Social Studies for Singapore Teachers

...a one-stop Social Studies resource portal for Singapore Teachers

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size
Home » Research » Full Journal Articles » "Don't worry, I'm not going to report you": Education for citizenship in Singapore. - Discussion and Conclusion

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

E-mail Print PDF
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


Discussion – Constraints of Censorship and Testing


One of the key findings of this study is how Singapore students from highly dissimilar socio-economic, academic and racial backgrounds shared a remarkably similar understanding of the Singapore historical narrative, particularly with regard to citizenship and race. Their responses echoed the state’s emphasis on racial equality, meritocracy, and the individual citizen’s responsibility for racial harmony. Contrary to the findings of scholars such as Epstein (1998, 2000), who demonstrated that some students, shaped by their racialized identities, held diverse understandings of the national narrative, the students and teachers in this study seemed to accept, as established fact, the state’s understanding of the role of the citizen. The results of this study closely mirror the findings of Levstik and Groth’s (2005) Ghanaian study, which suggested little divergence between ethnic and national conceptions of citizenship and national history.


This shared understanding between students from disparate groups can partially be attributed to the national narrative in the school curriculum that has consistently emphasized the equal contributions of all racial groups to Singapore’s development, as well as the themes of unity, consensus and harmony. In fact, the Singapore historical context shares numerous similarities with that of Ghana. Both countries experienced colonial rule and, upon gaining independence, had to focus on nation-building and uniting a religiously and ethnically diverse population. Thus, both countries constantly highlight past instances of social discord and conflict as a lesson against repeating the mistakes of the past. In addition, unlike countries in which official histories of the nation compete with vernacular histories sanctioned by the family or communities, the Singapore state, from its inception as an independent country, consciously crafted an inclusive historical narrative that not only explicitly incorporated ethnic histories, but also greatly emphasized the importance of national unity and consensus for national survival. This stands in sharp contrast to the situation in the United States, where blacks and immigrants had to struggle to get “a place at the table” and faced great resistance to “the simple proposition that every American belonged in American history” (Zimmerman, 2002, p. 7).


The second key finding of this study is that none of the Singapore students contested or objected to the state’s central narrative of racial harmony, meritocracy, and progress. During the study, too, teachers and students in Singapore consciously avoided controversial social and political issues. It appeared less politically fraught to devote the lessons to addressing individual actions and beliefs, as opposed to challenging the system. For example, none challenged the division of Singaporeans into discrete, mutually exclusive racial categories, or indeed, of the categories themselves. The next section explores why few students expressed critical opinions or offered alternative oppositional narratives through an examination of two constraints that hinder the teaching of social studies: (1) the lack of counter-socialization and the disciplining effects of censorship; (2) the impact of high stakes testing.


Constraints of a Climate of Censorship

The social context and political norms of a given community can shape curricular decisions and the impact of curriculum on students (Westheimer & Kahne, 2004). Given the range of democratic societies in the world, multiple conceptions of citizenship exist and attributes of citizenship vary across countries (Cogan, 2000). In Singapore, the state’s desire for order and stability triumphs almost all other considerations and this is clearly reflected in Singapore schools. As Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore argued,

The expansion of the right of the individual to behave or misbehave as he pleases has come at the expense of orderly society. In the East the main object is to have a well-ordered society so that everybody can have maximum enjoyment of his freedoms. This freedom can only exist in an ordered state and not in a natural state of contention and anarchy. (cited in Zakaria, 1994, p. 111)

Consequently, unlike in the United States, schools in Singapore are seldom sites of contestation and resistance to the dominant culture. As described in the earlier sections, schools in Singapore are centrally controlled by the Ministry of Education, all teachers are government/civil servants, and the national curriculum, the national examination system, and the official textbooks are produced and closely monitored by the Ministry of Education. Correspondingly, there is little or no public debate about the goals and substance of school programs.


