The Beacon of Civic Conduct? Teaching Character and Citizenship Education in Singapore

“Our education system must…nurture Singapore citizens of good character, so that everyone has the moral resolve to withstand an uncertain future, and a strong sense of responsibility to contribute to the success of Singapore and the well-being of fellow Singaporeans” – Mr. Heng Swee Keat

The purpose of this short opinion piece is to impress upon readers that while the teaching and learning of good character and citizenry is noble (with clear desired outcomes) as highlighted by Mr. Heng[i], the instruction of intrinsic “good-ness” in the classroom ignites an age old question in academic discourse – who or what should be the “beacon” of civic conduct? Given the width and breadth of a topic that has failed to reach a common consensus amongst educators and policy makers on the teaching and learning of Character and Citizenship Education (CCE), this article will limit its discussion to the following issues: 1.) the role of educators in CCE; 2.) stakeholders and their relationship with CCE; 3.) challenges educators might face when tasked to conduct CCE lessons.

In a socio-cultural milieu with character contours carved by conservative Asian decorum, the Singaporean educator leads the way on how CCE should be interpreted and taught in the classroom. I argue that the “follow the teacher” mentality inadvertently pens down the teacher’s role on the character and citizenship blueprint, albeit with the responsibility to adhere to a code of conduct accredited by “character pundits” of our society. After all, one only needs to survey e-forums to understand why the teacher is seen as a moral compass to the young[ii]. Yet, the key question has to be answered: why teachers? In Singapore, the answer is embedded in the beliefs and practices of an Asian culture that prides or at times, struggles in being placed at the cross-roads of the metaphorical Occident and the Orient. The honorifics given to teachers in the Chinese, Indian and Malay communities for instance (Guru, Lao Tzi, Ustad, and etcetera) are verbal testaments of educators being seen as preceptors of laudable conduct. Identified as the key and sole repository of knowledge in the ancient and classical eras, the walk and talk of these individuals have always been acknowledged by Asian communities as principles of decorum that need to be emulated if not enforced upon the young. Confucius’ Analects and Thiruvalluvar’s Kural are examples of Asian works that reflect on and debate this issue. It has to be said that I have no intention of surveying the teacher’s role in the development of character from a historical or philosophical perspective. Yet, the reason for reaching out to tradition is to stress that the respect that Asian Singaporeans give to their teachers, as showcased in tradition and behaviour, is born out of a palpable link with the educator’s revered status in the annals of history. This thereby stresses the conviction that tradition is responsible in seeing the teacher as shouldering the duty of setting the stage in the discourse of behaviour. In the process, it helps us to comprehend what the Singaporean teacher’s role in CCE entails.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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