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

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

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Article Index
"Don't worry, I'm not going to report you": Education for citizenship in Singapore.
Research Methods & Findings
Discussion and Conclusion
Appendices & References
All Pages


Research Methods


This research draws on the qualitative instrumental case study framework laid out by Cohen, Manion, and Morrison (2001), Miles and Huberman (1994), Creswell (1998, 2003), Stake (1995) and Yin (1989). The research questions were addressed through a collective instrumental case study of three Social Studies classrooms in three Singapore secondary schools. Naturalistic classroom observations, an open-ended questionnaire, semi-structured student interviews, and analyses of the formal and informal curriculum (National Education Program, Social Studies syllabi, etc.) were conducted throughout the course of the inquiry. The data were collected during the course of one full school term (10 weeks), from June to September 2007.


Participants and Setting

Considerations of representation, balance, variety, and most importantly, accessibility, affected the selection of cases (Stake, 1995). Consequently, I selected three Secondary Three Express Course Social Studies classes in three academically differentiated government secondary schools identified by their pseudonyms, Putih Secondary, Merah Secondary and Biru Secondary. All three selected classes were from the Special/Express academic track. The Special/Express track is a four-year program leading to national examinations for students graduating from secondary school - the Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education (GCE) ‘O’ Level examination.


The sites were purposefully selected based on the national academic ranking of the schools, their racial composition, their gender distribution, and access. Based on the division of schools into the top academic tier, the middle tier and the bottom tier, one school that was typical of the average Singapore state school of a subgroup was selected. From the top academic tier, I selected Biru Secondary. This school had the highest mean admission score and had the highest percentage of students who obtained five or more ‘O’ Level subject passes. Merah Secondary was chosen to represent schools in the middle tier while Putih Secondary was typical of schools in the bottom tier. Two of the schools were racially diverse - one had a student population that was largely representative of the racial population distribution in Singapore (Merah Secondary) while the other had an above average proportion (45%) of Malay students (Putih Secondary). The third school, Biru Secondary, had an above average proportion of Chinese students (more than 90%).


The participants in this study consisted mostly of 14- or 15-year old students. Most students in these classes were Singaporeans, although there were a few foreign students from neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as students from further afield, such as China. All of the students from the three classes, a total of 133 students, completed the questionnaire. In addition, I interviewed a sample of Singaporean students that was representative of the racial and gender distribution of each class.


In total, 24 students, seven from Merah Secondary, eight from Putih Secondary and nine from Biru Secondary, participated in the interviews. These students were from different racial groups. The participants consisted of 16 Chinese students, four Malay students, and four Indian students. Eleven male and 13 female students participated in the interviews.



Naturalistic observations of each social studies classroom were conducted at the beginning of the study. The observations focused on elements related to citizenship development and the national narrative, such as the emphasis placed by the teacher on particular aspects of the syllabi, the pedagogical methods used, as well as student-teacher and student-student interaction.


Another important data collection method used in the study consisted of semi-structured individual and group interviews. During both types of interviews, a semi-structured interview protocol was used (see Appendixes A and B) conducted the interviews in English because this was the primary language of instruction in the schools. Each interview lasted 45 to 60 minutes each; with the permission of the 24 participants, the interviews were tape recorded. During the interviews, the students answered a series of questions focusing on their conceptions of citizenship and completed a photo elicitation task. They were presented with a selection of captioned images representing various people, events, or ideas from Singapore's past and present, and were then asked to select a subset of pictures that would best represent Singapore to someone from another country (Levstik & Groth, 2005). Students then accounted for their choices and omissions. Next, students answered a series of questions that focused on their understanding of citizenship. Finally, the students were asked to participate in a group interview lasting for approximately one hour. Similar questions were asked and students completed the same photo elicitation task as a group. During both tasks, I focused on the debate and discussions that occurred between the students and noted any differences to their individual responses.


The next method of data collection involved the use of a questionnaire (see Appendix C). All of the students in each class completed a short questionnaire in 20 minutes. The students answered three questions. The first required them to describe themselves, the second called for students to explain their conception of citizenship, and the third entailed the writing of a short narrative of Singapore’s history. The purpose of these questions was to obtain a broad understanding of which categories were most salient to students, how students conceptualized citizenship, and differences in their interpretation of the national historical narrative.


Documents such as the official syllabi produced by the Curriculum Planning and Development division of the Singapore Ministry of Education, textbooks, the teacher’s guide, and other classroom artifacts were analyzed to provide the context for the study and triangulate the data. Classroom artifacts such as handouts and worksheets were obtained from the teacher directly.


