New social studies textbook draws criticism over lesson on Little India riot

Photo source: Upper Secondary Social Studies - Express/Normal (Academic)

A passage in a new social studies textbook for upper secondary students about the 2013 Little India riot, has raised eyebrows among netizens, with some accusing authorities of simplifying or even whitewashing the incident.

On 8 Dec, 2013, some 400 foreign workers of mainly South Asian origin rioted over the accidental death of a fellow worker. Fifty-four police officers and other first responders were injured in the ensuing mayhem, and more than $530,000 worth of government property damaged.

It was the first riot in Singapore in more than 40 years.

“What a rosy look at the Little India Riot.” 

The new social studies textbook is divided into three broad themes:  Exploring Citizenship and Governance, Living in a Diverse Society and Being Part of a Globalized World, followed by a Skills Chapter.

It includes discussions of hot-button issues such as the Little India incident, which is discussed in a chapter titled “How Can We Work for the Good of Society?”, under the theme of Exploring Citizenship and Governance. It is presented as “one example of the government maintaining the internal order of Singapore”, and comes after an explanation of how internal and external security are maintained by various agencies in Singapore.

The passage notes, “Within minutes, the Police Force was informed of the road accident and the Civil Defence Force was activated. When some members of the public in the area became rowdy, the Special Operations Command (SOC) was activated. After the arrival of the SOC, the crowd dispersed and suspected rioters were arrested.”

Prominent blogger mrbrown was among the most critical of the passage, commenting dryly on social media on 7 January, “What a rosy look at events like the Little India Riot in our new textbooks for kids.” Other netizens like Colin Chee lamented in a Facebook comment, “They continue to publish material that gives children the 1 out of 360 degree perspective of things and then tell the public that they aim to broaden the children’s minds to see things differently.“

Discussion questions that follow the Little India passage. Photo source: Upper Secondary Social Studies - Express/Normal (Academic)

Students, historian critical of new syllabus

Students and a historian that Yahoo Singapore spoke to questioned the portrayal of the incident. Final-year polytechnic student Nurul Nadhirah, 21, who took social studies back in 2012, says, “I feel like they touched more on the government’s response, rather than what actually happened. The passage itself keeps saying how the government did this and that.”

Her course mate Belle Sim, who majors in creative writing for television and new media and is also 21, adds, “As I read it, I feel very underwhelmed by it — it feels like a super small incident. It’s as if they know that they can’t not include it in a textbook, but at the same time, they don’t want people to read too much into it.”

Sim is uncomfortable with the placement of the incident in the text, noting, “One detail you cannot escape when you talk about the Little India riot is race. But why don’t they want to talk about race? Why is it that, even though we live in a racially harmonious society, we can’t talk about race?”

Research Associate at the Oxford Centre for Global History Thum Ping Tjin is also critical of the focus of the passage, given the fact that a riot broke out in the first place is a failure of government policy on many fronts.

Thum says, “The emphasis on the security response obscures how the roots of the riot can be found in failures of government policy over labour, immigration, and routine policing. The more appropriate question in the ‘Discuss’ section should be, ‘Why did the riot happen in the first place?’

People do not simply wake up and decide to risk their lives and go rioting for fun.” 

The aftermath of the Little India riot. Photo: AFP

Eugene Tan: Look at the context

On the flip side, Associate Professor of Law at Singapore Management University Eugene Tan demurred at the accusations of whitewashing, noting that the incident was used to describe the government’s emphasis on maintaining internal order in Singapore. Further, given the constraints of space in the textbook, Tan feels the passage was “generally balanced” and avoided stereotyping based on racial and national origins. 

“We should read the text in light of its context and pedagogical aim of discussing the incident. Yes, the portrayal did not deal with other related matters like improving the lives of foreign workers, but this and other related issues were flagged in the portrayal,” says Tan.

He adds that teachers can use the material as a segue to engage students on these issues, “After all, students will naturally ask, “Why did the riot occur?” since road accidents don’t normally trigger off riots.”

But a former primary school teacher with 16 years experience who taught social studies occasionally, feels the passage is typical of the social studies curriculum. “MOE just wants clean and simplified answers when it comes to social studies, and most teachers can’t be bothered to go further than that,” he says.

The former teacher, who declined to be named, adds, “I guess they saw it as an internal security matter, which is not exactly wrong. But, of course, it’s more than that. They want to tell the kids: you may not remember it, but this is what happened. And once it’s in a textbook, it is what happened.”

The aftermath of the Little India riot. Photo: AFP

The Ministry of Education responds

Yahoo Singapore sent the following questions to the Ministry of Education:

- Why was the Little India riot placed under a discussion of internal/external security, instead of under say, Living in a Diverse Society, or perhaps Being Part of a Globalised World?

- The discussion questions after the Little India riot revolve around issues of security in Singapore. Does the lesson plan for that chapter include discussions of, for example, immigration issues, or perhaps race relations in Singapore? Why or why not?

- Was there any feedback taken from agencies like SPF or SCDF in writing the article? Why or why not?

- Some netizens have commented that the portrayal of the riot over-simplifies or even whitewashes events. Can MOE comment on this?

An MOE spokesman responded, “The Little India riot and its impact can be discussed from various perspectives, as with other topics.  To help students broaden and better their understanding of issues and topics, teachers make use of discussion questions and a myriad of examples in the Coursebook. Each chapter has a lesson plan to focus discussion.“

In an interview with The Straits Times earlier this month, Marilyn Lim, deputy director for humanities in the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) curriculum planning and development division, explained the purpose of the new syllabus and examination format.

Lim said it was to place greater emphasis on promoting active citizenship and critical thinking. The new textbook includes societal issues and guiding questions, so that students will be encouraged to give their own responses.

When shown the textbook, students with experience of the previous social studies curriculum noted a different approach from their own experience, and were impressed by the inclusion of a Skills Chapter which teaches different methods of data gathering.

Belle Sim recalls her social studies lessons as “a subject everyone hated, because there was a lot of memorisation”, and being “overwhelmed” by “positive facts” about Singapore. But unlike her old textbook, which was based on case studies, such as the rise and fall of Venice, she notes that the chapters in the new textbook are now phrased as a statement or question.

Nurul Nadhirah adds, “On first impression, it seems like a very different teaching approach. It seems like they’re trying to make us form our own opinions.”

The revised social studies syllabus is the core textbook for students taking the O- and N-level social studies examinations from next year.