Recently, during a speech by an NIE lecturer, I was introduced to the very enlightening distinction between status and stature: status is one's position relative to others, whereas stature is the height (of learning, skill, accomplishment) that one is capable of achieving.
Obviously, we should all be aiming for stature—realizing our full potential and making the best of ourselves. However, the legendary obsession among Singaporeans, which is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it has almost become something to be celebrated, is to aim for status.
It doesn't take one very long to realize that this obsession goes far beyond neighbours (mostly mothers) comparing their children's grades. In reality, it pervades all levels of society. Just consider these examples from the education system:
- youngsters refusing to share notes with their classmates out of fear that their classmates may outshine them;
- parents and students planning their cocurricular involvement in order to maximize, not the intrinsic benefits gained from the programme, but LEAPS points scored;
- school leaders working their teachers to the bone so that the school will attain awards (because, while the Ministry of Education's masterplan of awards is meant to reflect stature, the rigid Singaporean mind cannot help but see it as an indication of status).
To be sure, healthy competition isn't a bad thing—on the contrary, it often spurs people on to greater heights. But one must recognize the line beyond which competition becomes unhealthy. As a result of the national obsession with status, education risks being turned from the lighting of a fire (as Yeats so eloquently put it) to the burning of one's rivals. We need to stop before we all get reduced to ashes.