Data Analysis

During the data analysis process, the raw data, including researcher notes as well as transcriptions of the interviews and focus group session, were classified and coded with the use of the qualitative data analysis software, NVIVO 7. As advocated by Miles and Huberman (1994), I used data analysis strategies such as writing margin notes in field notes and writing reflective passages. The data were then “winnowed” and reduced through the use of codes, correspondence and patterns, as well as categorical aggregation (Stake, 1997). I generated codes through an initial analysis of the data, keeping an eye out for both frequently occurring phrases and unexpected or counterintuitive data. Examples of in vivo codes based on phrases used repeatedly by the participants include “racial harmony” and “meritocracy.” Patterns of data and linkages were sought and the raw data were also reviewed under different possible interpretations. During multiple readings of the text, these codes were then refined and modified to minimize inconsistency and redundancy. Concurrently, interesting patterns and apparent contradictions were also noted (Miles & Huberman, 1994). In addition, I made an attempt to seek disconfirming cases in order to refine and set parameters to the findings generated from the data.


The Researcher


Because qualitative research is fundamentally interpretive in nature, it is imperative for researchers to explicitly acknowledge and identify their biases, values and personal interests (Creswell, 2003). My status as both an insider and outsider placed me in a unique position. As an experienced social studies teacher, I was involved in the planning and teaching of the geography and social studies curriculum. This knowledge enhanced my understanding of the decisions made by the teachers and students, and improved my ability to relate to the participants. As a female Chinese Singaporean researcher, I also had a better understanding of the codes and meanings ascribed by the participants to various concepts. It would have been difficult for a non-Singaporean researcher, for instance, to comprehend the different layers of meaning ascribed to the phrase “neighborhood school” – a pejorative term used to refer to a school that has low status and is ranked poorly in the national school system. This insider’s perspective was tempered by my experiences as a graduate student in New York, which allowed me to distance myself from the immediacy of the demands of classroom teaching. Exposure to alternative theoretical perspectives in graduate school, such as postcolonial theories, also brought about a different understanding of the education structure and systems in Singapore.


There were, however, biases that I brought to the study because of my professional, educational, and personal background. This shaped the way I collected and interpreted the data, including the selection of categories and identification of patterns. The familiarity that I had with the schools in Singapore, for example, while advantageous, could also have potentially resulted in an inadvertent omission of significant events because of their apparent normality. For instance, regular classroom routines such as the ritual greeting of the teacher at the beginning and the end of the lessons were such an integral part of my life, both as a student and a teacher, that it was easy for me to ignore the significant role it played in the ethos of the school.


Findings – Race and Citizenship


This study aims to shed light on how a sample of students in Singapore utilizes the official historical narrative to position themselves as citizens. In general, students from all three schools and across all racial groups shared similar understandings of the historical narrative as depicted in the official social studies textbooks and national curriculum. The students’ responses during the interviews and the social studies lessons also demonstrated that most of them had uncritically internalized the state’s values and ideals about citizenship. Three key themes were dominant: the national ideals of progress and consensus, the rigid conception of race, and the lack of countervailing opinions.


Progress and Consensus

Overall, the students’ interpretations of the national narrative were remarkably similar to that of the official curriculum. Students not only had a good knowledge of key founding episodes in Singapore’s history, such as the arrival of the British in 1819 and the Japanese Occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945, but they also frequently repeated the same phrasing and perspectives found in the textbooks. Students, for example described the economic transformation of Singapore from a small village to a prosperous city state. Reiterating the description found in the textbook, a student from Merah Secondary wrote: “Early Singapore was a fishing village, later Mr Raffles came and turned this place into a trading port, and now it is an established country.” Despite their different socio-economic, ethnic and academic backgrounds, the participants from all three schools consistently provided very similar depictions of the key events in Singapore’s history, and many described Singapore’s historical development in largely the same manner.


Students also shared the state’s understanding of the importance of the episodes of racial and religious conflict in Singapore’s history, including the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950 and the Prophet Muhammad birthday riots in 1964. Echoing the official interpretation found in the textbooks, Cheralyn, a Chinese girl from Putih Secondary, explained that the rationale for studying these conflicts was because “it shows how racial discrimination causes conflicts, riots and stuff, destroys harmony between races.”


