Context, Interests, and Unintended Consequences: Lenses for Seeing, Comprehending and Engaging with the World, pp. 3 of 5

Context

This brings me to my second set of tools: context. Context is about showing students that all issues and debates are situated in specific times and places. It is also very much about showing students that Singapore is not exceptional or unique in the world.

This may sound very obvious, but I’ve found that one big barrier to students’ learning is this myth they carry in their heads that Singapore is so unique in the world that there is no reason to look outside it. This can take the form of a kind of ignorant pride, where the supposed uniqueness is a rationale for not paying close attention to comparative scholarship that sheds light on our case.

As I said earlier, the lens of interests has led them to ask: is population growth the only way to attain economic growth? And which groups would economic growth of this sort benefit, and which groups would it disadvantage?

The second lens, context – situating Singapore in a larger world – now leads them to ask what kinds of issues and problems we have that are not unique to Singapore. And as it turns out, none of our challenges are really all that unique.  Importantly, once they stop thinking of Singapore as exceptional, they are compelled to pose and frame problems differently from how they have been framed in the White Paper. Let me give two examples.

By reading about low fertility in different national contexts, students see that gender inequalities are a key factor explaining the difference between wealthy countries that have managed to reverse low fertility trends and those that have not. The comparative scholarship also demonstrates that public policy plays a major role in either reproducing or correcting gender imbalances. The issue of population, then, has to take into account what enables and does not enable women and men to want and have children; it has to critically examine what policies exist and how conditions in Singapore have been more similar to those countries where gender imbalances have persisted (then those where gender imbalances have been more effectively dealt with). From looking at comparative scholarship on fertility and public policy, then, students can ask whether adequate attention has been paid to the reproduction of gendered inequalities in our population policies.

Now, a second example of how context expands their view. I have students consider political economic development in different cases. Here, students can also see that economic growth through capitalist development has often been accompanied by costs to specific groups of people. Inequalities, loss of freedoms, difficulties in assessing public goods – these are problems faced by many other groups in many other places. They also see that different states have tried to resolve these problems in different ways and that the Singapore case lies on the side of the spectrum where not a lot has been done in terms of direct spending and redistribution (to ameliorate some of the problems endemic to neoliberal capitalism). Hence, from looking at comparative scholarship, students can see that welfare, inequalities and redistribution are central rather than peripheral to any discussion of population and economic growth.

Armed with context, then, students can expand their perspectives. They can look at policies, social issues, as part of bigger pictures and patterns. In this way, and particularly when they look outside Singapore, their imaginations for alternatives are also broadened.

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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