of Singapore and how meritocracy enabled many to rise above their social standing through hard work.
The significant upward movement in social mobility during that period is what causes parents to believe that the same circumstances apply for their children without realising that social mobility has considerably stagnated due to the tremendous success of our education system and an increasingly entrenched elite.
As a society that proudly relies on meritocracy to distribute reward and incentives, it has brought us wealth and success in developing human resources and efficiently allocating talent.
Meritocracy in theory is the fairest way to build a society due to its key component of social mobility where those who do well can rise and those who don’t, fall. In Singapore’s multiracial society, it was essential for our prosperity to adopt meritocracy for a non-discriminatory approach to distribute merit which built a strong foundation for social stability and a pillar of national identity. However, meritocracy has started to breed an elitist mindset and a “pressure-cooker” education system which can be attributed as the cause of unnecessary stress on students and schools to perform well.
For meritocracy awards only results and not commensurate effort, it has cultivated a culture that rejects failure.
Students attach self worth to numbers on their result slips and seek to constantly meet their parents’ expectations. As a result of a highly competitive academic culture and due to societal pressure to perform well, most parents send children for tuition ranging from musical instrument to language enrichment classes from a young age to give them an advantage over their peers. Some parents even utilise subversive techniques like corporal punishment at home when children don’t meet their expectations during tests and exams. In an environment where failure is not an option and high levels of stress are perceived as normal, it is no surprise that our youth are beginning to buckle under tremendous pressure.
But to hold parents responsible for their child’s suicide is unfair to both parent and child. In other Asian countries, an increase in youth suicide rates provoked widespread reflection within culture and society. High youth suicide rates in Japan initiated condemnation on the Japanese culture of “seppuku”; ritual suicide, made popular by kamikaze pilots during World War II as suicide is commonly seen as a way of taking responsibility. China is also witnessing a surge in adolescent suicide rates with suicide being the leading cause of death among young people. Experts attribute this rise to the one child policy where an only child grows up with less stress management skills compared to those with siblings.
Directing all conversations surrounding youth suicide to managing parental expectations is no different from treating a malignant tumour with cough syrup.
This is not to be mistaken as discounting the efforts of suicide prevention groups or mental health organisations. It is simply encouraging criticism on our society’s fixed mindset regarding the path to success. It is ensuring our children know that perfect grades are not the only way to achieve career success. It is providing a young boy who wants to pursue carpentry a career path without social stigma.
Changing our perspectives help children realise that less than perfect grades are not a sign of being defective. In a culture where failure is something we are inherently taught to be ashamed of, we neglect to realise that failure is a fundamental character building experience. Our children deserve to be taught how to embrace challenges and manage failures to be more emotionally resilient in the future.
It is a fact not negated that meritocracy has been beneficial in lifting our society from an impoverished state to a competitive global city but beneath the sparkle and glamour, we need to openly address the underbelly of meritocracy in our education system.
To blame the ugly consequences of meritocracy on radical parenting methods is misplacing good intentions in the all the wrong places.