Thursday, January 19, 2012

More on Kiasu Parents

This post is updated in 2014.

In economics, competition is the best thing that can happen. Competition brings about lower cost, innovation, improvement and makes economic development possible. Competition goes on until it is limited by other factors. E.g. until all producers are loss-making and can no longer make money, or until some input resource is depleted. Which is not always bad in economics bcos it benefits the consumer or it forces innovation (by looking for a substitute).

But for kiasu parents, competing for the best schools is a completely different ball game. After reading a few examples from this book titled, "The Economic Naturalist" by Robert Frank, I could really relate to the plight that our Singapore school children and their parents are in. It's useless excessive competition that ultimately leads to a worse-off situation.

This is a phenomenon known as "tragedy of the commons", but in the book it is merely stated as "competing for self-interest that conflicts with interest of the group". I will highlight some of the interesting examples here:

High heels: One of the examples showed how ladies prefer ever higher heels in order to impress upon the opposite sex ie. us guys... Well, as we now know, there is no turning back. The current global contest of the highest heels has begun to pose safety issues and has affected ladies' feet/mobility. Yet since every woman on this planet is now wearing high heels, a girl simply couldn't stand out even if she splurges on those life-threatening 10-Inch Stilettos, but yet she cannot afford not to wear. The solution would be for all the girls in the world to agree to break all the heels, but alas that's not gonna happen, my dear.

Antlers: Nature provides the case of how antlers with bigger horns can attract more mating partners but run higher risk of getting eaten by lions since the horns will get in the way when they try to escape predators. In this case, natural selection determines the optimal size of the horns. Those with smaller horns ultimately cannot seek partners and their genes died out. Those with horns too big get eaten up. So we are left with horns just right.

Slim models: Another interesting example regarding female models showed how the Association of Fashion Designers came down to dictate the minimum weight for models as it was become a social problem. The issue: all models want to look better than others and they go on a competitive diet regime that ultimately benefits nobody and worse still, influence young girls globally to become anorexic as young girls want to look like their favourite models.

Full automatic rifles: In the US, regulations are imposed to prevent people from easily obtaining full automatic rifles like the M16 or AK47. Again without such restrictions, we can easily imagine robbers buying M16 to rob the neighbourhood stall and the owner picks up his bazooka to fend robbers off.

In the last two examples, the government/authority or entity in power steps in to correct the situation.

In Singapore, I would argue that kiasu parents and their kids are trapped in the same game of de-generative competition. Everyone goes for tuition to try to gain one-up against other students but actually nobody gains. Yet the kids have less play-time, are more stressed, parents' wallets get thinner and the Govt saves money on public education - which is kind of strange plus stupid.

As alluded to with the examples above, this situation can only be solved in 3 ways:

1. Some limiting factor comes into play: parents run out of money to fund the tuition marathons. However, with wider income disparity, this means that only the poor will run out of money and the rich continues to play the game and only the top 1% wins. Well this is happening now.

2. Parents come together and say stop this. Again, as with Kate Moss wannabies and girls going for high heels, this will not happen. This solution happens when the no. of affected parties is limited. E.g. the nuclear arms race came to an end when all the nuclear nations agreed not to increase the no. of warheads. With 2 million parents in Singapore, agreement is gonna be a real long shot.

3. Authorities need to step in with guidelines/regulations. I see this as a viable solution although it has not succeeded meaningfully anywhere in the world. South Korea outlawed tuition but the results are mixed. It went underground and tutors risked going to jail for US$10,000 a month.

Well, we cannot outlaw tuition in Singapore, but I do believe some measures (described in my previous posts as well) might be worth thinking about:

- Smaller class sizes: each child gets more attention.
- Less focus on grades, more on qualitative assessment.
- Scrutinize tuition agencies (highlight scams).
- Set guidelines for parents (on fees, no. of hours per week etc).
- Encourage good teachers to teach in public schools (better pay, environment etc).
- Publish statistics (tuition vs no tuition relative improvement, mental health of kids before/after tuition etc).

The Singapore school system has changed significantly since this blog posted about education (this post originated 2 years ago). I believe we are moving in the right direction. Our Government is not stupid, when they want to change things, they can. They just need to be more caring as well. Heart truths!

And to end this post, some food for thought about competition. While we need some of it to foster the child's urge to better himself, parents must ask when does it become unhealthy?

Insightful read:


  1. As a parent myself, I fully support your views! I think the kiasuism trend is being taken too far, especially when it comes to our kids. It's depriving them of a meaningful childhood!

  2. Our Asian scholarly focus can be traced it's roots to Confucius.

    We are not unique. Countries like Korean, Japan, Taiwan, and of course China placed the same heavy focus on scholarly achievements. We just call it kiasu that's all ;)

    Change is already here. It just moves by very slowly.

    Now I see schools for the Arts and Drama popping out everywhere. And youngsters nowadays are not afraid to dream of careers in acting/singing/dancing.

    Once we have more real life examples of "success" outside the academic route, parents will chill out.

    By the way, people will realize sooner or later that if each cohort 50% or more makes it to tertiary, it's a crowded trade - bigger room for disappointment than aspiring to be the next master chef!?

  3. That's a great idea. We face the same problems in Europe and the States. There is this pressure to match up against what other parents are doing, and then everyone gets sucked into the vortex.

  4. I like your post and has forwarded to a few friends! Can i know what is your background ? You have a very interesting way of putting it differently! Do you have kids in the current education system ? Please comment more on education !