Singapore: Politics, Education & Historical Thinking

Levstik and Groth’s study in Ghana is geographically unique. The majority of sociocultural studies took place in English-dominant countries, namely the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and England. In two studies, Keith Barton tracks differences between national narratives in the United States and Northern Ireland while Stéphane Lévesque compares Francophone and Anglophone students’ development of historical thinking skills in Canada. Epstein and Levstik’s respective work in New Zealand explores the impact of the nation’s remote geographical location and struggle to include indigenous history as key factors in the national curriculums. Richard Harris and Rosemary Reynolds explore official curriculums and identity formation among white students and ethnic minority students in southern England.

Despite the prominence of studies from the U.S. and Europe, there is a vibrant body of research examining the influence of national narratives on Singaporean students’ historical perspectives. Singaporean researchers Goh and Gopinathan, Han, Hong and Huang, Afandi, Baildon, Ho, Foo, and Yeo analyze the impact of a highly centralized education system subject to political pressures on history education in Singapore. The authors generally agree that historical narratives are a powerful political tool in Singapore. Singapore’s single political party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), exerts immense influence over the Ministry of Education (MOE), the government branch responsible for creating and overseeing all primary, secondary, and pre-university curricula. Consequently, the MOE-produced history curriculums toggle with the government’s goals of promoting national pride, “Asian” values, and the core ideals of meritocracy and social harmony.

Skyline of Singapore's business district plus merlion fountain
Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

History Education in Singapore: 1965-1995

Goh and Gopinathan divide Singapore’s history into three phases: the survival-driven phase (1965-1978), the efficiency-driven phase (1978-1995), and the ability-driven phase (1996-present). In each phase of Singapore’s history, they argue, history education served the needs of the government. During the survival-driven phase immediately following Singapore’s independence in 1965, the newly elected PAP led by Lee Kuan Yew centralized education and focused on building skills in mathematics and literacy among school-age residents. History was included at the primary school level but did not address national history. Government leaders feared that studying migrations to Singapore or the recent occupation by the Japanese could trigger racial tensions.

The efficiency-driven stage took place in a more secure economic and political environment. History education more clearly became a vehicle for communicating nationalism and national values. The MOE concentrated curriculum development under their auspices and began writing and approving textbooks for use in schools. The history curriculum shifted from a global history course covering material from 500 BCE to a national history of Singapore.

Significantly, the first textbook on Singapore’s history, released in 1984, placed the origin of Singapore’s history in 1819 with the arrival of British naval officer Sir Stamford Raffles. The textbook could have placed Singapore’s origin in 1299, when the Srivijayan prince Sang Nila Utama renamed the city from Temasek to Singapura. The choice to locate Singapore’s origin in 1819 instead reflected Singapore’s desire to renew ties to Europe in order to strengthen the nation’s reputation as a global hub of trade.

Sepia photo of boats tied in Singapore's port, circa 1900 CE
Port in Singapore, ca. 1900 CE (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Singapore Story & National Education

By the 1990s, Singapore enjoyed full employment, a rapidly growing economy, and decades of relative peace. The new fear wasn’t an underprepared, unemployable workforce or the possibility of race riots. Instead, politicians worried the new generation was too comfortable. Young people did not experience the struggle of the early years and the older generation feared they were liable to forget the difficulties of Singapore’s early development.

In response, the government launched National Education in 1997. In his speech introducing National Education (NE), then Deputy Prime Minister (now Prime Minister) Lee Hsien Loong stated four goals for the curriculum:

  1. “First, we must foster in our young a sense of identity, pride and self-respect as Singaporeans.
  2. Second, our young must know the Singapore Story — how Singapore succeeded against the odds to become a nation.
  3. Thirdly, our young must understand Singapore’s unique challenges, constraints and vulnerabilities, which make us different from other countries.
  4. Finally, we must instill in our young the core values of our way of life, and the will to prevail, that ensure our continued success and well-being.”

The goal of National Education was to communicate a singular historical narrative (“the Singapore Story”) and, in doing so, promote values deemed essential to Singapore’s identity and progress. The Singapore Story is the quasi-official narrative of Singapore’s national history. It begins with the arrival of British officer Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, addresses the trauma of the Japanese occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945, and emphasizes the struggle and sacrifice of the nation’s founding generation from independence in 1965 to the present. The title, in fact, invokes the memory of Lee Kwan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore (and father of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong). Yet far from viewing the Singapore Story as a crafted and politically advantageous account, the narrative has long been held as pure fact. In his 1997 speech launching National Education, DPM Lee stated:

“The Singapore Story is based on historical facts. We are not talking about an idealised legendary account or a founding myth, but of an accurate understanding of what happened in the past and what this history means for us today. It is an objective history, seen from a Singaporean standpoint.”

DPM Lee Hsien Loong, “Speech by DPM Lee Hsien Loong at the Launch of National Education.”

Lee acknowledged the story might not be complete due to historians’ lack of access to archives during Singapore’s first decades. However, he did not exhibit any sense that the addition of new “facts” might change the meaning of the story. The core meaning of the Singapore Story — triumph after a period of struggle and survival — would remain unchanged.

Historical Thinking to Combat Complacency

Singapore's Super Trees, tall metal structures covered in green vines
Photo by Esaias Tan on Unsplash

While the Singapore Story endures as a powerful national narrative, the MOE has increasingly moved history education away from simply communicating national values. The fear that new generations of Singaporeans will forget the struggles of the founding generation has receded. If anything, educators now worry that students know the Singapore Story too well and have come to see the narrative as mere propaganda.

The MOE has slowly introduced history curriculums at the primary and secondary levels that weave together disciplinary concepts (“second-order concepts”) and global content. Students regularly read and answer questions about primary sources, engage in exercises aimed at teaching them to weigh evidence, and are explicitly taught that historical narratives are selective, constructed accounts subject to the biases of authors. There is evidence that the “Singapore Story” is expanding and becoming more complex as well. In 2019, Singapore celebrates its national bicentennial. Although the timing of the event still centers on Raffles’s arrival as the origin of the country, the official bicentennial website suggests a longer history. The homepage of the site includes a timeline of important events in Singapore’s history, beginning with Sang Nila Utama’s annexing of the island in 1299 and continuing through the centuries before Raffles’s arrival in Singapore.

The bicentennial narrative, though, is still explicitly political and value-centered. The events on the timeline are tailored to express Singapore’s national values. All four Singaporean racial categories (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Other – including Eurasians) are represented in the events and many of the events portray Singapore as racially harmonious, militarily prepared, and economically prosperous. While it’s hard to say what impact this new Singapore story will have on Singaporean students and citizens more generally, history in Singapore likely will remain a product of government goals and idealized civic values.

Sang Nila Utama’s arrival in Singapore. Screenshot from Singapore’s Bicentennial website (Feb 2019).
Emphasis on the presence of a powerful warrior group, the Orang Laut. The inclusion of this event may be an effort to invoke Singaporean pride in a strong military. Screenshot from Singapore’s Bicentennial website (Feb 2019).
Singapore in the 1700s welcomed free trade and many cultures and races. This invokes Singapore’s economic values and ideal of racial harmony. Screenshot from Singapore’s Bicentennial website (Feb 2019).