Singapore schools conduct lessons for students to understand Israel-Hamas conflict

SINGAPORE, Feb 26: The character and citizenship education (CCE) lessons conducted in multi-national Singapore’s schools are teaching students about the Israel-Hamas conflict.

These lessons aim to help students process their emotions and information about the issue, and are not meant to be history lessons or to ascribe blame, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing pointed out.

Given Singapore’s social fabric and the deluge of information on the issue, it was all the more urgent to have frank discussions with students to help them understand the complex topic, the education minister said in response to concerns from some parents about the CCE material.

Some parents had put up social media posts expressing their unhappiness with the lesson content and how their children were taught about the conflict, accusing the Ministry of Education (MOE) of taking sides, among other criticisms.

The MOE had foreseen the challenges in dealing with such a complex topic, said Chan in an interview with local media on Sunday.

“Whether it is this issue or the Russia-Ukraine conflict, whenever it comes to CCE, we fully expect that there will be issues that will elicit different reactions from different people,” he said.

“It can be a manner of degree, it can be in different ways. So, I think we are mentally prepared for this,” he added.

Despite the challenges involved in teaching the topic, when the MOE came together with principals and teachers, they had all agreed upon a common objective to “build a shared ethos of how we respond as Singaporeans”, the minister said.

Chan noted that the lessons are not meant to be history lessons and are also not an exercise to apportion blame to one party or another.

In fact, CCE lessons, which typically include discussions on a range of contemporary issues and global events, aim to achieve four things.

First, to help students understand their own emotions and empathise with others; second, to reflect on how to safeguard cohesion and harmony in a multiracial society; third, to learn to verify information sources before sharing them responsibly; and fourth, to appreciate the diversity of views and conduct conversations sensitively and respectfully.

While not easily achieved, the alternative would be to leave students to grapple with the issue on their own and be subject to external influences, or worse, be misguided by biased sources on social media, said Chan.

Already, students and Singaporeans in general have been flooded with unverified information, images and misinformation being circulated online, The Straits Times cited the Minister as saying.

This has stirred emotions on an issue that many Singaporeans feel strongly about, and sometimes sparked heated conversation, including among young people, he noted.

“So, we have to be very careful not to let the seeds of hatred and distrust be planted in our younger generations,” the minister was quoted as saying.

“We must understand Singapore’s vulnerabilities and interests, and work hard to preserve our cohesion, mutual tolerance and acceptance, and find ways to preserve our multiracial and multi-religious harmony.

Against this backdrop, the CCE lessons are meant to create a safe environment for students to understand what is happening in the world around them, he added.

He said the MOE had worked with other ministries and agencies, like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to curate age-appropriate materials for students to help them understand the conflict.

It also discussed the material with professional educators and principals.

On the concerns some parents have raised on the teaching material, Chan said the CCE lessons would be updated based on new developments and information.

The first tranche of materials was updated till December 2023, and MOE will continue to update it every two to three months, he added.

“So, we update the curriculum in tranches because as we speak, new developments are happening,” he said.

On a particular slide in the CCE lessons that was posted online on the events of October 7, when Hamas attacked Israel and Israel retaliated, Chan said it should not be taken in isolation.

He added that there are also slides for teachers’ reference that recount the complex and violent history behind the conflict, and materials that go further back to encourage older students to read and understand this conflict in detail.

He also thanked educators for their professionalism, noting that they too had their own personal feelings and convictions about the issue but had not imposed them on students.

The war in Gaza erupted after Hamas militants crossed the border into Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 Israelis and taking 240 people as hostages in a brutal rampage through Israeli towns.

Since then, the Israeli retaliation in Gaza has laid much of the enclave to waste, sending the Palestinian death toll surging to almost 30,000, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.

“Some people may have mischaracterised it and say that we only present from October 7 and beyond. Our position is very clear. This is a conflict with a long history, many things have happened,” Chan said.

He added that Singapore has joined many countries in the United Nations to call for a ceasefire and humanitarian support for the victims, and has always supported a two-state solution.

Besides updating the teaching materials, the MOE will also evolve its teaching methods, taking in feedback from stakeholders, he said.

On whether the ministry would consider an opt-out option for parents who do not feel comfortable letting their children participate in this CCE lesson, Chan said it was important to look at the purpose of CCE lessons, which is to promote mutual understanding and social harmony.

“I think we want all our students to be able to appreciate this,” he said.

“If we approach it from this perspective, then we can understand the importance of inculcating such values in our students… How we work together with people from diverse backgrounds to promote our social harmony and cohesion, how we work together to verify facts, how we work together such that at the end of the day, even if we hold different perspectives, we can have a respectful conversation.”

At the end of the day, this is not issue or conflict-specific, Chan noted, adding that these values are important in Singapore’s multiracial and multi-religious society.

Chan was also asked about teachers who may feel strongly on the issue, to which he said they had carried out their duties with professionalism.

“They do not impose their personal views on our students. As professionals, they are committed to guide our children to the best of their abilities to understand the importance of upholding our social harmony, verifying information as a life skill, and appreciating diverse perspectives respectfully,” he said.

“We understand that different teachers may have their individual concerns, and this is not just about the Malay or Muslim communities here. It can also apply to the Jewish community, the Christian communities, or any other people of different faiths, or from different backgrounds,” the minister said.

“We make it a point to make sure that we help the schools to form the teams to deliver (the lessons) as a team, rather than as individuals,” he added.

THe Education Minister said he CCE lessons were prepared in consultation with educators, and that school leaders helped to prepare and select teachers to teach the material and facilitate the discussions.

“I must credit our educators for the conviction and courage to do this well, despite the challenges, for the sake of our children and our people,” he said. (PTI)