Teaching history teachers: start with Singapore history

This was an article I read from http://www.newsintercom.org. You can read more about it at Teaching history teachers: start with Singapore history

Letter sent to the ST, 15.07.2005.

I refer to Andy Ho’s editorial “Teach the history teachers” (ST, 15 July 2005), which emphasised the importance of properly training history teachers in the vital interpretation and inquiry skills at NIE before they can teach them to their students.

Dr Ho’s thinking is well-intentioned; he quotes in support of his view a statement by Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the Minister of Education, on the review of the History and Social Studies curricula which aims to focus better on such skills.

But the troubling fact is that these syllabuses have been twice revised since 1994 towards cultivating the same skills.

Having had some experience in the last seven years teaching history at secondary, pre-university, undergraduate, and trainee teacher levels, I have frequently encountered students who either view the subject is boring and requires mere memorisation or there is only “one truth” and therefore no need to think analytically about the past.

I wonder if the reason for such common misperceptions is merely a failure of pedagogy. After all, history teachers are products of their society.

One plausible reason for the disinterest in and uncritical attitude towards history is the nature of the very syllabuses that have been in place since 1994. The history of Singapore, taught in Secondary Two and written by the Curriculum Planning and Development Division of the Ministry of Education, is a linear story. It focusses on fixed themes and values, such how as “our vulnerability” (to external events such as World War Two) and “our tumultuous years” (postwar unrest like the Maria Hertogh riots) were followed by the success story of “building our nation” after independence.

The new syllabus, which will be implemented in 2006, is more nuanced in that it wants students “to show an ability to look at events and issues from the perspectives of people in the past”, which challenges the student (and teacher) to creatively imagine the past and to empathise with the people in it.
However the syllabus still concentrates on the “the turbulent years” to “promote an awareness of the influence of external events on Singapore and the interdependence of countries”, which serves again as a background to the success achieved in the “nation-building years”.

My contention is a society’s attitude towards history is a reflection of its attitude towards its own history. It is difficult to inculcate an ability to research into, analyse and interpret the past when one sees their national history as one-dimensional, fixed and linear, as an extension of National Education.

This view of Singapore history is so common yet so far from the truth. Recent historical scholarship has begun to unravel exciting, if sometimes also controversial, aspects of our past, such as the vibrancy and diversity (instead of mere “tumultuousness”) of our postwar history.

Between this month and September, there are at least four conferences sharing very exciting new ideas on and approaches to the history of Singapore:

– Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism In Postwar Singapore (14-15 July)
– Singapore – From Colony to State: Economy, Politics and Society (3 August)
– New Insights into Singapore History: Perspectives of Young Emerging Scholars (16 August)
– The Japanese Occupation: Sixty Years after the End of the Asia-Pacific War (5-6 September)

It must be to the diverse aspects of our national history, both old and emerging, that the skills of inquiry, interpretation and analysis be applied. The problem in history teaching in Singapore is not one of pedagogy but goes deeper.

The appeal of studying and doing history stems from exploring and weighing historical controversies and issues, not from memorising one fixed story. Teachers and students alike will cultivate no analytical skills if the Ministry fails to allow and encourage the teaching of the full breadth and depth of Singapore’s history.

I totally agree with the author’s statement above about the “appeal of studying history”. I remember suffering from a culture shock in the transition from O level history to A level history, simply because of the difference in approach. While O level relied heavily on a ministry prescribed textbook and notes, A level under Mr Rollason and Mr Kwok was a journey of analysis and interpretation of various historians. The orthodox historians versus the revisionist historians of the cold war, the Great power politics of AJP Taylor and the working class tendencies of EH Carr. In S level History, we explored the fundamentals behind the writing of history itself, of truth, objectivity, counterfactual history as well as the theory of history. The hardcore empirists against the aggressive postmodernists in the writing of history. Sigh! How I loved studying history then. (The A level paper was tough but the S level paper was thoroughly enjoyable!)

The same approach can be applied to Singapore’s history. More can be learnt about Singapore’s indigenous roots, prior to the arrival of Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles (Here I profess my chauvinistic Malay tendencies), and the controversial political developments before and after independence, especially the political fights between the various parties (notice the lull of political history learnt before the PAP came to power? Little is taught about the brief tenure of David Marshall under the Labour Front). Too much focus is placed on Nation Building in post-independence history (I remember how everyone in my Sec 4 History class avoided the Singapore history section of the Malayan history paper in O level simply because it was too boring and unimportant. And who can forget the joy of Social studies which, to the exam-smart student, gave the option of dropping the whole nation building section which covers almost half of the two Social Studies book!). While I contend that such basic ideas (nation building, nationalism, independence after separation, racial harmony) are important in building our own national identity, a more critical approach can be developed, if not for intellectual stimulus, at least for a sustained interest in our country’s history.

I am seriously optimistic about learning more about our history. Short as it may be, its definitely not as boring as previously thought to be. Read Dr Cherian George’s book on Singapore politics and Warren Fernandez’s book about political and socio-economic developments in Singapore. Or for a more critical account about the racial policy of the government, read Lily Zubaidah Rahim’s book about the Singapore dilemma. If only we could freely engage in intellectual discourse about our history. Only time will tell.

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2 Responses to Teaching history teachers: start with Singapore history

  1. […] [Also read my older entry about the lack of interest in the study of history in Singapore and the paradox in creating a more critical apporach if history acts as an extension to National Education. […]

  2. […] read my older entry about the lack of interest in the study of history in Singapore and the paradox in creating a more […]

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