MOE’s CCE Lesson on the War Was Perfect—Almost.


Over the past week, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has come under scrutiny for supposedly “brainwashing” Singapore’s youth about the Israeli-Hamas conflict that reignited on October 7, 2023. Given MOE’s long-standing reputation as a reliable partner for parents and its history of covering similar content on various controversial issues, such allegations are surprising.

But since Oct 7th, we’ve been forced to acclimatise to a new narrative. “Brainwashing” is to “Education” as “Freedom Fighter” is to “Terrorist”. To people who make accusations like the ones made against MOE, it’s all a mere matter of perspective because their big feelings are more important than responsible objectivity.

The criticisms have converged on the lesson materials provided by MOE for a Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) lesson carefully titled, “The Situation in Israel and Gaza”.

The primary accusation? Failing to extend the narrative beyond the events of October 7th. At root, supporters of the Palestinian cause, many of whom are Malay-Muslim co-religionists with the Palestinians want the material to be fair. And to be fair, that in isolation is not an unreasonable desire.

In a fervently penned open letter, detractors lamented the absence of a comprehensive historical recount within the lesson, highlighting this omission as a disservice to the complexity of the subject at hand. Others denounced what they saw as superficial labelling of a “good” vs. “bad” side. It also claimed that parents were concerned with “a number of students unfairly associating Islam, and by extension, their Muslim classmates as “Hamas” and ”terrorists”.

A commendable concern. Perhaps another way one might avoid this is by not being a Hamas apologist, trying to justify terrorism as “freedom fighting”. Because, you know, terrorism is always bad.

Opponents of MOE’s lesson also claimed that MOE’s portrayal of the “situation” places both parties on a misleading parity, glaringly ignoring the power asymmetry and ongoing repercussions such as the International Court of Justice hearings. They argue this approach undermines the gravity of the situation, and some asked how empathy for the conflict’s victims can be fostered when the educational content glosses over the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Again, some of these concerns have merit, and all are backed by much emotion, as evidenced by the mass outrage that took hold even before anyone had seen the supposedly prejudiced material.

The Brainwashing Nothingburger

The slides for the primary school lesson were leaked, and several Instagram accounts breathlessly attempted to dissect the material, repeating the aforementioned claims.

We present the leaked CCE material below for your viewing.

We recommend taking a little time to see for yourself if the material is reasonable and objective, or if it is “brainwashing material” as claimed by those angered by it.

The Government’s Response

MOE then responded to clarify some of the claims made by unhappy parents and those echoing the sentiment.

They clarified the aims of the CCE lesson, and highlighted that the content was age-appropriate, respectful, sought to facilitate sensitive discussions. MOE further highlighted that teachers were trained to facilitate understanding, encourage diverse perspectives, and promote empathy, without imposing their personal views. Finally, it highlighted how the lessons would help students engage in constructive dialogue and positive actions while being supported in their emotional well-being.

Education Minister Chan Chun Seng then sat down with journalists to methodically explain the process and intentions of the materials produced, urging the public to not miss the forest for the trees.

Okayy what

He outlined that the CCE curriculum aimed to foster a common understanding of our shared values (also reflected in the slides) and vulnerabilities by seeking to help students…

  1. Understand their own emotions and empathise with others
  2. Explore how we can safeguard our cohesion and harmony in a multi-racial society
  3. Learn to verify information sources before sharing them responsibly
  4. Appreciate the diversity of views and conduct conversations sensitively and respectfully

These are essential keys for youth growing up in a multi-cultural metropolis in fractured times. Sadly, the message was rejected by some.

The Minister also cautioned that “we have to be very careful to not let the seeds of hatred and distrust be planted in our younger generations. We must understand Singapore’s vulnerabilities and interests, and work hard to preserve our cohesion, mutual tolerance and acceptance, and find ways to preserve our multi-racial multi-religious harmony.”

Perfectly reasonable.

After reading the leaked slides, one is easily able to dismiss claims that MOE’s material was biased. It is clear that the deck was well-considered, fair, age-appropriate and properly focused on equipping students with the skills and empathy to handle this heavy topic in a short one-hour block.

