Sunday, September 15, 2013

Learning from Singapore: Part 4

In this final reflection on my visit to Singapore and its education system, I am choosing to examine Singapore's attempt to teach multiculturalism through its schools and society. Like the United States, Singapore is a multicultural society, as well as a multilingual and multi-religious society. Their nation's ethnic demographics are: 76.8% Chinese, 13.9% Malay, 7.9% Indian, and 1.4% other. As someone who studies multicultural education, I was intrigued to see firsthand how Singapore addresses the many different groups within their nation educationally. I was lucky enough to visit during the convergence of two important multicultural holidays: Hari Raya Puasa and Singapore National Day. Hari Raya Puasa, also known as Hari Raya Aidilfitri, is the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Fitr at the conclusion of Ramadan. This holiday is rooted in the Muslim Malay community of Singapore, an ethnic minority. I was able to walk the bazaar, where food, clothing, and other celebration items were on sale. My wonderful host and friend Karen Lam, who works for the Ministry of Education, makes it a point to immerse herself in one community activity during each of the many ethnic holidays in Singapore. In Singapore, many non-Muslims visit the bazaars and partake in the celebrations at the end of Ramadan. A few days later was National Day, which celebrates Singapore's independence from Malaysia in 1965. This year's slogan was "Many Stories, One Singapore" and it emphasized the many different people that call Singapore home.

Singapore is a nation that projects strong narratives. Whether it is a narrative crafted through architecture, technology, or multiculturalism, they aspire to be better. However, their multicultural narrative rests more on "national unity" than "embracing differences." For example, the following language was used to describe this year's National Day theme: "all interconnected through our shared stories and history" and "despite our different backgrounds, we are one Singapore." The Singapore narrative on multiculturalism projects a desire to overcome some of the historical ethnic divisions. The reality is there are still signs of ethnic segregation in housing, education, and income. This is particularly prevalent in the ethnic make up of low-wage workers in Singapore, many of whom are Indian and Filipino. Despite the inequities in their society, Singapore has taken the important step of acknowledging this and framing a national conversation on how to improve this (For example, there are racial quotas imposed on public housing, which the vast majority of Singaporeans live in).

Historically, the education system in Singapore did not address multicultural education. British imperialism divided and separated ethnic groups, resulting in separate schools based on ethnicity. Today, Singapore has made great strides in reversing years of ethnic separation in schooling and preserving the many cultures of Singapore. The Ministry of Education has an official stance of creating national unity while helping "citizens not to lose their cultural heritage or traditional values." They have done this by providing required instructions in student's mother tongue (Chinese, Malay, Tamil) along side English. Moreover, "Every year, schools commemorate a few key events that mark the defining moments of Singapore's history... [including] Racial Harmony Day [and] ... International Friendship Day." Singapore has also increased civics education, with an emphasis on multicultural and global citizenship. More can be done. Much of the multicultural education in Singapore is still focused on the three Fs (food, flags, and festivals), but Singapore has taken important steps forward. The United States could benefit from similar attempts, especially teaching the "mother tongue" of our immigrant students or emphasizing the importance of international friendship and racial harmony in our school holidays (and curriculum).

I appreciate all of the kind people of Singapore, who supported my visit. My trip to Singapore was eye-opening and I could not have accomplished this trip without their help. I look forward to returning in the future and learning more about this amazing little red dot.

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