The Singapore National Education citizenship program is also exceptional in that it is systematically incorporated at different levels, and is an integral part of the formal education system as well as the political and social fabric. Thus, the socialization of students occurs at multiple sites and at numerous levels. Challenges to the prevailing values, where they do exist, tend to be muted, personalized, and localized. More often than not, however, the unequal relations of power within social forms, structures, and practices remain hidden and unquestioned, particularly because the official curriculum, consciously or unconsciously aided and abetted by the teachers and the school system, perpetuates the national myth of “meritocracy,” racial equality, individual achievement and responsibility.


A large part of this could be due to what Cornbleth (2001) terms “climates of censorship and restraint.” Climates of censorship refer to the “threatening climate of external curriculum challenges to subject matter, materials or teaching-learning activities” (p. 83). Cornbleth contends that “few teachers totally eschew self-censorship” (p. 84) because of the desire of teachers to be accepted by their colleagues. The general climate of censorship and constraint influences how the sensitive issue of race and citizenship is addressed in the classroom. In their desire to avoid controversial topics, teachers and students alike adopt the state’s perspective of racial relations as an individual citizen’s responsibility and avoid discussion of institutional causes of racial tension in Singapore. Despite the attention focused on examples of institutional racism in Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland in the social studies curriculum, the data suggest that teachers and students lacked awareness of the possibility of the existence of institutional privilege and discrimination in the Singapore context. Few were able or willing to challenge widely accepted school and societal norms.


Cornbleth (2001) suggests that many educators avoid conflict and controversy, which in turn hinders “teaching for meaningful learning” (p. 85). The following exchange in the Putih Secondary social studies classroom clearly demonstrated an acknowledgement of the possibility of repercussions for speaking out,

Mrs. Pereira: The distribution of Sinhalese and Tamils… look at the map in the textbook. Why are the Sinhalese and Tamils in conflict?

Students: (silence)

Mrs. Pereira: How many of you think that there is genuine cooperation among races in Singapore? How many think that we are faking it? Don’t worry, I’m not going to report you.

Students: [laughter]

Mrs. Pereira: Can anybody give me an example of racism?

Student (Pauline): Blogging about race.

The off-hand remark by Mrs. Pereira, where she stated “Don’t worry, I’m not going to report you” is symptomatic of the uncertainty and ambivalence felt toward the discussion of controversial subjects, particularly those related to race. The subtext of this exchange demonstrated the common understanding between both the teacher and the students of the Singapore government’s uncompromising responses to statements that could, in the government’s eyes, incite racial hatred, thus the teacher’s half-joking reassurance that she was not going to report anybody. This was reinforced by Pauline’s reference to “Blogging about race,” which alluded to the use of the Sedition Act to prosecute the three bloggers who wrote disparaging comments of minority races in their blogs (Popatlal, 2005).


The culture of self-censorship was also reflected in some of the students’ responses. For example, students such as Weijie, a male Chinese Biru Secondary student, chose not to accord equal recognition to the roles played by the different racial groups in Singapore’s history. Consequently, he anxiously asserted that this was not due to any racial bias on his part as seen from the following exchange.

Weijie: I think these are the two dominant ones so I picked them out.

Researcher: Two dominant, in what way?

Weijie: As in the population --

Researcher: Okay.

Weijie: Ya. And I’m not a racist, I didn’t single them out like this.

Researcher: I never said you were.

Weijie: Okay, I’m just pointing [out that] I’m not.

Although Weijie explicitly reiterated that he was not racially prejudiced in any way, it has to be noted that Weijie’s perspective contradicted the official perspective because the lower secondary history curriculum not only gives great emphasis to the contributions of all immigrants, but also consciously attempts to portray the contributions of various immigrant groups equally in the curriculum. 


