Creating a Thinking Society: Singapore Government Needs to Rebalance Control

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugartnam had said that, “It’s only possible to succeed in character education and encouraging students to question and think originally if we create real space for it in the education system.”
I would like to touch on this briefly. It’s admirable that Mr Tharman is able to understand the need for a “real space” so that our youths are able to learn how to think “originally” and critically about issues, and devise innovative solutions.

The government, however, needs to understand that it would be highly counterproductive if we were to create a space within the education system, yet not do so within broad society – if in the general space, there are laws in place which prevent the ability to express freely and where certain issues are categorised as taboo, there is already structural impediments to what can be discussed – there’s self-regulation.

So, even if schools create a space within the education system, our youths, at the same time, belong to part of the larger Singapore landscape, where there are rules in place which counteract to the philosophy of the creation of spaces within specific environments. Can out youths truly express themselves, when there are external forces outside the school environment which act against this?

From a larger picture perspective, you want your youths to continue with the ability to have original and critical thinking abilities even after they leave the school system, and transit into the work system. In fact, it is of more value that they retain and expand on these abilities, especially in a knowledge economy, where such thinking abilities have a much more dire impact on the economy.

The government cannot sideline this issue as one that can be contained within a specific environment. Our government has a tendency to do this – this allows them to open up at their own pace, and a pace which they are comfortable with, where they are still able to manage their control. But there are consequences, or lack of. The Speaker’s Corner at Hong Lim Park is one relevant artefact to this controlled and measured opening up of spaces, or lack thereof. One reason why this is so was because this is a token measure and the government wouldn’t have sincerely believe in the need for such a space, but of course, it doesn’t matter now, what with the Internet. However, there are lessons to be learnt from this. If the government doesn’t truly believe in something, then they might as well not do it – of course it might simply be for PR. And if the government wants to do something, then they need to understand the broad structural issues behind the specific issues that they want to bring out – in this instance, the education system.

Of course, the government would know this already. They create the system we operate in. They would know well how the system would impact on our beings, or the government should be able to. And if the government indeed understands, then the question is why wouldn’t they want to talk about the larger broader structures that should be relooked? Why only specific issues? As discussed, this is because they want to be able to have continued and measured control over certain issues which they are uncomfortable with having to deal with yet.

I urge the government to be bold. We cannot tell our youths to think openly and critically when there are rules in place outside of the school system which acts as countermeasures towards their thinking abilities. If there are still rules which prevent discussion against certain issues, such as race, religion and sexuality, how can we advance our critical thinking abilities in these areas, or other areas?

Of course, there are reasons for the government to want to impede on this a less controlled thinking environment – the less critically people are able to think, the more they have a ‘herd mentality’ where they would follow whatever is said blindly, and the easier people are to control. Well, the government has to make a decision at this point – how much do they want to continue to control and how much do they want to develop useful knowledge-based workers for the knowledge economy?

The government will undoubtedly still have OB markers in place, even if they create spaces within schools for “original” thinking. But the question is – are rules the best way to manage people’s thinking? Currently, the rules create a mentality of self-censorship. Is this what we want in the longer term? Self-censorship necessarily compromises on “original” and critical thinking abilities. We shut the thoughts out even before we can develop it further – this will stunt our thinking abilities.

A stronger approach towards creating open and critical thinking abilities would be to educate and inculcate in people responsible thinking and speech, so that we will continue to be expansive in our thinking, yet be aware of how what we think or say will have an impact on others and then how we would put out what we say in a way that’s honest, yet respectful and thoughtful towards others.

You put rules in place to prevent people from thinking and you create a society where there’s underlying racism and discrimination, which we don’t talk about because we’ve been told not to. You teach people to be responsible in their thinking abilities and you get them to think critically about these issues, such that it will move society towards a more aware and empathetic level.

We are now moving into encouraging Singaporeans to be more compassionate and kind to one another. The backdrop of the rules which impede on thought processes, has an impact on the social respect we accord to others. If people are told not to think or to only think in specific ways – for economic growth – then we are not able to think for and understand others, then we are not able to be compassionate, kind and caring.

There is a tight intertwining between our economic and social policies which are economically-inspired, and how these policies have a real impact on people’s social behaviours, or lack thereof. If the government is sincere and truly empathetic on the need for Singaporeans to become more original and critical in their thinking, and more compassionate and kind towards one another, the government needs to understand how the broad structures that they have put in place over the years which allow for them to control effectively and to grow the economy can become counter-intuitive towards achieving a strong social fabric that ties society together.

At this juncture, the government needs to decide – how much of control do they want to enact on people, and weigh it against how willing they are to let go of the control, towards enhancing the social and emotional well-being of the people? I would suggest that the government can relook their roles to be as facilitators to help create a thinking population which can think for themselves, and where the government aids in their thinking process. The government has shown signs that it’s willing and wants to move in this direction. The question is also this – the government cannot just think that they want to do things differently, but that they need to take down the structures which goes against their new thinking.


One comment

  1. Saycheese

    If the North Korean leeders from the Kim family had opened up spaces for their people, will they still be living in luxury while their people are still starving?

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