Nearly 20 years later – more than enough time to produce a generation of creative thinkers and doers – Minister of State for Communications and Information Chee Hong Tat, is still lamenting that Singapore “needs risk-takers to spur growth”.
And why is this? “That spirit of individuality, that free play of the mind,” as Deputy Prime Minister Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam explains, “isn’t best developed in a system that is highly competitive and focused on tests.” He adds that “The culture of Singapore’s education has to change to one that is less obsessed with grades...”
But the problem is not just with tests and grades (although they are a significant part), it is also with the PAP's insistence on using our education system for its own political ends. This is what Mr K Shanmugam told his party mates in an editorial in, Petir (the PAP's newsletter), in 2009:
“Singapore needs good governance and only the PAP can deliver it...But the younger electorate may find it difficult to accept the PAP’s basic message – that Singapore is unique, and the liberal democratic model has to be adapted considerably to work for us. It is therefore fundamental to get Singaporeans to understand...the costs and benefits of changing our system. How do we ensure this? The answer lies with our education system.”
Yet, the MOE insists that our “schools are neutral places for learning and not platforms for partisan politics”. This was, ostensibly, the reason it gave in turning down the SDP's request to speak with students in schools.
It is disingenuous on two fronts. First, a cursory read of the textbooks, in particular the social studies ones, shows an unmistakable effort on the part of the MOE to steer students towards the PAP mode of thought. Take, for example, the riot that erupted in Little India in 2013. The Commission of Inquiry which was set up to look into the incident, criticised the inexpert response of the police. Yet, in the textbook, the episode was rendered to make the authorities look less inept, credible even. (Read also MOE written textbooks are even more biased and partisan towards the PAP)
Second, even if the claim that our schools should be politically neutral is true, it does not mean that classroom curriculum should be devoid of political content. Neutrality does not mean ignorance. It does, however, insist that the pedagogy and content in textbooks be balanced. That is, in discussing political philosophies, policies, or socio-political issues, textbooks must present both, or multiple sides, of the subject at hand, and teachers should encourage students to examine the various viewpoints.
The role of educators is not to promote one position over another but, rather, to encourage their charges to read wider, think deeper and research further. That is the hallmark of a good education system.
It is also the basis for the SDP wanting to speak at our schools. Our intent is not to fire off partisan rhetoric to students. It is to impart the notion that thinking skills – skills like learning how to weigh evidence, evaluate competing views, form arguments and, most important, question what we read and hear – are just as important, if not more so, than the memorisation and regurgitation of textbook content. These are skills that will put Singapore in good stead as we seek to establish that elusive innovative culture.
Ultimately, we must ask ourselves what kinds of citizens we want our education system to forge. How we respond to this question will have a profound impact on how successfully we cope with the challenges ahead and ergo how our country will look like in the future.
If what we are interested in is to produce a pliant citizenry for the PAP to mold and shape, as Mr Shanmugam suggests, then the present course of indoctrinating our schoolchildren is on track.
But this also means that we will come up short in our effort to foster a thinking populace that will have the intellectual prowess and resilience to power Singapore's navigation in a global landscape that is getting more sophisticated by the day.
We can cultivate a culture that is creative and innovative. Or we can engineer one that is unquestioning and conformist. But we cannot do both.
This piece was sent to the Straits Times but was rejected. It is published here with minor amendments.