COMMENT: Lessons in Social Studies: Question everything

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Officials stand around a bus with a smashed windshield following a riot in Singapore’s Little India district, December 9, 2013. (REUTERS/Rob Dawson)

I still have some vague memories of taking Social Studies classes in high school. We studied Venice and its rise and fall as a city-state (thus learning of the vulnerability of our own Singapore), the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka and The Troubles in Northern Ireland (thus learning of racial and religious harmony and equality in uniting a nation), and the Swiss model of democracy (thus weighing the pros and cons of direct democracy). Every issue, every event in geopolitics, could be seen as a teaching – nay, a nation-building – moment for Singapore.

Other memories of Social Studies also include the skills that our teachers so valiantly tried to teach us through exercises like the much-dreaded Source Based Questions (or SBQ). With a worksheet presenting three to four different sources, we were taught to corroborate information and compare perspectives. I saw it as a chore then, trying to replicate the model answers to reach the stipulated level of analysis that would in turn get me that higher grade. Today it is one of the most important skills I have studying and working in journalism.

It also took me many years after leaving high school to realise that for all the SBQs we did in feverish preparation for the O Levels, we never did the biggest and most obvious SBQ exercise of all: scrutinising the Social Studies textbook itself.

Years after leaving school I would realise how ignorant I sounded understanding conflict in Northern Ireland in terms of religion, rather than factoring in issues of politics, power, representation and nationalism. The same followed with other issues; although the syllabus never lied, it was based on premises that we never thought to question.

I was encouraged to hear that the Social Studies syllabus was being revamped, and that it would make use of contemporary, local issues that would get students to reflect on current affairs in Singapore. I hoped that references to recent or ongoing events in Singapore would get students to see the relevance and importance of reflecting on and discussing current affairs, in ways that I never understood as an insulated teenager.

Then I saw the excerpt about the Little India Riot.

The page described the Little India Riot as an “example of the government maintaining the internal order of Singapore”, explaining that this episode “as well as the swift actions taken show the importance the government places in maintaining internal order in Singapore”. Prompt questions ask students to think about the importance of internal security and how efforts to maintain internal security can be improved.

Framing matters. The description of the Troubles in Northern Ireland as being Protestants versus Catholics – rather than Unionists versus Republicans – led me to understand the issue as being based on religious discrimination and ill-feeling between religious groups, rather than understanding the context of politics and power. Similarly, the framing of the riot in Little India as a matter of “internal security” already requires students to uncritically swallow certain premises: that the riot was a threat to Singapore as a whole, that it was violent and unjustified, that all involved were a danger to the nation.

This does not encourage discussion of what was a shocking yet important event in recent years, bringing in multiple issues and questions that still remain unanswered today. When viewed as a matter of “internal security”, there is only one direction discussion can go in the classroom: condemnation of the event and its participants, and a brainstorming session to come up with ways to better police society and prevent any such occurrence from ever happening again.

If Social Studies was really about getting young Singaporeans to critically engage with society and the major issues of the day, the Little India Riot could trigger so many deeper and more crucial discussions. What, for instance, were the day-to-day experiences of migrant workers in Singapore that could have led to such anger and mistrust in the authorities? How has the competition for urban space in Singapore, coupled with other policies, led to the de facto segregation of low-wage migrant workers from the rest of the resident population, and what is the social impact? What are the ways in which migrant workers can express their grievances and frustrations, if not through civil disobedience in the streets? What is the role of civil disobedience in raising awareness of an issue and pushing for a cause? Is it always unjustified? Why was this short episode so quickly labelled a “riot”, when we see news reports of more violent protests all around the world in which the word “riot” is not used?

These questions would have allowed for a much wider range of opinions, and stimulate actual debate that would get students thinking (which would probably also make it a lot more interesting than just following a textbook).

Being able to analyse and engage with what’s going on around us is an important skill to have. If Social Studies aims to equip young Singaporeans with this skill, then we need to stop framing issues for students, but let them question everything and come to their own conclusions.

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean blogger and journalist. She is also involved in the We Believe in Second Chances campaign for the abolishment of the death penalty. A social media junkie, she tweets at @kixes. The views expressed are her own.

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