Evolution of the Primary School Social Studies Curriculum in Singapore: From ‘Moulding’ Citizens to Developing Critical Thinkers, pp. 4 of 13

Consequently, citizenship education between 1959 to 1972 focused on building a sense of belonging with emphasis on character and moral development. Good citizens were self-respecting individuals imbued with values of honesty, kindness, patriotism and loyalty to the country (Ong 1979).  A common curriculum for the different vernacular schools was designed and implemented by the Ministry of Education (MOE). Citizenship education in schools took the form of Ethics (1959-1966) and Civics (1967 – 1972). By 1973, Civics was replaced by Education for Living (EFL), an interdisciplinary program that integrated Civics, History and Geography. The purpose of EFL was twofold – for social and moral education. One main objective was to educate pupils about the importance of nation-building and enable them to understand “their duties as loyal, patriotic, responsible and law-abiding citizens” (Ong, 1979, p. 3). The purpose of citizenship education continued to be that of moulding the citizen into a national pattern as the stress was on socialising citizens to be loyal, patriotic and aware of their obligations and responsibilities. There was little emphasis on understanding democratic processes, the rights of a citizen as found in the constitution of Singapore or even the skills and competencies required of an effective citizen in democratic Singapore. Instead, character formation and inculcation of moral and social values were deemed essential.  As Sim (2005) pointed out, the goal of citizenship education then was to develop morally upright citizens and “learning about and understanding democratic principles and processes were all but ignored in favour of dutiful obedience to the state…” (Sim, 2005, p.62).

Evolution of Social Studies in the Primary School: 1980s - 1990s

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Singapore economy was taking off, as seen in the Gross Domestic Product per capita which had grown from S$2,798 in 1970 to S$10,394 in 1980 (Ministry of Trade and Industry, 1992). The economy grew by 10% a year from 1978 to 1982 and the overall economic growth was reflected in the rising standard of living. With increasing affluence, the PAP leaders in the late 1970s began to express concern over what they saw as the influence of the ‘decadent West’ resulting in excessive individualism and an erosion of moral values and cultural identity. Goh Keng Swee, the First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education, pointed out that “[t]here are very good reasons why just going along with the West will really get us into serious trouble… [and that] without morality and a sense of public duty that does not put self always first, Singapore could decline” (Lim, 1982). This view of Western and Eastern values as dichotomous and oppositional resulted in several changes and initiatives in education. There was an increased emphasis on bilingualism in the education system in which Eastern cultural values were to be introduced and inculcated in the students through the mother-tongue languages. Concomitantly, changes were made to citizenship education in the form of two new school subjects at primary level - Moral Education (taught in the mother-tongue) which replaced Civics, and Social Studies which replaced EFL. Another outcome was the introduction of Religious Knowledge subjects in 1984 to reinforce the teaching of moral values at the upper secondary level.[ii] This experiment in religious education was short-lived as criticisms about the appropriateness of religious education being taught in secular schools as well as the heightened religious fervor of the period led to the termination of these subjects by the end of the decade (Kho, Ooi and Chee, 2010; Tan, 2000).

A Social Studies syllabus was designed, published in 1981 and implemented in 1984 in the upper primary school curriculum. The goal of the subject was to “enable pupils to understand their social world and to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to participate effectively in the society and environment in which they live” (MOE, 1981). An examination of the syllabus reveals a strong emphasis on developing law-abiding, loyal and morally upright individuals by means of inculcating “certain values in the pupils through developing knowledge, skills and attitudes as they explore History and Geography” (MOE, 1981, p.3). The syllabus content comprised an integration of History and Geography with some basic Economics and Sociology. Topics included the history and geography of Singapore as well as issues related to Singapore’s lack of resources and the unique multicultural composition of its population (Fang, 2002). The organisation of the content was based on an expanding environment approach and themes of national vulnerability and threats to its survival featured strongly in the curriculum. The intent was to transmit a sense of shared crisis so as to develop that sense of common identity, draw its populace together to unite and work for the nation’s survival.

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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