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Political Education In Singapore: Beyond ‘National Education’

Fundamentally, political education – simply defined as teaching-learning processes to make students more concerned, informed and involved with ideas and activities on how the country is managed or governed – should be a primary focus for the Ministry of Education (MOE).

To assert that political education in Singapore is insufficient would be an understatement. Because of the inadequate dissemination of information and knowledge – the importance of voting, the civil service and branches of the government, political ideologies, socio-economic policies et cetera – apathy breeds speedily.

Present circumstances – to a certain extent – have improved because of the increased accessibility of social media; more young Singaporeans now turn to the Internet for political news and updates. Because of the interactive and discursive nature of commentaries and articles online, as opposed to one-dimensional print media, there has been an active proliferation of personal thoughts and opinions.

However, this growing trend should not be the sole antidote against apathy. Fundamentally, political education – simply defined as teaching-learning processes to make students more concerned, informed and involved with ideas and activities on how the country is managed or governed – should be a primary focus for the Ministry of Education (MOE). Greater awareness of the aforementioned issues can combat lethargy as well, as students become more forthcoming in their expression of views, and emerge as active stakeholders within their community.

Singapore’s ‘National Education’

Political education in Singapore – in the pre-tertiary levels – is best represented by National Education (NE), which aims to “[cultivate] a sense of belonging and emotional rootedness to Singapore”. Primarily, the NE methodologies have gained considerable derision for being dull and monotonous in their approaches; though in a word of fairness, the committees have done much to heighten interactivity and engagement levels.

The effectiveness of the National Education (NE) programme has been a point of contention over the past years.

From my personal experience with NE programmes, there are several areas that should be contemplated. First, it has not been able to disassociate itself from the “government propaganda” tag; and with it perceived as the administration’s mouthpiece, students – and even teachers – would be less convinced of its contents. Correspondingly, because institutions are more than happy to relish in the comforts of the status quo, students conveniently “go through the motion” without genuinely participating or engaging in the assortment of initiatives introduced.

Most importantly, political education is featured woefully minimally.

While the national NE committee may contend that expounding upon the Singapore success story – applauding efforts of the founding fathers, the role of the People’s Action Party (PAP), breakthroughs in public housing and transportation so on and so forth – can instil pride and appreciation amongst young Singaporeans; it is time to move forward. Evolved pedagogies must allow students to express their perspectives freely and to challenge conventional wisdoms; naturally, educators should be well-disposed to facilitate such dialogues on the feasibility of current socio-economic strategies.

Developing The Criteria To Develop Political Education

Besides the availability and accessibility of information online, the multitude of dialogues and explosion of policy forums have provided tangible platforms for discourse and active conversations on national issues. Conducted usually in the pre-tertiary or tertiary levels, students get the opportunity to interact with ministers, Members of Parliament (MP) or public service office-holders; and simultaneously understand or question various policies.

Given these considerations and limited existing avenues, a variety of criteria should be elucidated before exploring some proposals that can be deliberated in detail.

While the spread of knowledge can address the challenges of apathy, it would be timely to get students more involved in their communities and political landscape.

First, programmes must be age and level-specific; that is to say, lessons or sessions should be catered to the interests and abilities of the students to assure enthusiasm and commitment. Second, the content should be dynamic and inter-disciplinary, such that there is room for class or school-based discussions, and students would find the subjects less of a hassle. Third, evolving beyond rhetoric, increasing political education should empower students to take a more active, substantial role in the community.

The Recommendations: Can They Be Executed?

– Develop political education material that seeks to engage and empower, not prescribe and spoon-feed. Quintessentially, teachers and the MOE should be asking the questions, and the students proactively seeking answers. On concerns such as the affordability of public housing, cost-of-living, the influx of foreigners, lee-way should be granted to students to develop propositions and oppositions – from print and online medium – and subsequently substantiating them.

– Put in place a build-up approach, which will cater syllabuses in accordance to the ages and interests of the students. At the fundamental level, all literate Singaporeans should have a basic understanding of how the government functions – essentially, the legislative, executive and judiciary branches – as well as the basic responsibilities of the ministries and statutory boards. The importance of voting should be inculcated.

