(Image Credit: MeWatch [edited])
Those of us who’ve lived through the primary school system in Singapore know how ridiculously stressful it can be, and that expectations just get higher as you approach the PSLE year. And it’s safe to say that we’d rather not relive any of it, sparing our mental wellbeing.
Or do we?
In comes Lion Mums, the third season of which placed in the top 3 most-viewed Mediacorp English dramas during its year of release in 2019. From this, it seems apparent that Singaporeans are somehow hooked onto revisiting the borderline childhood trauma many of us faced in those six years - as hammered home by the fact that a fourth season is due to air later this year (2021) - perhaps due to the appealing humour with which the show presents our own culture on screen.
(Image Credit: MeWatch)
While the cast has changed slightly season by season, the show principally follows Singaporean mothers who, quite simply, will do anything to ensure that their children are at the front of the rat race that is the Singapore school system - hence the apt show title. Lead actress Nurul Aini puts it best in an interview: “Singaporean mums are like that — we really want our kids to excel so we become lion mums”. Through its alteration of the common phrase “tiger mum”, the series establishes the uniquely Singaporean nature of the overarching parenting style that it seeks to portray.
The mothers featured are all vastly different, whether in their individual parenting approaches, attitudes toward schooling, or even their careers and backgrounds. These disparities only help to foreground their shared obsession with pushing their children to excel academically, which makes Lion Mums a telling ethnography of the educational system in Singapore. Though the storyline features elements that can sometimes seem extreme and designed for shock value, even these, rather unfortunately, aren’t always far from reality.
Centring around the competition and stress bred by the system and the culture surrounding it, Lion Mums explores Singapore’s rather toxic fixation on meritocracy. It also takes care in illustrating the resultant ‘sink or swim’ collective mentality. Some kids do thrive in and, quite surprisingly, almost relish being a part of this culture, but, of course, there are others who simply do not.
To represent the former, we have the kids Hillary Lian and Nabilah Reza, whom we see as primary 1s in season 2 and primary 3s in season 3 - both vital milestones in primary level education according to the show’s parents. They’re both groomed to be the top students of their classes, already securing a DSA-worthy activity in primary 1 - the ‘perfect’ Singaporean students, as you will.
(Image Credit: MeWatch - Hillary and Nabilah)
In contrast, in season 2, we see classmate Ada Lee who struggles to get anything above a 70 on her work (which, if you remember, at the primary school level is often deemed the lower end of grading). On top of this, she is pushed to try different DSA activities and to attend daily enrichment/tuition classes. Exhibiting signs of burnout at the age of 7, she resents all this hustling and, consequently, refuses to cooperate with her insistent mother.
Initially, Ada’s mother continues to push Ada forward despite the latter’s disdain, partly because she felt she wasn’t ‘doing enough’ for her child. Resultantly, the mother, at the mercy of parental judgements surrounding her, ends up partly responsible for her daughter’s declining wellbeing. This becomes counterproductive because rather than feeling motivated to do better, Ada ends up absolutely hating school and learning - both of which aren’t things she can run away from for a long time. It is only when the family moves abroad that the girl gets her break from the gruelling Singapore education system, being placed in an international school.
Ada’s story represents the oft-overlooked population of kids who just do not fit perfectly into the academically-driven, fast-paced environment in Singapore. The character helps put a face to this group, reminding us all that these are real kids facing real struggles and not just a report statistic to be cited when convenient for providing weight to a given issue.
Of course, the kiasu-ness of primary school parents cannot be well-represented without the involvement of tuition. The willingness of parents to spend whopping amounts to (hopefully) give their children an edge over their peers - and the implications thereof - are also explored in Lion Mums.
The tuition industry in Singapore is huge and lucrative. The rise in household incomes over the years has seen continuous growth in the number of parents who are eager to send their children trudging heavy backpacks after school or over the weekends to sit through yet another lesson. In fact, according to a Household Expenditure Survey conducted by the Department of Statistics from October 2017 to September 2018, Singapore households were recorded to have spent S$1.4 billion on tuition, a figure that has grown exponentially within 15 years.
This is reflected in Lion Mums through lead mother Durrani’s decision to drop thousands of dollars - against her husband’s wishes, it should be stressed - for GEP preparation classes to ensure that her daughter gets into the GEP program. The family isn’t struggling financially by any means, but Durrani’s husband recognises that this is an absurdly huge expense for just prep classes, knowing full well that their daughter is likely going to qualify for the program without the prep classes, given her stellar academic record thus far.
Unfortunately, Durrani is blindsided by the “need” to follow the crowd, with the classes giving her a sense of security for something that determines her daughter’s future primary school years. Although, as you might be thinking, if everyone goes for these classes, is it really giving anyone an edge over others? The only ‘others’ would be those unable to afford the classes, which translates into financial division among children.
Through principal Grace Chiang (who acts almost as an antithesis to the school system), the show questions if these extreme measures are necessary. Chiang issues a letter to parents, underlining that GEP admission tests are better done when students are not prepared in advance, so as to reflect their true abilities/potential, which in turn signals whether or not the program is actually suitable for them. By this logic, sending kids to GEP prep classes would lead to misrepresentations of their aptitudes, which may affect their performance in the program in the long run.
(Image Credit: MeWatch - Principal Grace Chiang)
We see tough mum Chae Lian witness this, as her daughter Margaret loses interest in GEP and demands to be taken out of it, much to her mother’s displeasure as she sees this as a sure way to get into the top secondary schools in the country (on top of her DSA activity). It presents the all-too-familiar parental dilemma: do you choose what would give your child a through-road to academic prestige which goes against what they say they don’t want or do you let your child make the decision on their own?
It’s unlikely that the mindset of an entire society can ever be changed overnight. So, sad as it is to say, the primary school rat race is likely to continue despite efforts to lift the burden of PSLE pressures with the new grading system.
(Image Credit: Ministry of Education)
At practically every level of education admissions, from secondary school to university, grades are always involved somehow, if not taking centre-stage, so we cannot completely vilify the competitive culture being bred among parents and kids. It is the way through which we are able to easily distinguish students from one another and, naturally, there is the desire to be at the top for many. Moreover, this built-up need to hustle can prove beneficial in the workplace - instilling in children the ability to work diligently and efficiently.
However, Lion Mums presents us with a question that, though isn’t easy to answer, needs to be answered nonetheless: are we justified in sacrificing the wellbeing of children across the board to maintain our nation’s high education global ranking and our family’s prestige? Potentially causing emotional harm to your child through the pressure to score, all with the desired outcome of producing a hard worker for the future, does not seem favourable. It inflicts stress on both the parent and child, which is often counterproductive and also detrimental to family dynamics. Besides, being able to grind to score well in exams will not necessarily translate to high value in the workplace.
After all, past primary school level, one’s PSLE score is rarely brought up again (and is often forgotten about soon enough). The finality that seems to characterise PSLE is illusory, as you realise when you go beyond that point in your education. In hindsight, one can see a lack of justification for all the pressures kids go through so young - but, of course, this is more because of the pressures parents face.
Lion Mums does an applaudable job at not only reflecting this culture and the implications thereof on our television screens in a way not done before, what more in an engaging manner, but also giving voice to the children who are often left out of the discourse which they themselves are at the core of.
The series is available to watch on MeWatch here.