by Sha S.
I am a beneficiary. I am a spurned sceptic. I am a perpetrator. I am an advocate.
In the context of Singapore, where meritocracy and individual hard work are lauded as the twin rudders of social mobility, my parents are the textbook case of good parenting, having raised all of their three Malay-Muslim daughters to be graduates. This might seem completely normal to well-heeled families, but my parents came from very humble beginnings. My father, having never entered Secondary school after 6 years in a Malay primary school, was raised by a single Thai-Muslim mother. My mother had to sit for her A Level examinations while being kicked out of her home for refusing a suitor. Both my parents had always drummed in us the importance of education.
To us, being academically “unproblematic” was how we expressed our obedience and filial piety. To them, perhaps providing us with a comfortable and supportive home to ensure that our education journeys were not fraught by gaps was their primary way to show us their love and care. That, in itself, is a massive privilege, and I was acutely aware of that.
By way of my personality, I expected nothing but excellence of myself to feel like I deserve their love and care after having seen their sacrifices to raise all of us up. By no means were we rich, but we lived modestly comfortable lives. Through the generosity of the Bursary schemes, I could afford small indulgences.
Undoubtedly, education has given me the tools to make sense of, engage, and fight for what I believe in in a world that seems all too fragile and fascinating at the same time. Education has connected me to brilliant and inspiring educators and peers. But in the same breath, it is the site where I had multiple forays in declining mental health, where I had to contest my self-worth, and where I grappled with crippling imposter syndrome.
I did well for my O levels, scoring straight As that was enough for me to enter a JC infamous for its retention rates in its day. Through a tumultuous A level journey, I was left traumatised and remained a quasi shut-in for the next 9 months before starting University. I felt demoralised and ashamed at having scored a “less-than-stellar” ABB, and I cut myself off from friends and spent an inane amount of time in my room, only coming out on some evenings for lonely dinners.
I felt like I had let down my parents for not scoring a scholarship for an overseas education, that I had let down their dreams of me becoming a doctor. I felt like I had made poor use of all the comforts and monetary support that they (parents, bursary monies) have given me, fully aware that there are needy students far more deserving of the money. If that’s not an indication of an unhealthy relationship to education, I don’t know what is.
Fortunately enough, I enrolled in a local public University and managed to find my footing in the Social Sciences. I felt at home and savoured the indelible sweetness of another chance at soaring. And soared I did. I graduated as Valedictorian and that landed me a scholarship to do my Masters at a local University.
But not without its haunting brushes with uncomfortable student-professor interactions. I still cannot forget the sense of confusion after my senior thesis defense when my supervising Professor asked the other examining Professor to excuse us, before proceeding to kiss me on the cheek and hug me as a preface to how “proud” he is of me. A part of me is still unsure of that A- grade and unsure of his intentions. Perhaps he felt proud of me like how he would be proud of his daughter. But even if I were to rationalise it that way, I still felt infantilised and acutely aware of my female body in relation to male guidance, tutelage and approval in the institution of higher education.
I felt even more acutely aware of my Malay Muslim body when someone commented “may my community progress with Islamic values in mind” on my sister’s Facebook post of my appearance on Berita Harian a few weeks after my graduation. A part of me is unsure if my peroxide shade of blonde and my exposed neck is the visual prompt for me to be reminded that my academic achievements and success has to be tempered with a responsibility to guard my appearance as a Muslimah.
The biggest blow would be my first job out of school, ironically at my first alma mater. Coaxed by a top administrator at the prospect of entering their pipeline of funded PhD student to faculty member, I leapt at the chance to be a research associate for an auxiliary project by a large bank. Eager and bushy-tailed at my chance to prove my worth (whatever that meant), I was in for a rude awakening to know how exploitative and extractive knowledge production and the hierarchies of academia can be in certain cases.
The scale of the project was monumental as the assembled team did not have the research wherewithal to pull it off convincingly from the get-go. It spanned 5 countries, and we had to pull off a comprehensive report of skills and labour issues in the span of 8 months. There ad-hoc assistants and no real research methodology to start off with. The inherent busyness of the principal investigators holding high administrative and teaching positions and the reluctance of other professors being goaded into the project meant that I inherited a lot of responsibility to pull this off.
