Some days I browse the local subreddit, and it is saddening how lost, anxious and depressed youths get when they struggle with their grades. The stories told by Teo You Yenn in “This is what inequality looks like” by Teo You Yenn are a demonstration of how inequality exacerbates the issue. It is bad enough being a middle-class Singaporean and being constantly told you’re not good enough by the system when you don’t fulfill the metrics it uses to value a person – imagine what it is like to struggle to fill your stomach, be told you are stupid because you never had the environment or the resources to be otherwise, and the fact that you struggle to fill your stomach also makes you the subject of discrimination (that you must be lazy, useless or to have done something wrong to be so poor).
I spent a lot of my life trying to advocate for empathy for people with mental illnesses because it is a step up from the social stigma: the perception that if you are depressed or anxious, it means something is wrong with you and you are weak. These days I think a lot about what it means to help a person. That sometimes we could be perpetuating a mistaken narrative by thinking the problem lies with and can be solved with the individual. There is this insinuation that if you are poor or ill, you deserve help because you are weak, something went wrong with your brain, that you cannot live a “normal” life.
But there is something disturbing about this. I am not sure if I can articulate how I feel, but I am going to try.
I guess the TLDR version of what I am trying to convey is: we are so far off from being an enlightened society that sometimes it makes me laugh in learned helplessness. People’s value are derived from how they perform as machines: how hard they work, how long they work, how much money they generate. We are judged by really weird signals if we stop to think about it: the career position we hold, the type of house we stay in, the schools we could go to. These are still held as things to be proud of, but why are we proud of the fact that we brand ourselves like meat? What does it mean to be human? Is it to strive to be at the top, to demonstrate we are the best among our peers? Are our egos so fragile that we need that sort of validation to feel good about ourselves? Even for those of us who are less materialistic, we chase after other forms of signalling: social capital, “awards”, social media numbers, press, accolades, etc.
We have to think about what all of this really means: it means that if we don’t win awards or go to a top school or have a good enough career, we are automatically deemed to be inferior. In the case of Singapore, if kids don’t get streamed into “Express” or they don’t do well in their O/A levels, they are told whether by insinuation or just in their faces (as I have been told before), that they are hopeless.
These are not just societal perceptions. They have real-world repercussions in multiple dimensions. The jobs we qualify for are determined mostly by the qualifications we are able to attain, with the exception of some outlier occupations or some outlying individuals. Having dropped out of polytechnic when I was 18, I am tremendously lucky to be able to find a career in design, an industry that cares less about qualifications. I used to think that if I could do it, anyone could, only to cringe in embarrassment how wrong I was. I really loved how Teo You Yenn puts it:
“The problem with this mindset—not of those who are powerless but those who are relatively powerful—is that power is not a frame of mind but a material condition. People sitting in positions of authority are powerful not because they feel empowered but because they have power. Their feelings of empowerment are an outcome of their actual ownership of power, not the cause. One can think—and indeed many of the low-income people I speak with do this—”I can do this. I must try.” But if one is in fact lacking in power-lacking in control over time; lacking in leverage in the labor market; lacking in bargaining power with managers, teachers, social workers, landlords, creditors—no amount of merely changing how they think about themselves will change these realities.”Teo You Yenn, This is what inequality looks like
For many, the insinuation that they are “hopeless” is grounded in reality. Not because they are lacking in will, intention or the ability to work hard, but society screws them up because we believe that our academic abilities determine our capabilities, so we reinforce those conditions. I haven’t even begun to talk about the other prejudices that exist that makes improving one’s conditions even harder.
So, why are we wondering why depression and anxiety (again, not even including other complex mental conditions) are on the rise? Are we supposed to be optimistic and chill when from a very young age we are valued as though we are weighed on scales? Are young kids supposed to be life-loving when they spend their entire childhoods having tuition and supplementary classes, and being told that if they don’t pass their exams they are going to sleep on the streets?
“One (university-educated) mother told me candidly that the high-pressure school system, and her anxiety about her child keeping up, makes the time she spends with her daughter rather unpleasant. She can see, and yet feels helpless to stop, the behavioral patterns that are damaging their relationship.”Teo You Yenn, This is what inequality looks like
Are adults, supposed to “think positively” when they emerge into the workforce and realise by middle age that all the myths they have been living by are all lies? They told us: if we get streamed into the upper rungs, go to good schools, get a good-paying job, marry someone, buy a property, we will be happy and have a good life. (I just want to comment again that this is sad that this is our vision for what it means to have a good life.)