Evidence of Singapore educators’ concerns about climates of conservatism and censorship can also be found in the influential government-sponsored National Education report. The report noted some of the issues faced by social studies teachers in Singapore, including not knowing where the “Out-of-Bound (OB) markers” were (a vague phrase frequently used by government ministers to identify taboo and sensitive topics), and their inability to handle dissent. According to the study team, educators had “concerns about how open and candid they could be in discussions and how they could manage debates on areas of controversy, without sufficient information, expertise, or clear out-of-bound markers to guide them” (Ministry of Education Singapore, 2007a, p. 16).


In sum, it is apparent that educators and students alike are reluctant to express oppositional viewpoints. The existence of self-censorship on the part of teachers and perhaps some students is not unique to Singapore. As Beauboeuf-Lafontant (1999) argues, many public schools “take part in ‘silencing’ discordant voices and perspectives” (p. 716). Well-known historical examples from the United States include the censorship challenges to the Problems of Democracy course created by Harold Rugg in the early part of the 20th century, and the Man: A Course of Study materials (MACOS) developed by Jerome Bruner (Makler, 2004; Zimmerman, 2002). In his assessment of the controversy over MACOS, Evans (2004) contended that the typical American education involved “a virulent socialization process with little or no countersocialization” (p. 145), and noted that there was a strong desire within the community for conformity, social control, and the adoption of traditionally “American” and authoritative perspectives. Similarly, in their study of U.S. schools for the first phase of the Civic Education Study of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, Hahn and Torney-Purta (1999) reported that few social studies teachers focused on controversial issues or contested the content in U.S. history and civics courses.


Constraints of High Stakes Testing

The second constraint on the teaching of social studies in Singapore schools is the presence of a summative, high-stakes written exam at the end of the course. The results of this examination determine the type of post-secondary school and program for which a student qualifies. No other type of assessment is used to evaluate student learning and understanding in social studies. This also has implications for school ranking and the performance rating of principals and teachers.


Consequently, in the social studies classrooms, there was a focus on teaching to the test, thus precluding any detailed examination of controversial social issues due to the lack of time. Standardized tests, according to Mathison, Ross and Vinson (2006) rob teachers “of their professional capacity to choose curricular content; to respond in meaningful ways to particular student needs” (p. 111). With rare exceptions, all three teachers concentrated their efforts on imparting content knowledge and the acquisition of essay answering skills. The priority of all three teachers seemed to be the preparation of students for the national examinations rather than on thoughtful or meaningful instruction centered around students’ needs. Despite the potential richness and controversial nature of the topics, the lessons were teacher-centered. There was little or no discussion of controversial issues, and information about the case studies were presented in an authoritative and factual manner.


The Biru Secondary teacher, Ms. Ong, frequently reminded the students that they had to rush through the lesson because they were “really far behind” and needed to “catch up.” The teachers, particularly Ms. Ong, constantly reiterated the requirements of the ‘O’ level examinations during the lessons, as shown in this exchange.

Ms Ong: Write down this sentence on the same piece of paper … Explain the consequences of the civil war in Sri Lanka. Don’t write an essay, I don’t have time to read it. For example, foreign intervention, displacement. I need you to write an essay outline, paragraph 1, 2, 3, conclusion. Even if the question asks you to explain, in your conclusion, we need you to evaluate.

Student: But they did not ask for it.

Ms Ong: Ok, let me explain, even if a question is phrased as innocently as this, you have to explain. Because… I don’t know why it’s like this, but it’s expected in the O levels for you to get the highest level of response.

Likewise, from the students’ perspective, this focus on preparation for the examinations negatively affected their level of interest in the subject. In fact, two high achieving students from Biru Secondary, Hangming and Junhui, stated that they felt great pressure preparing for the examination and thought that the subject would be more interesting without it. Hangming, a Chinese boy from Biru Secondary, for example, stated that he was “not quite interested in social studies because of the exams.”


