The Price of Progress: Examining Singapore’s Culture of Stress

Goh Jun Cheng

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Singapore’s rapid economic development from third world to first world status in a single generation is an undisputed success story. However, critics argue this national progress came at a societal cost – a overly competitive high-pressure culture that permeates work, school and family life.

This article explores concerns that Singaporeans now live in a pressure cooker environment. We examine sources of stress like meritocracy, academic expectations, career competition, economic policies and changing family structures.

As Singapore advances to developed nation status, reforming areas that compromise collective well-being will prove as crucial as economic achievement.

Policy, education and attitudinal changes can foster a more gracious, value-driven society.

Meritocracy’s Downsides

  • Meritocracy underpinned Singapore’s growth by rewarding the best and brightest.
  • But intense competition this engenders leads to immense stress to excel.
  • Widespread tuition industry and “kiasu” fear of losing out.
  • Heavy focus on academic grades, career status and other paper markers of success.
  • Social value based on achievements, not intrinsic worth.
  • Widening inequality between winners and losers.

An unbalanced emphasis on meritocracy created a pressurized rat race. Rethinking what constitutes real merit is needed.

Academic Pressures Start Young

  • Structured academic focus starts early in pre-school. School days are long.
  • Numerous high-stakes exams preoccupy childhood. Tuition often seen as essential.
  • Many extra enrichment classes imposed by competitive parents.
  • Elite schools and academic streaming adds to pressures.
  • Surveys show Singaporean students among world’s most stressed.

The intense paper chase compromises the joys of learning and childhood exploration. Balancing the drive to achieve is required.

Stress Culture at Workplaces

  • High unemployment fears after independence drove competitive work attitudes.
  • Job precarity remains a concern with frequent workforce disruptions.
  • Long working hoursexpected at many firms and industries. Presenteeism lauded.
  • Jobs highly linked to status and self-identity. Difficulty coping with career failure.
  • Constant pressure to upgrade skills and excel leads to burnout.

While hard work is positive, unreasonable workplace pressures produce diminishing returns while eroding mental health.

Other Societal Factors

  • Keeping up with the Joneses consumerism as marker of success. Affluenza.
  • Decline of extended family support with nuclearization.
  • Comparison on social media breeds discontentment.
  • Economic policies like low taxes, cheap foreign labor deemed to have worsened inequality.
  • Rapid change and globalized pressures disrupt traditional cultural coping mechanisms.

Multiple changes have strained the social fabric, requiring reforms to foster security.

Rethinking Policies and Priorities

To reduce unhealthy pressure, Singapore could:

  • Dial back academic overload in schools, reduce emphasis on tuition industry. Nurture character, not just grades.
  • Review workplace norms like long hours and presenteeism that undercut productivity.
  • Expand social safety nets to reduce job and elderly retirement insecurity driving status anxiety.
  • Promote value of professions like nursing, teaching and social work. Not just high pay defines contribution.
  • Increase support for families and community bonds as ballast against society’s competitive atomsization.
  • Enhance mental health education and services. Destigmatize help-seeking.


Progress at breakneck speed produced immense pressure cooker stresses. But continued success requires boosting life quality so citizens flourish, not flounder.

By tweaking policies, norms and education to foster security, care and meaning beyond status competition, Singapore can evolve into a progressive yet gracious society. Reviewing what progress entails through open dialogue and enacted change is key. The next phase of nation building must elevate well-being.

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