The ‘Singa-parent Culture’: How we might be perpetuating the cycle of poor mental health
By Rishika Ghanamoorthy, NUSPA Social Policy Division
Anxiety is the most common mental illness in Singapore, with around one in seven Singaporeans experiencing an anxiety disorder at least once in their life . Anxiety manifests in various forms, such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which is categorised as excessive worrying about daily commitments  and currently affects 1.6 percent of Singaporeans . I have always assumed that these are the usual culprits of anxiety: increasing dependence on social media, overwork and having a poor work life balance. While these could be real reasons for why people in Singapore face mental health issues, I was caught off guard when mental health experts shared with me another contributing factor: parenting.
Ms Bhavani Deva, a psychologist from local therapy service Psychology Blossom,  explains that many of the mental health issues that Singaporeans face stem from the harsh expectations they place on themselves and on others. Similarly, Ms Danica Toh, a mental health counsellor from health and wellness services Six Spac , notes a trend whereby her Singaporean clients commonly face mental health issues stemming from the “perfectionist culture that they subscribe to.” On the micro level, such characteristics are often intrinsically linked to the parenting culture in Singapore, which is often described as being heavily influenced by the ‘Asian parenting’ style.
Asian Parenting and the Singapore Culture
Asian parenting is strongly attributed to the role of ‘the provider’, where parents go above and beyond to ensure their offspring’s material needs are met . In this process, however, childrens’ emotional needs are often overlooked. Research on Asian parenting styles shows that high expectations are often placed on children and that this style teaches children that emotional expression is harmful to relationships. Hence, children who undergo this parenting style often avoid expressing their emotions . Indeed, this can lead to poorer emotional wellbeing as children become more susceptible to emotional problems that can lead to anxiety .
The need to do well and achieve materialistic goals is something deeply embedded in both the wider Singaporean culture and the internal family unit. There are many possible reasons for why we are labelled a ‘materialistic’ country. Some might say it is because of our vulnerable nature where the government has no choice but to focus on economic/materialistic objectives or it could be a resulting hallmark characteristic of living in a city. While well-intended, this often leads to parents placing pressure on their children from a very young age to keep achieving. As Counsellor Danica shares, “this can lead to the feeling of inadequacy throughout life” — an important factor in influencing an individual’s mental wellness and management of anxiety. Failure to attain such levels or forms of success is incredibly anxiety-inducing. Singaporeans might beat themselves up over their inability to achieve extravagant goals and this leads to them having worrisome thoughts about the future or regretting what they did in the past that led to their current situation. Once caught in this rat race, personal mental wellness is often deprioritized. This is how the anxiety cycle often begins, and of which strong Asian parenting can contribute significantly in the formative childhood and teenage years.
According to Psychologist Bhavani, the harsh expectations that parents place on their children in Singapore cause them to experience “conditional love.” This then becomes a never-ending cycle where “children internalise their parent’s behaviours and continue placing harsh expectations on themselves and on others as they grow older.” Counsellor Danica also shares her observations of how her Singaporean clients have to often grapple with the Singaporean definition of success. The Singaporean definition of success is often attributed to the ‘5 Cs’ - cash, car, credit card, condominium, and country club membership. She elaborates that “we have a very strong ideal of what is right and wrong here in Singapore” when it comes to what constitutes as the right metric of success, and this frequently leads to anxiety when such goals become unattainable.
The Asian parenting style may be harsh, but ultimately most parents have good intentions. They want their children to succeed — albeit mostly through their parental definition. Perhaps a shift from such authoritarian parenting to authoritative parenting can help . Authoritative parenting is a supportive form of parenting which is characterised by parents being in tune with the needs of their children while authoritarian parenting is characterised by the strict focus on obedience, discipline and control. The authoritative approach is preferred as it guides children via honest and healthy discussions to promote values and reasoning . As Singapore currently has a strong culture of Asian parenting, we as a country could adopt several possible policies to improve our support towards people who face mental health issues.
Psychologist Bhavani observed that many of her expatriate clients had insurance policies from their companies that covered the mental health aspect of their life, including therapy, counselling, and medication needed for mental health. She also observed that the work-life balance that expatriates practised here are often much healthier than that of Singaporeans. She suggests that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) could step in to have more flexible working hours, especially for those with children. She adds that it is not enough that MOM advocates for better work-life balance, and that “seniors in positions of power or in leadership positions within companies need to practise and have a good understanding of work-life balance. Something as simple as allowing everyone to leave work by 6 p.m. would go a long way.”
Another policy improvement could be made in the area of education. Counsellor Danica suggests that mindfulness could be incorporated into our curriculum, similar to those found in Finland and the United Kingdom. Mindfulness refers to programmes commonly known as the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, where research has shown strong effectiveness of such programmes in helping to tackle issues such as anxiety, stress and depression . Sensitive facilitation and regulation is very much needed for these courses and initiatives to be incorporated in Singapore, due to the multi-religious demographic of Singapore where aspects of MBSR such as meditation might come into conflict with certain religious teachings. One way to possibly tackle this is to provide parents with workshops and educate them on what their children will be learning in school.
Nonetheless, a step towards incorporating mindfulness as a basic part of our school system can go a long way in improving the well being of students in Singapore from a young age. Psychologist Bhavani similarly agreed that it would be helpful to include such additions as part of curriculum, saying that “it is vital for children to learn about emotions and who to deal with them.” Such knowledge will not only help individuals manage their emotions, but improve the quality of relationships in their lives. She went on to add that having comprehensive training for parents through parent workshops is also important. It is vital that we relook at the harsh expectations parents often have on children in Singapore and to have open and vulnerable conversations exploring parenting with parents, because the relationships in the family have profound impacts on each of us.
Looking back at my initial assumptions for why Singaporeans face mental issues, I seemed to have a very intrinsic and self-blaming view of why we experience issues like anxiety. Little did I realise that our mental state is also a culmination of environmental factors that impact us from a very young age. My chats with mental health professionals surely opened up my eyes to a different perspective of how we can better tackle mental health issues in Singapore from a structural perspective.
Rishika Ghanamoorthy is a Year 2 Political Science undergraduate. As a student-athlete, much of her time is spent at the track. She also works as a part-time netball coach hoping to inspire young women and empower them through the sport of netball as she wants to give back to the sport that has done much for her. Outside of sports, Rishika likes to read and takes keen interest in topics like mindfulness meditation and philosophy.