– Promote inter-disciplinary approaches in political education. Instead of rendering political education as a new “subject” per se, schools can approach the topics in existing subjects. For instance, challenges of population management, housing and transportation can be highlighted in Geography lessons; whereas education policies or broader debate concerns can be used as focuses during language lessons.

– Encouraging involvement beyond the classroom. While the spread of knowledge can address the challenges of apathy, it would be timely to get students more involved in their communities and political landscape: be it through campaigning for changes within the campus, or volunteering at the grassroots level. It is imperative for educators to facilitate a reflection-thought process after each session, and to see how students can spiral upwards. To begin with, interested students can pen notes or personal commentaries on the issues discussed; and perhaps even send letters to the media for possible publication.

– Heighten abilities to distinguish between facts and opinions. Given the rapid explosion and openness, it is necessary for individuals to possess the relevant skills to judge written pieces – online and in print – based on their provenances, factual accuracies, sources cited et cetera. This will empower the reader and student to make more rational evaluations, and take more holistic perspectives of related issues.

Following Up

This article, along with the brief recommendations, has been forwarded to the MOE via electronic mail. Updates will be added, if there are any.

Also, feel free to supplement this commentary with your personal opinions, or if you wish to share – in the capacity of an educator or student – your experiences with NE and its associated programmes. I look forward to hearing more views – on my or any other possible recommendations – on how political education can be improved in Singapore.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


11 thoughts on “Political Education In Singapore: Beyond ‘National Education’

  1. Just shared this on my fb and left the following comment:

    “In structuring a political education program, I’d push for a holistic approach a la weightage of 40% E-learning (using social media, forums, etc), 40% Classroom learning (debates, skits, problem-based learning, discussions) and 20% grassroots participation or ministry involvement. ”


    Posted by fivetwosix | May 14, 2011, 9:04 pm
    • Yep I saw it. If I had the resources I think it would be helpful to do a quantitative/qualitative review on the status quo, and see how we can move forward. I’ve emailed the MOE, so here’s hoping something constructive comes out of it.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | May 14, 2011, 9:22 pm
      • If you are keen, do this as part of your thesis/research at uni and you can apply for research grants/funding from MCYS, they frequently accept research proposals from students and academics. I definitely see good potential in a research like this. 😉

        Posted by fivetwosix | May 14, 2011, 9:24 pm
  2. Hi Jin Yao,

    This is a thoughtful and well-written piece; enjoyed reading it. Can I point you to a <a href="http://www.singaporeangle.com/2008/06/values_education_in_singapore_1.html&quot; piece on NE that I wrote back in 2008?

    Want to raise a few issues to think about:

    (a) Incentive for school. Why would teachers or school leaders be willing to adopt your political education? Even if it is mandated by MOE, how much attention would the school put into teaching it if it is not tested at the A/O levels?

    (b) Incentive for the government. Imagine you are Minister of Education. Would you be willing to implement this, knowing full well that many of the students would be exposed to some of the PAP’s political tactics (e.g. gerrymandering, upgrading carrots) which might inculcate anti-establishment sentiments at a young age?

    (c) Capability. Do our current teachers have the ability to teach this? My guess is no. And I also think that training and recruiting teachers who have the skills to teach this is no small task. Not to mention, you have some die-hard anti-PAP teachers too. Would they end up influencing young impressionable minds more than teach them how to reason for themselves?

    (d) About fact vs opinion. I think this is not as clear cut as it seems. Firstly, the government does not disclose a lot of data and statistics to the public (although it does disclose a good amount already). Secondly, the distinction between political rhetoric and reasoned argument is not always distinct. Take PM Lee’s A-team argument. Is that fact or opinion? If you think that is an opinion, do you think a teacher is comfortable telling a student not to fully trust his Prime Minister’s words?

    Cheers =)

    Posted by fearfullyopinionated | May 15, 2011, 5:55 pm
    • Thank you; I enjoyed reading your article as well (got me to read more – and think back when I was in school – about the Civics and Moral Education syllabuses, lessons). From the get-go, I must admit that some of my suggestions may be a tad idealistic.