The notion of progress also influenced the students’ understanding of the national narrative. For example, in his interpretation of the history of race relations in Singapore, Ali, the boy with Indian and Malay heritage from Putih Secondary, said: ”… now we are multi racial country, when last time we used to fight among races, now not as much but maybe not at all.” Likewise, Siti, a Malay girl from Putih Secondary, stated that it was important for students to learn about the race riots because “they should know [about] the riots last time, and how we are like right now, the difference between it, and you know, hopefully that it will not happen again.”


Constance, an expressive Chinese girl from Biru Secondary (the high achieving school with few minority students), explicitly linked the racial riots in Singapore’s history to similar inter-ethnic conflict in other countries: “This racial tension between Chinese and Malays led to racial riots … these two groups are something like what we learnt .... It’s like Tamil Tigers and the people in Northern Ireland.” Similarly, her classmate, Junhui, added that the conflict in both countries “serves as a reminder to Singaporeans not to be separated, or else we will be like these two countries.” In sum, students from different socio-economic, racial, and academic backgrounds shared a common acceptance and understanding of the role played by these key episodes in Singapore’s historical narrative, with most placing the episodes within the context of Singapore’s progress from a racially divided nation to one that is now more harmonious. Similar to Levstik and Groth’s (2005) findings, none of the Singapore students voiced any opposition to the official historical narrative promoted by the state or offered an alternative group or community-based narrative.    


Students and teachers in the study also frequently echoed the state’s desire for achieving consensus and avoiding conflict at all cost. Many argued that one of the primary responsibilities of a Singapore citizen should be the promotion of racial relations and national unity. Students from the ethnically diverse Putih Secondary, for example, wrote about the need for citizens to remain united despite racial and religious diversity:

Singapore citizens should unite as one country even (if) we come from different races and religions.

I am very happy to be a Singaporean. We as Singaporeans should not bother of [sic] the skin colour [sic]. No matter what colour is [sic] your skin, our blood is still red. As a citizen of Singapore, we should be united and loyal towards our country. We should live in harmony and faced [sic] difficulties together. Singapore is not only a country but a home to me.

In fact, many students used the words of the national pledge, particularly this phrase “regardless of race, language or religion,” in their responses. This was not an unexpected phenomenon because the daily recitation of the national pledge of allegiance in schools served as a constant reminder of the citizen’s responsibility to support racial harmony.


In summary, the students’ focus on the citizen’s responsibility for the promotion of “racial harmony” in society suggests an internalization of the values and ideals promulgated by the state. Notably, even students from the minority groups also appeared to have framed their own aspirations, values, and goals in a manner that echoed the state’s position, particularly with regard to the theme of progress and consensus, as well as the state’s ideal of racial and religious equality.


Rigid Racial Categories

While the Singapore state recognizes the different historical racial and religious groups, this is done so within clearly defined boundaries. As described earlier, at the national level, the conception of the racial categories is presented in a static and fixed manner that contributes to the reification of differences within its population. As such, the concept of racial categorization is also not troubled anywhere within the social studies curriculum, because the discourse on race is monopolized by the state The colonial influence on the representation and definition of racial boundaries, roles and relationships, largely in oppositional terms, is not examined. The role of the Singapore government in utilizing and reifying these historical colonial racial categories also goes unquestioned.  


During the study, both the students and teachers explicitly and implicitly endorsed the state’s conception of race as an objective condition despite the fact that this did not reflect the unstable and politically contested process of racial formation and the creation of racial meanings [A8]  (Omi & Winant, 1994). None spoke about the fluid and historically constructed nature of these categorizations. In all three social studies classrooms, for example, all three teachers appeared to accept the state’s categorization of Singapore citizens into fixed racial groups. Mrs. Pereira’s introduction to the chapter was typical:

Mrs. Pereira: What is the difference between race and ethnicity?

Students: (silence)

Mrs. Pereira: Races are grouped according to skin color, physical characteristics. In Singapore, how many racial groups are there?

Students: Four.

Mrs. Pereira: Only four? Yes, four major ones, Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others.

Students too appeared unaware of the constant shifting of parameters that have defined race throughout history or the fluidity and variability of racial categorizations. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the students also clearly identified with the state’s four official categories as highlighted by Mrs. Pereira. The only student who had difficulty identifying with any of the official categories was Ali, who had an Indian father and a Malay mother. While officially categorized as an Indian based on his father’s race, he appeared to identify more with the Malays because he studied the Malay language in school and as he pointed out, “My parents chose [for me to learn Malay] because both of them spoke Malay.”


