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Home » Research » Full Journal Articles » "Don't worry, I'm not going to report you": Education for citizenship in Singapore.

"Don't worry, I'm not going to report you": Education for citizenship in Singapore.

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"Don't worry, I'm not going to report you": Education for citizenship in Singapore.
Research Methods & Findings
Discussion and Conclusion
Appendices & References
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IMG_8188Ho, L.C. (2010). "Don't worry, I'm not going to report you": Education for citizenship in Singapore. Theory and Research in Social Education, 38(2), 298-316.





Public schools have traditionally been the primary vehicles for citizenship education, the transmission of national values, and the development of national identity (Feinberg, 1998; Popkewitz, 2003). Despite this shared emphasis on the promotion of citizenship, national identity, and values, citizenship education is “deeply embedded in a political and historical context unique to each country” (Torney-Purta, Schwille, & Amadeo, 1999, p. 30). Cross-national citizenship education studies (Cogan, Morris, & Print, 2002; Hahn, 1998; Kerr, 2002) illustrate distinct differences in the definition and teaching of citizenship education. Newly industrialized states such as Singapore, in particular, have deliberately used education as an instrument for the promotion of social cohesion and the forging of national identity (Green, 1997). Nevertheless, numerous contentious issues remain, particularly the images and narratives that define citizenship and the nation. There is also a distinct need to clarify the nature of students’ understandings and beliefs about citizenship and national history because students, influenced by their experiences and backgrounds, actively participate in the creation and interpretation of educational messages (Barton & McCully, 2005; Cornbleth, 2002; Epstein, 1998, 2000; Levstik & Groth, 2005; Lister, Smith, Middleton, & Cox, 2003).


Relatively few studies, however, have examined how adolescents from post-colonial non-Western countries conceptualize and mediate citizenship and national historical narratives. This study thus aims to fill a gap in the current research by investigating Singapore secondary students’ conceptions of citizenship and their perspectives of the official national historical narrative presented in Social Studies and citizenship education programs in Singapore. Thus, the principal research question guiding this study is: Given the historical context of Singapore, how do students use the official national narrative found in the Social Studies curriculum to mediate a sense of themselves as citizens? In particular, I paid attention to how Singapore adolescents from different groups positioned themselves as citizens within a highly-regulated centralized educational context that has historically placed great emphasis on race.


I addressed this question through a collective instrumental case study of one Social Studies classroom in each of three Singapore secondary schools over the course of a 10-week school term. Naturalistic classroom observations, semi-structured student interviews, and an analysis of the formal and informal curriculum such as the National Education Program and Social Studies syllabi were conducted throughout the course of the inquiry.




Schools are the main vehicle for citizenship education. Within schools, the Social Studies has been a primary vehicle for citizenship education, both in the United States and in Singapore, but there is little or no consensus about the implications of citizenship for curriculum and instruction (Evans, 2004; Ross, 2001; Thornton, 2005). In fact, schools and citizenship education programs have been heavily criticized by many scholars. For example, in the United States they have been accused of perpetuating the hegemonic interests of those in power (Apple, 2004; Cherryholmes, 1996; McLaren, 1994), paying insufficient attention to diversity and difference (Banks, 2004, 2006; Gay, 1997; Ladson-Billings, 2004; Parker, 2003), paying too much attention to diversity and difference (Ravitch, 1990, 2002; Saxe, 2003; Schlesinger, 1991), and focusing too much attention on the nation (Nussbaum, 2002).


Social Studies courses, in their broadest sense, help in “the preparation of young people so that they possess the knowledge, skills and values necessary for active participation in society” (Ross, 2001, p. 20). The role of citizenship education in generating affective attachment and a sense of shared commitment on the part of the citizens of a state is generally unchallenged. Relatively few studies, however, have focused on adolescents’ conceptions of citizenship within the context of national history. The research to date suggests that adolescents’ understanding of citizenship and national history are greatly shaped by their personal experiences and backgrounds. King (2009), for example, suggests that students “bring with them a broad diversity of experiences and preferences that engender competing perspectives on many of the issues and events encountered at school” (pp. 215-216). Empirical studies conducted by Lister, Smith, Middleton, and Cox (2003), Cornbleth (2002), Epstein (1998, 2000), Barton and McCully (2005), and Levstik and Groth (2005) are particularly relevant to this study. Interestingly, with the exception of Levstik and Groth’s Ghanaian study, the four other studies (situated in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States) noted distinct differences in how students from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds constructed understandings of citizenship and national history, some of which differed markedly from the dominant mainstream perspective. In contrast, the Ghanaian students in four private schools did not define their group history in opposition to the larger national history, focusing instead on themes such as unity.


