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The “O” Levels meltdown

Kirsten Han

It’s my brother’s O Levels year. Watching him trudge home from school and being snowed under by relentless tutorials reminds me of my own O Level experiences.

In particular, The O Levels Meltdown.

It is my personal belief that every single person who has gone through the Singapore education system and the O Levels has had at least one O Levels Meltdown experience. That one moment when it suddenly strikes you that you are simply not clever enough, and that there is no way you’re going to be able to make it and that the rest of your life is doomed. The futility of your whole situation suddenly becomes apparent and you realise that you are now destined to live the rest of your life as a failure, miserable and alone until the day you die, weighed down by the disappointment of your loved ones. In fact, it might even be for the best if you just dug a hole in the ground and disappeared from the face of the earth forever.

I had a few of these meltdowns myself. There were nights when I would just lie in bed and panic, seeing the rest of my life as some deep dark abyss. There were evenings after particularly difficult tutorials or tuition classes where I would just go home and cry over my own stupidity. Moments of serious panic, where I would be reduced to a useless wreck.

These meltdown moments are more or less unavoidable. It is simply what happens when students’ lives are so dominated and defined by their school life that practically all sense of self-worth is pegged to academic results. Students in their O Levels year have their lives completely ruled by the stress on study, study, study. They are made to drop their Co-Curricular Activities (CCAs) and are excluded from many other school activities because they should be “focusing on their studies”. It’s like sitting in a room with the walls closing in, as more and more facets of your life that have been deemed “extra” are stripped away, and you’re expected to be studying pretty much from the moment you wake up in the morning to the moment you lay your head on the pillow at night.

Is this really healthy?

Is this really the lifestyle we want our 16-year-olds to have? Is it a good thing that we’re instilling in these teenagers the concept that a work-life balance is a luxury secondary to academic results? How will this affect them in the future?

Comment made by Minister-Without Portfolio and NTUC Chief, Lim Swee Say

The feeling more or less begins at the O Levels, but might even extend beyond it to the rest of our lives. Fuelled by comments from our dear government ministers about how we should have the “spurs stuck in our hides”, or that we should be “cheaper, better, faster”, or strive to be “better, betterer, betterest”, it seems to me like many of us go through our lives in Singapore in a constant state of anxiety. We will never be good enough, it seems.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t constantly work to improve ourselves. On the contrary; self-improvement should be a constant development throughout all our lives. We should always seek to better ourselves.

But we should be improving ourselves because we are motivated to live life to the fullest and be the best we can be, not because we are constantly being told that we aren’t good enough. It is much easier to have a positive attitude towards life and self-improvement when we’re encouraged and supported, and not when we’re put down and scorned. It’s a simple concept: while positive emotions can inspire, negative emotions can only lead to low self-esteem and confidence issues that cause unhappiness and compromise productivity.

So to all the O Levels-year students out there: study hard and work hard, but remember that there is more to life than the O Levels. You are more than your exam results, and you are good enough. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Work hard for yourselves, and not just because people are putting you down. They don’t know what they’re talking about, and you’ll show them.

To all those who have been through O Levels/A Levels: did you have a Meltdown Moment? Share it in a comment! Let’s show the students this year that they’re not the only ones!