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Response by Minister for Education Mr Chan Chun Sing on MOE's Character and Citizenship Education Lesson on Israel-Hamas Conflict at MOE's Committee of Supply Debate on 4 March 2024

Published Date: 04 March 2024 12:30 PM

News Speeches

1. Chair, may I take this opportunity to say more about MOE's Character and Citizenship Education (or CCE) lesson on the Israel-Hamas conflict, building upon what I said in my interview with the media last week.

2. This issue has stirred strong emotions amongst many. It is also reflected in the range of PQs filed by Members for upcoming sittings. The key questions raised are: Why conduct such a lesson? Can MOE teach such a complex and emotive issue effectively? Could MOE have supported our teachers better? What are the learning points from this episode?

Intent of CCE

3. CCE is an established and integral part of the holistic education we provide to our students. We teach CCE in schools because we know how important, and yet how difficult it is to build our national identity, amidst the larger forces, including civilisational and religious forces, that our multi-racial, multi-religious society is subject to. We know how global and social media, news and fake news, compete every moment to pull our people in different directions, challenging our efforts to maintain national cohesion and harmony. We do not have the luxury of time or a geographical buffer to insulate our people, including and especially our young students. We need to equip our people, starting with our young, with the skills and values to navigate this fast-paced, often divisive, and confusing world.

4. The latest escalation of the Israel-Hamas conflict is a stark reminder that external events can affect our people in different ways, and even fracture our society if not well managed. Young and old can get into heated conversations. Insensitive and disrespectful remarks may be made. Misinformation abounds, especially online. Different parties appeal to our emotions to side with their cause. An information war is being fought all around us. We risk being drawn into other people's fights and conflicts.

5. That is why the CCE lessons on contemporary issues often draw from events happening around us, to help students better navigate the vagaries of the world. We can neither shelter our children from the world, nor keep the world from intruding into their lives.

6. In the case of the CCE lesson on the Israel-Hamas conflict, our aims are for students to help them understand what is going on, express their own views and manage their own emotions; appreciate diverse perspectives sensitively and respectfully; discern information from different sources, and play their part to support racial harmony and social cohesion.

7. Let me also emphasise what this CCE lesson is not about. It does not tell students that one party in this conflict is good, and the other evil. It does not impose any particular perspective, or interpretation of events. It most certainly does not create a wedge between our students' religious beliefs and their national identity. It is also not meant to bring other people's politics into our schools.

8. I hope all Singaporeans can agree with us on the intent and importance of Character and Citizenship Education. The question is what we do in schools to achieve these shared objectives, especially when dealing with sensitive issues, like the Israel-Hamas conflict.

What feedback have we received?

9. By now, our teachers have had a few weeks of experience preparing and teaching the package. We have also heard some of their reflections. Some were initially unsure whether they had sufficient content mastery to teach the lesson. Some needed more time to process their own views and feelings about the conflict. And for those who were still uncomfortable and asked to be excused from conducting the lesson, their school leaders supported their request. By and large, most took on the challenge and carried out their duty professionally, because they understood the importance of the task. And we are grateful to them for stepping up, despite any initial hesitations. To conduct CCE lessons well, our teachers will require facilitation skills, much more than just content mastery. This is not an easy task.

10. Some schools which have conducted the CCE lesson have also shared feedback from their students. A Primary 6 student said, "we should pray for all the innocent victims of the war and cherish the harmony and peace we have in Singapore". In one secondary school, some students asked their teacher for more information on why the war started in the first place, and why the leaders of both sides could not come to a resolution. Many of them expressed sadness about the tragic situation. A JC1 student said the CCE lesson was beneficial, as "the information presented did not force [him] to agree to a certain stand on the matter but gave [him] the space to have [his] own thoughts and considerations towards the issue". Some students also asked thoughtful questions like: Is there a way out of the circles of violence and hatred? What else can we do to help? These student voices reflect the intent and learning objectives of the CCE lesson, which I described earlier.

11. We have also received much feedback from parents and other stakeholders. Some thought the issue was too difficult for Primary 5 and 6 students to understand. Some questioned why some slides seemed to focus only on the more recent events in the long history of the conflict. Others wondered if the historical context of the conflict was properly emphasised in this CCE lesson. Yet others felt that we should give our students more information on Singapore's position on the Israel-Palestine issue.