Both Epstein (1998, 2000) and Cornbleth (2002) observed that students’ backgrounds greatly influenced how they interpreted national history. Epstein (2000) examined the effects of 10 African American and European American high school students’ racialized identities on their interpretations of history through the use of a pictorial task and an analysis of the students’ national narratives. Her research demonstrated that the adolescents’ racialized identities “significantly influenced their concepts of the historical experiences of racial groups, the role of the government in shaping these experiences, and the existence or lack of a common national history or identity” (p. 185). Similarly, Cornbleth (2002) interviewed 25 students from three secondary schools in upstate New York and asked them about their images of America. While the students’ images of America were largely dominated by the themes of inequity, diversity and freedom, the author noted significant disparities in the perception of these major themes from students with different ethnic or socio-economic backgrounds. Interestingly, Cornbleth observed that the students’ interpretations of diversity “plays out differently depending on who one is” (p. 547). Likewise, she found that the notion of freedom played out differently for affluent White students as compared to Puerto Rican or African students from less privileged backgrounds.


Similarly, in the United Kingdom, Lister, Smith, Middleton, and Cox (2003) conducted a three-year qualitative longitudinal study on the meaning of citizenship to 110 young British people from the city of Leicester.  Their study indicated that the British young people held a fluid conception of citizenship that emphasized communitarian rather than liberal or civic-republican ideals and that their perceptions were deeply influenced by their life experiences. In Northern Ireland, Barton and McCully (2005) studied the connections that students made between history and identity, as well as the impact of the Northern Ireland national curriculum on students’ ideas. Utilizing a picture sorting task that required the 253 students from eleven secondary schools to create groups of historical images and select those with which they most identified, the researchers found that students selectively drew on particular aspects of the school curriculum to support their own partisan historical narratives. However, the authors argued that the students’ historically grounded identities developed in complex ways, and a simple, linear relationship could not be drawn between their identities and the school curriculum.


In contrast to the four studies described above, Levstik and Groth (2005) interviewed 150 junior secondary students from four parochial schools in Ghana, and found that they did not describe their group histories in opposition to the larger national history. The national ideal of unity, for example, emerged as one of the key themes in the national narrative constructed by the Ghanaian students as they talked about a set of captioned pictures. To many students, the idea of unity was crucial to avoid inter-ethnic strife and ensure a prosperous and strong nation. This, the researchers noted, can largely be attributed to the fact that in Ghana, group history is an “important building block in the national narrative and, sometimes, a warning against the mistakes of the past” (p. 581). Thus, the officially sanctioned national historical narrative not only includes the vernacular histories of the different ethnic groups, but also focuses on what unites the larger nation.


Studies conducted in Hong Kong, a society with a relatively homogenous ethnic population, suggest that the Hong Kong students share a high level of acceptance of group differences and rights (Kennedy, Hahn, & Lee, 2007; Lee, 1999). Comparatively little is known, however, about how adolescents in diverse post-colonial Asian countries like Singapore navigate the tension between their group and national identities. Given the highly contextual nature of Social Studies and citizenship education, this study thus fills a gap in the research that, with the exception of Levstik and Groth’s (2005) study, has been largely conducted in Western countries. In the subsequent sections, I briefly describe the political and educational context in Singapore, focusing particularly on race and citizenship. I then analyze how students in three Singapore secondary schools understand themselves as citizens of Singapore within the context of the official historical narrative.


