Competition Culture and the Asian Psyche: a Personal Reflection

I’ve watched my students perform in Winners’ Recitals both in Singapore where I live, and across the globe. Invariably the program is full of Asian names.

Once a student won a competition in Vienna and went with her family to perform in the Winners’ Recital. Almost everyone was from Singapore & and her neighbouring countries.

Which led me to wonder: why are Asians fascinated with taking part in competitions?

Authenticity and individuality are prized in the performing arts. These traits make a performing artiste unique and different. ‘Different’ & ‘novel’ is what sell commercially because the human brain is wired for novelty. Audiences want to see a performer with a point of view that is slightly different. Otherwise, one might as well applaud a robot performing Paganini. Or a recording of the same.

Competitions promote a level of homogeneity. In order to attain a first prize, one’s performance must adhere to a set aesthetic standard agreed upon by all the judges. These judges may all be from the same country or from different countries, Nonetheless, there must be a coherent aesthetic standard that the competitor’s performance must achieve in order to win.

This, then is the appeal of competition to a culture that values community over individuality; communication over competition and politeness over expressivity. Standards and norms, levels of achievement offer to the Asian psyche a degree of security, a degree of comfort that performance skills are good enough and fit in with a national, regional or international aesthetic as the case may be- assurance that stems from a deep sense of insecurity, perhaps from historical displacement from wars and famine that led to millions fleeing their homes and scattered around the world

Perhaps the need to be judged reveals a systemic cultural insecurity, an ingrained replaying of conditioned childhood admonitions where the child is berated for being ‘not good enough’ or ‘not as good as’ another child- deep emotional trauma that seeped through generations to become just another way of life.

Competition culture unconsciously causes performers to doubt their intrinsic value, to based their self-worth on unpredictable extrinsic factors and consequently develop anxiety.

Can there be healthy competition? Yes there can be. Healthy competition is competition where the only aim is to be better than one was before the competition because one understands that the only thing that he/she can control is his/her performance. Attempting to control the rest, as they say, is attempting to catch the wind. This is also how one manages to maintain one’s, individuality and most of all, sanity in these most trying of occasions.

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