Lack of Countervailing Opinions


Finally, there were few critical or countervailing opinions voiced during the study by the students. Little or no discussion of sensitive and controversial issues occurred in the social studies classrooms during observations. Dominated by the narrative dictated to them by the state, both teachers and students from the different ethnic groups adhered closely to the official script. For example, as a result of the state’s emphatic link between an individual citizen’s responsibility and the maintenance of racial harmony, both teachers and students focused on individual acts of racism and appeared to be oblivious to any examples of structural problems faced by minorities. The following exchange in Mrs. Pereira’s class at Putih Secondary was typical.

Mrs. Pereira: What is discrimination?

Students: (silence)

Mrs. Pereira: Exclusion of a particular group of people for various reasons… Even in a school like Putih, with a 50-50 proportion of races, Chinese don’t mix with Malays. How many of you have good friends of another race?

Students: [only a few hands raised]

Mrs. Pereira: I wonder why so few of you?

Students: [We] have friends but not so good.

Mrs. Pereira: I feel that we don’t mix because we look down upon them.

Likewise, Mr. Tan from Merah Secondary also recounted an episode that suggested that racial relations in Singapore were greatly affected by the racist attitudes of the individual.

I was the form teacher of a class, a parent called up to complain about his son’s friends and their skin color, and said to tell him not to mix with “those people.” Instead, I said that I would encourage the boy to continue, and told the parent that he needs to change. We will look at the tensions between ethnic groups and why it arises. It is not easy to resolve conflicts because changing mindsets is difficult, such as changing the mindset of the parent.

In the study, both students and teachers focused exclusively on individual instances of racial prejudice. Few references were made to institutional causes of racial tension in Singapore, largely because the Singapore government places great emphasis on the neutral, color-blind and equitable nature of the Singapore system.


Nevertheless, during the social studies lessons, all three teachers devoted much time to describing, in great detail, examples of structural and institutional discrimination against the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Catholics in Northern Ireland. For example, Ms. Ong from Biru Secondary tried to provide a nuanced view of the conflict in Sri Lanka. She presented both the reasons why the Sri Lankan Tamils might feel aggrieved and the political pressures faced by the Sinhalese government.

[the Sri Lankan government made] Sinhala the official language, because of nationalistic feelings, to win support of Sinhalese voters, and give Sinhalese opportunities for better jobs … and [implemented] higher entry standards for Tamils for university admission. Just imagine you are the government elected by the Sinhalese, made up of Sinhalese, most of the voters are Sinhalese, so you feel the need to protect the interests of Sinhalese voters …the Sinhalese were the backward group in the country. The Tamils on the other hand, felt understandably upset that they had to score higher marks to get in.

In contrast to the detailed, critical description of the systemic discrimination faced by the Sri Lankan Tamils as shown in the preceding extract, none of the teachers extended this critique to the Singapore system. Instead, the teachers presented the Singapore system of meritocracy and multi-racialism as an ideal, just and color-blind system for all.


Unsurprisingly, therefore, none of the students participating in the interviews and the survey described the need for Singapore citizens to address instances of institutional or systemic causes of inequality. Despite the goals of the curriculum to develop “critical thinkers,” there was no critical examination of these pertinent issues related to race and citizenship. Only twice throughout the study did students raise questions with regard to the official version of events. This, however, did not occur in the classroom but during the relatively safe confines of the individual interviews and focus group discussion. In a particularly revealing exchange during the focus group discussion, Claudine, an articulate female Chinese Putih student, perceptively noted:

Singapore is very good at covering up … I won’t say Singapore is totally racial  harmony [sic] … I won’t believe that everyone in Singapore, even in the school itself, everybody you know… I believe that there’s some unhappiness against some race or some race, but I feel that it won’t directly affect us, because … deep down I’m actually cursing you but I’m smiling at you all the time …

Jack, Siti, and Priya, her Chinese, Malay and Indian/Sikh classmates respectively, agreed with her assessment. Jack asked: “Is there actually racial harmony? It’s like, you just go to the canteen you can see … one race sitting together, no two races sitting together.” Priya echoed this perspective: “It’s kind of like, you see, one clique all will be [sic] of the same race.”


In sum, the data suggest that in most cases, these young Singapore citizens appeared to have internalized the dominant historical narrative vis-à-vis race and citizenship. Key problems include their unquestioning acceptance of, and identification with, the official racial categories, the lack of challenge to the state’s dominant positions and perspectives, their inability and/or unwillingness to go beyond the role of the individual citizen and critically assess potential systemic or structural flaws, and finally, their lack of awareness of alternative perspectives.



Last Updated on Sunday, 29 August 2010 12:46