Managing Diversities
SP 2014: Literature and Empathy: Understanding Differences

This reflective essay is based on the second panel session titled “Living with New Differences” from the Singapore Perspectives Conference 2014.


Ms Sim Ann
Minister of State
Ministry of Education & Ministry of Communications and Information

Professor David Chan
Lee Kuan Yew Fellow &
Professor of Psychology
Director, Behavioural Sciences Institute
Singapore Management University

Professor Tommy Koh
Special Adviser
Institute of Policy Studies


Held on 28 January 2014 at the Shangri-La Hotel, IPS’ flagship conference Singapore Perspectives 2014 focused on the theme of “Differences”. In the second panel, a point raised by Minister of State (MOS) Sim Ann about the issue ignited a lively discussion among the audience and the other speakers. MOS Sim suggested that empathy allows us to have the ability to appreciate differences, and that the study of literature can be of great help in building empathy. She said that literature is not just the study of words, but also the study of thought in words; and that through literature, one can look at the world from others’ eyes and understand their thoughts and actions. For her, literature builds sensitivity and nuances, enriches history and makes one understand the psychology of others, hence she supports the Ministry of Education’s move to make literature available to as many students as possible, as well as the National Library Board’s efforts in promoting reading.

Literature may indeed be a useful tool to cultivate empathy in young Singaporeans, to enable them to better appreciate the differences found in our diverse society, especially where most of us have multiple identities (a concept brought up by Prof. David Chan in the same panel). However, are our schools enabling enough students to read literature and to cultivate this empathy? Can the general attitude towards literature as a subject be improved?

Several participants responded by supporting MOS Sim’s view. One participant described literature and the arts as a “safe space” for discussing sensitive issues, and a literature teacher in the audience pointed out that the Ministry of Education’s policy has led to a drastic decline in the number of upper secondary students taking literature at ‘O’ and ‘N’ Levels. She added that unlike other countries, Singapore has no national literature, and therefore we have to teach mainly British and American literature for the subject.

A sharp decline in the number of students taking Literature in schools was reported in The Straits Times just last year. There were only 3,000 students taking the subject, as compared to 16,970 back in 1992 (Chia, 2013). One reason for the sharp decline was the increase in subject choices like Combined Humanities at the upper secondary level. Another reason for the decline is the common perception that is it hard to score well in the subject. The same phenomenon is taking place in the United Kingdom, with the number of pupils taking Literature at GSCE falling 12% over a four-year period (Patton, 2011). The current unenthusiastic attitude towards the subject, as shown by these declining figures, makes it difficult to tap this useful tool for cultivating empathy in students.

Literature, together with other arts and humanities subjects, has indeed been under-emphasised in local schools, in favour of subjects that are deemed more practical, like Mathematics and the Sciences. More importantly, attitudes towards the humanities have been unenthusiastic in the mainstream opinion.

According to Education Minister Heng Swee Keat in his dialogue session at the same conference, despite the limited curriculum time in schools, MOE recognises the need to balance curriculum time for science subjects with the arts and humanities. MOE is looking into how to improve the balance.

A large proportion of the prescribed texts for Literature in the English ‘O’ Level syllabus are foreign literature, while foreign texts (e.g., American or British) make up the majority of the ‘A’ Level syllabus (SEAB 2013a; 2013b). Students may choose to answer a few questions on non-prescribed texts during the exam, e.g., Singaporean or Malaysian prose and unseen texts or poetry. Although the inclusion of literature by local authors in the syllabus ensures that local content is represented, a wider selection of prescribed texts of local or Asian content may perhaps be a good move. Not only would it encourage students to read translated local literature, it could also deepen their understanding and appreciation of differences closer to home, where local identities are varied and complex.

Prof. David Chan, the second speaker of the panel, stressed that we need to examine the concept of “multiple identities”. He explained that as individuals, we each have a set of different identities that come to the fore in different settings and with different people. Most people, however, think of themselves as having only one single identity. For example, a Chinese Singaporean’s identity as a racial majority becomes that of a racial minority when he or she is the only Chinese in a group of Malays. Or, a man’s male identity is highlighted and amplified when he is in the company of female colleagues. We tend to think and behave differently in these different situations and settings, which are frequent occurrences in a non-homogeneous society like Singapore. We should therefore be mindful about how others around us have multiple identities too and look beyond the apparent differences that may only be skin-deep. The study of literature encourages us to look beyond surface differences and identities, going deeper into subtleties.

Literature allows us to see things from different points of views that we would otherwise not be able to see. As we read about experiences and stories from different points of views, we can make sense of the behaviours and thoughts of others through multiple identities, thereby learning to appreciate the diversity found in our society. The critical thinking skills acquired via the learning of literature are useful in making sense of information and handling sensitive issues of differences in our multi-faceted society.

However, Literature should not be seen as a magic tool that enables everyone to understand the differences in others. As argued by IPS Director Janadas Devan at the conference, Nazi perpetrators were highly cultured men who “read Göethe and listened to Beethoven”, yet they committed heinous crimes against humanity, victimising groups that were deemed different according to the Nazi ideology. On the flip side, Literature can also be used as a tool for the indoctrination of ideas via the careful selection of content. A more pertinent issue is not about whether our students are exposed to Literature, but rather, how we can cultivate empathy in them without having to be selective about content that is seen as potentially controversial, or not in line with our common ideology.

Perhaps we could take a deeper look at what we want to achieve from Literature classes, or what expectations we are looking for in students who read Literature.

Is the study of Literature a suitable method to enable young Singaporeans to appreciate differences in modern-day Singapore, with its significantly different demography brought about by the influx of new immigrants? Will injecting more literature by local or Asian writers into the syllabus make a notable difference, or should we continue focusing on the study of foreign literature? What can be done to raise the interest in the Literature subject, and to encourage more students to take it as a subject in schools?

More importantly, are we headed towards a new generation of Singaporeans who are experts at Mathematics and Sciences, but lack basic empathy and the ability to handle differences in our increasingly multi-faceted society?


Chia, S. (2013). “Big drop in number of students taking literature”, The Straits Times, 25 February
Patton, G. (2011). “Children ‘dropping English Literature in schools’”, The Telegraph, 19 November
Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board [SEAB]. (2013a). “‘O’ Levels Syllabus, 2013
Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board [SEAB]. (2013b). “‘A’ Levels Syllabus, 2013



Zhou Rongchen is a research assistant at the Institute of Policy Studies.



For more information on Singapore Perspectives 2014, please visit our IPS website.

Please also do check out the other articles on Singapore Perspectives 2014, including:
Singapore Perspectives 2014: Opening Remarks by Janadas Devan
SP 2014: Transcending Differences through the Arts? by Mohammad Khamsya
SP 2014: Articulating Differences for an Evolving Nation: A Socio-Economic Perspective by Sarjune Ibrahim
• SP 2014: More than Just Differences by Chang Zhi Yang
• SP2014: Contestation versus Consensus: which is a more constructive force? by Teo Jin Ye


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