Then there are others, who never really believed into the above narrative anyway, who fought hard against the mainstream to lead a life of their own making…I cannot speak for others, but it is very tiring, so tiring that sometimes I really feel like ending it all. If you think Chinese New Year is tiring because relatives try in various ways to find out whether you are “successful” in their eyes, try living it everyday.
Isn’t it a perfectly rational response to be depressed and anxious when you are constantly signalled or plain-told since you can understand language that you are not good enough, and you have to try harder, when all you’ve been doing is working your ass off and it is never enough and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight? And you have no time to eat or sleep, much less time to yourself or your family, or haha hobbies. Am I crazy for suggesting that there is something very questionable about the way we think it is “normal” to live?
I give less of a damn these days, but it took me so long and so much. I still feel like crying whenever I think of the feelings I had to endure in my younger days. I am about to enter my 38th year of life, and I still get nightmares about exams and teachers.
And I have had a very blessed life, in spite of it all. I am still alive, and I have been very lucky. But everyday I think of all the times I could have ended it all on a sudden, painful impulse, I think of how much I used to hate myself because I truly believed what they said – that I was not good enough; I think of the younger kids now, believing that their entire value and worth are hinged upon exams in the first eighteen years of their lives, then I think of the ones who don’t even have enough to have a stable education, much less do well, about how we always ascribe blame to the individuals for not coping, for not doing enough, when the system can be rigid, unforgiving and oppressive, I think whether this is the best we can do as human beings and as a society. I have no answers, but I am willing to be haunted by these questions for a very long time.
Misrecognition happens when we think that a system is based on a certain set of principles when it really works on the basis of another, when we think it rewards each individual’s hard work when in reality it rewards economic and cultural capital passed on from parents to children. Where there is misrecognition of its real principles and mechanisms, meritocracy is a system that legitimizes those who end up its victors, casting them as individuals who have succeeded on their own hard work and intelligence rather than on any inherited unfair advantages. It is also a system that tells us a specific story about failures, casting those too as individual lacks rather than systemic disadvantages.Teo You Yenn, This is what inequality looks like
But, I remain comforted by some of the kids I have come across. I hope by the time they enter the workforce the society will not try to break them too much, that different dimensions of how we can live will open up for them, just like they did for me.
Yet I am aware of the fact that for every door that opened for me, they remain shut for many more.
This world we live in treats us like machines, rewards people who are obedient to its oppressive rules and hierarchy. Isn’t it a sign of a healthy psyche to rebel against it, rather than being compliant and numb to it?
“The real hopeless victims of mental illness are to be found among those who appear to be most normal. Many of them are normal because they are so well adjusted to our mode of existence, because their human voice has been silenced so early in their lives, that they do not even struggle or suffer or develop symptoms as the neurotic does. They are normal not in what may be called the absolute sense of the word; they are normal only in relation to a profoundly abnormal society. Their perfect adjustment to that abnormal society is a measure of their mental sickness. These millions of abnormally normal people, living without fuss in a society to which, if they were fully human beings, they ought not to be adjusted.”Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited
Is this an economic necessity? Will Singapore have to send her daughters to other countries to work if the narrative changes?
I don’t know. I do think there is a high cost to pay, and I do believe in the long-term future we are depriving ourselves of our own human potential if we continue to measure ourselves like machines. There are people who have gone and done well in their lives despite their limiting circumstances because they were lucky enough to meet a mentoring figure in their lives. Sometimes we just need one person to see us.
What about those who never had the opportunity to see themselves as more? I myself shudder to think of what would happen to me if the internet did not exist.
I would like to close this with a question of: “what does it mean to live well?” I would like to propose that living well goes further than quantifiable metrics. For some it is having autonomy, for others it is to bring up their kids well, for me, it is the ability to appreciate an ordinary life. No ambition, no excellence, no signalling, just plenty of time with my loved ones, books, experiments and my writing, and a sense of groundedness and acceptance in being who I am. That in itself, is perhaps extraordinary when juxtaposed with a society so obsessed with gains and busyness.