NMPs voice concern over S'poreans saying liberal education exposes students to 'political dissidents'

'If as a result of education the student discovers some social injustice and develops a conviction that they have a responsibility to set it right, then that is a consequence, but not the aim, of a liberal education.'

Matthias Ang | October 09, 2019, 04:58 PM

Making a liberal education available to more students in Singapore will help them become better citizens, Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Walter Edgar Theseira argued in Parliament on Monday (Oct. 7).

Rather than corrupting the youth of Singapore, a liberal education aims to cultivate a good human being and citizen, said the associate professor in economics at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

He made his case in an adjournment motion titled "A Liberal Education and Corruption of the Youth of Singapore".

Concerned about conclusions drawn over cancelled Yale-NUS module

Theseira said he was concerned about conclusions that had been drawn over the recent episode of the cancelled module at Yale-NUS College titled "Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore".

He noted that a forum letter written to The Straits Times by a former MP, Goh Choon Kang, was representative of a concern shared by many Singaporeans — that the programme would expose Singaporeans to political dissidents who are potentially subversive influences.

Theseira put forth what he saw as the crux of the issue — whether Singapore's students are being enlightened by their education, or corrupted by it.

"What is profoundly uncomfortable to many of us is the possibility that students will be taught something that is untrue; and if not untrue, then, even worse, something that is an inconvenient truth; and, that once equipped with these ideas they will be incited to put their ideals in action."

A liberal education "does nothing of the kind"

Theseira questioned this, arguing that that a liberal education "simply aims to cultivate a good human being and citizen", by allowing students to develop their critical reading, writing and speaking skills in a safe space.

"A good liberal education teaches the student that truth is something to be discovered rather than something imparted by a wise sage; that no writing, statement or deed should pass without critical questioning; that, as Socrates said, 'the unexamined life is not worth living'.

If as a result of education the student discovers some social injustice and develops a conviction that they have a responsibility to set it right, then that is a consequence, but not the aim, of a liberal education."

He cited examples of student movements like NMP Mohamed Irshad's Roses of Peace and Yale-NUS student Lim Jingzhou's Cassia Resettlement Team as ones to hail for their efforts, inspired by their respective discoveries of social injustice in school.

He touched on the case of the Yale-NUS course slated to be run by playwright Alfian Sa'at being cancelled, too.

"What concerns me is that it will become difficult for Singaporean academics to examine and teach contentious topics because the standards must always be exacting, perfect, lest one is accused of subversion, flawed scholarship, or activist motivations.

If we ask for unrealistic perfection in our critical academics, we will encourage a bias towards the safe and the status quo. This is a hidden danger that threatens us all. It encourages a sloppiness of thinking, a belief that it is safer to regurgitate received wisdom than to seek new answers. This will be bad for our youth, and bad for Singapore.

Separately, Theseira noted that while nearly all autonomous universities have components in their curricula that expose students to critical reading, writing and thinking, the most comprehensive aspects of a liberal education were still reserved for the elite.

He suggested that the Ministry of Education could provide a space for staff from these universities to share their practices in liberal education.

This, he argues, will send the message that a liberal education is not a luxury, but a foundation for lifelong learning and citizenship for the masses.

"Our democracy is at risk if the electorate is unable to critically assess facts, policies, and ideas, leading to the politics of fear and misinformation."

Government should do more to support student activists: Anthea Ong

In her own speech, NMP Anthea Ong urged the government to review their method of engagement with youth activists.

She highlighted the Singapore Climate Rally as an example, and the 'Call to Action’ the organisers had put together for concrete policy follow-up.

She noted, however, that the only action the government had done in response was to commend them.

"Our young citizens are concerned about the asymmetry between youths who work tediously to engage the Government, and the Government’s perfunctory and lukewarm response.

To address this asymmetry, our youth must know they are genuinely heard."

This meant involving youth in policymaking, she added.

Activists should not be seen as troublemakers

Another point both made was regarding how society views activists and the work they do.

Theseira, for instance, said we should question a "false dichotomy" that separates the "activist" from the "volunteer".

"... we often treat the former with suspicion while showering the latter with praise. Both are the result of putting values into action".

This sentiment was shared by Ong:

"The narrative must move beyond 'activists as troublemakers' — one must not arbitrarily draw the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ activists based solely on the topics they speak up on."

She added that the government also needed to re-evaluate their attitude towards advocacy, activism and dissent and learn to embrace such actions, as long as it came from a place of "good faith".

Different ideas should be explored in a university

In response, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim said universities should be a place where different ideas "are objectively explored and rigorously debated".

He added, "Indeed, a key attribute of liberalism is a spirit of tolerance, openness and acceptance that different people may have different views."

Faishal agreed with Theseira, and said that educational institutions played a vital role in nurturing students into adults who are open-minded and can critically assess ideas put before them.

Additionally, critical thinking is an essential skill that the Ministry wants students to learn, as it is the foundation of any education programme "of high academic standards", and not just a liberal arts education.

He said the government will work with universities to see how their curriculum components can be further enhanced, although there were constraints such as limited curriculum time.

He also repeated a point from a speech by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung that universities must operate within Singapore's laws, and recognise the country's social and cultural context.

Government is committed to providing avenues for youths to help shape the future of Singapore

Meanwhile, Senior Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) Sim Ann said the government is committed to supporting avenues for youth participation.

Sim said MCCY has been actively talking to youths to better understand their views, aspirations and needs.

This included platforms such as Youth Conversations, which she said heard the views of over 8,000 youths on topics that matter most to them, such as social inequality, mental health, environmental sustainability and narratives of success.

The government also wants to help youths go beyond talking about topics and causes that matter to them, and translate good ideas into action, Sim added.

So the SG Youth Action Plan was started, to support youths to come up with robust policy ideas and projects.

The plan, she added, also intends to bring youth leaders into direct engagement with ministries on policy issues such as sustainability.

"In the next phase of nation-building, the government will shift from working for citizens, to working with all segments of citizens."

Top image screenshot from CNA