Thoughts on Social Studies

Last night, I spent three hours reading the MOE Social Studies textbooks for Secondary Three (2013 edition) and Secondary Four (2014 edition). I was interested because education about social issues is essential in fostering a politically literate and well-informed electorate. What our youth learn in the classroom and what they memorize for examinations fundamentally colours the lens through which they view the world in the future.

I believe that the Social Studies curriculum should strive to be factually accurate and politically neutral, whenever possible. This is especially since issues of governance and public policy can rarely be perfectly resolved with mathematical precision – there is always a trade-off which governments have to consider before taking action. And how this trade-off is presented to students (both in substance and style) completely alters the way one perceives a controversy. A British teenager who learns that Thatcher reduced the power of unions and privatised the inefficient British Steel company is far more likely to sympathise with Conservative rhetoric than one who learns that Thatcher weakened workers’ rights and forced public-linked companies to cut jobs.

In general, it was heartening to see adequate balance given to some topics within the Social Studies curriculum. For a subject with no clear academic consensus, this presents students with the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue and discussion. For instance, a section on immigration policy and foreign manpower contrasted pro-immigration and anti-immigration sentiments, and invited students to express their opinions about this issue. It demonstrated how the demands of Singapore’s dwindling birth rate had to be balanced against the sense of displacement and loss of economic opportunities experienced by some locals.

From Upper Secondary Social Studies (4 & 5), 2nd Edition.

However, I was disappointed that the textbooks gave short shrift to other fairly contentious issues, particularly when they pertain to our political system. Scanning through the entire Secondary Three textbook, I could only find one mention of the role which a parliamentary opposition played in policy-making. Relegated to the bottom of page 77, Mr Low Thia Khiang’s views on our means-testing scheme were briefly featured.

From Upper Secondary Social Studies (3), 2nd Edition.

This was in stark contrast to the dozens of quotes featuring prominent PAP ministers and ex-ministers which were peppered throughout the book. I counted 15-16 mentions of establishment politicians, who were either featured in sidebar photographs, or were quoted to illustrate an argument made in the textbook. I do understand that the PAP has obviously played a greater role in national development and nation-building as compared to the opposition by virtue of being the ruling party. Also, due to their political dominance, it so happens that quoting a government minister would mean quoting a PAP politician.

Even so, such disproportionate representation could unwittingly send the message that our opposition parties are redundant in the legislature. This would be unfortunate given our current political context, where opposition politicians are increasingly being engaged and involved in the government’s decision-making processes. Between 2011 and 2015, MP Low Thia Khiang and NCMP Gerald Giam attended 115 out of 115 Parliament sittings, a record unequalled by any PAP backbencher. And along with the PAP’s Lee Bee Wah, the WP’s Yee Jenn Jong has spoken 87 times in Parliament. Opposition politicians have also been appointed to various parliamentary and non-parliamentary committees, with Ms Sylvia Lim sitting on the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (Main) and Mr Low Thia Khiang having previously sat on the Select Committee for NMPs. One would think that their views and party stance should at least be critically examined and evaluated in Social Studies lessons, rather than omitted from the textbook.

This is not the only instance of tokenism or diminished representation. As income inequality is a growing concern in Singapore, I was glad to see a mention of our Gini coefficient in the Secondary Four textbook. However, much like Mr Low’s quote, it was located at the bottom of page 59, in a small info-box with some statistics on our Gini coefficient from 2009 to 2011.

From Upper Secondary Social Studies (4 & 5), 2nd Edition.

To an uncritical student, a Gini coefficient of 0.448 might seem pretty good – after all, the textbook says that “A country with a Gini coefficient value of 0 has perfect income equality …  A value of 1 indicates perfect income equality.” Without any useful yardsticks or comparison points, it would appear that Singapore has above-average income equality. But when one considers that the United States and Switzerland had (rough) Gini coefficients of 0.411 and 0.316 respectively in 2011, Singapore’s figure looks far less rosy. In fact, World Bank estimates indicate that we are on par with countries like Mexico and Peru with regard to income inequality! While I concede that other economic indicators such as median household income must be taken into account, students still deserve to know where Singapore lies on the broader global spectrum of inequality.

