Political Apathy and the need for Historical Appreciation

I am a firm believer in political and historical discourse, not purely for abstract intellectual purposes but for a critical understanding of our past and healthy political development among the younger generation. That is why I felt that the writer of the article entitled Think pills for Generation Lax had identified the much-needed solutions to the problem of political apathy among the Singaporean teenagers.

“When asked if there would be more political pluralism in the next generation, a speaker replied that the next generation simply would not care enough to make a difference. This generated much laughter — probably of affirmation.”

This is not an encouraging scenario. When the young are politically apathetic, it creates a false sense of security and complacency that our future would be sustainable, and that the state of governance in Singapore would remain as it is, albeit the much needed changes, or so some argue.

“Youth today seem to have been depoliticised by the education system — which involves the learning of the official “inspirational form” of Singapore history; the discouragement of political discourse on campus; the absence of opportunities to study social science subjects such as sociology and politics at the O- and A-levels; and a set of prescribed “shared values” that emphasises consensual rather than competitive political participation. “

He identifies most accurately that the education system is most important factor contributing towards political disinclination and apathy. What I remember distinctly when I was studying A level history was the level of fun involved in extricating the various levels of complex (and sometimes dry!) arguments by various historians on various political and historical events, like the orthodox historians on the Origins of Cold War, or the great power politics theory by MS Anderson on the reasons for early 19th century imperialism. The fact is that there is no singular prescribed viewpoint of the reasons behind the development of key events – what we learnt to appreciate and critically analyse was the difference in ideas and why such dichotomies exist.

This can be achieved through a revaluation of the history curriculum to allow for discussion of the real political battles of pre- and post-1965 Singapore. History is not simply a linear story — it should involve a close examination of historical sources to discover how events and ideas came about. For example, the political battles between the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the Barisan Socialis (BS) could be discussed in classrooms by examining oral accounts given by PAP and BS Members of Parliament. This could, in turn, lead to a fruitful discussion on the issues of welfare, communitarianism and Singapore’s struggle for nationhood.

I believe this is most important to cultivate a sense of rootedness and political awareness among the younger generation. And I do not mean a contrived, sanitised regurgitation of the sucess of our forefathers or a blatant exploitation of key events to play up nationalist ideas (like the merger and the image of our MM crying during separation, or to add a more recent example, the 1968 National Day Parade). It is important to let the young minds decide who is right in giving the accounts because ultimately, what we want to believe is ultimately our choice, not the education system. What I would like to see is the study of the political development after 1965, from the Worker’s Party to the People’s Action Party, during elections, by-elections, racial riots, demonstrations and the communist insurgency, rather than how the HDB established the housing system and what the twin engines of growth are during the 1970s (which I remembered distinctly how I skipped during Social Studies to study the rise and fall of Venice and the political conflicts in Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland)

“However, if we do not address the importance of critical thinking, we risk creating a highly educated populace that is unthinking, complacent and lacking in passion for Singapore. Will the next generation then fail to see politics as a form of public service and a vocation?”

This is very true. When we have intelligent people vying for scholarships, solely for the scholarship itself, without considering their career prospects as people in the civil service, there must be something wrong there. When we have students memorising and regurgitating without understanding what and why we are studying, something is also wrong. And when we have students only interested in studies and school requirements (like their CCA and PEARL points), again there must be something wrong there.

I feel sad that this is the current situation we are in now. Changes in the education system are taking place. But their intended consequences would only be reflected in one or two generations time. Who is to say what will happen then?

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