Unexpected opportunities

Here we go again. Something is rotten in the state of Singapore? Let’s tweak it through the education system so that we can avoid delving into the root causes. Citizenship education in Singapore has always been an overt mechanism for training docile bodies. To some extent that is the case for every country. The moment we talk about teaching children to be ‘good citizens’ there is already an agenda imposed on the young, and through them, on society as a whole. I don’t think anyone would argue that we should leave citizenship education to serendipity and wishful thinking. It’s a complicated world with complicated problems that need complicated solutions. The difference between us here in Singapore and other countries that take the lead in citizenship education is that we don’t question the embedded assumptions in our programmes. Citizenship education is a phrase that has two constructs in it, and each has a lot more to it than meets the eye.

Let’s look at citizenship first. Who is a citizen? Someone who holds citizenship? Of course. But then that sounds fairly value-neutral, no? How do we come to talking about a ‘good’ citizen? Where do the defining qualities of good citizenship come from? I would argue they come from the political system. Democracy is not a monolithic concept. There is no one single model of democracy. But before we can talk about citizenship we need to have rigorous public debate on what our political model is. Clearly we are in a state of flux. There is a system that we have been running on that seems to be under question now, if recent General Election results and the rash of politically engaged activity on online social media sites is anything to go by. Studies concluding that people need education about what constitutes the role of the President, for example, are not really helpful because they hide the fact that the amorphous nature of the President’s duties fits in perfectly with other exigency-based political mechanisms. In fact I am inclined to view the study results as proof that people are redefining what they want the President to do. That people are posting on Twitter and Facebook is not a question of venting frustration and spreading cowboy-town modes of interaction. There is a real and large-scale attempt going on to figure out what we want from our political system. My point is that until we sort out these issues, or at least acknowledge that we can have an environment in which these debates are the norm rather than some educational lacuna that needs to be plugged through indoctrination, we cannot really make any meaningful inroads into citizenship education.

And then there is education. So many debates about what education is, how much it can really achieve, by what criterion it can be measured, to what extent the ideal outcomes can be equally assured for all… But in the area of citizenship education, I think the key question is how much can the school actually do? Imposing a set of values is all very well, but what can the school do when conditions outside school are so different? There will no doubt be an attempt to teach ‘critical thinking’ that uncritically accepts the top-down values and the ideology they fit in with. But this will be set against the backdrop of rising doubt in wider society about the very nature of the political system, an increasing spirit of questioning, and greater confidence in political engagement that may not always be conveniently contained within the discursive limits set by the government and enforced by the mainstream media. The school actually risks marginalising itself in the lives of the young people it is supposed to be equipping for the future.

This is where the unexpected opportunities lie. With the understanding that we cannot neglect our young while all this debate is going on, I think it’s important to teach them to be a part of this flurry of engagement. Let’s not hide the very constructive chaos we have going on around us under the cloak of accusations of bigotry and discrimination. Our school children do not spend all their time poking fun at foreigners. If at all there is any racial undercurrent in their repartee, it is probably rooted in the very real differences between them and their fellow Singaporeans. I have written in a previous post that diversity has not been tackled in our education system. We don’t talk about race, religion, gender or sexuality (to name a few) outside the Pollyanna framework of meritocracy. The diversity among Singaporeans is rhetorically flattened out, with the result that Singaporean-ness becomes an imagined monolith which is then implicated in constructions of anti-foreigner discourse.

We now have an opportunity to really contemplate our political model. We have an opportunity to draw more people into such discussions. I disagree that quantitative studies tell the whole story, or even that they are the most valid pieces of the puzzle. Statistics tell the story someone wants them to tell. They are important, but not sufficient, especially when they are used to shore up dominant arguments that may in the long term be detrimental to the progress of a society. We have an opportunity to view citizenship education as opening up possibilities for active engagement rather than closing an ideological loop. The opportunities we have now are not at the implementation level. What is exciting about the trends we are witnessing is that the opportunities are at the conceptual level. Our biggest opportunity in citizenship education now is to introduce the concept of diversity, not in an instrumental paradigm that feeds into the need to get Singaporeans to unquestioningly accept government policies, but in a paradigm of social justice that delinks ethics and values from the political system (which is not the same thing as depoliticising them), however it happens to be currently configured.

I have no neat quote or witty saying with which to tie up this post. I’d rather leave it open and unfinished for now, an analogy for the work-in-progress that is citizenship education.

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