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Is Singapore Encouraging a Culture of Mediocrity?

By Guan Tan

Felicia Yap

"You write three more words and then mama will give you an iced jelly okay?" It was study time and my sister was cajoling her seven-year-old daughter into completing homework. "Three words and she gets a jelly?" I thought. There were no treats like this back in our generation. Rewards and awards were rare in the '80s and '90s. Coming in first in a class of 40 kids didn't even warrant an award, only a measly "Good" penned in red ink beside your 100/100 score. Aside from coming in first, second, and third in the entire cohort of 300 kids, we didn't get awards. Back then, you could only strive for one thing – nothing but the best. 

Times have changed. These days, there are trophies and awards for every little act – class participation, improvement, leadership, reading, punctuality, neatness and so on. There are so many awards and trophies that almost every student gets one. Well, the idea behind it is that every child receives recognition – equal recognition for any effort, be it big or small.

The phenomenon of rampant awards is not merely found in schools but in corporate companies too. Ken Teng, director of a 70-year-old Singaporean trophy manufacturer that supplies trophies to over 500 local companies per annum, divulged that corporate awards have increased in variety to range from appreciation, best employee, best salesperson, achieving quotas, improvement, most hardworking, most productive, the funniest, and most inspirational employee. To Teng, trophies are a quick and easy shortcut for companies to show their appreciation, and in turn, give their employees a jab of pride and motivation. 

Everyone is a winner. From schools to corporate companies, Singaporeans are increasingly awarded for every little success – if being funny or humorous can be considered one. It also seems like we're settling for less significant awards and lower yardsticks. 


The Psychology of Awards

This leads us to many questions about the generosity of awards in Singapore: Is there a right amount of awards to give an individual? Are too many prizes and awards a problem? Do we get a little self-entitled, narcissistic and expect to receive trophies for every task we accomplish? Will this lower our standards? Are we striving for mediocrity?

"What is the point of giving awards? What does it do to our brain?", I ask Freda Sutanto, a child psychologist at a Singaporean clinic, Kaleidoscope. 

According to Sutanto, awards are necessary for the human psyche. Awards directly affect the brain, particularly "the rewards centre. A couple of pathways in the brain are associated with motivation and positive emotions. It lights up and will associate what you did with a good experience," she explains. It's a daily occurence, "we do it ourselves too. If I finish my report, I'll get to watch this show... People need a way to light up their rewards centre in the brain... I just wrote a paragraph and I'm proud of myself." Likewise, if the rewards centre of the brain were to receive too many triggers, it will be immunised. "If the rewards centre is used in an unhealthy way, then you'll need more and more and more stimulation in order to get a reaction." 

Yes, it is perhaps an innate need for humans to reward themselves – a short three-day getaway to Bali in exchange for three months' worth of hard work sounds healthy. Yet, imagine me, a writer, rewarding myself with a game of Candy Crush after every paragraph I write. With every pat on my back and game that I play, I am triggering the rewards centre of my brain. Every little "Combo!" and "Level Up!" is like an injection of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter. Essentially, I am being awarded with Candy Crush because I did something right. Will I get any work done? The bigger question is – is one paragraph really a success worth celebrating? No. I'd just be overindulging my unproductive self-entitled self for mediocre goals. 

The Culture of Mediocrity

Awards these days are no longer bearers of excellence. They are insignificant goals – a jump from grade D to C, completion of class readings, a positive attitude or good attendance at work. Essentially, we have lowered our standards – the beginning of a culture of mediocrity.

After all, why would you invest more effort in an assignment when you know that you will be awarded anyway? Take my niece for instance, why would she finish a page of homework when she knows she will be awarded a jelly for writing three simple Chinese characters? Admittedly, her academic foundations are weaker, for she spends less time studying and more time sucking on her sweet rewards. 

The consequences of a culture of mediocrity have been widely discussed in several ways. In fashion, the phenomenon of normcore saw its climax a couple of years back – the industry settled for normal, basic T-shirts and jeans, shoes and accessories as a major trend. That aside, there's also the ongoing trend of top-tier luxury designers copying successful designs from the fashion houses' archives. What does it point at? Mediocre creativity and innovation. 

In religion, the occurrence of lukewarm believers – neither hot nor cold about their faith, but sitting on the fence of devotion. They may attend church for the sake of it but live a separate life outside of the premises. Mediocre faith. 

In the publishing world that I work in, the unnutritious listicle quizzes and articles from titles such as Buzzfeed. There is little focus on the lifelong pursuit of writing as a craft. Instead, they go for click-bait headlines, meaningless content and immediate results and gratification. Mediocre journalism and content. 

In education, the slew of trivial awards is creating a generation of students dependent on external motivations and therefore, lazier and unintelligent individuals. In her book, educator Katherine Baird drew on a survey to set forth this point. The surveyed students thought that "a student deserved at least a B for simply completing all the course readings." She concluded that mediocrity is a slippery slope. "Low expectations lead to low effort, poor study habits and less learning." 

The tricky thing about mediocrity is that it behaves like a societal virus. It's harmful and it's difficult to get rid of. Mediocrity thrives in mediocrity. It breeds like wildfire. Before we realise, it'll become invisible to the eye because all of us will be infected with it by then. "The more it comes to dominate public thought, the harder mediocrity becomes to recognise," author Gareth van Onselen wrote. And the blind can't call out the blind.

There is merit in the traditional, uncompromising ways of our parents' generation. They may sound annoying like, "Girl, you cannot live like that. You cannot take shortcuts in life." But what they are really trying to say is this – performance is an institution that should be fiercely defended. 

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