Posted by: Principal/Editor | November 2, 2009

Reflections on Multicultural Education

Commenting on the earlier post about Globalization: Impact on Education and Teacher Development, I would like to follow up on one specific component:  the effects of dissipating borders and the perils of multiculturalism and citizenship.

I am proposing several starting points for reflection on the question of multiculturalism and citizenship. Some of these reflection points are indicated below:

  1. How familiar am I with relatively new concepts such as: multicultural education policy, bilingual education policy, “tour and detour” multicultural education approaches, mono-culturalism, biculturalism,  multiracial policy, etc.?
  2. How confident do I feel about my knowledge of the very wide range of social sciences (e.g. economics, development studies, current affairs, history, etc) necessary in order to plan educational programmes which incorporate multicultural education policies in my school?
  3. How can I convince my subordinates, colleagues and superiors that these concepts related to multiculturalism are relevant to our work in schools?
  4. Where can I obtain more information on all these concepts?
  5. Why do educators concerned with the future globalized knowledge society have to contend with multicultural education policy? Why do some educators use multicultural education, while others use multiracial education? Is there any difference between the two concepts?
  6. Identify one special event you could plan for your school that promotes multiculturalism among all the key stakeholders? How easy or difficult could this event be undertaken?


  1. While I have experiences catering to pupils’ needs and interests as well as working with colleagues in the multicultural setting of a school, I do not have formal or structured training on concepts on multiculturalism. With globalization, there is increased mobility for both students and the working population. It is thus important for schools to understand the concepts of multiculturalism better. Before we can start planning educational programmes, school staff must first be convinced of the need for the school to be educated in these concepts, its importance and their relevance to our work in schools.

    According to the Macmillan Dictionary online, multiracialism includes or involves many different races (people who are similar because they have the same skin colour, other physical features, speak the same language or have the same history or customs). Multiculturalism on the other hand includes or involves people of different cultures (a set of ideas, beliefs, and ways of behaving of a particular organization or group of people) living and interacting together. In the Singapore schools context, multiracialism implies the need for schools to cater to and respect the individual’s (both pupils and staff) inherited practices. Multiculturalism indicates the schools’ efforts to create the ‘common space’ for the pupils and staff of different races to learn and work together.

    Some of the platforms in the school setting in which we can leverage on to promote multiculturalism are National Day, International Friendship Day and Racial Harmony Day. Beyond these events, multiculturalism can be integrated into formal and informal curricula, for example, the core instructional programmes and CCA programmes respectively.

  2. In this increasing globalised world of today, society is largely influenced by economic activities. This is especially so when people get more mobile and find employment in another country, bringing along their families.

    By and large, many countries are pretty homogenous in nature, or rather there is a dominant language or culture in the society and as a result in the schools. every often, one (a minority) would have to follow the larger environment that has been set. It is interesting to note that many countries are now gappling on the muliticulural education context.

    Hence, as a result, terms like multiculturalism, billingualism, mulitracialism are being mentioned constantly.

    Uniquely, such terms are not foreign to us here in Singapore as we have been tackling such issues for the longest time. Multi-racial society ideology is the cornerstone which many of our polices are based on. There has been a conscious effort to integrate the various races in social interaction, for example in public houses allocation instead of just in schools. Of course, there is also the controversial singular language policy which forces the use of English as the main language and the Mother Tongue as a second language. It was highly debated when it was first implemented and many language and cultural purists were lamenting the loss of cultural.

    Despite the advantage i must say i am not that confident to have the necessary knowledge of the wide social sciences to plan educational programmes encompassing multi cultural factors. This is because the issues are usually too complex and one needs to be very sensitive to different cultural taboos. Thus, it is necessary to set up a mix of different cultural representation in my team to come with the programmes.

    I believe that in Singapore, the challenge in convincing my co team members, subordinates will not be too great as all of us knows the importance of integrating these concepts into our programmes. Nonetheless, i can also show them facts or examples from other countries on how insensitivity can lead to social unrest and upheaval.

