• The Convergence

Parental Involution: Behind Singapore’s Academic Stress

By Chua Swee Kune, Editor

Singapore is consistently one of the top few countries in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) global competence study.

It was announced a few months ago that Singaporean students came in second after students from Mainland China in the latest round of this assessment held back in 2018 [1]. The study assesses students, aged 15 years old, by looking into how competent they are in applying their knowledge learnt from school to tackle problem sums [2].

While this is good news worth celebrating, we should not entirely depend on such results to determine the educational competence of Singaporeans [3].

Flaws in our education system continue to persist, which include growing inequalities and stress imposed on students [4]. These issues are further escalated by parents, which we explore in the later part of the article.

Stress due to overemphasis on results

To start off, meritocracy is the fundamental principle underpinning Singapore’s education system (and Singapore society in general) [5]. In the case of the education system, adhering to meritocratic values means that students are recognised or rewarded for their academic performance purely based on merit.

However, meritocracy is also flawed in that it has caused a rise in inequality and elitism in the education system. The overemphasis on performance has led to more well-off families enrolling their children in enrichment classes for better grades and to boost their chances of attaining purportedly better opportunities down the road [6]. This results in a widening gap between these children and those who do not have the financial resources to receive additional academic support.

Overcoming complex issues such as inequality and elitism within the education system takes a whole lot of effort, though recent changes to policies have attempted to address these issues.

The subject-based banding and wider scoring bands for the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE), for instance, are some of the new government measures intended to mitigate the aforementioned issues [7].

Subject-based banding enables students to take subjects at varying levels in accordance to their interests and strengths, while the wider scoring bands in the PSLE seek to give more attention to students’ efforts rather than their academic performance relative to their peers. On the whole, such measures help reduce the stress faced by students and overemphasis on academic results.

However, while they strive to diminish the overemphasis on academic results, many students are still stressed by other factors, such as parental involution, which remains a prominent issue which needs to be addressed to complement the above measures.

The perpetual issue: Parental involution

Parental involution, a term coined by Cindi Katz, refers to the overly intensified amount of effort parents put in towards grooming their children [8].

Similar to ‘helicopter parenting’ or ‘kiasu-ism’, parental involution happens when parents get overly invested in managing their children’s upbringing, out of paranoia for their offspring’s future [9].

This culture of parental involution has been deeply entrenched in our society, rendering measures that aim to lessen the academic stresses faced by children at a young age less efficacious as they are pressured to perform well academically.

Despite so, these measures inadvertently lead to Singaporean students being stuck in an even more competitive rat race as compared to what their parents experienced previously. Parents became more anxious with the implementation of these measures, resulting in them doubling up to ensure that their children do not fall behind [10].

This unhealthy situation in Singapore is further exacerbated by the widening divide between the wealthy and less wealthy; it is largely due to the resources available at young. While the more well-to-do are thinking of how to advance further, the less fortunate have to focus on their survival in a city whose inflation prices will continue to steadily grow, making living a lot more expensive.

Given how ingrained parental involution is in Singapore and coupled with the increasing inequality due to the varying resources available at young, is there a way out of this cycle?

There’s no one solution

Unfortunately, it seems difficult to break out of the cycle of competitiveness and stress amongst students due to the premium placed on good academic results in our society. While parents may understand the pressures they impose on their children, this is largely outweighed by their personal struggles of securing their children’s future [11].

While it is impossible to prevent parental involution given that it lies in the decision-making of the parents, Singapore should continuously seek to evaluate its policies and develop new solutions to address the issues in its education system, which are amplified by parental involution.

Meanwhile, parents also need to recognise the pressures they may be imposing on their children as a result of their (sometimes towering) expectations, and ensure that their children do not become overly stretched or burdened by these expectations.


[1] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/pisa-study-singapore-students-global-competence-assessment-13340186

[2] OECD, PISA 2015 results (volume I): Excellence and equity in education. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/97892 64266 490-en

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/may/06/oecd-pisa-tests-damaging-education-academics

[4] https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/meritocracy-and-how-to-manage-its-downsides

[5] https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/gia/article/meritocracy-in-singapore-solution-or-problem

[6] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/can-education-fix-growing-inequality-in-singapore-10308796

[7] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/end-of-streaming-moe-explains-which-levels-of-subjects-students-qualify-for-with#:~:text=Education%20Minister%20Ong%20Ye%20Kung,at%20varying%20levels%20of%20difficulty.

[8] Cindi Katz – Childhood as spectacle: relays of anxiety and the reconfiguration of the child

[9] Kristina Göransson – Raising Successful Children: Children as Accumulation Strategy and the Regeneration of Parenting Arrangements in Singapore

[10] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/parenting-education/some-parents-unsure-new-psle-scoring-system-will-reduce-stress-0

[11] Kristina Göransson – Raising Successful Children: Children as Accumulation Strategy and the Regeneration of Parenting Arrangements in Singapore

Swee Kune is a Year 3 political science student who is currently an Editor for The Convergence. She desires to spark constructive and meaningful conversations regarding current affairs through the publication in hopes of a more informed and kinder society. She spends most of her time catching up on her German homework while experiencing withdrawal symptoms from her K-Dramas (Shout out to Crash Landing on You). Occasionally, she sings Thai songs in an attempt to embrace her mixed-blood identity.