Governance of a City-State
How can Civic Education Nurture a Thriving, Deliberative Democracy in Singapore?

This reflective report is based on the parallel session titled “The Future of Civic Education for Thriving, Deliberative Democracy,” which was held at the IPS Conference on Civil Society 2013, 11 November, Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel.

Associate Professor Kenneth Paul Tan
Vice Dean (Academic Affairs)
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy
National University of Singapore

Ms Dawn Yip
Director and Principal Consultant
Soulbreath Consulting

This session discussed what more can be done to further develop citizens’ consciousness of the country’s social and political conditions and needs, as well as develop their capacity to be full, active, informed members of a democracy.  What follows is a summary of the session and some reflections of the rapporteur.

Speaker’s Presentation

The Speaker, Associate Professor (A/P) Kenneth Paul Tan began by saying that apart from the voting in a general election, democracy also takes place between elections in the form of deliberation in the public sphere.  This is the exercise of ‘deliberative democracy’. Civic education should develop character traits in citizens that support deliberative democracy.

A/P Tan said that deliberative democracy works well when certain conditions are in place.  This includes having a safe space to speak without fear; a process of exchange which is inclusive, representative and allows for fair treatment of views; easy access to the public sphere through platforms and structures like the social media; and an understanding that people in the engagement feel obliged to make only claims that are reasonable, verifiable by logic, and truthful.

Also, deliberative democracy is at its best when it is developmental rather than aggregative in its approach, which means that participants work together in good faith, respect each other’s moral positions to shape commonality and collectively improve on the framework of public reason.  This developmental perspective provides participants with the freedom to deviate from their original positions as a result of the deliberative process.  In contrast, an aggregative approach sees individuals advertise their wants and desires in the public sphere which are then added to the overall outcome if possible.

Given that, what are the attributes that citizens require for a functioning deliberative democracy?  Citizens need to be able to speak courageously, be tolerant and open-minded about the viewpoints of other participants.  This is possible if the exchange is based on mutual respect and generalised trust.  They also should possess the relevant knowledge as well as the capacity to understand the arguments and issues, have logical, interpretive and critical thinking skills.  Participants should be able to express themselves effectively and communicate convincingly.  Added to this is the creativity to imagine what it is like for others and reframe the terms of disagreement when conversations arrive at a seeming impasse.  Overall, citizens need to have ‘democratic character’, which refers to habits, dispositions usually acquired through some process of inculcation.

The question then is, whether civic education is able to shape such attributes and promote ‘democratic character’.  Although local civic education in the formal school setting has been increasing in depth and sophistication in recent years, particular aspects of curriculum and pedagogy require special attention to achieve learning outcomes that effectively develop deliberative democracy.

The content of curriculum should impart knowledge directly relevant for citizenship.  These aid the ability to understand and possibly find resolution to dilemmas and controversy in the public sphere.  Exposure to subjects like Political Science and Sociology help to achieve this.

On the aspect of pedagogy, or the method through which such attributes could be taught, A/P Tan felt that classroom teaching needs to move from its rules-based orientation and be ‘democratised’.  This can be aided with the creative use of technology and methods of active learning such as forum theatre, problem-based learning as well as peer-learning. The process of civic education can inculcate soft skills like leadership, as well as an attitude of lifelong learning, and encourage students to listen both sensitively and critically to arguments that are being presented.

Democratic participation should be an exercise in learning by doing, rather than waiting for the ideal moment to arrive. In the classroom context, students should not wait till they graduate to be active in grassroots, civil or political pursuits.

Some potential issues could arise with this approach to civic education include: whether public debate would only represent the views of elite citizens; the need to be cognisant and selective of contradictory impulses in differing philosophical traditions of civic education (like civic republicanism and liberal democracy); how much participation is to be expected and how non-participation should be treated; as well as whether educators are prepared and have sufficient capacity to play their part.

Question and Answer Session

The discussion touched on the sphere, scope, content and teaching of civic education, and its role in education as a whole.

Participants said that while it was good to look at civic education in schools, should it not instead begin at home where parents play an important role in inculcating values? To this end, it would perhaps be fruitful to channel resources to help parents with civic education in the familial context.

One participant suggested that civic education was often not a priority even in school, if it is a non-examinable subject.  Another said that the thrust of education should itself aim at inculcating the lifelong love for learning and knowledge, and not simply be a pursuit of good academic results and skills development for a job.  Another participant raised the potential for engaging non-state actors in the delivery of civic education in schools, which has been taking place in the legal sector.

The session also included a discussion on the education level at which civic education would be appropriate.  Upon the invitation of the chairperson, the audience voted on the question of how they would distribute available resources for the delivery of civic education across education levels.  Approximately half the participants would place their resources at the pre-school or primary level, about another half at the secondary level, none at the post-secondary level, and a few for equal amounts across all levels.

There was also debate in the audience about the conditions necessary for a thriving deliberative democracy to develop.  One participant did not view the necessity of a safe space to speak as a prerequisite, as this would remove some of the challenges that were a natural part of deliberative democracy.  To this, A/P Tan said there was an impulse on the part of Singaporeans to self-censor, and not even want to enter the public space.

Another participant pointed to the state of information asymmetry, in which the public often does not have access to sufficient information to facilitate public debate.


On top of the points raised in the session, there is also the question of how civic education, as understood in the civic republicanism or liberal democratic traditions will square with the state of democracy in Singapore today.  There is the need to deliberate which particular set of democratic values Singapore wishes to inculcate in its students through civic education.  The speaker said that there was an important distinction between the traditions.  Also, the conditions mentioned at the start of A/P Tan’s presentation will need to be in place in order to reinforce the idea that citizens’ voice is important and makes a difference in Singapore’s governance system.

Action Points

•    Examine what is the most appropriate level where civic education should be taught in the formal education system.

•    Review the place of civic education in the rubric of education.  Should it remain non-examinable and if so how then can students be motivated to see the value of it?

•    Pedagogical approaches in or outside of formal school programmes need to be developed so that they themselves model the nature of deliberative democracy; people learn by doing.

•    Public schools could engage non-state groups to deliver civic education.

•    More resources could be generated to help parents with civic education at home.

Ms Debbie Soon was a Research Assistant at IPS and volunteered to report on the Conference.

Please do continue to keep an eye out for more reports on the Civil Society Conference, including:

•     Contemplations on Civil Society circa 2013 by Gillian Koh

•    What should the Future Legislative Landscape Relating to Civil Society in Singapore Look Like?  by Valerie Koh

•    What More Can Be Done to Foster Youth Activism in Singapore? By Tay Ek Kiat 

•    What Role Could Ethnic-Based Self-Help Groups Play in Developing a Vibrant Civil Society In Singapore? By Sim Jui Liang

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