Like Minister Chan pointed out: This was a CCE class, not a history lesson.

Undermining Our Own Peace

But how can we achieve this, when regular Singaporeans, influenced by the strong information campaigns associated with the ongoing conflict, are actively opposing this goal? They criticise responses to the conflict that are actually reasonable, labelling them as unreasonable.

What makes it worse, (as inconvenient and troublesome as calling it out will be), is that it’s also the parents who are doing the erroneous “planting” as seen by how they are projecting their prejudices onto MOE’s material.

As a Facebook commentator pointed out, the saying “seperti ketam mengajar anaknya berjalan betul” (like a crab instructing its child how to walk straight) finds some unfortunate resonance here.

Those who seek to dictate to MOE what they must/must not teach are simply demonstrating the levels of emotionalism that have overtaken them.

The irony of the situation is that MOE’s objectives were precisely about teaching the students to hold space for others, even in disagreement, always remembering that the peace that we share is more important.

Unfortunately, this once widely accepted truth from the Lee Kuan Yew era appears to be fading, no longer remembered or accepted by all Singaporeans. Recent incidents over the past four months suggest that tribal loyalties are becoming stronger than the desire to maintain peace in Singapore. 

It seems we may have lost sight of how delicate our peace is, and perhaps we underestimate the patience our fellow Singaporeans show towards those who hold strongly opposing views.

Consider for instance the anecdote shared by The Straits Times about Madam Nurul Syazana’s daughter.

“After a talk by the school principal, pupils were asked to write down how they could show care and concern for both Gaza and Israel, which made Shahina unhappy because she did not understand why care and concern should be shown to Israel.

This is as children in the country were eating well while people in Gaza were starving and getting bombed, she had said.

Madam Nurul said she felt that schools should have just told the pupils about the history of the war, and let them come to their own conclusions, rather than asking them to think of ways to show concern for both sides.

It’s said that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Perhaps the reason why young Shahina was unhappy about being encouraged to show care and concern for Israel is because her mother shares similar sentiments. Afterall, she did imply that it was not necessary for students to learn to empathise with others by encouraging a historical review rather than the exercise in empathy.

This is the whole reason we’re in the quandry in the first place – because people are tallying wrongdoings (according to their preferred history) rather than focusing on our shared humanity and peacebuilding.

After all, a historical review would reveal that Israel’s Arab neighbours have historically sought, on multiple occasions, to destroy it as a nation and that Israelis have, for the last 23 years, been under periodic rocket fire and terrorist attacks from Gaza, from intifada to bombings to stabbings. In short, yes, there is plenty to remember. But the lesson’s focus was to encourage compassion for the people on both sides of this conflict.

Information asymmetry facilitated by social media bubbles and echo chambers breeds an unhealthy, fixation on the oppressor/oppressed dynamic. Ideologised persons are allergic to fair coverage and impartiality, instead decrying it as bothsidesism. Such people will naturally decry MOE’s neutral content as “biased”.

Worryingly, when believers in a cause demonstrate that they are impervious to reason, aggressively strident, and can only be placated by government capitulations that echo their biases, this trifecta signals that mass radicalisation is in process.

The danger, is that from this throng may indeed emerge extremists like the US soldier who sadly committed suicide by immolation and another woman who, on Feb 13 stormed a US megachurch with an assault rifle with “Palestine” on her rifle and antisemitic writings found on her person once her body was searched.

MOE Did The Right Thing

To an objective third-party, it is clear that MOE did the right thing by addressing the current escalation sensitively and fairly.

In fact, it is brave that MOE is doing something about it rather than simply repeating the old view of Singapore’s belief in a two-state solution – something that Hamas leaders themselves have rejected.

Wanna know what “From the river to the sea” really means. He makes it abundantly clear.

Echoing Singapore’s belief in the two-state solution would have been the convenient route to take the lesson, since even some of the less radicalised Palestinian sympathisers can get behind the two-state solution.

