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EDUCATION IN A MULTICULTURAL SETTING - THE SINGAPORE EXPERIENCE ____________________________________________________________

Distinguished guests,
IB Educators,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am very honoured to be invited to deliver this keynote address at the International Baccalaureate (IB) Asia-Pacific 16th Annual Regional Conference. This conference provides an excellent opportunity for IB educators from 135 IB international and national schools from over twenty countries in the Asia Pacific region to meet and share the best practices relating to the IB programme and curriculum.

2.      This year's conference with the theme of 'Curriculum, Assessment and Cultural Equity' focuses on issues that are highly relevant to the founding philosophy of the IB programme itself. Aimed at providing students with a balanced education, facilitating geographic and cultural mobility, and promoting international understanding, the IB encourages students to study the languages and histories of other cultures and people, thereby developing multi-cultural and intercultural understanding.

3.      I have been informed that the IB educators present here are interested in the Singapore experience of education in a multicultural setting. In my address, I shall provide a brief background of Singapore's multiracial and multicultural society and the challenges posed; outline the emphasis on multiracialism and meritocracy as two fundamental principles for government policies; and show how education has an important purpose and role in upholding these principles and promoting national cohesion.

4.     Singapore is a densely populated nation state, about 647 square kilometres in size. Our forefathers came as early immigrants in search of a better life. They came from a great diversity of racial and cultural backgrounds from various parts of Asia, southeast Asia and beyond. Our population is broadly grouped into four major ethnic communities: Chinese, Malay, Indian and the Eurasians and others, roughly in the proportions of 75:15:7:3. There are four official languages: English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. English is the language for government and business transactions, as well as being commonly used as the language of inter-racial communication. In everyday life, people interact with fellow citizens of different racial backgrounds at work and at play; we live in ethnically mixed housing estates and neighbourhoods, and our children attend racially integrated schools. Within a system of meritocracy, people have equal opportunities to learn, achieve and excel. While there is considerable mixing of the races in the public domain, the different communities maintain their own language, culture and customs. We like to use the analogy of four overlapping circles in describing inter-racial relations in Singapore. In the overlapping area, Singaporeans share common experiences, a common language, that is, English, and have equal access to opportunities. Where the circles do not overlap, each community maintains its own language, culture, and customs. This emphasis on multiracialism and meritocracy has helped to build multiracial harmony out of diversity in Singapore, and fuelled our economic development over the past three decades.

5.      Under British colonial rule, Singapore's education system was highly fragmented, with schools using different languages as their medium of instruction to teach vastly different curricula. There were some English language schools, but many among the Chinese, Malay and Indian communities, sent their children to vernacular schools, that is schools using the mother tongue as the medium of instruction, set up by their own communities. The school systems were divided and politicised. From the start, the independent government recognized that education is not just a means to train a workforce, it is also a most effective means to build social stability and a sense of national identity among the diverse population. In the 1960s and 70s, a series of educational reforms was undertaken to unify the standards, and set up a common education system with six years of primary education, four years of secondary, and two years of pre-university education. Over the years, because of the increased popularity of English-medium schools, Malay, Tamil and most Chinese vernacular schools had to close because of falling enrolment. By the mid-80's, all government and government-aided schools offered the same curriculum, and used English as the medium of instruction. It was a long and difficult process to unify the education system in an ethnically plural society. Language and culture are highly emotional issues. It was particularly difficult for the majority community to embrace a policy which put a common language above the language of the majority.

6.      A unified national education system provides equal opportunities for each student to learn and to achieve his or her potential. Meritocracy recognises and rewards everyone who works hard and excels. Meritocracy is highly compatible with the multiracial model of society, as its very essence lies in allowing all races to advance in whatever field, solely on the basis of achievement, merit and hard work. On a more practical level, meritocracy is also the best means to maximize the different capacities of a population. This really suits Singapore's needs best, given its small population size and the lack of natural resources.

7.      Multiracialism, however, is also about being a model of intercultural relationships. In such a model, the different ethnic groups interact with each other with a sense of self-assuredness that comes from knowing their own cultural roots. This provides the template for social connectedness with members of one's own community, as well as with members of other communities. On the individual level, cultural self-awareness is a source of knowing and perceiving the world (a theme, which I am sure, is familiar to IB's celebrated TOK programme.) Finally, culture and religion are the basis for deeply held values and beliefs; they represent the collective conscience of the community.