12. We take these concerns and feedback seriously. Some suggested we drop the lesson altogether. But will this be better for our students and society in the long term? If we agree on the intent of CCE, then we must keep striving to improve our delivery. We are fully committed to equipping our teachers to help our children better navigate this complex world.

How we will do better

13. As I shared with the media last week, we will update our materials to address the feedback and ongoing developments. We will also improve our teaching methods based on this experience. Let me elaborate.

14. First, we will customise the lesson material further for students of different age-groups. At this point, let me emphasise that this CCE lesson was not meant to teach Israel-Palestine history or Middle East politics. It is impossible to do so in an hour-long lesson, and it was never our intention in the first place.

15. For younger students, we will simplify our material even more. Our focus will continue to be on sensitising our younger ones to the plight of the innocent victims, how they can express sympathy for and empathise with others, and how they can manage their emotions regarding the conflict. For the older students, we will also teach them to be more discerning of different sources of information.

16. For the most mature students, we will update the lesson material based on more recent events, and help them better understand Singapore's national interest. Minister Vivian had set out at MFA's COS last week some of these recent developments, and how Singapore is responding. To reiterate, after the 7 October attack, we said Singapore recognised Israel's right to self-defence. But Israel's military response has gone too far. The catastrophic situation in Gaza demands a humanitarian ceasefire to alleviate the suffering of the civilian victims, and to enable humanitarian assistance to reach them immediately. We will also explain to our students Singapore's principled position on the Israel-Palestine issue over the decades, such as how Singapore had voted in favour of resolutions calling for an immediate ceasefire at international platforms, how we have contributed to capacity building efforts to the Palestinian Authority, and how we will continue doing our part to advance international efforts towards reaching a two-state solution at the UN.

17. We will certainly continue to reflect the diversity of views from our community within our lesson material, as it is a key learning objective for our students to understand how to manage differences and diversity with respect and sensitivity. To the extent possible, we will also design the lesson material to avoid parts being taken out of context selectively.

18. Second, beyond updating the material, we will also better equip our teachers to engage their students in this CCE lesson. For teachers who would like the extra support, we will organise extra CCE workshops for them to go through the lesson plans with specialists and experienced teachers. Where appropriate, we will involve resource persons to assist with these workshops. This is in addition to the current suite of teachers' preparation within schools.

19. Given the diversity of backgrounds and experiences of our teachers, some schools have adopted useful approaches like organising their teachers in teams to conduct the CCE lesson, which enhances the quality of delivery. For example, Jurongville Secondary School carried out this lesson with a pair of teachers. One teacher focused on facilitating the discussion in class, while the other looked out for the emotional well-being of students. In Yishun Innova Junior College, the history teacher did a large group briefing on the historical context of the conflict, before students discussed the issue further in smaller groups, facilitated by their CCE teacher. For a sensitive topic like the Israel-Hamas conflict, having teachers from different backgrounds and faiths to conduct the lesson together is also a powerful example to our students – of how while we can have different beliefs, we can come together as Singaporeans to discuss complex topics sensitively and respectfully.

20. We are also making broader efforts to train teachers to teach CCE. Last May, we set up the Singapore Centre for CCE at the National Institute of Education to support professional development for educators in CCE. There is also a corps of specialised CCE teachers in the teaching fraternity who are available to mentor their colleagues.

21. Let me assure all teachers that MOE and your school leaders are aware of the challenges you may face in delivering CCE lessons, especially those that touch on sensitive issues. Speak with your school leaders. We will support you in carrying out your professional duties.

Other learning points

22. For us at MOE, there were other useful learning points from this episode.

23. First learning point: We cannot underestimate the damage that misrepresentation can cause. Let me cite an example. Some online commentators selectively picked out one slide out of many in an MOE lesson deck which was circulated last week, asserting that schools were telling students the situation in Israel and Gaza only started on 7 October 2023. This insinuated that MOE was pro-Israel, and that we characterised one side as aggressor and the other as victim. This riled up many. But actually, the words on that said slide were "events since 7 Oct" and it came after a slide that emphasised "the long, complex and often violent history of conflict in the region". In addition, MOE had provided background material on historical developments behind the conflict to help teachers better understand the context. This was meant to be shared with students who wished for more information on the history, rather than for the teacher to teach history to the whole class, which is not the learning objective of this CCE lesson.