Although it is true that secondary schools in Singapore pay great attention to the teaching of social studies, this is largely a reflection of its status as a required examination subject. Widespread anecdotal evidence suggests that in primary schools, social studies is not accorded nearly as much attention because it is not a core part of the national primary school examination system. Social studies periods are frequently utilized for other more “important” subjects such as Mathematics, Science and the languages. Similarly, in the United States, Pace (2007) writes that “high stakes accountability based on reading and math scores is marginalizing the Social Studies curriculum in elementary schools” (p. 26). This has resulted in reduced instructional time in states that do not have social studies tests whereas in others, the presence on high stakes testing has resulted in a focus on coverage. Thus, the Singapore secondary social studies program is caught in a bind. While being a required examination subject ensures that it is accorded a high status and given priority in schools, it then becomes, in many ways, a victim of its own status. This is because the pressure to perform well on exams affects the amount of time spent on in-depth discussions of relevant topics during social studies lessons. In its present form, the prescriptive and inflexible nature of the Singapore social studies course, governed by high stakes tests, also affects meaningful teaching and learning by precluding discussion of these controversial but highly pertinent issues.


Concluding Considerations


To conclude, this study sheds light on how students from a newly decolonized Asian state interpret citizenship and national history. The high level of consensus between students from disparate backgrounds about the role of the citizen and understanding of national history can partly be attributed to the inclusive nature of the national historical narrative as depicted in the text and the curriculum. This thus informs a wider understanding of how relatively young states like Singapore utilize history and social studies to navigate the potential pitfalls of diversity and emphasize national unity and cohesion.  


The second finding of the study, the lack of critical and oppositional viewpoints, can be attributed to a combination of a climate of censorship and a regime of high stakes tests that acts as an effective mechanism to stifle democratic discourse within the social studies classroom. In the Singapore context, the state’s emphasis on consensus can thus be seen as a disciplining mechanism with which to manage public discourse on race, citizenship, and the position of minority groups. Goh and Gopinathan (2005) neatly summarized the key challenges faced by history and social studies education in Singapore:


One major problem for the development of fair and balanced history syllabi, history textbooks and history pedagogy is that they have to induct young minds into the discipline of history, to enable them to evaluate sources and come to defensible judgments, while often at the same time satisfying the demands of the political elite seeking to establish as truth a particular version of the past. (p. 205)


Overall, this lack of a counter-hegemonic discourse within the curriculum is both troubling and ironic because the curriculum explicitly states that the goal is to promote independent inquiry and critical thinking (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2007a, 2008).


Social studies is crucial for the development of citizens who not only care about building a just and equitable society, but are also able to understand complex issues and make informed decisions (Pace, 2007). As Nelson and Pang (2006) contend, “it is social studies that opens critical inquiry into the implications and practices of social values” (p. 127). An effective social studies curriculum should incorporate the concerns of students and focus more on political and civic participation rather than high-stakes examinations. Ochoa-Becker (1999) makes the case for the use of controversial issues in order to engage students in the counter-socialization process. Arguing that “democracy is not well-served by either blind loyalty or unthinking citizens” (p. 339), she suggests that teachers should make critical thinking and reasoned decision making a central component of their social studies classes. In addition, critical questions, such as who gets to define and speak of difference(s), and whose voice is assigned legitimacy or illegitimacy should be addressed (Spivak, 1988). Finally, the curriculum should incorporate the real life dilemmas and issues faced by the students. Instead of silencing teachers’ and students’ voices, space should be set aside to address the very real issues faced by students in a multi-racial school setting. Deliberation and the expression of difference are key components in the democratic decision making process (Camicia, 2007). As the Putih Secondary focus group showed, Singapore adolescents are capable of carrying out honest, stimulating, and passionate deliberations about the sensitive issues of race and citizenship. With safe spaces for “honest, authentic communication” (Stoughton & Sivertson, 2005, p. 294) and the examination of multiple perspectives, these conversations can then expand and create common social space through the discovery of commonalities.


Last Updated on Sunday, 29 August 2010 12:46