But my biggest worry is that thousands of Secondary Three and Four students are being taught to regurgitate government mantras, without necessarily understanding why these principles are important, or how these principles can be achieved. In a chapter titled “What are the guiding principles of governance?” PM Lee Hsien Loong’s 2004 National Day Speech forms the basis for the content. The chapter outlines four key precepts of good governance:

  1. Leadership is key
  2. Anticipate Change and Stay Relevant
  3. A Stake for Everyone, Opportunities for All
  4. Reward for Work and Work for Reward
From Upper Secondary Social Studies (3), 2nd Edition.

All these principles are excellent goals for a government to strive for, but one wonders if the chapter is being slightly imbalanced when analysing some of these points. Under each principle, the textbook outlines one or two examples which demonstrate how the Singapore government lives up to these ideals. For “Anticipate Change and Stay Relevant”, for instance, the textbook brings up NEWater and the construction of our integrated resorts to illustrate how our government responds well to changing global conditions.

It would be nice to see some counter-examples, to demonstrate how our government is doing well, but still has some way to go. I would suggest a short section on the recent MRT breakdowns, discussing how the government could have done more maintenance and load-testing on the rail system when the infrastructure was still in its infancy. This could have mitigated many of the hardware problems that have suddenly emerged. Students would then understand that our government does occasionally fall short of its goals, even if it broadly excels at meeting these crucial indicators of good governance.

It is dangerous to solely feature the successes and policy proposals of the government because it creates the perception of infallibility and guaranteed competence. Beyond the confines of the textbook, however, we all know that even a government as competent as the PAP does not hold all the answers. On issues such as public transport, social welfare, and democratic representation, the voices of the average citizen matters as much as the statistical models and focus group meetings employed by the civil service. If one were to read the entire chapter without engaging in further debate or research, it would instead seem that the average citizen should vest his or her trust entirely in the PAP government, since they exemplify the four key precepts of governance all the time.

Upon reflection, I feel that the Social Studies curriculum is hamstrung not by what material is covered, but rather by what material is left out. All too often, I found myself nodding in agreement with the textbook’s authors initially had to say, but later becoming frustrated because points were not challenged or explored intellectually. Yes, I recognise that this syllabus is designed for all Express and Normal (Academic) students, and hence is pitched at the appropriate level.

But surely it isn’t too much to ask fifteen and sixteen year-olds to explore various models of democracy within Social Studies lessons, and at least obtain a basic understanding of how political freedoms help engender responsive and transparent governance. Or for these textbooks to look into the topic of inequality and poverty in greater depth, rather than the cursory treatment it is currently given. Or for students to understand that in exchange for economic progress and prosperity, the PAP government deliberately sought to limit opposition influence and curtail the political space available to opponents. These are all important facets to our advancement and development as a city-state which deserve to be thoroughly appreciated.

Perhaps it is then up to Social Studies teachers in secondary schools throughout the island to make SS lessons engaging and meaningful for their students. Explore concepts outside the syllabus, challenge classes which are more academically advanced, and encourage open debate and disagreement within the walls of the classroom. Social Studies should help students learn about the world, allowing them to reach their own conclusions. It should not make students memorize the right conclusions, and then make them reach a corresponding understanding about the world.


One Reply to “Thoughts on Social Studies”

  1. While I fully agree with you on how the social studies textbooks are indeed coloured…it would be useful to consider how the delivery of the subject is taught as a whole. From my understanding, there are two main components of assessment: Essay writing and Source-based questions.

    From my experience, the essay section was largely a regurgitation of textbook content but there was some level of evaluation which I suppose is heartening as it prompts students to present alternative viewpoints (assuming a student was good enough to reach that level of analysis). Source based questions however are very useful in teaching students to read critically, oftentimes bringing in sources featuring both sides of the arguments regarding relevant events not necessarily centered on Singapore (e.g. multiculturalism issues in China, international conflicts etc.). Students are taught to assess the provenance, motives and context of a source to assess and critique various arguments. So while the textbooks may admittedly not be entirely unbiased (but then again, what is?) the curricula is more than just an indoctrination program 🙂



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