Getting to the root of kiasuism

This commentary was published in Today on 27th Aug as a parent’s reflection on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2012 National Day Rally the night before. I focused on the topics of education and the birth rate, which readers will know are my two pet topics on this blog and in real life. Contrary to popular belief, the family photo wasn’t a National Day thingy, but Chinese New Year from earlier this year :)

As a parent of two primary school children, I paid extra attention to the Prime Minister’s take on education and the birth rate. I was glad to see some glaring gaps finally plugged, or at least touched on.

Finally, new fathers can look forward to longer paternity leave. The lack of it is something that has puzzled me for years, given that I have changed nearly as many diapers as my wife.

Improving work-life balance was another key topic that was tackled head-on. It’s true, people are just too busy to procreate.

Somehow, people need to learn how to say no to constantly checking their emails and deliberately carve out quality time for their families. Perhaps the Civil Service could take the lead by limiting the maximum working hours in a week?

Indeed, there were many gems in last night’s rally. But I hope the new policies laid out by Mr Lee Hsien Loong will take into account larger, deep-seated problems that may ultimately derail the Government’s good intentions and long-term vision.

For example, I was happy to see Mr Lee emphasising that, while pre-school standards need to be raised in several areas, parents should let their children enjoy their childhood and not introduce them to primary school content too early. Yes, improving the early phase of education is important, but it has to be done in tandem with a serious relook at the remainder of the student’s journey.

I’ve seen the benefits of my children not having exams at Primary 1. But when students reach Primary 3, the demands of the curriculum take a big leap, many folks get stressed out and it’s back to square one.

There is a lot of unnecessary tension created in the primary school system today by parents, teachers and tuition centres who make their students learn more than is actually spelled out by the Ministry of Education.

If the primary school problem is not resolved, kiasu parents (of which there are many) will inevitably derail the improvements to the pre-school system.

A simple solution may be to standardise exam papers across all standards in primary school. This may in turn change mindsets about elite versus neighbourhood schools (another hand-wringing issue for parents).

As the PM spoke, I also wondered how much the current education system is linked to the dismal national birth rate. Why? The mindsets of young people are shaped by the values that they imbibe in school and later at work.

A relentless focus on grades and wealth as key measures of success has led to a society where many people want to succeed materially first before they want to start their families.

Implementing radical policies such as a new Medisave for children may help young parents cope with childcare costs but, for many people, they may never be enough.

The long-term solution to the birth rate may be to develop a holistic education system and societal culture that shapes a very different national mindset from what we observe today.

I was also heartened by the PM’s call to Singaporeans to have bigger hearts on this small island.

Kindness and graciousness are not things that can be easily taught through national campaigns or classroom lessons. But if more Singaporeans can have the opportunity to enjoy more balanced lifestyles while contributing to the nation’s progress, I believe it’s not just the birth rate that is going to improve dramatically.

It’s our very attitude towards life and others that is going to undergo a great transformation.

Ian Tan is a 36-year-old marketing manager and ex-journalist. His wife Goy Sze Wei became a homemaker in 2005 to look after their children Isaac and Isabel, now aged nine and seven.