By Raphael Tandiono, Anglo-Chinese Junior College
Expectations of society play a pivotal role in influencing the decisions and choices of individuals. The pressure from society in Singapore can sometimes be overwhelming, taking a detrimental toll on our mental health.
“We were once told that we were just a little red dot, a remark that was meant to put us in our place and remind us how small we are. Instead, we took that label and turned it into a badge of pride and a mark of excellence”, said Ms Indranee Rajah in her eloquent speech in the parliament on 18 May 2018. Indeed, Singapore - the second smallest country in Asia - has enabled itself to rank first as the world’s most competitive country by the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2019. What is the implication? Being competitive creates the propensity to compare, causing pressure and expectations towards oneself and other people. The construction of a generalised “checklist” and norms, made up of society’s expectations like prioritising end-results over progress, punishments over encouragements and continuous pressure to be better than their peers, resembling the typical Asian mindsets, affects teenagers for various reasons. Teenagers do not have the emotional bandwidth and material resources to adapt and respond to changes. On top of that, teenagers have the most potential to achieve great things, worsening the adverse impact of comparing one to another. Thus, given all the factors, both external and internal pressure might affect their decision-making. This essay looks at how social pressure plays a vital role in the mental health of youths and teenagers, proceeding on to questioning the notion of social pressure as the primary factor and ending with a conclusion to evaluate the views given.
Recognise that tacit expectations lead to excessive pressures which can be overwhelming at times, wreaking havoc on teenagers' mental health. Arguably, this is due to the macro social environment, defined as an arrangement of communities that is the byproduct of social, economic and political forces. Notably, the country’s governing principle of meritocracy is an interesting principle to investigate further. Introduced by educators and parents from the get-go, this rhetoric of getting ahead based on their accomplishment exerts even more pressure as it sustains the idea that “anything is possible”. Reality throws a painful fact that anything is possible only when one has the resources to be at the top. This systematic inequality that many fail to realise is more often than not, missed out by society. This poses challenges to teenagers due to their incapability of coping with stress, causing anxiety and depression, and in the worst case, crime, as reflected by empirical findings that 70% of youth in the juvenile justice system has a diagnosable mental health disorder. Under the principle of meritocracy, these troubled teenagers have already lost their chance to excel. Even in the best case, where over-achievers choose to pursue society’s expectations of becoming, for example, a lawyer, reports prove that mass burn-out is happening. The notion of the lack of work-life balance leads to the postponement of marriage and relationships, which is harmful for Singapore’s ageing population. Accordingly, social expectations and pressure bring about more harm than good.
Nonetheless, a more charitable view on social pressures and expectations are worthy of discussion. A positive outlook on social pressure and expectation stems from the fact that Singapore is as mentioned “a little red dot”, lacking natural resources, with only 5.5 million residents, of which about 3 million are Singaporeans. Without the continuous pressure and expectation of being exceptional and excellent, it is safe to argue that Singapore will not make its mark internationally. Understanding that Singapore in itself is achievement-driven, proven by its aim of being the pioneer of innovation and development, seeing the same drive from the society makes much more sense. In reality, some teenagers can withstand these pressures and fulfil these expectations. Instilled by values such as being ambitious or “kiasu” (fear of losing out), produces a paramount benefit that must be included when evaluating. For example, Singaporean 15-year-olds are number one in the world for mathematics, science and reading. Even in the arts and sporting events, Singaporean youths emerge as champions. On the world stage, Singapore is respected. Its passport is the strongest in the world. Thus, a novel take should also be considered when weighing the effects of social pressure and expectation.
Furthermore, it is also logical to argue that the main perpetrator of the detrimental toll on mental health is globalisation, opposing the previous paragraphs that put emphasise Singapore society. Globalisation can be characterised as the internationalization of markets, liberalisation and accelerated diffusion of knowledge. Globalisation has enabled Singapore to overcome its inherent limits of limited land, labour, and market size, allowing the island to achieve fast economic growth, but this also carries its harms. In effect, youths have experienced increasingly higher levels of uncertainty which has a tangible impact on their transition to adolescence in terms of employment and education - two important aspects of one’s life. A natural reaction would be to develop various strategies such as postponement of life events, remaining in school, engaging in flexible relationships or taking on multiple roles - an apparent phenomenon of young adults and teenagers in Singapore. Hence, proving the extensive cause of the detrimental toll on teenagers’ mental health.
Who is ultimately responsible for the detrimental toll on teenagers’ mental health in Singapore? This essay starts by arguing the adverse effects of social pressure and expectations on teenagers’ mental health. Next, it argues that from the grand scheme of things, social pressure and expectations bring benefits. It then proceeds to introduce a new actor, globalisation and its effect. It is significant to recognise Singapore’s unique sense of exceptionalism. Its goals to always be different from its ASEAN counterparts brings about recognition and respect to the country. Social expectation and pressure, then, is a side effect of Singapore’s attempt to survive on the global stage. The trade-off between Singapore’s survival on the international stage and Singaporeans’ mental health requires the government and society to work collectively to achieve a balance. Ultimately, as a society, it is important to reminisce on one of the five shared values: nation before community and society above self.