Achieving academic success should not be the only goal for young people who need the collective support of society to give them the resourcefulness, resilience and confidence to face life’s challenges.
A few weeks ago my family was home, trying a new dance video game in front of the TV. The premise of the game is simple: the better you can simulate the moves on the screen, the higher your score.
We enjoyed our family workout, especially watching my husband try to perform dance moves, but the fun was short-lived. My youngest daughter, who is five years old and the youngest in the family, started crying because her score was lower compared to us. She gave up a big tantrum, stopping the activity.
Competition can reveal the best and the worst in us. The instinct of competition is not devoid of even very young children – it is a way of nature that ensures our survival.
As parents, we want to see our children do their best and do their best to help them climb to the top. We are proud that parents value education and care for their children, and our children respect their elders, follow their orders, and work hard in their studies. Surely this must be a recipe for long-term happiness?
However, we are witnessing the emergence of a quiet phenomenon around us – young people in Singapore who are talking about the overwhelming burden of expectations and concerns about their mental well-being. And they are not alone. In China and other East Asian countries, there are young people who are retreating from competition, giving rise to the “tan ping” (躺平) movement or the “lying still” movement in the uprising against rat races.
When we analyze the factors that caused this development, there are many explanations that apply in all East Asian countries. Slowing economic growth, intense competition for jobs, rising cost of home ownership, excessive pressure on the education system, increasing the burden of caring for the elderly – all this is a heavy burden on young people.
In the face of diminishing prospects for their children, parents are doubling up by participating in a “nuclear arms race” to give their children a better chance of doing better than others.
Meanwhile, children face new challenges caused by online access, in addition to the usual problems of growing up, such as emotional stress, peer pressure, friendship and identity issues, and the expectations of parents and society.
Faced with increasing pressure from all fronts, some suffer from burnout or choose to “lie still” – a quiet uprising characterized by the choice to do nothing.
The language of achievement begins in the house
Politicians in Singapore know that the fundamental solution is to ensure economic growth; as the Chinese proverb says, “shui zhang chuan gao” (水涨船高), which means “when the tide rises, all the boats rise with it.”
Government agencies work closely with industry partners to foster economic transformation while providing employees with the appropriate training to make the most of new opportunities. This is crucial to our success as a nation, but it can be empty for our children if they cannot find their place in this portrait.
We can help them by working together as a society to give them a sense of hope, to help them strengthen resourcefulness and resilience and to redefine how we all see success and happiness.
For some time now, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has been promoting the idea of multiple pathways to success and increasing porosity between pathways; that while grades are important because they help monitor progress and build rigor and discipline of mind, the pursuit of academic success should not be taken to the extreme of the pursuit of every last point.
But it requires the whole society to join the movement, starting with families. Day after day, family members are those whose words and actions directly determine how children view success.
Do we make academic achievement and paper qualifications sound like “be it all and end it all?” Do we use fear and doomsday scenarios to scare our children into working hard to learn? Do we impose on our children our childhood educational experience as educational practices change over the years?
Do we impose our unfulfilled dreams and aspirations on our children, or do we make unnecessary value judgments about professions when work and the place of work can no longer be what we understood them to be?
We need to consider how this affects a child’s well-being when we narrowly determine success before how well a child takes a school exam. Not everyone can be in the top 20th percentile for a survey, and this is exacerbated when some parents define success as being in the top fifth percentile.
By default, most students go beyond this percentage, and they may end up feeling inferior and hopeless. Anecdotally, there are those who score in the best bands who live for fear of not retaining a place in the next round. So even the top scorers don’t feel better.
Also, as a society, do we respect people based on their economic value as determined by the market? Do we celebrate heartfelt work, good character, inner strength and well-being, or do we consider these values less important because there seems to be no economic value?
And who can say that the future economy will not consist of more jobs and industries that require new skills, talents and orientations than we know now?
By expanding conversations and pathways to what is considered success and excellence, we create motivation and more opportunities not only for our children but for all of us to strive for the best in different areas and at different stages of our lives. I believe that industry and society as a whole will benefit from this shift.
At a webinar called “Future Beyond Classes,” organized by the MOE, in which I participated last November, parents asked what qualities employers are looking for in candidates.
Many Singaporean parents are very practical people who think that good grades lead to good work. Webinar participants said that while it is true that certain skills are needed for some industries, there are many other attributes such as resilience, agility to new challenges, emotional efficiency and collaboration skills that employers are looking for.
These are skills that are developed outside the classroom, so we need to expose our children to different experiences to develop these traits. The MOE will organize more such webinars to keep parents up to date with hiring and employment trends as well as traits that employers want in their employees.
Is society setting up our youth to do their best?
This brings me to the next point about sustainability. In recent relations with employers a common concern is the perceived lack of resilience among young employees. The media company said the young employees did not seem to be able to cope with the stress of working on time or demanding customers.
But instead of blaming the young employees directly, the senior head of the media company told me that she would be conducting a staff training course on empathy for employees to understand how best to communicate with young employees today. I agree with her. We need to help our children develop resilience, and at the same time find new ways to motivate and encourage them.
Early acquaintance with foreign experience and local or foreign internships can help develop the skills of our youth to respond to real situations. Although Covid-19 has brought many opportunities abroad, many schools and ground-based organizations, such as the Asian youth group The Young SEAkers, are still finding ways to establish foreign ties and create opportunities for young Singaporeans to see next. their immediate comfort zones.
Volunteering and helping vulnerable people in Singapore can also help develop a sense of resilience and resilience among our youth. Parents should view such activities as additional to their child’s learning, not as a distraction from learning. The skills and attributes they acquire through this volunteer activity may well be what their potential employers are looking for.
Separate employers can also explore new ways of communicating and communicating with young employees who are committed to life other than meeting basic needs and want to see a fairer and better society.
In a recent collaboration with financial securities firm CGS-CIMB, her group CEO Carol Fong told how the firm’s partnership with Community Chest to enable customers to make donations conveniently and spontaneously was a project that brought many young employees together.
Employees were pleased that they could, while working in a financial services firm, encourage clients to do good together and help those in need. I met some of these young staff who led the event and took care of all the activities, smiling from the heart.
This underlined for me the desire of young people to see their workplace not only as a profitable enterprise, but also as an enterprise that has more social goals and, indirectly, care for the well-being of its employees.
Finally, we must continue to give our young people the confidence that Singapore will remain a place where they can find and achieve happiness. While we support our youth in their aspirations and aspirations, we must also consider the components that make up a happy life.
In many studies on happiness, strong relationships in family and with friends are mentioned as important determinants of happiness. Feelings of gratitude and appreciation of the present can also evoke a sense of happiness.
It brings me back to the day when my daughter’s misfortune with her score nearly ruined our fun training day. I decided to take her aside and explain how she could look at the game differently.
Instead of focusing on wins and losses, how about taking over learning to see the game as a teacher and all of us as dance students? Some will pick up moves faster, some less, but we are all here to enjoy the game and do our best.
After removing the scathing opinion my daughter seemed more satisfied with the work on her steps. She became more confident playing the game, and also happily encouraged us.
We can do much together to support the well-being of our young people – to give them hope, to help them develop resilience and to give them confidence that happiness is within them. Let’s work together because we know we love them so much.
Sun Xuelin is the Minister of State for Education of Singapore and the Minister of State for Social and Family Development.