8.       Based on the above view, you can see that the Singapore government's constant reminder to its citizens not to lose their cultural heritage or traditional values is not just a reaction to the perceived encroachment of western values and lifestyles, but also a reminder that, given our multicultural makeup, there is no single set of Asian values for adoption. Rather, each community must find its own anchorage in its own culture and traditions. The fact is, preservation of cultural values and traditions is very much in accordance with the model of a multiracial society. Here I would not want to veer off into a debate with advocates of a "unitary" or "unifying" Singapore culture, or what form this should take. This will grow, just as the common area among the circles will increase as Singaporeans' shared experiences grow. The question is how this would compete, on the one hand, with the primordial sentiments towards one's ethnicity, culture and religion, and with the spread of a world culture through the media, ICT and the global economy, on the other.

9.      Suffice it to say that, just as meritocracy and multiracialism are two basic principles underlying Singapore society and its governance, meritocracy and bilingualism are two cornerstones of Singapore's education system. While English is the medium of instruction (or lst language) in schools, the mother-tongue (or 2nd language) is taught for the purpose of transmitting moral values and cultural traditions. As a common working language within Singapore, English enables inter-racial communication and facilitates the emergence of a common or even universal work and organisation culture. In addition, English provides access to knowledge and technology, and enables Singaporeans to plug into the world economy as well as interact with peoples outside Singapore.

10.      The mother tongue (be it Chinese, Malay, Tamil) is a compulsory, examinable subject at every milestone examination. It is also a pre-requisite for admission to university. The learning of moral and cultural values is infused into the teaching of the mother tongue, as well as strengthened in civic and moral education which is a compulsory, though non-examinable, subject from primary to secondary schools. This is rounded off by co-curricular activities which help students to appreciate their own culture, as well as encourage intercultural understanding.

11.      Let me describe to you very briefly the evolution of our education system. In the 60's and 70's, the government had to concentrate on providing mass education in order to equip our young with employable skills that suited our earlier phase of industrialisation. While this efficiency-driven model of education provided a single curriculum and common examinations for all students, it was not possible for us to cater to their different abilities and maximise their potential. Thus, beginning in the 80's, we introduced a system of streaming. For the very able, there are programmes to stretch them to the maximum. For those who are not academically inclined, streaming helps ensure that they acquire the basic literacy and numeracy skills, as well as prepare them for technical and vocational training.

12.     At the primary level, students are streamed into three different courses at the end of Primary Four when they are about 10 years old. We call them EM1, EM2 and EM3 courses. 'E' refers to English; 'M' to Mother Tongue which could be Mandarin, Malay or Tamil; and the number refers to the level the language is taught at. The system of streaming is flexible as it allows students to move from one stream to another at Primary 5, depending on their performance.

13.     At the secondary level, students are streamed into different courses according to their general ability and language proficiency. The courses are: Special and Express which take four years and they lead on to the GCE 'O' level examination, or the four-year Normal course that leads to the GCE 'N' level examination. There is provision for the better candidates in the GCE 'N' level exams to continue for a fifth year to do their 'O' levels.

14.     While the bilingual policy is important, language ability is not the main criterion for placement of our students in the different educational tracks. The teaching of the mother tongue is primarily for the purpose of cultural transmission and preservation of the languages of the different communities that make up Singapore. English, Mathematics and Science are given great emphasis in all the streams. For those who are gifted in languages or are particularly interested in studying languages, they can enrol in a Language Elective Programme or study a third language at the "O' or "A" levels. Let me add that, in Singapore, over 95% of each P1 cohort finish 10 years of general education. About 85% receive post-secondary education, with 60% studying in institutions of higher learning, i.e. at the polytechnics or the universities. Streaming has succeeded in greatly reducing the attrition rates of schooling, as well as providing opportunities for students of different abilities to study up to their potential.

15.      Apart from the main system of streaming, which has undergone a number of modifications since it was introduced in 1980, we have also programmes to provide for the gifted, the slow learners, under-achievers, and children with special education needs. We are now moving from an efficiency-driven approach to education to one that is ability-driven where we aim to provide for the specific needs of our students. In the last few years, we have also introduced greater flexibility into the system, and given schools more autonomy to nurture the different abilities of our students. We have also revised our curriculum and assessment methods, to give greater emphasis to thinking skills, process skills, creativity, and the use of information technology.

