Teaching in a Multicultural Context: Lessons from Singapore

Teaching in a Multicultural Context: Lessons from Singapore

Two pedagogical principles seem to pull in opposite directions. On the one hand, proponents of Great Works argue that university students in the social sciences and humanities should be exposed largely, if not exclusively, to the contributions of profound and influential thinkers. On the other hand, proponents of multiculturalism argue that students should study the diverse contributions of the various ethnic groups composing present-day plural societies.

My own teaching experience in Singapore led me to the perhaps surprising conclusion that these two desiderata do not necessarily conflict in practice. One can be a proponent of Great Works and a multiculturalist—even a radical multiculturalist, to the point that the curriculum is determined by the scholarly traditions of all ethnic groups in the classroom. No doubt the particularities of the Singaporean context led me to this conclusion, but I will try to argue that there may be implications for other plural societies as well.

Singapore’s Political History
First, however, it is worth saying something about the political context. Singapore is a small tropical island roughly the size of Brooklyn; its current population is nearly four million. In the early nineteenth century, Singapore was colonized by the British, who tried to turn the island into an important trading center. This effort was partly successful, and the territory attracted migrants from China, India, and the surrounding Malay-Islamic archipelago. The British granted internal self-government to Singapore in 1959. But the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), led by Lee Kuan Yew, had doubts about the economic viability of a small independent island without any natural resources, and fought hard to join a federation with the surrounding territories. In 1963, Singapore, Malaya, Sarawak, and North Borneo formed a new federation—Malaysia. After two years, however, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia and forced to be independent. The expulsion was partly due to ethnic differences—mutual mistrust between the predominantly Chinese Singaporeans and their predominantly Muslim Malay neighbors. Disputes over economic policy and personality clashes between the leaders of Singapore and Malaya also played a role.

Lee Kuan Yew famously wept in public when he announced the separation. Singapore did not have any difficulty in winning international acceptance of its independence, but the economic and security challenges lying ahead seemed insurmountable. To deal with the former, the PAP—although nominally socialist—adopted the strategy of opening its country to foreign investment. As Lee explained in his recent memoirs, “Of course, the prevailing theory was that multinationals were exploiters of cheap labor and cheap raw materials and would suck [us] dry. We had no raw materials for them to exploit. All we had was labor. Nobody else wanted to exploit labor. So why not, if they want to exploit...


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