24. This is a sobering reminder that in the online space, it is not always easy to separate those who question the material with well-meaning intentions, from those who join the fray with ulterior intent, to stir up negative emotions on this sensitive topic.

25. Second learning point: Managing differences respectfully is still work in progress. By and large, Singaporeans express our views in a civil and respectful way. Still, some of the online vitriol and anger towards MOE and our teachers from this episode reminds us that we cannot take this for granted. Some educators have received rude and abusive comments. We have come across one picture of an educator being circulated online. The caption contained a racial slur, insulting her as an uneducated person of her ethnicity, and encouraged others to make this educator's photo go "viral" online.

26. MOE takes this very seriously. While we may disagree on issues, personal attacks and racial slurs against fellow Singaporeans cannot be condoned. We have to be positive role models for our children. MOE will investigate all instances of abuse, harassment, or threats against our educators. They have MOE's full support and the full protection of the law.

27. Third learning point: We must be very watchful for potential external interference. Some external online parties have taken an active interest in our discussions. Some showed no hesitation to join in the discussions to add their comments to incite anger and unhappiness. Yet others try to play on Singaporeans' conscience to adopt their positions. It is not difficult to guess the agenda of these external parties. We have to be careful to not fall prey to their attempts to rile up our people and undermine our cohesion.

28. Fourth learning point: Our unity depends on sustained commitment and effort. Last week, Second Minister Maliki and I met more than 300 school principals again, to listen to their feedback since we last discussed this issue with them in January. Many of them shared the challenges they encountered and how they had overcome them. It has certainly not been easy on our teachers and principals.

29. In light of this episode and criticisms against our schools and teachers, we discussed frankly: Should we continue teaching this CCE lesson, given that some people have suggested that we should abandon it, since it is so difficult and sensitive? Is it still worth doing it?

30. In response, many of them shared: How can we allow the seeds of hatred and distrust to be planted in our next generation? How can we allow our society to be split by this and other similar issues? When we look back in years to come, would we have discharged our duty as educators if our people became more divided, unable to respond as one, viewed each other with suspicion, or become unable to manage differences and diversity respectfully and sensitively? What is our responsibility as educators? We asked ourselves the toughest two questions: If not us, who? If not now, when?

31. I draw comfort and confidence from their conviction. Indeed, it is our duty to guide the next generation well. Help them develop good character and values, and build a sound foundation for them to thrive in the future.

32. Education is a serious responsibility. My MOE colleagues and I feel the weight of our mission. We are determined to discharge our duty and do right by our students.

33. I thank all our principals and teachers for standing firm by their convictions, despite the challenges and the diversity of their beliefs. And I extend my deepest gratitude to all who have given us your feedback. We will continue to work with all of you as partners in education, so that we can plant the seeds of hope and harmony in the next generation. This remains a work-in-progress, and we are fully committed to keep on improving.

34. Our teachers and principals asked if they would have public support in this important yet challenging task. I gave them my full support. I hope Members of this House and the public will too. Let us stand united as Singaporeans to support this important yet challenging effort, for the sake of our children and the future of Singapore.


Clarifications on Minister Chan’s response on MOE’s CCE Lesson on Israel-Hamas Conflict

35. Mr Gerald Giam: First, I would like to state that I support the discussion of sensitive national and international issues in classrooms, and I would like to honour the teachers who took on the challenge to discuss this topic with their students. My question is, were there instances where the CCE lesson on the Israel-Hamas war was delivered in lecture style to several classes at the same time? If so, would MOE consider ensuring that CCE lessons on such sensitive and controversial subjects are conducted in small classes, so there is more opportunity for discussion and dialogue, not just between teachers and students, but also between students facilitated by the teacher. I appreciate the examples shared by Minister about the Junior Colleges, but can it be standardised across all the schools?