Context – Race and Citizenship in Singapore’s History


In Singapore and Malaya, the British colonial government divided the population, largely consisting of immigrants from China, India and the Southeast Asian archipelago into racial groups and included them in colonial society in ways that minimized interaction between the racial communities (Barr & Low, 2005). The colonial government did more than just differentiate and arbitrate between the racial groups. In fact, the colonial government actually created and sustained racial stereotypes, thus contributing to the formation of a deeply divided society. Given that new states are very vulnerable to “serious disaffection based on primordial attachments” such as religion and race (Geertz, 1973, p. 259), these historical divisions, reinforced by colonial policies, greatly affected the structure of the nascent Singapore state after the decolonizing process.


In modern, postcolonial, constitutionally multiracial Singapore, race continues to be extremely visible in the public sphere. The official Singapore identity card reflects how all Singapore citizens are, for example, automatically ascribed a particular “race” at birth that is determined by one’s paternal ancestry (Chua, 2003). The post-colonial Singapore government also simplified and concentrated diverse groups into the four “overlapping circles” or racial groups: Chinese, Indian, Malay, and “Others.” Of Singapore’s population of 4.02 million, approximately 76.8% of the population are categorized as Chinese, 13.9% Malays, 7.9% Indians and the rest, including Eurasians, Armenians and so on, labeled as “Others” (Ooi, 2005).


After the communal riots in the 1950s and 1960s, the state marginalized race from the political sphere in order to maintain and control development. By the 1980s, after two decades of relative harmony between racial groups, combined with the rise of a newly assertive, increasingly liberal and internationally mobile middle class, the raison d’être of such restrictive policies became increasingly irrelevant. This heralded the renegotiation and redefinition of race away from the dangerous “communalism” of the past, toward a new state-approved, homogenized definition of racial and cultural values. This state-approved definition of racial identity is largely defined by primordial cultural characteristics. Racial culture is thus essentialized as a heritage of ideas and practices that govern the lived experiences of the collective and the individual citizen. While to a large extent constructed and imposed, these racial categorizations hold great significance for Singapore citizens because these form “webs of significance” (Geertz, 1973, p. 5) that make race an integral part of social reality, particularly in terms of social organization and identity formation. These in turn act as a set of “control mechanisms” (p. 44) that govern the behavior of citizens. In terms of social policies, for example, the government created racially-based institutions such as Mendaki for the Malays, the Singapore Indian Development Association (Sinda) for the Indians, and the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC) for the Chinese, to incorporate elites, satisfy group demands and pre-empt racially charged issues (Brown, 1996). Other social policies also include the imposition of racial quotas for public housing (Moore, 2000).


Finally, in conjunction with these social policies, the members of the Singapore government constantly reiterate key governing principles such as meritocracy and racial equality in public discourse and in schools (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2007b). The second chapter of the Secondary Three textbook, titled “Governance in Singapore,” clearly articulates the government’s definition of meritocracy,

Meritocracy is a key part of the principle “Reward for work and Work for reward.” Meritocracy means a system that rewards hard work and talent. When people are rewarded based on their abilities and hard work, they are encouraged to do well … Meritocracy helps to give everybody in society an equal opportunity to achieve their best and be rewarded for their performance, regardless of race, religion and socio-economic background. (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2007c, p. 37)

Notably, however, the idea of meritocracy, and by extension, racial equality, is not problematized. In particular, this approach ignores the possibility of the existence of structural or institutional impediments and implicitly places the blame on the individual’s lack of effort or ability.


Citizenship Education in Singapore


Singapore, being highly centralized, experiences little public contestation over the content, values, and goals of school curricula. For all state schools, the Ministry of Education (MOE) determines the curriculum for the different subjects. All textbooks used in Singapore schools have to be pre-approved by the state (Goh & Gopinathan, 2005). The MOE’s Curriculum Planning and Development Division develops the necessary curricular materials, such as textbooks, workbooks and the teacher’s guide for certain subjects, including Social Studies.


The Singapore education structure is largely modeled after the British system, with students spending six years in primary school, four or five years in secondary school, and then two or three years in junior college, polytechnics or vocational institutes. At the end of each stage, all students attempt national examinations that determine their entry into different schools and academic tracks. For most students, the secondary school courses culminate in the high-stakes Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education ‘O’ Level examination at the end of their fourth or fifth year of secondary school.