16.      What has all that got to do with our multiracial society? As in all ethnically mixed societies, some groups would have a later start in social mobility, as compared to others. Our education system upholds the principle of meritocracy, and gives equal opportunities for everyone, regardless of race, class or gender. Indeed, under this system, the minority groups have made big strides in social mobility through their own efforts. Singapore is always conscious that the divide between the different communities can never be ignored, and we strive continuously to close the gaps. Education is a major instrument for closing the gaps, not only because it provides the means for upward social mobility, but also because it promotes the values of racial harmony and national cohesion.

17.      The introduction of National Education in our schools and post-secondary institutions is the latest in our efforts to nurture national identity and a sense of belonging among our young. All countries consciously teach national values to their young through subjects such as history, citizenship studies, social studies, general studies. From the very beginning of our nationhood, we have tried to build a sense of national identity and a sense of common purpose among our young. Several years back, from research studies, we discovered that our students now do not know much about Singapore's past or have the same sense of urgency about overcoming our constraints and challenges as a nation. Hence, a systematic National Education programme has been installed in our school curriculum and co-curricular activities, from primary school to post-secondary levels. The subjects that are involved in delivering the outcomes of the National Education programme are: Social Studies, and Civics and Moral Education at the primary level; History, Geography, and Civics and Moral Education at the secondary level; and the General Paper and Civics at the pre-university level. The programme is aimed at helping the young to understand Singapore's constraints and vulnerabilities and have the determination to overcome them. It aims to instil in them a sense of pride and belonging to Singapore, teach them to respect self and others, and underscore the importance of racial harmony and social integration in society.

18.       In the informal curriculum or co-curricular activities, multiracialism and intercultural understanding are promoted through team activities and school-wide events. Every year, schools commemorate a few key events that mark the defining moments of Singapore's history. They include Total Defence Day, Racial Harmony Day, International Friendship Day and National Day.

19.       In addition to the emphasis on National Education, a Community Involvement Programme (CIP) has been introduced in schools with the objective of strengthening social cohesion and civic responsibility in the young. As they interact with and render service to others, they acquire useful life skills, and come to understand the social needs and values of the communities around them. Other than local activities in Singapore, some students at the secondary and pre-university levels also participate in overseas community service projects. Examples include efforts at helping a remote village in Chiangmai repair its village school, helping to lay the foundation for a village building in Myanmar, and teaching English to Nepalese children. Students' awareness of other ways of life is also enhanced through cultural exchange programmes with their counterparts in many other countries.

20.       Nowadays, the Internet enables collaborative projects between our students and their counterparts overseas, even at the primary school level. Some primary schools, for example, have carried out a Multi-Nation Project Work, where their students worked with students from five different countries, namely the UK, the USA, Hong Kong, India and Japan, in a research project on the respective country. At the end of the project, students presented their findings on an interactive web page.

21.      I have dwelt on the role of education in Singapore's efforts to deal with issues of multiracialism, intercultural understanding and social integration at some length for you, because I understand that one of the strengths of the IB programme lies in its intercultural dimension. I believe it is also strong on the language programmes. The educators of the IB programme are in the enviable position of catering to a small, perhaps even privileged group of students who are self-selected in the sense that they come from internationally mobile family backgrounds. By choice and circumstance, they and their families are predisposed to internationalism. The IB founders also had an international outlook and idealism. Now we live in an age of globalisation and IT. The transformation of our work and lives is just beginning, but already producing a big impact on our people. More and more Singaporeans are working overseas or living abroad. More people from other countries are coming to Singapore to work and stay. In such a borderless world, our future as a country depends all the more on national cohesion and political stability.

22.      Singapore's transformation in the global era reflects the experience of many other societies which are multiracial and are part of the globalisation process too. What will 21st century human society, indeed, human civilization be like? No one knows for sure. But there will definitely be a greater need for interracial harmony and intercultural understanding. As racial conflicts keep flaring up in different parts of the world, we are reminded time and again that racial relations must be carefully managed for peace and stability.

23.      To conclude, as globalisation and technology transform the world and Singapore's place in it, education will continue to play a pivotal role in promoting our economic progress and preserving social cohesion. It will continue to provide all students with opportunities to be the best they can be. It will also continue to inculcate in them the core national values and social instincts so that they will remain committed to the country, while being members of the global community.