36. Minister: Indeed, that is what we are doing. Different schools have different capacities and needs, so they will organise their sessions accordingly. Some schools have adopted a two-tier approach whereby the teacher who is more knowledgeable of the context will set the context, and then they allow for discussion. We fully agree with you that for many of these, we need smaller group discussions because students are trying to grapple with their own emotions. In fact, we use a pedagogy called "Think, Pair and Share". Two persons will start sharing about their different perspectives and then come to recognise each other's differences and diversity of perspectives, learning to empathise with one another, before they go into a bigger group sharing.

37. Dr Wan Rizal: I appreciate Minister Chan's clarification and the way forward to improve our CCE curriculum. At the top of my head, I am always thinking about the teachers, and I do believe that they need to be protected, especially when certain things are happening online in terms of abuse and online harm. What are the plans for us to protect them? I remember we had the issue in MOH last year, and we did well to issue a POFMA to these false stories online.

38. Given the evolving nature of global events and the way in which unverified slides and materials purportedly from the CCE lesson are being circulated online, how does MOE incorporate feedback from various stakeholders, including parents, educators and students, in the development and review of the CCE curriculum? I wonder if the Parent Support Group can play a bigger role in trying to address these issues? In the interest of transparency, can MOE release the teaching materials or the right slides that is being used to the public, so we can make sure these false news are not being shared online further? I also wonder if we can issue POFMA to such platforms for circulating these slides?

39. Minister: Let me thank both sides of the House for your support for our educators in conducting this very challenging CCE lesson. I am truly thankful for your support. Indeed, teachers are our most precious resource. I have studied very closely the last few years why countries do well and don't do well for PISA and education outcomes, and even in the OECD report it comes out very clearly. There is only one reason and only one reason as to why an education system work or doesn't work. It is the quality of the teachers. I asked myself: What determines the quality of teachers? Is it teachers' pay, the infrastructure, lesson materials? All these are important, but just as the OECD report has highlighted, ultimately the most important support that we can give our teachers and attract the best and most committed people to join the teaching service, in service of our future generations, is the respect that we give to our teachers. When society loses respect for teachers, or when teachers don't feel respected, regardless of the policies, infrastructure and investments we put in, it will come to naught. So, I thank members for your support.

40. On Mr Wan Rizal's point, I also discussed this extensively with my colleagues in MOE on whether we should publish the MOE slides. We came to the conclusion that even the slides would not do justice to the teaching by the teachers because the slides do not speak. For parents or public who have concerns about this, we would rather meet them face to face and explain to them how the slides are used. Because we have tested this and no matter how we make the slides public or available, if it is done selectively with interpretation, we will still come back to the same issue. Every teacher must know their own students to customise their teaching accordingly. It is not a one size fits all.

41. At the same time, we must protect our teachers and not subject them to the pressures from all different sources to change the material according to their version of the events. So, we find a balance between these two. I encourage interested parties to contact us and let us go through with you how the lesson is conducted beyond just what is stated in the slides.

42. Mr Sharael Taha: Thank you Minister Chan for your reply and addressing our PQs as part of the COS. I think it is important that we provide an opportunity for our students to discuss current affairs in CCE, as they are presented with this information already. But one challenge of doing this is: emotions can be very raw, and it requires masterful facilitation in order to achieve the intended objective.

43. So a few SQs for our Minister; how do we check that our teachers are ready to facilitate such discussions without imposing their own opinions on the matter? I welcome the suggestion that we should do it in pairs, or at least provide some guidance to the teachers or some support for the teachers while they go through it for the first few trials. Second, I welcome the Minister's reply that the information is to be updated. Can I suggest that we share the instances where we voted for ceasefire and support for humanitarian assistance, such as that in October 2023, in February, and in the past 50 years, on our stand on supporting humanitarian rights? Thirdly, as we deal with these changes, will we be pausing the lessons, and before we restart it again, can we trial the lessons with a focus group, or with a pilot group of individuals and get their feedback on it?

44. There are rumours that the infamous Samuel and Arun slide was not created by MOE. Can the Minister share a bit more insight into that? Lastly, I've raised a PQ on what support is provided to teachers when they receive backlash from parents and general public, and whether the school management will take action to help the teachers who are subjected to these complaints. I think we need to support our teachers and educators a bit more in this space. Thank you.

