I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.

Commonly Attributed to Mark Twain

The Object of Education

The concept of education in the minds of the vast majority of people is that of the inculcation of knowledge or the training in skills and preparation for a vocation. Thus, in a sense, no matter how diverse the opinions or judgements of education systems, the unspoken assumption is that one of the key ends of education is of the fostering of an economic vocation or productivity. It doesn’t matter whether we want to educate “creativity” or to foster more pragmatic learning, the end point for both cases is vocational.

Education as Moral Character Formation

But of course the education system traditionally, and still now, never had vocational training as its sole goal, as if the purpose of education is purely for increasing a nation’s GDP. It was and is, at least officially, to mould moral character. Observe for example, the Ministry of Education’s stated “Desired Outcomes of Education”,

The person who is schooled in the Singapore Education system embodies the Desired Outcomes of Education. He has a good sense of self-awareness, a sound moral compass… he is… a confident person who has a strong sense of right and wrong, is adaptable and resilient, knows himself, is discerning in judgment…

[italics mine, bold original. Source: http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/desired-outcomes/ ]

Naturally traditionally persons were understood to be unified entities and were not fragmented or separated between the “moral self” and the “vocational self”, “public” and “private”, etc. Thus the retention even to this day of the idea that one of the desired goals and purposes of education is precisely the formation of moral character, instill a sense of right and wrong judgements, etc.

But whilst the vocational aspect of education has been given an inordinate amount of attention in public, the moral aspect of education has curiously not received as much discussion. The reason of course is not far to seek.

Unified Morals?

In an increasingly fragmented world with a pluarity of values, is it still possible to hold on to a unified “moral compass” or “sense of right and wrong”? In a world with many different purposes, no common Purpose, many directions, no common Direction, our moral compass wouldn’t be able to point in one direction, it would simply be spinning round and round as it points to contradictory directions according to the whims of the Zeitgeist.

If indeed there is no consensus or agreement as to what constitutes the “moral self” which is one of the object of education, what would be the justification for a unified state education attempting to impose a unified view of a moral self unto the nation?

Already this schism can be seen in the recent issue of sexuality education programmes in local Catholic schools. It is the moral teaching of the Roman Catholic Church that contraceptives are immoral, but this is certainly not the view of the state which has successfully mandated and pushed through the policy that Catholic schools shall be obliged to offer sexuality education on contraceptives, at least for just the non-Catholics. This was done over the objections of the local Roman Catholic Archdiocese. If society continues to fragment along the lines of the West, then we shall be seeing more such conflicts between the state’s view of morality and local community’s moral conceptions, which will inevitably clash in huge question which hangs over a common public education enforcing a uniform view of the moral character.

Education or Enlarged Tuition Centres

There has been some voices here and there which have objected to the purely economic and vocational emphasis of public education, arguing that education should form the overall person and character, etc. But such arguments normally masks a massive evasion and reluctance to engage the vital question: What is this person or character which our education system is supposed to mould our children into?

Here is an interesting way to test our consistency in thinking through this issue. If public school teachers are not to be merely professional tuition teachers of an large class but also moulders of moral character, should we allow divorcee teachers to teach, seeing that their “moral character”, so called, has been compromised? The consistent answer is of course one should not, that is, if public schools are to be moulders of moral characters and not merely enlarged tuition centres. But how many people exalting the value of education as moulders of moral character are willing to affirm this? This is a question which we shall all need to ask ourselves.

Unify or Break up?

It is interesting to observe with regards to this question that in the recent allegations of an ex-principal involved in an online prostitution ring, Lim Biow Chuan, the Government Parliamentary Committee Chair for Education, had this to say on the issue,

I recognise the fact that this may be his personal life, so what he does outside school is really something between him and his family. But nevertheless, the fact is that he’s leading a group of teachers who are expected to be examples, good models for our students. I think it’d be difficult for the teachers to look up to him, if there are moral flaws in his character

[italics mine]

Which brings us back to the broader question which not only Singapore, but many parts of the Western world have to contend with as well, the question of the unity of culture and a common understanding as to what constitute moral character.

The days when Oxford University had a religious test (i.e. Being a member of the Church of England) before they can confer a master’s degree maybe long gone, but it is a testimony to the traditional understanding of education as formation of the whole person, not only vocationally-economically, but also morally and spiritually, which idea incidentally still survives in Christian mission schools which have compulsory chapel service for its students.

And it does seem that even the West is attempting to reverse the fragmenting effects of the modern age, with David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister saying that the “doctrine of state multiculturalism” has failed, and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, recently argued that her nation suffered from “too little Christianity. We have too few discussions about the Christian view of mankind…” and the need to have more public discussions “about the values that guide us (and) about our Judeo-Christian tradition”.


We can of course dismiss these as merely political talk without any actual commitment towards enforcement or practical bringing about such a unified culture and values. Perhaps so. But yet the question still remains, either we retain the view of a public state education as a moulder of moral character, which would entail needing to enforce a unified culture and conception of the moral character, or we simply give up the idea of public state education as moulders of moral characters, in effect, they simply become tuition centres enlarged.

This is the either-or of contemporary society which we simply cannot evade. Whatever we may think of our former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, but at least when he declared that, “We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think”, this philosophy is thoroughly consistent with a common state enforced education. People who continue to advocate state education as moulders of characters simply cannot escape or brush aside this vital question of deciding the shape of character which shall be imposed upon the rest of the nation.

Then again, recent events do reveal that Singaporeans still believe that public educators are required to uphold moral standards and values, and we might want to take a very hard look at the West backtracking upon their multiculturalism, before we blindly follow them down the multicultarism route, and plunge straight into fragmentation, and let history repeat themselves.

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