    I think there is a subtle difference between multi-racial and multi-cultural policies. Multi-cultural policies would be more encompassing and more environmental (cultural) factors to consider whereas multi-racial would apply more in older context when races are more distinct.
    The best way to know more is still through dialogues and interactions at a common platform.

    As educators who are concerned about the future, there is an urgent need to appreciate the incoporation of the multicultural concept into our education policies, because if this is not handled properly, it will lead to social unrest and instability, possibly leading to racist radicals. Education through schools and later society at large is one of the means to perpetuate cultural harmony.

    We can plan for a multi-cultural week with each level undertaking a specific culture to showcase. While leading the week, curriculum content can be tweaked to incorporate cultures concept and the importance of it in the classroom teaching. However, this must be managed well and not seen as an ‘extra curriculum’ activity that will tax both the teachers and students.

  3. Perhaps, the distinction between multicultural and multiracial education can be explained by comparing a country like Switzerland with Singapore. Switzerland is multicultural but not multiracial, given that it consists of mainly Caucasian citizens of French, German and Italian descent. In Singapore, we are both multicultural and multiracial, given the different races that make up the population. Multicultural education may thus be more encompassing, given that it would allow for diversity education in contexts that have a range of cultures but are not necessarily multiracial.

    If we define a ‘tour and detour” approach to multicultural education as one that merely visits a culture (like a tourist), then the multicultural education in Singapore can be argued to follows this approach. Multicultural education in Singapore is conducted via the informal curriculum, e.g school programmes organised on Racial Harmony Day, or the celebration of different cultural festivals in school. There is a tendency to trivialise and stereotype these cultures with the emphasis on traditional costumes, food and performance, even to the point of being patronising.

    But what would be pertinent in any discussion of multicultural education in Singapore is how the students of the top schools in Singapore come from a relatively homogenous background. While it is not as extreme as the schools in Denmark that segregate students based on their race, students in top Singapore schools tend to come from a Chinese, middle-class background.

    Given that many of these students are groomed to be future leaders of Singapore, it becomes important that multicultural education as conducted in these schools is meaningful. Would organising an ad-hoc special event be meaningful? Unless it is part of an overall multicultural programme, it may not add as much value as planned.

  4. I would like to respond to Q2.
    My school offers social sciences like Economics , Principles of Accounting and Management of Business (at A Level).
    Looking ahead to prepare our students to be more ‘global and entrepreneurial’ in outlook.
    teachers in these 3 subjects are looking at possibilities of inter-disciplinary learning and teaching experiences.
    The use of ‘Big Ideas’ e.g. like Systems, Communication – would probably allow for better integration of ‘Enduring Understanding’ across the 3 subjects. Similarly, using EUs and Essential Questions may be a way to incorporate concepts like multiculturalism in such subjects. After all, Business subjects like Accounting and Mgt are business ‘languages’ – and to have better communication, multi-culturalism is definitely the way to go.
    Back to Q2, I do think that one needs to have strong subject mastery in their own discipline, yet at the same time be committed to seek to understand other disciplines – especially in working towrds this new but not easy to understand concept of ‘multiculturalism.

  5. Diversity in our schools is both a challenge and an opportunity. Singapore is enriched by racial, reigious, and language diversity among its citizens and within its schools. However, whenever diverse groups interact, intergroup tension, stereotypes, and institutionalized discrimination does have the possibility of developing. I suppose this explains the urgent need and concerted effort to find ways to respect the diversity of students as well as help to create a unified nation-state to which all of the nation’s citizens have allegiance. The hope of these policies is to assist policy makers and practitioners realize this challenging and elusive but quintissentialy essential goal of a democratic and pluralistic society.