45. Minister: Let me respond to the five points. First point; indeed, I shared this with my principals personally when we had our large group sharing in January. When we conduct this lesson, it is not to assign teachers just based on appointment. In fact, we need teachers who are able and willing, and are able to do this professionally. This is why before they conducted the lessons, the principals and the school leaders have their own internal sessions with the teachers so that they can gauge who is able to do what, and then they can form the composite teams to do this effectively. Of course, as they do more, they will gather experience. In fact, one of the principals during the large group sharing told us this; that we are so inexperienced in this aspect, and we need to build our experience to facilitate sensitive conversations respectfully. We need to do this, but if we don't start, we will never be there. So indeed, we want to make sure that the teachers don't impose their views and we do this at the sessions ourselves before we even do it with the students.

46. Second point, well-noted. Yes, indeed, I have said in my reply that our record on the Israel-Palestine issue will be part of the materials. But we are careful not to inundate the younger students with all the history. For the older students who require these materials, they will be made available to them.

47. Third, we are now in the process of updating the slides and also conducting further training with our teachers as we go along. This is our promise to everyone; that we will continue to do this as we go along because it is not possible for us to stop everything because things are evolving. Even if we don't conduct the lesson, the questions (as the members said) are being asked by our students, and our teachers must know how to respond, how to guide them to respond sensitively and respectfully.

48. Fourth point; I'll deal with the backlash from some of the public who make threats to our teachers. As I've said in my statement just now, they have MOE's full support, and we would also make sure that they have the full support of the law. But I truly appreciate the support of members of this house, because without your support, others might be emboldened to think that they can take advantage of our teachers, even if they don't agree with what we say. Because the respect for our teachers is most important; they are doing a very challenging job, they are trying their best; they could have decided not to do this, and we are no better off as a society. But the fact that they stepped forward, they do this for us; do this with us; let's do it with them; let's support them.

49. Last point on the famous Samuel and Arun slide; there was this slide circulating in the deck which suggested that MOE trivalises the issue because we equate it with a football match. This was not in MOE's original deck. For those of you who are very good at detecting scams, you will know that the background of the slide is also different from the rest of the deck. But, upon investigations, we found out that this particular slide was inserted in one particular school, because there was a particular context for the teacher to take the initiative to help the students of this age group relate to something that is more relatable to them. I don't fault the teachers for that. I think they tried their best. But what is happening online is that this is taken out context to say that this is the MOE slide for everyone, including the JC students. This is why I say we need to have confidence and trust in our teachers. Our teachers know their students, and they must be able to have some ability to communicate things with their students in the way that is best for them. I really appreciate you all raising this issue because it is never MOE's intention to trivialize anything. The issue is already complicated enough. We don't need to add more complications to the issue. Thank you very much.

50. Mr Faisal Manap: The Israel-Palestine issue is a sensitive one. Did MOE consult parents in the first place whether they are comfortable to have their child partaking in this particular CCE lesson, which touches on sensitive issues like what the Minister said? I believe this is done similarly for the Ministry's sexuality education. Just one clarification, thank you.

51. Minister: I would like to make a distinction between sexuality education and CCE lessons. Sexuality education deals with very personal issues, family beliefs, and so forth. In CCE, we are talking about people relating to one another respectfully and sensitively. It is not talking about the conflict; it is about diversity of and differences in views, how do we manage to proceed as one. This is about interpersonal relations, about how we respond as fellow Singaporeans. The conflict itself is the context, but it is not the key part of it. The conflict, just like any other conflicts, may pull our people in different directions because of different backgrounds and beliefs. But the central part of CCE goes back to the four things we mentioned: How do we help our students deal with their emotions when they are being bombarded by information all around? How to distinguish news, fake news, misinformation, and others? How do we discuss things respectfully, given and notwithstanding our differences? How do we build a cohesive society amidst all these challenges? I go back to what I said – we are a young nation. Our identity is still being formed. And it is never easy, because we can always be seen as part of some other larger civilisational force. Our challenge is not to discard our past, and build a new future without it. Neither is our vision one whereby we cling on to our past and have no common future. We want the best of both worlds, where we deeply understand our past, and yet at the same time, have a set of shared values and ethos that can bring us forward together as Singaporeans, united as one.