Response to the Adjournment Motion by Associate Professor Walter Theseira: A Liberal Education and Corruption of the Youth of Singapore

Published Date: 07 October 2019 12:00 AM

News Parliamentary Replies

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Associate Professor Walter Theseira, Nominated Member of Parliament

Matter Proposed

A Liberal Education and Corruption of the Youth of Singapore


1. Thank you, Associate Professor Walter Theseira, for taking a balanced view on this matter. Minister Ong Ye Kung has addressed many of the points you have raised. I will respond further to two points – first, the importance of separating academia and activism in the classroom; and second, the value of liberal arts education and critical inquiry. I will also talk about the importance of academic freedom existing within the context of our social norms. SMS Sim Ann will subsequently respond to Ms Anthea Ong and also a few of the issues raised by Associate Professor Walter.

2. First, as an academic myself, I agree with the Member that in the classroom, activism is incompatible with the role of an academic, if one is to be able to critically assess issues from different perspectives.

3. This is not to say that academics should only be constrained to writing papers for publications. Academics are strongly encouraged to translate their work into real world impact, be it through technological innovations or public policy recommendations. This is also not to say that all classes need to be about open-ended inquiry. There is significant space for applied learning and teaching of practical skills.

4. But these should be guided by the objectives of education and learning, and the acquisition of competencies that prepare students for work. Academics can hold their own views on various issues, but they should not mobilise support for partisan causes in the course of teaching and mentoring students.

5. Second, our universities should provide a space where different ideas and perspectives are explored, and objectively and rigorously debated. Indeed, a key attribute of liberalism is a spirit of tolerance, openness and acceptance that different people may have different views. Our educational institutions play a vital role in nurturing students into adults who are open-minded and can critically assess ideas, beliefs and policies put before them. And likewise, be prepared for their own ideas and actions to be assessed, all in an objective and respectful manner. This is especially important in today’s age, where online falsehoods and manipulation can spread very quickly through social media information that they encounter.

6. The essential skill that we want our students to learn is critical thinking, which is the foundation of any education programme of high academic standards, and is not limited to a liberal arts education. All of our educational institutions nurture students to conduct critical thinking with maturity of thought and a sense of responsibility towards society - that is, to think critically, rather than, as Minister Ong put it, be unthinkingly critical.

7. As the Member acknowledged, our universities today probably have core curriculum components that develop critical thinking in students. We will work with the Autonomous Universities (AUs) to see how this can be further enhanced but the AUs have their constraints such as limited curriculum time too. At the secondary and pre-university levels, critical thinking skills are also taught in humanities subjects like Social Studies, which all students take. Students examine issues by considering multiple perspectives, and draw reasoned conclusions substantiated by evidence and sound values such as intellectual integrity, respect for a diversity of views, and appreciation of the implications of their conclusions on society.

8. Third, as Minister Ong said earlier, our universities, being based in Singapore, must operate within Singapore’s laws and recognise our particular social and cultural context, like everyone else.

9. Singapore is not alone in this view. Even in countries with a strong culture of freedom of expression, speakers have been uninvited, or pressured to withdraw, from speaking engagements at universities due to the need to cater to the views of the community. For instance, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then-Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, was disinvited to an economic forum hosted by an American university in 2013 because of an online protest against him; former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, was pressured to withdraw from speaking at an American college after students took issue with her alleged role in the failed developmental policies implemented in poorer countries.

10. I am not passing any judgement on whether these decisions were wrong or right. But they show that even in the most liberal societies, academic freedom needs to exist within the norms and culture of the community. It is therefore important that our educational institutions abide by the principles that Minister Ong laid out earlier in his speech. We will leave it to the universities on how they implement these principles. Sir, I thank Associate Professor Walter for highlighting the concerns of the academic community on this matter. As academics, we all want to contribute in nurturing our students into adults who are open-minded, and can critically assess ideas, beliefs, and policies put before them, in addition to being competent in the areas that they may specialise in. I would like to assure the academic community not to be overly concerned about the academic freedom arising from this matter. I urge them to understand the principles as shared by Minister Ong and exercise sensible judgement.

11. In conclusion, Sir, I would like to assure the House that MOE will continue to do our part with all of our education institutions, to nurture the next generation of Singaporeans into active, responsible, and open-minded citizens to take Singapore forward, while remaining respectful of each other and maintaining the unity of the larger community.

12. Thank you.

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