“Hwa Chong Institution may be steeped in Chinese history and language, but the school has taken steps to ensure its students are exposed to different cultures, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong” (Multicultural Exchanges Crucial for Integration, Says PM Lee, Rachel Au-Yong).
Notwithstanding the broader historical discourse surrounding the Special Assistance Plan (SAP) and the implications of developing bilingual and elite Chinese students, better and more diverse evidence is needed to determine the extent to which SAP schools such as Hwa Chong Institution have been effective in giving “students the opportunity to mix with peers of different races and backgrounds through various activities” (ST, Mar. 22) and in promoting multicultural integration. Put otherwise, instead of pointing to a joint overseas community involvement programme trip with ITE College West, for instance, the school ought to be interested in: The first-hand perceptions and learning experience of the Hwa Chong and ITE students, whether they continue to make friends and maintain friendships with others of different cultures, as well as the overall suite of programmes and the number of students who participate and benefit.
It is no longer adequate to argue that because the (SAP) schools offer programmes to expose their students, their responsibility – and that of their teachers and students – to move beyond their comfort zones to interact with those unlike them hence ends. Moreover, given the disproportionate emphasis Singapore has had on academic performance thus far, it is worth considering how these programmes are organised, especially if students are involved in the planning, so as to consider the influence of power dynamics and how comfortable different students are in these settings. Beyond “culture” and academics and with persistent focus on inequalities in Singapore, individuals are increasingly cognisant of potential disparities across personal or socio-economic backgrounds, and both increasing the number of opportunities for students to interact with those beyond the school and ensuring the quality of these endeavours has become more pertinent.
Because even though the ostensible objectives of these undertakings are conveniently summarised as “integration”, the mechanisms undergirding this process is much more complex, encouraging the more-privileged students to: Confront their own biases, prejudices, and stereotypes, empathise and understand the circumstances of their counterparts, and – above all – commit to a course of action, through volunteerism, community engagement, and activism. Unless it is shown that students from SAP schools grow up to establish meaningful friendships beyond their personal bubbles and with those of dissimilar backgrounds, and that they move from rhetoric and cognisance to action, then exposure and anecdotes alone should no longer be accepted as yardsticks to measure the success of these schools.