Covid-19, inequality, and student stress

We can’t deal with stressed out students at the national level by merely tinkering with the education system. We have to lower the penalties for those of us who do not do well in school.

Covid-19 and its impact on the economy has highlighted for us the inequalities baked into our society. Regardless of the progress that we may have made in Singapore on income inequality, the divide here has never been clearer.

Two headlines from recent weeks have helped me explain this to students who have trouble understanding the economic divide we have here. One reads: “From luxe private home dining to discounted tickets, high-end restaurants innovate to cope with heightened alert.” The second reads: “Covid-19 restrictions: Taxi, private hire drivers report fall in income as some operators offer aid.”

Our young people can be forgiven if they think that the exam results they get now will dictate their future. It certainly seems like it, right? Fail to get into university, or fail to get into JC, or fail to get into a good secondary school, and it all seems like it’s going to fall apart.

The truth is that there are ways to succeed in Singapore even if you don’t do well in school. But it is also true that a comfortable life is much easier to come by if you do well for your exams at each stage. The advantages really do add up.

If you do well for your PSLE, you get into a better secondary school that will make it easier for you to get into a better JC, which raises your chances of getting into a good university, which raises your chances of getting a good degree. At each stage, there are ways to raise your chances of success even if you’ve tripped a bit at the previous stage (hello, private tuition).

But a cruel tendency remains: there are penalties for those who don’t do well at each stage.

Fortunately, there are paths to success for those who don’t do well in school. If you fail your A-levels, for example, you could always take it again as a private candidate. Our lives are a sum of our choices at each moment, and it is always possible to choose better actions at each stage of life.

But a cruel tendency remains: there are penalties for those who don’t do well at each stage.

There are solutions to the problem of economic inequality, including giving free money to all of us. It probably sounds ridiculous to some of you, but the case for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been argued for in Parliament, by AWARE, and even in the Singapore Business Review.

Whatever solution is chosen or not chosen, those of us with the privilege to examine these problems and their solutions must care about this. Sure, if you’re rich, during the lockdown you get to consider ordering a luxury meal in–but do you see the way that your children may be suffering?

Children and teenagers are not blind agents shuffling their way through the world till they finally get to adult maturity; almost all of them are sensitive and perceptive creatures who are have already developed some of the abilities they will continue to use as adults.

Many of them, even if they cannot speak eloquently about these issues, already have impressionistic understandings of how our world works. Many of them understand, on some level, the penalties they face for failure, and pressure themselves into working hard because of that.

Some of them have even put themselves under such profound stress that they cope by appearing lazy.

Those of us who are privileged neglect societal problems at our own risk, and Covid-19 should remind us of exactly how connected we are. The air your private chef or delivery rider breathes out is exactly the same air that you will breathe in.

Why is our society so relentlessly competitive? Maybe because we understand that to fall behind in the race is to lose out on all kinds of safety and dignity.

This is why we can’t deal with stress in the education system by merely tinkering with that system, even though incremental improvements are always welcome.

We teach and learn in a larger system that impinges on us, and no matter how much teachers and tutors try to deal with our students’ wellbeing in the educational setting, we are effectively powerless when it comes to the larger problems in society–unless we all come together as a society to solve these problems.

There are solutions to be thought about, and those of us who can do so must at least care about what is to be done.


PS: For those who are too stressed out about this, let me recommend a few books (and one article) that I’ve personally found helpful. There are ways to success, no matter how you define it. Don’t give up!

Shawn Achor (2010). The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work.

Shawn Achor (2018). Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-Being.

Charles Duhigg (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

Dan Harris (2014). 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story

Bertrand Russell (1932). In Praise of Idleness.

George Yeo reminds politicians about poverty and responsibility in a post labelled “To read before 11 Sep”

On the 7th of September, former Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo posted a link to this article, with the note “To read before 11 Sep”.

In the article, Pope Francis is quoted as saying:

I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! Politicians who look after the vulnerable: the hungry, the unemployed, the homeless, immigrants, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly left alone and abandoned, children who are still in their mother’s bellies. All those who are exploited and those whom today’s throwaway society has turned into waste, “leftovers”, because in today’s “economy which kills”, “people are less important than the things that give profit to those who have political, social, economic power.

What exactly may Mr. Yeo be thinking about? Maybe he’s thinking about the roughly 387,000 people who live at or below S$5 a day for food and transport (source). Or perhaps he’s troubled by the cardboard collectors we’re all a little bit too familiar with. Personally, I keep on thinking about the elderly toilet cleaners I see in our MRTs and shopping malls. I always am embarrassed by the fact that young people like me live in a society that forces such old people to clean our piss and shit.

