By Seah Chiang Nee
In the face of rapid social and political changes, the government plans to shift its education system more towards building character and values and understanding local politics.
It comes at a time when Singaporeans are clamouring for a greater degree of personal liberties and liberal democracy in a city where bonds are being diluted by mass foreign arrivals.
In the eyes of the government, they require a new effort to reinforce national and individual values, particularly in politics, which had guided the city for the past 46 years.
On Wednesday last week, the government announced a record-high population of 5.18 million, of which 37 per cent came from abroad. This was another growth of 2.1 per cent in the past six months.
The continuing influx has raised resentment among Singaporeans and the government has organised community programmes to integrate the different communities.
Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat's concern is not only in dealing with larger numbers of students or improving academic quality, but also ensuring that youths respond rationally.
From official comments so far, the concept seems to be two-pronged — one being to mould student behaviour towards others, particularly foreigners living in their midst.
The 50-year-old minister defined moral values and responsible behaviour as "respect, responsibility, care and appreciation towards others".
Potentially controversial part
The second part — likely to be more controversial — is to get students to understand politics a la Singapore.
He told a recent seminar that political values would be included such as responsibilities of citizenship.
"As a young nation with a short history of independence, we must have informed, rugged and resilient citizens."
When the students graduate, he said "they would stay united to overcome crises and adversities which we must expect to happen from time to time".
Heng, one-time principal private secretary to former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, became Education Minister after his election in May and is believed to be earmarked for a higher leadership role.
His plan is not entirely new. Last year, the Education Ministry had set up a Citizenship Education Unit with a view to crafting "active citizens".
"We may live on a small island but, unlike Robinson Crusoe, we do not live alone," he told the gathering.
The new focus would get youths to be less self-centred, "to look beyond themselves and start to appreciate people whom they come into contact with regularly but seldom notice".
His "citizenship" policy appears to differ with the stand of Law Minister K. Shanmugam, who described Singapore in a speech as "not a country, but a city".
Heng not only thinks otherwise, but wants to implant the idea of citizenship deeply in the student mind.
The new objective is not only to develop the student academically, but also to get him to think of his own responsibilities in the wider society.
The public reaction to the plan is likely to be mixed, with many parents supporting moral and character training.
By nature, Singaporeans are generally conservative and stick to tradition — particularly the older folk.
"The teaching of social behaviour and values is a long time coming," said a retired civil servant.
"The youths here are generally quick-learning and hard working but a bit too self-centred to live in a global city," he added. "A 'values-based' education should balance things."
However, the idea of political teaching may not go down too well with many people in the wake of the May election in which 40 per cent of people voted against the ruling party.
To some, it stirs suspicions of "political brainwashing" of young minds.
When the idea was first mooted last year, leaders of the People's Action Party (PAP) had expressed concern that Singaporeans were becoming too influenced by "Western-type democracy".
Ever since the election, Lee Kuan Yew has condemned the principle of a two-party political system as detrimental for Singapore.
His son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is a few shades less hard-hitting than him and has pledged to implement reforms gradually.
'No western democracy'
In a talk to foreign correspondents in 2005, PM Lee said, "I think in 20 years our society will change. I think the politics of it will change. But I do not see a Western model... as the target we want to aim for."
Critics fear that the political programme would be used "to clean youthful minds" so that the ruling party can remain in power.
"The classroom can easily be turned into an arena for political campaigning on behalf of the ruling party behind the veneer of providing an all-rounded curriculum," said Ng E-jay in his online feedback.
"This is crossing the line. Politics should stay out of the classroom," commented surfer gil.
Will it work?
Some teachers believe it is a lot easier to teach social values and individual behaviour than it is implanting political values in an individual.
It will even be tougher to make the learning stick as he grows into an adult.
"Students are not stupid these days. Unlike us 30 years ago, these kids are well informed, having access to the Internet," said acacia. He said he would be surprised if they took such lessons seriously.
The average student today generally pays little interest to politics, and such a programme might completely turn him off the lectures, said a polytechnic student.
Or, he added, it could be a disaster for the PAP. "Instead of supporting the ruling party, they could well rotate to the opposition parties," he said.
Besides, such value teaching can badly backfire if the political leaders and teachers do not follow the "right values" that they want students to learn.
A former Reuters correspondent and newspaper editor, the writer is now a freelance columnist writing on general trends in Singapore. This post first appeared on his blog www.littlespeck.com on 10 September 2011.