MP Carrie Tan’s views on Ministry of Education’s Committee of Supply Debate 2022
2017’s OECD study showed that Singaporean students’ anxiety levels are significantly higher than the OECD average. 2018’s household expenditure survey showed that we spend 1.4 billion dollars annually on tuition alone, up from $650 million, just 15 years before.
We need urgent attention from the government to help our youths with their mental health. I suggest first, enabling better parent-child bonding and socio-emotional learning. Second, re-designing the extra-curricular learning landscape.
Eagerness and a deep anxiety for children to do well drive many Singaporean parents, partly in response to Singapore’s drive for progress and success. Parents often send their children for additional structured lessons to increase their children’s academic competitiveness.
High parental expectations stemming from competitive anxiety could be a source of friction between parent and child. According to a 2016 parenting survey done by LKYSPP, the average Singaporean child spends 24.5 hours a week combined on homework, tuition and enrichment classes on top of going to school 30 hours a week.
These expectations sometimes have little to do with the children themselves, and more to do with what parents believe they should be doing for their children. According to the same survey, 68.2% of parents agreed that they should discipline their kids if they didn’t perform well in exams. 87.6% agreed that a parent must ensure that their child performs well in school. We could interpret this as parents taking it personally should their child do poorly at school. A study from Arizona State University showed that the more a child perceived that their parents had high expectations for their academic achievement, the more they experienced academic stress and depression. It pretty much confirms that high parental expectations contribute to a pattern of increased mental health problems in our youth.
Another thing to note: according to Singapore’s 2016 Mental Health Study, 63.9% of adults experienced at least 1 Adverse Childhood Experience before the age of 18. The most common adverse childhood experience was emotional neglect, experienced by almost half of all adults surveyed.
At the same time, 92% of Singaporean workers reported feeling stressed due to work in 2019.
Is there any correlation between high work stress in parents and emotionally neglected children? How might a national narrative of having to be the best to survive as a small nation, contribute unintentionally to unhealthy levels of anxiety, and hyper-competition in adults, spilling over to children in our society?
Do children have sufficient time to relax, play, explore and learn in an unstructured manner? What can we do to help parents understand the source of their own anxieties and the importance of unstructured play and relaxation for children?
First, MOE needs to devote more resources to build up Singaporeans’ socio-emotional awareness and health. We can do so by subsidising socio-emotional learning for adults, and providing incentives for parents who attend with their children to encourage parent-child bonding and co-learning. MOE can also make courses on socio-emotional and mental health literacy, arts and humanities eligible for subsidies under Skillsfuture so that more can access them.
Second, I urge the Ministry to find ways to rein in the tuition industry. At the same time, provide government grants for companies to set up adventurous, exploratory and mindfulness journeys that contribute to holistic, non-examinable development for children. By shifting profitability to the type of learning & development we desire for our children, we can nudge and influence the market to shape parents’ choices. These will complement MOE’s existing efforts to promote more pathways to success.
Developing the socio-emotional skills of our population will help us better respond to the needs of our new economy. The skills of collaborative leadership, negotiation and resilience, all require strong emotional awareness and management as a foundation. These skills may be better learnt through Play and exploring life than through Study. Creating more time and opportunities for play and exploration could be a great way to get smarter and reduce anxiety!
I hope MOE will seriously and playfully consider these recommendations, and explore more ways to make holistic and emotional learning a part of our people’s development. It will pay off well in the future.