OCTOBER 8 — Many years ago I was invited to a school in the Subang Jaya area to give a talk about stress management to about a hundred or so SPM students.
As is usually the case, the teacher in charge introduced me prior to my talk. What shocked me was what she said to the students:
“All of you need to learn how to manage stress because if you don’t do well in your SPM, you are going to suffer.
“One of my friend’s son only got 2 As and he he could not get into a good college.
“Now he just locks himself in his room all day. Please understand how important SPM is. If you don’t do well, life will become very difficult for you.”
I was like WTF, are they facing an exam or a firing squad?
My plan was to tell the students they can manage their stress better by realising there are many options and approaches to studying; that nobody cares about SPM when they’re past 20 and that there is so much more that you can get from life, that you need not be defined by your exam results.
But this teacher expected me to teach them to manage exam stress in order to excel in their studies lest their lives crash and burn, and they become branded as failures.
Scoring north of a half a dozen As was the only option.
Like I said, WTF.
I should also mention this school — like many other schools throughout the country — had an intimidating “X number of days to SPM” countdown timer stuck ominously on a wall.
The epidemic of stressed out, depressed adolescents ─ all of whom are like three steps away from hurling themselves off a building ─ is a particularly vexing one.
First, it’s rendered more severe by the fact that teens and adolescents are at the age most vulnerable (biologically speaking) to emotional contagion, risk-taking, novelty-seeking and peer-pressure coupled with, in Robert Sapolsky’s words, “a frenzied, agitated, incandescent ability to feel someone else’s pain, to feel everyone’s pain, to try to make everything right.”
The bottom line is that those boys and girls aged between puberty and the right to enter Genting’s casino are the folks most likely to a) feel intense emotional pain and b) do something irreversibly crazy.
And what would push them over the precipice? Suicide is like Rome, with many roads leading to it. Peer pressure, broken family, school difficulties, romantic heartaches, social rejection, failure in sports.
Now it’s possible I’m barking up the wrong tree, but I think the expectation for students to excel in their academic studies is virtually a defining trait of Asian (especially Chinese/Sino) society.
Which brings me to the second vexing thing about depressed Asian students: We parents and teachers tend to acknowledge that stress comes from many sources except exams. As such, we always downplay the ruthlessness and risks of exam pressure.
We complain about burdens and stress at work and we know that pressuring children beyond what they can cope is harmful ─ but we don’t think pressuring them to succeed as academic stalwarts is a bad thing.
We talk about the uniqueness of children and individuals ─ but we don’t question how expecting them to excel in all their subjects contradicts this truth.
We promote the importance of talent and gifts ─ but in school we neglect subjects like PE, art, music, dance, etc. as if those subjects are “more for fun” than anything else.
We attend seminars, read books and conduct meetings about financial and organisational “risk management” ─ but very few parents recognise the risks inherent in constantly pushing our teenagers to attain Top Scorer status.
As such, depression and suicide from exams remain a hidden risk as it’s a risk we don’t wish to open our eyes to until it’s too late.
Countdown to Armageddon?
As I mentioned at the start, even schools glory in a militant approach to exams. Just drive into any SMK in your neighbourhood and see how prominent the “30 days to SPM” countdown sign is.
Honestly, each time I see that my heart breaks because I know it contributes to loads of unnecessary stress for many students. Furthermore, given the vulnerability and susceptibility of teenagers, there is the inevitable marrying of academic performance with social identity.
When kids don’t succeed get good grades, they suffer. And given how schools always compare results, “success” always means success in relation to a non-success, there will always be students who feel down, no matter how hard they’ve tried.
This bears repeating: When Asian communities worship academic grades, this will make 80 to 90 per cent of students inevitably feel like losers, for the plain reason that academic excellence (like footballing excellence, like writing excellence, like cooking excellence) is the domain of only a few.
The idea of pushing all kids to get straight As is as absurd as pushing all kids to become Ronaldos and Sharapovas.
And we think other nations are kiasu?
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.