Regardless of his private thoughts, it is a timely reminder by the former Minister. Not only is there a political need to deal with poverty, we have the moral and spiritual need to do so. We keep on hearing that Singapore is free from corruption, and on some level, this is true — there are very few cases of bribery that see the light of day. However, the Pope points to a different kind of corruption — a spiritual kind. As he notes in the article:

the corrupt are those whose hearts have hardened to the extent that they no longer hear the voice of God and are blind to people’s needs, showing an interest only in their own affairs and the affairs of their party.

Whoever gets into Parliament, I hope they heed George Yeo’s reminder. Thankfully, this isn’t idealism that only looks good on paper. Singapore can do what the Pope and our former Minister recommend — the numbers have been crunched.

Singapore’s Community Chest reveals the gut-wrenching price of poverty in 4 minute video

GP tutors may talk about inequality till their mouths run dry, but there is nothing like grounding it in a local context that really drives home what it is like to be poor. If you let a few tears fall in response to the video, take heart; you’re not depressed, it’s just your body responding to the complex mix of extreme emotions you were probably feeling. (Google “why we cry when we are happy”, if you’re curious about this phenomenon.)

The video raises so many questions. Why can’t this family afford a S$28.90 treat? Where are the children’s parents? Why has the older man lost the financial means to buy a cake? Why are we living in a society that forces some members to forgo cake?

The problem of poverty is a complex one; speak to any social worker and you will learn that poverty in Singapore is never simple. Sometimes there are gambling debts; sometimes there is addiction; sometimes there is a toxic culture in the family; sometimes there are medical problems. The family in the video is a kind of “ideal” family when it comes to poverty. They speak English, seem well-educated enough, seem to share the values of mainstream society and seem open to receiving help. It would be relatively easy to make sure that the children get the nurturing they need (education, nutrition, proper shelter, some level of mental health care) that will enable them to escape a poverty trap. In the real world, however, things aren’t so simple.

The two Chinese males clad in business casual are symbols of economic productivity in our culture. (Hmm..) We look at them and think, “Ah, those must be working men, they surely will be able to afford cake.” The video cleverly throws this into question — the old man, presumably having spent a productive life working, is now wheelchair-bound and at the mercy of the mechanisms of poverty. The choice of the filmmakers to put him in the wheelchair suggests that the family’s financial situation is due to some kind of medical crisis in their past, and it also should make us wonder: will that be the fate of the younger working man as he ages?

The sad fact is that this video isn’t unrealistic. We know that people can fall into poverty for any number of reasons, including the fact that we are all subject to economic cycles (booms and recessions) that can often render whole swathes of society un- or under-employed. Moreover, even if someone works diligently through his/her productive years, sometimes s/he can be left with insufficient funds for retirement in life’s final stages. This needs to change. When a family can’t afford a cake, guess what else they’re probably skimping on? It is possible that they are trying to save money by not visiting the doctor even when they need to, by avoiding house repairs, or by buying cheap but unhealthy food — strategies that will not only impact the children’s health and safety, but also their long-term development, behaviour, and performance in school.

The instances of generosity in the video are uplifting and terribly heartwarming to witness, but a cake is only a poor plaster over a gaping, festering wound. Yes, we need to be much more generous, and we also need to ask if we can accept a society that is structured in a way that creates this level of poverty. We may have to jettison neoclassical economics and its ill-advised focus on productivity, and go through a complete examination of our society’s conscience — tasks that will not be achieved only at the voting booth.

Still, the video carries an important lesson for us all: a simple act of caring creates an endless ripple. Let them eat cake.

If I were more spiritually generous, I’d fix the education system here. But right now, all I’m doing is exploiting the flaws in it to make money.

If I were more spiritually generous, I’d fix the education system here. But right now, all I’m doing is exploiting the flaws in it to make money. It is because parents have such intense fears of their children getting low grades that the tuition industry is so massive now.

The problem starts with the fact that social and income inequality is bad in Singapore. No parent wants their child to be so low on the income ladder that they become one of the beachfront homeless here, or to have to be overworked at a dead-end job just to make ends meet. This problem is compounded by the fact that the education system here tends to favour those who are able to spend more money on their children.

I need to think long and hard about setting my soul right by doing something more than what I already am (<singlish> but eh, free essays and tips for everyone already la, rich or poor also can get </singlish>).

 

Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.