Singapore schools making fat students thin, but emotional burden is heavy

  Agence France Presse
February 22, 2005

Instead of counting her pennies each morning school break, 10-year-old Singaporean student Gayathiri Kasinathan counts calories. All 350 of them, to be exact.

As a member of her school's weight-loss club, where membership is compulsory for overweight students, Gaya has to keep her recess meal under 350 calories a day.

And twice a week, instead of reading a book or doing anything else sedentary, she must spend 15 minutes of the 30-minute break skipping rope and playing ball games under the watchful eye of teachers.

Under the school's get-thin policy, Gaya, who weighs 36 kilograms, must shed nearly 10 kilograms from her 1.3-metre (four-foot, three-inch) frame before she can leave the club.

"I used to love eating fried chicken wings and drinking soft drinks, but nowadays I eat only foods that aren't so fatty, like crackers and soup noodles," Gaya said.

Gaya and her chubby schoolmates are part of Singapore's "Trim and Fit" (TAF) programme, a sterling example of the government's famous habit for micro-managing the lives of its citizens -- in this case youths accustomed to an unhealthy urban lifestyle of fast food and video games.

With past measures such as bans on chewing gum and women's magazines that focus too much on sex, as well as huge public campaigns to leave toilets clean, the wealthy Southeast Asian nation is often described as a "nanny" state.

A government matchmaking service to help boost the city-state's falling birth rate has added to the impression that the People's Action Party, which has been in power since 1965, is intent on keeping the apron strings tight.

Launched in 1992, the "TAF" intervention scheme requires overweight students to devote additional time, on top of the normal physical education curriculum, to exercises such as jogging, aerobics and gym workouts.

While the government does not place outright restrictions on what "TAF" children eat during breaks, canteen vendors are expected to serve food that satisfies the nutritional needs of students, rather than their appetites.

Under the scheme, schools are also celebrated for devising other strategies to make fat kids thin, and Gaya's Blangah Rise Primary last year won a 5,000-Singapore-dollar (3050-dollar-US) government award for its tactics.

At Blangah Rise, thin pupils wear colourful "I'm Trim and Fit" wristbands while their overweight friends are issued "calorie cash" -- food ration coupons with caloric values that they must not exceed when buying meals at the canteen.

"Overweight students will want to avoid the hassle of using 'calorie cash', and the wristbands serve as an added psychological motivation for them to get healthy," Blangah Rise vice principal Goh Zensen told AFP.

The education ministry also ranks schools according to how fit their students are, and hands out another set of awards according to that criteria.

Schools which keep obesity levels low are publicly commended, and presented with either "gold", "silver" or "bronze" fitness awards, depending on the percentage of overweight students.

On the other hand, those that fail to meet basic requirements -- such as maintaining the overweight student population to around 10 percent or less -- have to face up to "consultation visits" by top ministry officials.

These visits, according to one elementary school teacher, involve ministry officials suggesting to the principal ways to improve the situation and are regarded as a loss of face for the school.

The stick-and-carrot approach to combating youth weight problems has delivered the desired results, according to the government.

A health ministry spokeswoman said the number of overweight youngsters in Singapore had dropped from 14 percent in 1992 to around 10 percent last year.

In comparison, about 16 percent of children in the United States are overweight, a 45 percent increase from 1994, according to the latest study conducted by the US Department of Health and Human Services in 2002.

But as with some of the government's other efforts at social control, the "TAF" program has attracted its fair share of criticism.

Gail Lee, the physical education coordinator at Blangah Rise, said she had counselled many students who had become frustrated that the dieting and exercise had not paid off.

"It's quite sad to see that most of the kids who enter the club stay in the club, some of them are naturally big-sized and just can't help being fat," she said.

Other people question the potential embarrassment that chubby students suffer when they are segregated from their fitter counterparts.

The unfortunate reversal of the "TAF" acronym to "FAT" is an obvious angle for thinner students to tease their overweight colleagues.

"People often underestimate the sensitivities of children," said Carol Balhetchet, a child psychologist and the director of youth development at the Singapore Children's Society, a youth counselling organisation.

"Putting these kids in a club which basically says 'we are fat' causes a stigma that will stay with them for a long time. It can lower their self-confidence and impede their future goals."

Gaya is one example of a student who may lose weight but be left to carry a heavy emotional burden.

"Sometimes I don't eat at all (during recess), or I'll just drink water. I want to lose weight, so that I can leave the club, then people won't call me names anymore," she said.