Citizenship is a core component of the Singapore education system. Since 1997, the Singapore state has attempted to incorporate the key elements of citizenship into a unique and comprehensive program called National Education (NE), introduced by the Ministry of Education in 1997 (Sim, 2001). Three of the main citizenship education goals of the Singapore education system are: promoting loyalty to the Singapore nation, preserving distinct cultural and racial traditions and values, and maintaining cultural, religious and racial harmony (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2004).


Within the formal education system, the primary vehicle for the promotion of citizenship is the Social Studies program that is required for all secondary school students. For the students in the four or five year academic tracks, Social Studies consists of a two or three year program that culminates in a very high stakes national examination. Key goals of the Social Studies program include the development of well-rounded, empathetic, responsible citizens “with a sense of national identity and global perspective” (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008, p. 3). The program also aims to “imbue students with the skills of critical inquiry, investigation and reflection” (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008, p. 4) through the use of challenging assessments, issues, and case studies.


The high-stakes Social Studies national examination is particularly demanding. Students attempt a 90-minute paper that is divided into two sections: primary document analysis and structured essay questions. The document-based questions require students to answer questions that assess their ability to critically evaluate and analyze historical sources. Typical questions expect students to compare and/or contrast the documents, evaluate their reliability and usefulness, and draw inferences from these previously unseen sources. Students are also required to be able to cross reference the source content to other sources or to relevant contextual knowledge. The second part challenges students’ understanding and interpretation of the curriculum content. Open-ended questions assess students’ ability to analyze an issue, draw reasoned conclusions, and construct a logical explanation and argument using relevant supporting evidence (e.g., “Economic integration was the most important reason for the merger of Singapore and Malaya in 1963. Do you agree?”).


The Singapore secondary Social Studies curriculum frequently utilizes national myths (Woodward, 2003) to promote a “a deep sense of shared destiny and national identity” (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008, p. 3). For example, the official history and Social Studies syllabi regularly highlight certain key traumatic episodes such as the racial riots of the 1950s and 1960s between the Chinese and the Malays so as to provide a warning against repeating the mistakes of the past. Stories of national achievement and progress, such as the rapid development of the Singapore economy, are also given prominence (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008). In the words of Goh and Gopinathan (2005),

the key thrust centers around the ongoing construction of a politically expedient narrative of the past. The key message relates to the successful transformation of an island engulfed by ethnic and religious strife into an independent city-state that enjoys unprecedented and sustainable economic and social progress. (p. 221)

Paralleling the state’s political priorities, the Singapore education system also brings racial relations to the forefront and aims to achieve “racial harmony” (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2007a). In fact, a significant proportion of the citizenship education program in Singapore schools revolves around the issue of social cohesion. The secondary Social Studies syllabus, for example, states that one of the primary aims of the subject is to enable students to “develop into citizens who have empathy towards others and will participate responsibly and sensibly in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious society” (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008, p. 3).


In the latest edition of the Secondary Three Social Studies textbook, students examine two case studies of nations faced with internal strife, Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland. The causes and consequences of these conflicts are explored, with the explicit intention of drawing parallels to the Singapore situation. This is then followed by a chapter devoted to managing racial diversity, titled “Bonding Singapore” (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2007c), which focuses on the need to manage perceptions of different racial and religious groups as well as the need to deal with external threats. In order to prevent discord and division, all Singapore citizens should, according to the text, be vigilant in identifying “threats” and strengthen social bonds (p. 156). The chapter also reiterates the lessons of the past and reminds students about past instances of racial conflict such as the 1964 race riots and the racially motivated Maria Hertogh riots in 1950.


Outside the formal curriculum, the socialization process is carried out through the various extra-curricular activities, fieldtrips to historically, socially and politically significant sites, and the commemoration of important events such as Racial Harmony Day. These national citizenship goals are also constantly reiterated in political discourse and in the state-controlled media. Grassroots organizations such as the People’s Association and self-help groups also regularly participate in the commemoration of the key events mentioned above (People's Association, 2005) in order to develop common space and to “gain a better understanding of the cultures and customs of all races” (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2007c, p. 149).


Last Updated on Sunday, 29 August 2010 12:46