      1. That’s a common problem with any subject or lesson that has no exam value, from my personal experience. Back in school, my counterparts simply had no interest for anything that did not i) add to their grades; ii) boost their curriculum vitae or portfolio. As a starter, elements of political education should be infused within existing subjects (economic theories in Economics, Principles of Accounts; education policies in language lessons), so that it is perceived as less of a “burden”. School-wise, I am presuming that schools will commit the manpower and resources if the MOE mandates it.

      The starting point should be to get broad interest, because not every individual would be sufficiently intrigued to find out more in details. This can be facilitated through guest speakers or presentations (well-planned, engaging speakers can sometimes do wonders in the beginning).

      2. I don’t have a direct response to that. From a more realistic viewpoint, if schools choose not to mention anything at all, or share too much from one side of the story, the ramifications can be quite significant if increased liberalisation of knowledge – especially through the Internet – empowers youths to seek their own versions. To start off, perhaps basic information can be shared first: functions of the government, branches of the administration, importance of voting et cetera.

      3. My view is that teachers should act more as facilitators; such that students are the ones offering the points, and the teachers maintaining civility and constructiveness of the discussion or debate. If students are sufficiently informed and well-researched, they would have the ability to point out bias in the teacher’s comments (that is assuming that students themselves are interested and engaged). I wish I could comment further, but I think the MOE, together with NIE, would best devise methodologies or pedagogies for the teachers and trainees.

      4. As I’ve mentioned, leave it to the students. Since there is no clear wrong or right, the beauty of discussions should be to let students see the validity of each other’s arguments, and rationally make conclusions or decisions for themselves.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | May 15, 2011, 8:36 pm
      • Hi Jin Yao,

        I must admit I am slightly less optimistic than you are, but if there are indeed many young students who display critical thinking, civic consciousness and curiosity (like you do), then there is much room for optimism.

        1. NE was indeed one of those initiatives that MOE wanted to be “infused” into the curriculum, and what resulted was a rather half-hearted attempt partly because the teachers aren’t that interested (think it is propaganda themselves), and partly because it doesn’t do anything to help the students/teachers/school’s main KPI’s – O/A level results.

        2. I agree with you that this is a problem. The internet is hardly the best place for a young person to get his “political awakening” and education. This is something MOE has to figure out, and soon. My take is that this would be difficult to achieve without large systemic changes to the current education system.

        3. Agree that teachers act as facilitators. But this is hardly an easy job. A good facilitator needs to be highly attuned the arguments and merits of both sides of the equation, so they know how to probe the students when the debate is stalling. If the students are highly engaged and interested, the job of the facilitator is easy, but if the students are highly polarized, or all take only one side, or are indifferent, the job of the facilitator can get difficult. Would NIE and MOE be able to figure out a pedagogy for facilitation? Sure. Will every teacher be able to do it well? I am not so optimistic.

        4. You have convinced me to be optimistic, and I shall believe that such situations can take place readily in the classroom. Prerequisites are engaged and critical students, a motivated and well-trained teacher/facilitator, and a school/education system supportive of such a learning environment. =)

        Cheers =)

        Posted by fearfullyopinionated | May 15, 2011, 10:03 pm
  3. I like the discussion and ideas you’ve presented here about National Education. Not having had any of the “NE” stuff – I am from a time where it was not there – I can only glean it from the stuff my sons are having in school. I must admit that I’ve not paid attention that the NE content delivered to my sons (in Primary 5 and Secondary 2) so, I will need to do some homework as it were.

    With regards to some of your points above, I think we have a significant issue with the MOE and its minions. The issue is that the entire system has been dumbed down over the years that even the teachers work in a fearful state with it comes to political issues/discussions. I suspect that after this so-called watershed general elections, we could potentially see a revival of independent and non-conformist thoughts within the teaching profession which could lead to a revamp of the NE curriculum. It is early days and much work needs to be done.

    Posted by harishpillay | May 15, 2011, 11:05 pm


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