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.
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.
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.
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.