“Young graduates … will find their own ways of behaving, believing, becoming and being themselves, making their own good sense of life as it unfolds for them” (Meritocracy and Its Toll on our Students, Pang Eng Fong and Linda Lim).
What stood out in the summarised experiences of more than 300 business undergraduates at the Singapore Management University – published in two volumes and which highlight many of their anxieties over success and failure (ST, Jan. 9) – are the templatised, individualised Singaporean notions of success, and the extent to which those who chose different pathways are held up as exceptions. Templatised, and arguably as an extension of our education system, because there are implicit expectations for students to adhere to predetermined pathways leading to stable lives and careers, upon which there are checklists to follow. And individualised, because besides the references to their parents or immediate family relationships, there was little to no mention of how they position themselves in their communities (and even in the country or the world), and how they may contribute to improve the lives of others beyond their personal circles.
There is no better summary of the phenomenon of templatisation than the metaphor used by a student to characterise her university experience: “A tick-box exercise”. Like the leap from an institute of higher learning to a university, the leap from the university to the workplace is associated with a list of similar demands or “résumé requirements”, for instance: Good grades to show academic proficiency; co-curricular involvement to show leadership traits and the ability to juggle multitudinous commitments; and community service to show empathy and concern for the less-privileged. The ramifications, in this vein, include not just interpersonal connections, but – more importantly – the space to explore and to engage in endeavours which are not necessarily framed through scholastic or more conventional lenses.
Far too often, deviations from the Singaporean template of success are frowned upon or even treated with derision. As a result, it is beyond the schools and the universities – and perhaps, even beyond the country where they may be greater diversity and even greater acceptance of it – where young Singaporeans find inspiration and courage to be different.
Wound up in the critique of meritocracy – which focuses on and rewards individual accomplishment at the risk of overlooking structural, socio-economic inequalities – is the predilection for most individuals to focus on their own lives and development. Given the incessant demands of the classroom and the workplace, as he or she advances along well-defined trajectories, the lethargy which results makes it near-impossible for him or her to free up time and effort to volunteer or to be kept up to date with current affairs or to be civically engaged. The fact that amongst Singaporeans under 55, those aged 25 to 34 are least likely to volunteer their time should come as no surprise. And ultimately, what is conveniently deemed “apathy” seems more like frustration with a stifling status quo, with little room for creative manoeuvre.