Education as a weapon for narcissistic abuse

by Sya Taha

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“I don’t know what I did wrong, but perhaps, you are too educated!”

My father said to me to end a big quarrel we had. It worked. I was so dumbfounded at this accusation that I shrank away.

He had always been, as I perceived, my biggest fan and supporter in education. I had even written an ode to him on social media for Fathers’ Day, thanking him for encouraging me to go to the highest-ranked schools I could qualify for, funding part of my tertiary education overseas, recommending books by Malay men and women, political dissidents, lawyers, poets and academics. He often persuaded me to do a doctorate, all the while assuring me that he would pay the entire way.

In hindsight, I wrote that Fathers’ Day ode so that he would love me. He had never expressed genuine appreciation or shown unconditional love for my achievements. In hindsight, my journey through the highest levels of elite and overseas education was something for him to brag to his friends that Malays ‘could do it’. In hindsight, his internalisation of many of the self-deprecating ideas of Malay inferiority led him to treat me as the exception that would lead us into a bright future.

He said to me often that I because I was smart, I had to work hard to prove that Malays were not stupid and lazy. (Ironically, years later a Dutch professor would say to me in my freshman year, “You’re smart but lazy.”) Despite his goal of demolishing negative stereotypes, my father was embedded in local versions of success: his ultimate scholastic dream for me was to win a government scholarship. In secondary school, when I was hesitant to participate in a club activity because I did not feel confident enough, he told me I had “an attitude problem”.

The pressure to do well – excel and excel perfectly – was intense. My mother, also, did not fail to let me know if I disappointed her. After receiving my ‘O’ level results of mostly As and a few Bs, I faced her declaration, “My daughter used to be smart.” She had compared me all throughout my schooling years to her sister’s daughter born in the same year as me, especially about the grades we got in major examinations.

Finally, after earning my master’s degree from an overseas university, I hoped I had met my parents’ expectations. After graduation, it was difficult to find a job as a Brown migrant in Europe. As I worked freelance and from home for a few years, and later in a labour-intensive, sports-related job with my sister, my parents (and their friends) would ask, “You study so high, why you work this job?”

However, as I reached my mid-20s they began to change their tone to reflect the saying: perempuan belajar tinggi-tinggi akhirnya masuk dapur juga [women may be highly educated, but will eventually spend time in the kitchen]. They were getting antsy as I was approaching the limits of marriageable age, but my education level seemed to be getting in the way of a husband.

When I met my now-husband, with whom I made some unconventional marriage decisions, my father said that he “didn’t like how I was practising the religion” and that perhaps, it was because I was “too educated”. The ideal education was one that did not make her cross the boundaries of prescribed norms of femininity.

From where I stand now, I see the multiple colonisations and violences that my father lived through as a Malay man. He had described how a racist teacher in secondary school (“I don’t like teaching Malays. All you Malays are lazy!”) demolished his self-esteem to study harder.

In primary school, after we learned about the merger and separation between Singapore and Malaysia, he snorted that we were not learning “the real story”, which made me acutely feel the gap between two generations and two accounts of history.

In hindsight, I believe his patterns of narcissistic abuse were rooted in his inability to reconcile modern and traditional ideas of women. Unfortunately, he took it out on me. Even though I try to understand his behaviour now, I do not excuse it and I do what I can to protect myself from further abuse. While I agree that what happens to us is not our fault, since becoming a parent I believe that healing and doing better is our responsibility.

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Sya Taha is a PhD candidate researching on obstetric violence in Singapore. Her interests include decolonial theory, intersectional feminism and medical anthropology. She co-founded and co-runs Crit Talk, a safe discussion space for Muslims.

Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu