Governance of a City-State
Commentary: In discussing Israel-Hamas conflict in Singapore, upholding social harmony is key

Concerns have sparked regarding what schools in Singapore are teaching students about the Israel-Hamas conflict. Some have expressed gripes on social media that stem particularly from the Ministry of Education’s supposed stance of neutrality.

Education Minister Chan Chun Sing on Feb 26 pointed out that lessons related to the conflict are designed primarily to help students reflect on how to safeguard cohesion and harmony in a multiracial society.

They are not intended to be history lessons, he said, nor are they meant to ascribe who is right or wrong at which period of history.

However, the fact remains that no matter how reasonable attempts at neutrality can be, a truly objective outcome is near impossible to accomplish. Given the sheer number of lives lost in this conflict, it is understandable that any stance on neutrality will be met with harsh criticism.

To date, the violence in Gaza has resulted in the loss of over 30,000 human lives, many of whom were innocent women and children.

Singapore’s former president Halimah Yacob on Feb 26 made a Facebook post in which she called for people to “stand on the side of humanity” in light of a “degradation of the human soul”.

Foreign wars can and often do place people of different communities at loggerheads with one another. Effects of the conflict have rippled across the globe with many developing and sharing strong, sometimes visceral opinions on the matter.

Public demonstrations in support of both Israel and Palestine continue to take place across the world, with varying focus on issues relating to the conflict, including calls for a ceasefire, the return of Israeli hostages, and allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza.

In any conflict, attempts can be made to spawn empathy for both sides, but a truly balanced view is difficult to attain.

Differential exposures based on our individual family, ethnic, and religious backgrounds can result in distinct experiences with the facts and realities relating to any situation.


Singapore society is hardly insulated from the events unfolding 8,000 km away in the Gaza Strip. However, some lines need to be drawn in the sand.

Opposing experiences and perspectives should not supersede the reality of being in Singapore — a diverse society where the desire of the overwhelming majority is to maintain social harmony and not replicate the kinds of conflicts found elsewhere.

University campuses, particularly in the United States, have become a hotbed for confrontations between students on opposing sides of the conflict.

Campuses are reporting incidents of physical altercations, growing instances of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and deactivation of student-activist groups. Students report being doxxed for their support of either side, resulting in the rescinding of scholarships and job offers.

During the early stages of the conflict, Amaney Jamal, the Palestinian dean of Princeton’s public policy school, and Keren Yarhi-Milo, the Israeli dean of Columbia’s counterpart, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that protests and counter-protests on the conflict have turned into screaming matches, with neither side listening to the other.

Much of the debates and discussions have shown a tendency to veer into other polarising topics, including global geopolitics or the cementing of one’s identity markers.

As the conflict drags on and as people become increasingly invested, the tendency to view things in black and white, “us-vs-them” terms grows.

But viewing this issue in such binary terms does a huge disservice to the complex nuances that define the conflict and the region at large.

One may express sympathy for the Israeli people and the atrocities committed against them while condemning Hamas, without being labelled anti-Islam or anti-Arab. One can also express sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people and criticise the disproportionate response by the Israeli government, without being labelled anti-Semitic.

The validity of one narrative does not detract from the other — indeed, the protraction of the conflict boils down to a consistent failure on both sides to recognise the legitimacy of each other’s historical narrative.

There is also a very sinister risk when polarising identities become increasingly cemented in society. Verbal disagreements, if left unchecked, may devolve into violent hate crimes.


Fortunately, it’s not entirely hopeless. Research experiments on social media platforms have demonstrated that increasing polarisation can be mitigated through different methods.

Exposure to outgroup social media feeds and framing them in familiar terms can help to enhance empathy between opposing groups.

Researchers have even developed and tested online games designed to provide corrective information about misperceived, opposing views. These too have significantly reduced negative feelings towards outgroup supporters.

We can thus have some confidence that strong, polarised views can be modified. However, this will require that each of us make the effort to confront ourselves and be open and willing to listen to differing views and perspectives.

In the Race, Religion, and Intergroup Cohesion workshops regularly run by the Institute of Policy Studies, we find that eliciting differing views is as important as developing and facilitating the spaces in which people are free to do so.

Differing views, when invoked, can generate the space for meaningful dialogue — which can in turn produce positive results on reconciliation and understanding.

However, it is true that many of the schoolteachers around the island seeking to discuss the Israel-Hamas conflict will have limited time or experience to facilitate conversations that elicit differing views on the conflict.

The risk that these conversations can go wrong cannot be understated. If not facilitated well, students may end up scarred and unwilling to discuss these issues entirely.


The question, as some parents have espoused, then remains: Should we do away entirely with endeavours to educate students on such difficult topics?

There is some appeal to that perspective. However, in the age of the Internet where information is more accessible than ever, it is necessary for Singapore’s formal education system to provide some scaffolding so that students can better engage with these topics.

On March 4, Minister Chan in Parliament assured that more training and support will be provided to schoolteachers, and the curriculum will be further customised based on the varying schooling levels.

Hopefully with these efforts, students will be better able to develop empathy for those suffering as a result of this conflict, and also manage their emotions.

Engaging with students early can help build mutual understanding and social harmony. It is important to teach students to, even amid limitations, at least appreciate that there are different sides to any story.

At times, there will be instances where we have to agree to disagree and, in the hopefully rare moments that we are going to be outraged, to find space and sit out of these discussions.

As it stands now, those in Singapore who express extremist and violent views on the conflict remain limited in numbers. While such sentiments are in the minority, we must also make concerted efforts to counter these comments and perceptions whenever possible.

Considering the sheer degree of misinformation coming out of the conflict, and as Minister Chan noted in Parliament “potential external interference” from parties with an agenda to undermine Singapore’s cohesion, we must also continue to be resilient on that front by questioning and critically assessing the media we consume online.

By upholding a degree of personal responsibility in these avenues, we move the needle towards thoughtful and meaningful dialogue about this complex but understandably emotional issue.


The writers are from the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore. Mathew Mathews is head of the Social Lab and principal research fellow. He oversees a programme on Race, Religion, and Intergroup Cohesion, which offers workshops for skills development to manage differences amid diversity. Hazim Zulfadhli is a research assistant.

This piece was first published in TODAY on 6 Mar 2024.

Top photo from Unsplash.

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