Singapore Youths are Resilient: Beyond Social Services. Really?

The Straits Times Mind Your Body had reported today that, “The Young in Singapore are a hardy lot who can roll with the punches in life, said a new survey by the voluntary welfare organisation, Beyond Social Services.” Interestingly, the survey results had already been released in May last year, but The Straits Times had chosen to feature it after more than a year later.

It was reported that the survey that was conducted was based on “a 40-item questionnaire… used to measure four elements of resilience: a sense of belonging (I am important to someone); a sense of mastery (I am able to solve problems); a sense of independence (I am in charge of my life) and a sense of generosity (I am considerate of others).”

It was also reported that “the researches in the Singapore Youth Resilience Survey adapted the following questionnaire from Australian educator Debbie Draper. It is based on the Circle of Courage, a model for youth empowerment developed by American academics Larry Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg and Steve van Bockern.”

Drebbie Drapper’s Survey – On Engagement, Not Resilience

I had managed to find Drebbie Draper’s survey online. The survey instrument was titled, “Engagement Instrument”. No where in the document was “resilience” mentioned at all.

Thus Drebbie Drapper had developed this survey not to assess resilience but on engagement instead. Why then did Beyond Social Services adapted this survey tool, but rename it a survey on “resilience”, when it was clearly not designed for this purpose? 

Circle of Courage Model on Youth Empowerment

I had then looked up on the Circle of Courage. On the Reclaiming Youth International’s website, where Larry Brendtro is the founder and where Steve Van Bockern and Martin Brokenleg were vice presidents in the early years of development, it was stated that, “The Circle of Courage® is a model of youth empowerment supported by contemporary research, the heritage of early youth work pioneers and Native philosophies of child care. The model is encompassed in four core values: belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. The central theme of this model is that a set of shared values must exist in any community to create environments that ultimately benefit all.”

Again, no where was “resilience” mentioned on the webpage, under The Circle of Courage model.

I agree with the ideas set out by in Drebbie Drapper’s Engagement Tool and the Circle of Courage Model. However, what I take issue with is why Beyond Social Services had termed the survey as a “Resilience Survey”. 

What is Resilience?

In order to understand the importance of definition, we have to understand what “resilience” means.

According to the American Psychological Association, “Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences. 

Also, “Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.”

Finally, “Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”

Thus resilience should be seen as “behaviours, thoughts and actions” that can be learned to deal with “significant sources of stress, such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors.”

Beyond Social Services’ Survey Does Not Portrays Accurate Representation of Youth Resilience in Singapore

The survey by Beyond Social Services does not discuss resilience from this perspectives. The two questions that had asked about the family under the section, “Sense of Belonging”, had asked the following two questions: “I often spend time with family”, “I respect the elders in my life”, “I can turn to family when in trouble”. When relationships were discussed, what was discussed was the different types of activities and the issues they face, in relation to their relationship type.

However, the survey does not assess the ability of the respondents to cope with these problems. A relevant survey on resilience would assess the capabilities of the youths to cope with these sources of stress, thus this survey by Beyond Social Services cannot be said to be a survey on resilience, and is not conclusive evidence that our youths are resilient. 

Ironically, the survey by Beyond Social Services had noted that, “The largest proportion of respondents reported that school was a source of stress (55%). Parents (28%), peer pressure (24%), personal relationships (23%), loneliness (23%) and money (23%) were also highly reported sources of stress,” which is aligned to what the American Psychological Association had defined as resilience.

Yet, the survey does not assess how the respondents could cope with these sources of stress. 

I would argue that it is misleading for Beyond Social Services to conclude that, “Our study further demonstrates that there is coherence between theories of resilience and positive youth development in a Singaporean context.” It does not. 

Interestingly, in letters to schools, Beyond Social Services had quoted a survey conducted to students in Vermont, USA, which discusses issues of violence, fighting and bullying, alcohol and drug use and sexual behaviour and orientation issues. In the letter, Beyond Social Services had drawn the conclusion that, “the more students reported feelings of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity, the less likely they were to participate in risky behavior such as smoking, fighting, and substance abuse.” However, these issues of violence, substance use and sexual behaviour and orientation issues were not addressed at all in the survey by Beyond Social Services. Why had they chosen to omit these questions when these questions would give us a better understanding of the issues faced by youths and how they were able to cope? Why had Beyond Social Services chosen to omit questions which would be a better gauge of resilience among our youths, then their set of questions that were used? 

Why were these issues, which would better address the abilities of our youths to be resilient, swept under the carpet? 

Issues of bullying, substance use and having to learn to understand one’s sexual orientation and questions are key issues that a youth would face. Also, youths would undergo new dynamics in their relationships with their family and friends, and their boyfriends and/or girlfriends. These are real issues which the youths would be starting to face on the onset of teenagehood. These are the real issues, which they would have to learn to develop coping skills for. Their ability to manage these issues and how they can develop their “behaviours, thoughts and actions” to cognitively manage these issues are what will attest to their ability to be resilient. The survey by Beyond Social Services does not capture these dynamics, nor does it capture their skills and abilities to be resilient at all. To position the survey as a resilience survey, and conclude in The Straits Times that our youths “have the personal strengths and a strong support network to cope with the most common stresses of school, parents and peer pressure” is thus misleading, irresponsible and does not respect the needs of our youths in their behavioural and psychosocial development and well-being. 

By stating that our youths are resilient, this survey suggests that not much need to be done for our youths because they are seemingly coping very well. Other than being bullied at school or having to handle questions about sexual orientation on their own, our youths have to cope with the stresses of schoolwork and being “number one”. Our youths are made to pursue not only academic excellence but also overall excellence in their co-curricular activities as well. By claiming that our youths are, on the overall, resilient, are we suggesting that we do not need to look into programmes to build their resilience? Are we then saying, by not including these issues into the survey, that they have to undergo these issues and resilient or not, they better make it or drop out of the system? What are we saying? 

Coincidentally, Joy Balakrishnan (if I am not wrong, is the wife of Vivian Balakrishnan) is a patron of Beyond Social Services. Vivian is known for his conservative views and had in the recent Singapore general elections in 2011, as some had claimed, engaged in gutter politices, when he was said to have subtly questioned the sexual orientation of an opposition candidate, to try to sway votes against this candidate. I do wonder if Singapore has at all progressed under his ‘leadership’, or lack thereof, at the Ministry of Community Development and Sports (MCYS). Mr Balakrishnan was at the helm of MCYS when the survey was conducted.

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