“So can you speak Chinese?” enquired a principal investigator, while we navigated the streets of Jakarta. Why was that even a question? Was the irony lost on him that without a Malay speaker, the previous interview that was entirely in Bahasa Indonesia would be a complete waste of their research funding? Perhaps it was, as he continued on with talking about his SAP* school experience. In that instance, I felt other-ed.
This was followed up by months of hard work, trying to fashion some research findings that hardly existed in the public domain. I felt it an impossible task to convey to the principal investigators that what they were looking for, these mysterious figures, probably only existed within government bodies. The possibility of presenting qualitative research about skills to quantity was not only impossible but erroneous. But I did not possess the courage to state my perspective. After all, I am just the assistant to do the menial knowledge work.
I remember the two weeks leading up to my breakdown. Despite anxiety attacks and a sense of desolation, I mustered all my willpower and worked tirelessly to produce what I thought were solid 250+ pages of reports for three countries. For a day I felt that at least I did something right. At least I managed to give them something to assess and approve of.
One fateful morning, I received a damning email, almost berating me of my contribution. Words such as “wasted a lot of time” and “most of the material are irrelevant and not useful” and “find the figures…” were a crushing blow to my anxiety and stress. That fateful morning, I broke down to my parents and confessed to life-ending fantasies in front of the doctor, and in front of my very own mother. A palpable sense of guilt engulfed me as I questioned myself – did my mother work so hard and sacrificed so much to see me like this?
To this day, I don’t know if my mental breakdown was warranted and justified. To this day, there was no word by the higher-ups after my email explaining everything that transpired. No word, except for me being credited and most of the research findings that were deemed “irrelevant” eventually being published in the final report. To this day, I wonder if it was all a farce, or that maybe this is just the way life works, and that my resentment, guilt and hurt are all just minority-millennial entitlement.
Things are better now. Today, I benefit economically from a billion dollar industry that seems to feed off the kiasu anxiety of Singaporean parents. To find sustenance and financial support in the aftermath of depression, I tutored primary school kids. In all honesty, I was initially resentful and upset at myself for having let the situation transpire as such. In my mind, I blew all chances of ever advancing in higher education, and that because of my lack of mental fortitude, I let myself to do work that is ‘below me intellectually’, but perhaps what I ‘deserved’.
But it is in this industry that I’ve found my comfortable niche and purpose to (hopefully) help my younger Malay/Muslim counterparts improve and thrive beyond just the paper chase, drawing from my setbacks and painfully acquired lessons. Leaning into the service of teaching for my community was been largely rewarding for the past 2 and a half years. At times, I push myself to the limit, working every day and having 28 hour weekends. I think there is an aspect of my wanting to compensate for the lack of something to show for. It is not a title that I have within the formal education industry. I still feel like I’m a scrappy rogue amateur that only an empire will be a convincing show of achievement.
I am privileged to the gills when it comes to education. I have the support of my family and peers. I have built a business that I thrive in, and for the most part, I really do love what I do to survive. Why then, this sense of inadequacy and lack?
In recognising that feeling, I realise that achievement is a drug in our neoliberal society and education system. Achievement is an avatar of identity. Achievement allows for hierarchy. Achievement is the currency in the market of self-worth. All of my unhealthy psychological associations with over-achieving, internalising failures and endless self-flagellation is socialised through the process of education, under the ideology of meritocracy. For those without the social capital, support or network to navigate this, pursuing education and achievement is but another manifestation of the oppressive twin structures of inequality and hierarchy than it is edifying.
As Malay-Muslims, unless the narrative of underachievement that pervades the thinking of Singaporeans dies off, we would either be condemned as a Malay behaving as expected or lauded as a Malay who defied whatever unfounded cultural trappings that hold us prisoners. Neither positions are helpful to those of us who merely are trying to survive and lead a life that is purposeful and meaningful to our own individual desires.
*SAP: Special Assistance Plan schools are historically Chinese language medium schools which receive additional resources and assistance in recognition of the importance of promoting Chinese language and culture. This plan has been controversial because it is not available for any other ethnic or language group.
In her previous life, Sha was an overworked research associate. Now, she works as a full-time private tutor for Primary and Secondary level students, finding healing through connecting with youths in her community.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu