The Popspoken Roundtable is a series of opinion pieces by the Popspoken Curators. In line with our site’s focus, this fortnightly series will discuss issues surrounding youth, art, and culture in Singapore.

Singapore: where the rat race never stops. We want to be the first in everything, continually reaching for the pinnacle of success in every aspect – to which success is determined by capitalistic objectives. Money, status, standing, connections. It’s the bedrock of a city-state who has relied on entrepot trade: without it, we would be nothing more than rubble and people.

It’s a lot to take in for a country that is barely 50 years old and trying to make a mark in this world. Its effects are pervasive: in education, in culture and in general life. It has shaped the perceptions of its people, a competitive nature that never settles for enough.

It’s shaped mine too.

Growing up in an impoverished family living in a two-room flat, I was one of the many who fell behind in the system. My family tried to make ends meet through freelance work and we were grateful for the social safety nets that the government built. But some days were much tougher than others. Paying bills was a monthly stress-inducer. Money became a dreaded dinner topic – because of the lack of it.

Not having electricity for a few days was, for the lack of a better word, a dark time. I remember opening the door and sleeping on the floor near the door just so I could have some wind to cool my body and calm my thoughts: how did we have it so bad?

As much as I was grateful to live another day, I also highly resented our situation. I would oftentimes question why could we not move as fast as other families did, with their annual trips and comfortable situations. Why were we the ones who had to rough it out?

The situation soon became clearer as I grew up: having been forced to work and forgo post-secondary education, both my parents could not climb up the meritocratic ladder. They were stuck with odd jobs with long hours and paychecks barely enough for the family.

And when asked in the years thereafter to go for retraining, the process from WSQ certification to diploma together with the immediate pressing need to feed a family soon became difficult to balance. We stuck it out and lived day to day, paycheck by paycheck.

Singapore education: the leveller and the discriminator

School soon became an escape from the harsh realities of home but it also came with its challenges, as a place where people of different backgrounds converged. It was part-equaliser into the pool of knowledge, part-runway for those who fared better to show off their wealth in a bid to claim superiority.

I remember being given a A5 card by my primary school to claim free meals at the school canteen. Every recess, we had to collect the card in the office – a process of isolation from the rest who ran to the canteen. Students immediately knew who were going to the office – and those who went to the office immediately knew who they were classified as.

It was a card that labelled us and haunted us as we got stares from students – “oh, he’s one of them with the card”. I tried to hide it, placed it inside my shirt, looked left and right and then quickly whipped it out at the stall. The foodstall auntie laughed once. Boy ah, she said, don’t need to worry, everyone else has it.

The same thing happened when we got free textbooks and uniforms every year: the dreaded coloured paper. It meant you got school supplies for free, different from the white paper everyone else got. Our names would be called in class and we would get the coloured paper. It didn’t matter if anyone else was looking, because I was looking at myself holding something different.

As I was dealing with the process of isolation, an escape soon emerged: the concept of competition. Take everything away, and education immediately becomes a level playing field. I was lucky to absorb concepts faster, catch formulas better, write and speak more eloquently. Maybe it was a desire to be heard and to be understood. I was enjoying it.

The Singapore education system rewarded me well. From the last class in Primary 2, I was promoted to the top class in Primary 4. The streaming exercise at 10 years old hurtled my name to the top EM1 stream. But there, I saw a different world: tuition-educated students, using their wealth as a leverage to push their literacy. Primary-school students could afford to buy secondary school textbooks and were reading them as a means to get forward.

Did I want to flounder among greats or come up tops among the lower stream? It was the first brush that maybe, education was the leveller but the examinations certainly are not. I chose to go a stream lower and it paid off handsomely.

The threat of being left behind in Singapore’s competitive meritocracy

Fast-forward through most of the education system and you will see the threat of competition: from class rankings to exams in early ages that divide students into classes and streams, the race to the top starts very early. And for those who fall behind, they sit in the lower streams where information – a free resource – becomes limited.

I saw my sister struggle in primary school, and she was left behind in the EM3 stream. She soon took a more different path in school, and as a brother, I felt like I failed to bring my sister with me. But she thrived and fought for her placements – and I was proud for her. Maybe it was partly jealousy at play, seeing her brother succeed academically. But she was not aware that I too had my failings.

In upper primary, the threat of competition became real. PSLE was about to hit us, and many were up mugging for weeks and months for a good secondary school placing. We were told that where we ended up at would decide the rest of our lives for us. It was a struggle to keep up with others who used money to pay for tuition, extra practice and even cab rides to school.

I began doubting if I was as capable as my peers and pushed hard to learn more and beat the system. It paid off: I was acing exams and receiving accolades. But something didn’t feel right: with each achievement, I felt emptier. I wasn’t learning, I was just competing.

In Secondary 1, I was pulled aside by my form teacher who told me that I must not tell anyone that I come from a poor family. It took me by my surprise: why wasn’t I allowed to be honest? It’ll hurt you, he said. People say mean things about poor people.

So I carried it with me, a piece of me that I didn’t feel “enough” in, while still pushing hard in school. And the more the competition, the more I fought with it. The more projects I took on, the more I said yes – all to get ahead.

It all came to a peak when I saw people move up the ladder despite what I was trying to accomplish and I was left behind, like how it was in my past. I came back to my two-room flat – the only constant that brought painful memories – and cried many times. It resulted in panic attacks when things did not go my way. When will I ever be good enough?

Facing my own path away from competition

Fortunately, a slight opening came up with the years and as I moved up to university, I began to realise that the competition was built not on healthy terms, but on a need to compare and not be inferior.

It manifests itself in many ways: I have seen students crippled by uncertainty and doubt when wanting to move forward with a bright and inventive idea, for fear that straying away from the tried and tested was going to affect their grades.

Even in the workforce, we are saddled with a lack of productivity and a comparison of wages, material wealth and senior positions. It’s not easy to be satisfied in a country where moving upwards is a never-ending cycle of the desire for more.

Soon enough, I began to find a sense of calm by just focusing on my own path: was this what I wanted to do for myself? What was going to be enough for me? Who can I help along the way?

Focusing on helping others instead of fighting them proved to be a healing experience: there were other opportunities away from the usual ones people were fighting for and that reaching out to others helped to see those opportunities take root.

Reconciling with meritocratic unfairness in Singapore

Today’s education landscape is different than the years past. But for the many whose formative years were affected by the culture of competition, this aspect continues to pervade throughout much of Singapore life. Being the first in everything is a needless part of our culture: some may view it as reflexively Singaporean, others may see our kiasu-ism as undue stress and anxiety.

So we find calm by looking inwards instead: by choosing not to be the country that is competing with the world’s greats, but the country that is paving a lane of its own but also giving back to others. It is slowly growing in our youth today: social entrepreneurs, youth activists, volunteers from all walks of life – those who see good in giving selflessly.

It was when I felt like I was losing myself in the midst of the Singapore education crush that I found what I gained in knowledge, friendships and camaraderie. These were the intangibles that formed what was enough and lasting, not an accolade or certificate that was only a means to an end. And to this day, I learn far more from honest exchanges than I will ever learn through an examination or thesis paper.

I still live in my two-room flat today. But when I look back at how much I survived and am still standing today, I’m happy and am filled with the need to give back, to remind others who may be in my shoes that they are not inadequate and can thrive in our land.

Meritocracy is a difficult concept to separate from competition and while there remains a need in Singapore to stick by the rules of the land, reframing one’s mindset towards gaining and giving helps ease off the pressure of surviving in one of the most competitive countries in the world. And if you fall behind: reach out and help someone else, for they will help you too when you need it the most.

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Photo: Richard Lee/Flickr (via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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