The “New” Multiculturalism: National and Educational Perspectives

[i]As a self-ascribed “multiracial nation” Singapore has risen to the challenge of managing diversity through its official “Multicultural, Multiracial, Multireligious and Multilingual” (4Ms) components of nation building. The mantra of “unity within diversity,” prompted by economic and political pragmatism rather than a more nuanced understanding of diversity itself, co-opted the education system as a part of societal governance and management. “Comfortable,” yet at times questionable, notions of how diversity was understood, presented and executed in schools dominated the institutionalised narratives prior to more recent seismic changes and challenges which are now compelling the nation to consider the fuller complexity of what diversity or multiracialism/multiculturalism actually entails. 

This paper contends that the multidimensional and interconnected impact of economic, political, social and cultural agents has now surpassed hitherto single-minded government attempts to promote “settled rules of political life” and has instigated a new “politics of cultural difference” (Kymlicka, 1996, p. 193). In response to these shifting global and national discourses, officialdom is tactically (re)creating “new” national myths and narratives and carefully calibrating such adaptations. On fuller investigation, the revelation of uncomfortable narratives of latent (or not so latent) racism, the apparent superficialities of tolerance, acceptance and inclusiveness and the entire relational power paradigm of Singaporeans has been exposed. While Singapore’s concept of mainstream multiracialism and diversity has necessarily widened to contain other communities and their corresponding social, cultural norms, this is being done on the government’s own terms in order to control differences and to sustain national narratives of cohesion and unification. As part of this effort the education system has been recruited to play a major partnership role.

This paper concludes that the preparation of tomorrow’s adults for a hyper-globalised world cannot be framed within a national context of “diversity-lite,” but demands a full deconstruction of the full complexities of diversity that includes not just mutual respect and dignity but also the pursuit of social justice through global citizenship.

Diversity in Education

The concept of diversity in education is intriguing in its positive connotations for such ideas as inclusion, understanding and even that awkward word “tolerance” for difference that we might encounter daily. Within the educational context, the meaning has a more empowering potential in the suggestion of institutional and official transmission of values and norms that diversity in education could achieve. Indubitably, the legion of myriad scholarly work on multicultural education - the meaning, potential, challenges, benefits and (un)intended consequences - included necessary forays into social, political, economic and historical contexts of the discussion (Banks & McGee, 2005; Bennett, 2011; Guinier, 2006; Spencer, 1998). A highly politicised issue that underlines the notion of power within structured or unstructured socialisation processes also means it is a highly contestable and contentious subject of analysis and debate. In the much-overused phrase of an increasingly “globalised world,” the importance of deconstructing diversity in education and with that multicultural education has assumed heightened imperatives in any discussion on diversity in education.

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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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