More importantly, the slides accurately reflect Singapore’s reasonable international position on the matter: Terrorism is bad, Israel has the right to self-defence and Singapore is friends with both the Israelis and Palestinians. Further, Singapore’s various calls for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, that Israel’s military response should be “within limits” and that the Israeli hostages kidnapped by Hamas should be “completely, immediately and unconditionally” released are well-considered and fair positions. (“Unconditionally” because Hamas wants to exploit the Hostage situation by demanding the release of thousands of Palestinian criminals released in a ‘swap’).

Could MOE Have Done Better?

Noting the sensitivity and polarisation over the issue however, MOE could have added references or examples to the claims made in the materials to buttress the facts put forth.

Also, in the interest of transparent and communicative government, there may have been merit in laying out clear objectives beforehand, when dealing with hot potatoes to avoid suspicion and conjecture over MOE’s motives in broaching the topic. 

If MOE wanted to address youth radicalisation, for example the youth who wanted to join Hamas a few years ago, this would have been uncontroversial and should have been made clear at the outset.

In this heated and cynical climate, MOE’s good intentions of breeding civic consciousness did not inoculate them from critique of a more partisan breed. The sad reality is that in our new civic environment, we can no longer presume that trust will be extended to governmental leadership to do the right thing, despite a good track record of doing so.

The Ostrich or The Eagle

Some might believe that CCE lessons ought to be limited to the Singapore context, arguing that overseas tensions, anger and hate should not be imported into Singapore. Legend has it that these people have also recently awoken from cryogenic states and are unfamiliar with the internet. The bad blood is already here.

Others believe that it is difficult enough to discuss the ‘bigger picture’ as adults, much less children. Ironically, the inverse may be true, since children are less beleaguered by strained histories, hearsay and conspiracy, and in many cases (sharing toys excluded), are more peace-loving than adults are. Children intuitively understand justice and fairness in an uncomplicated way, and perhaps they are better suited to understand and make peace with those different from them.

Still others empathise with educators who themselves may not be familiar with or comfortable teaching controversial current affairs to their students. This is a valid concern, but again, this is a CCE lesson where the objective is empathy, discernment and peace-building, not teaching partisan values and most certainly not rocket science. Our teachers, with whom we entrust quadratic equations, are doubtless competent for the task.

Singapore can ill afford to adopt an isolationist or apathetic approach to foreign conflicts, this one least of all. 

What should Singapore do, then, other than to watch the developments closely with a keen eye, while staying above the fray? This approach allows us to learn from the struggles and follies of others, ensuring that the same pitfalls do not befall us.

Instead of being ostriches, we should continue to develop a curriculum and people who pursue global peace, and that usually requires a factual understanding of world history coupled with modern skills like narrative interrogation and disinformation filtering.

Singapore In Uncertain Times

As the dust (hopefully) begins to settle, we are left in tension.

Singaporeans can and will judge this incident for themselves and arrive at conclusions about who’s being reasonable and who’s not.

Although many are silent when it comes to defending MOE, not wanting to encounter the ire of those who are more emotional about the issue, they are also silently forming conclusions about the instability/volatility of certain groups and the cowardice/restraint of others.

This does not auger well for us because it is now all the more easy to stereotype, pre-judge and presume upon another’s unreasonableness or ability to be pushed over.

Where then is the hope in all this? Perhaps an anecdote might help.

The Singapore Airshow went off without a hitch over the past weekend despite fierce attempts to cancel its featuring of Israeli aerospace companies. Along with their fellow Singaporeans, many Malay and Muslim families attended, enjoyed themselves at the airshow, visited various booths and left happily without incident and fuss.

If one was living exclusively online, that might have come as a big surprise given how much vitriol there was surrounding the event.

What this illustrates is that fortunately, many Singaporeans of all stripes are happy to go about their lives without projecting their grouses onto their everyday interactions (even if they feel them). This is responsible and mature.

What this also goes to show is that online life where loud and unreasonable activists abound, is not always representative of the temperature of society.

Nevertheless, unchecked narrative extremism does have the potential to boil over through emotional contagion, and Singapore will do well to arrest these trends and conflict engineers before unhealthy bias and implacable narratives take root.

As Singaporeans continue to dialogue on this may we remember that a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

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