  6. I consider two challenges in multicultural education.

    1. Students have been brought up learning about how multicultural Singapore is, and indeed experience the multiculturalism in what they see around them as well as the food they eat. The challenge thus arises if students come to be complacent about Singapore’s multiculturalism. Do they understand how this is brought about, and what are the threats to multiculturalism? They take this for granted, instead of taking effort to reach out and connect with other cultures, as other cultures seemed to be always within reach for them in Singapore. In addition, if teachers are themselves also complacent about multiculturalism, how effective would they be in multicultural education for their students?

    2. Students also perceive globalisation differently, arising from the diverging experiences of students due to their family backgrounds. For students of well-off background, who would have gone overseas on trips with their families and experienced foreign cultures, or have parents going on overseas stints for their jobs, globalisation is a fact of life and seen as an opportunity for them. But for less-advantaged students, overseas trips are only enabled through the auspices of internationalisation by their schools, and they might not see themselves in the future as holding jobs which have such a global dimension. They may in fact see globalisation as a threat, as this brings in foreign talent from other countries whom they perceive as competing for their jobs. These two groups of students would thus take to multicultural education with widely divergent aptitudes and attitudes.

  7. The issue of multiculturalism of the country is an important issue that Singapore, with its growing diversity and immigrant population must deal with. Through its policies, Singapore has been embracing multiculturalism in schools. Some examples are:

    1. MOE has been consistently insisting on its mother tongue policy in schools, whereby Chinese, Malay and Tamil Singaporeans are required to learn the language of their own ethnic group as a second language in schools. Thus Chinese Singaporeans has no choice but to learn Chinese, even if their parents are Baba and cannot understand or speak a single word of Chinese. Similarly, Malays do not have the liberty to learn Chinese even if they would like to.
    2. The ‘speak mandarin’ campaign was mooted as an initiative to get Chinese dialect speaking Singaporeans to switch to speaking mandarin. Over the years, it has evolved to include getting English conversant Chinese Singaporean to speak mandarin in daily conversations.
    3. Ethnic self-help groups like Mendaki, CDAC and Singa are established to provide social services to the Malays, Indians and Chinese.
    4. The introduction of the Special Assistance Plan School (SAP) which are given extra resources to nurture a generation of Chinese Singaporeans who are well versed in the language.

    Multiculturalism can be defined as a demographic make-up of a country where various cultural divisions are accepted for the sake of diversity. In the 21st century, everyone in the world will be considered global citizens. There will be increased mobility with globalization and our students must be prepared to survive and thrive in a highly competitive and technologically driven workforce, often times working with people of various races and culture. One of C2015 outcomes is collaborative learners – this includes having the EQ and IQ to collaborate on work projects with people of different races. Our schools therefore have an important responsibility to nurture students who can respect and embrace people of different cultures and races. The first step to accomplishing this would be to increase awareness of different ethnic races and cultures and to promote mutual respect and understanding – this is where the policy on National Education, Racial Harmony and International Friendship Day comes in. This is complemented by the policy on gender and races ratio in allocating students to classes, policy on CIP and policy on infusion of NE values into the curriculum and CCA.

  8. Singapore has come a long way in terms of multiculturalism (I think in Singapore, multicultural and multiracial are used interchangeably) and the journey is still on-going. One place you can see this happening is perhaps the school. Pupils of all religions and races come together. In general, schools make a conscious effort to promote racial integration. During the planning stage, the school leaders and HODs consider racial mix of the deployment of teachers at every level and various departments. Efforts are also made to encourage pupils from various ethnic groups to participate in CCAs traditionally dominated by a particular race. It is no wonder school is a place where citizens and also non-citizens residing here are naturally interested in.
    On a nationwide scale, the Singapore experience has generally shown that people of all races, cultures, religions, languages and even nationalities can live together in harmony. This is probably due to the policies and practices created here to enhance inter-racial harmony. Singapore has had a multi-racial population since its founding by Sir Stamford Raffles and we have always been making an effort not to offend one another which might threaten inter-racial peace. It has therefore become part of our cultural DNA to show respect and tolerance to one another.
    The journey of multiculturalism in Singapore will continue and how it will sustain or improve depend on how the current generation mould the next.

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