3rd Place Winner - Junior Category
By Ruth The RuiQi, Catholic Junior College Graduate
“Fluffy white clouds floated across the pink, salmon hue sky. The sun shone brightly above my window, waking me up from my deep slumber…” Learning how to start a creative writing composition remains a poignant memory in my primary school education. Being so young and possessing little to no vocabulary, being taught this new and seemingly interesting essay hook arrested my attention. The lack of my personal knowledge and independent interest translated to my rote learning, adhering to the expectations of true and tested ways. This is what the nature of many social pressures in Singapore can be likened to: one not having the chance to develop their own individual ideas and subjecting themselves and succumbing to the expectations of others. Expectations can come from oneself, parents and friends, and more recently social media. Moreover, the prominent culture of pragmatism and adopted political system of meritocracy that undergirds the success and prosperity of Singapore as a little red dot on the world map is also ironically what beats down those who deviate from conventional paths.
At the crux of social pressures in Singapore is the upholding of meritocratic ideals. There is the expectation and demand for people to work hard and consequently, succeed. This is commonly experienced in a school setting by students as national exams like Primary School Leaving Examination, GCSE O-Levels and A-Levels place immense academic stress on students. Students study not just with the goal of doing well in the exam but also with a totalising outlook that doing well in these examinations grant them greater opportunity to get a better job in the future. However, this also means that not doing well or up to par with expectations of oneself, parents and teachers could easily cause a student to deem themselves a failure in life. Whilst loved ones’ expectations of good grades are often well-intentioned to help the student get into a better school, as a student, it is difficult to possess the emotional maturity to understand this: they are not their grades and that their role in society is not just a student, it is also a son/daughter, a friend etc. As a result, they interpret any academic shortcomings not to be underperforming as a student but rather as outright inadequacy as an individual in society. This is where pressure can become overwhelming and harmful to one’s mental health. Hence, it is important that more emphasis be placed on students’ well-being whilst from young in schools and teaching them healthy coping mechanisms to deal with setbacks and stressors. Besides students, working adults are also no strangers to huge emphasis on meritocratic ideals. The rise of work-life integration in workspaces has bumped up the stress that employees face as they have greater obligations to both meet their KPIs and produce quality work and show up to family commitments like taking care of their children and elderly parents. Work-life balance is becoming a thing of the past and work-life integration praises itself on the creation of people who are seemingly more productive. However, in reality, employees feel more burnt out with the blurring of office and family hours, with work and personal matters concurrently on their minds. Whilst the notion of meritocracy can arguably boost productivity, it does not determine a definite successful outcome and creates uncertainty.
With a few simple swipes, people also access countless life updates of their friends and celebrities nowadays. It is easy for people to compare themselves to others in every aspect of life, social life, career, finances and marital status. Social media is an ominous force of social pressure as people can find themselves in echo chambers on social media, seeing negative perceptions like “Psychology major in University is useless” and “Computing job is in demand” can be internalised self-reinforcing. Seeing what the majority of people are doing can also hamper one’s independent ability to discern what they truly want to do in life and thus lower the potential for satisfaction and happiness in the future. Furthermore, this can also perpetuate a negative impression of certain groups in society that is false and discriminatory. For example, the emphasis on science subjects in schools and less on the arts and humanities is prominent as seen through how students are encouraged to take triple science in secondary school and the junior college cut off point for arts stream being higher than that of the science stream. These all point to the subtle but ever present expectation for students to go down the old, beaten path of doing science subjects so as to not “close” one’s doors to a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. There is also still a strong sentiment that white collar professions like doctors are still seen as prestigious and are competitive, therefore appealing to the masses. The limited perceived avenues for success can discourage people from thinking outside the box and pursuing alternative paths. This hampers creativity and innovation in the long run in Singapore as compared to our Western counterparts who pride their education on being exploratory and encouraging self-expression.
Finally, expectations of society can be said to stem from overt pragmatism. People simply opt to take the safest, most guaranteed route in life as it would provide a higher chance of stable income. This could stifle one’s moment of anagnorisis, the joy of them realising their career aspirations and forging a path for themselves. Therefore, as much as the system’s pressures can be blamed for the individual aspirations or lack thereof, it ultimately depends on the strength of one’s character. It is up to individuals to subvert society’s idealistic realities, to smile and laugh with their differences, despite their differences. It is only then that people can untether themselves from the strongholds of society’s expectations and pursue their true passions. Social pressure can be a motivating force so long as people use it as a tool to better themselves rather than become slaves to it.