China’s “National Education”: Lessons for Singapore

by singaporearmchaircritic

Warning: If your eyes automatically well up with tears each time you sing or hear your national anthem, then this post is not for you.

This week I was supposed to blog about the prospects of democratization in Malaysia and Singapore but I felt compelled to write this post after seeing the photograph below. It is an excerpt of a teaching guide and the highlighted parts translate as:

“Questions to prompt students to share their experience in singing and hearing the national anthem: When you hear the national anthem, does it bring to mind the Motherland? Does it remind you that you are a Chinese national? . . . Does it not evoke your sense of national pride and move you to tears? . .  .

Note: Should the teacher find that the student does not display strong emotions of patriotism/nationalism, do not criticize him. Accept his behavior but ask the student to reflect upon himself.” (emphasis mine)

Source Click to enlarge

The teaching cases in this “Civic and National Education Curriculum Guide Consultative Draft” also require teachers to ask students to reflect on themselves should they fail to display strong patriotic feelings when cheering for the national team etc. In another case, students learning to sing the national anthem have to say aloud “I am proud to be a Chinese national.” No where does the curriculum mention significant historical events like the June 4th Tiananmen massacre.

Weep or Repent!

If you did not see the above photograph, you would think this is probably North Korean style indoctrination. After all, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has shown the whole world how successful it is in brainwashing or coercing its people to go into hysteria when their Dear Leader perished.

But this is Chinese style national education. And the target is not mainland Chinese but Hongkongers (?!!). If you as an onlooker find it absurd that the Communist Party is trying to shove this puke-inducing, North Korean style brainwashing down Hongkongers’ throat, you can imagine how fiery Hongkongers would have reacted.

The public backlash to this consultative draft forced the authorities to postpone the full introduction of the curriculum. Undeterred, this year the Communist Party came up with another teaching manual that was circulated to all Hong Kong government schools.

Titled “The China Model,” the teaching manual highlights four characteristics of the Chinese model of governance, of which the fourth is – ta-da! Brace yourself! — “a progressive, selfless, and united governing group.” Huh? So what do we make of all the news about China’s social injustice, corrupt officials and party infighting?? Surely this is a satire?

The manual also borrowed a term coined by Lenin – “democratic centralism” – to justify not having a separation of powers between the three branches of government. As if engaging in shameless self-glorification is not enough, it has to slam the U.S. political system as “malignant party politics disastrous for the people” (see image below).


(Click to enlarge)

The explicit and crude propaganda set off alarm bells in the Hong Kong society again. On 29 July 2012, concerned parents, teachers and other NGOs will take to the streets in objection to what they perceive as brainwashing imposed by the Chinese government.

Singapore Can Do Better

The Communist Party’s clumsy attempt to foist blatant brainwashing on Hong Kong betrays its political naïveté in governing a sophisticated and modern society so alien to it. Other than the use of force, coercion and repression, it knows no other means to rule. Today’s tensions between the Communist Party and Hong Kong boil down to a mismatch between a government stuck in the past and a forward-looking populace.

Singapore’s own National Education (NE) pales in comparison to China’s, in a good way. Nonetheless, many teachers and students still see it is as government propaganda. The curriculum does not encourage critical thinking – a problem that extends to our pre-tertiary education system in general – and presents a skewed view of history, i.e. the ruling party’s preferred version. According to Fearfully Opinionated,

“NE has to be more objective and less pro-official. When presenting the history of Singapore, it is not historically or pedagogically appropriate to leave out significant but non-PAP figures such as David Marshall (Tan & Chew, 2004). It also means that it has to present controversies as controversies. Instead of purely lauding Singapore’s unique democracy, issues should be presented with arguments for and against controversial aspects of our democracy such as Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) and GRCs.”

In this age of the Internet and here in Singapore where netizens enjoy unrestricted access, it is ridiculous to think that censored versions of history are tenable. Evidence and alternative sources on the web can be easily googled, rendering any government propaganda indefensible and laughable. In turn this will only reinforce the nonchalant attitude of teachers and students toward NE.

In the long term, the discouragement of critical thinking is detrimental for our country’s progress. We often bemoan a lack of creativity in Singaporeans. Does it not strike our government why is this so? And why has Singapore never produced a Nobel laureate despite coming out tops in prestigious international mathematics or science contests? Size and population are not an issue.

Professor Peter Ng provides some answers in this report when asked if Singapore will ever land a Nobel Prize:

“We can only call a real winner our own when he is bred and trained here. That I do not see coming. Our educational structure is still too ‘closeted’ and narrow. Many past winners have been less than ‘responsible’. Some were mavericks, a few troublemakers, many rebellious  . . . I remember a conversation I had with senior education officers about opening the door to mavericks. It is tantamount to opening Pandora’s Box, I said. They told me to open the door a bit but not too much – so young people can grow and be innovative, but still be obedient and follow rules. The door is either open or closed – opening a bit means nothing!”

As Singapore approaches its 47th birthday, isn’t it time to move on?

For a start, there is a need to disaggregate the notion of the state from the ruling party. Singaporeans, especially the younger generation, are already sophisticated enough to know that the ruling party does not constitute the entire state. This means loving Singapore does not necessitate loving the ruling party, and not loving the ruling party does not mean we do not love Singapore.

Majulah Singapura! We can be truly progressive, unlike China.