Revisions to the upper secondary social studies syllabus and examination format should strengthen the link between critical thinking and active citizenship in Singapore. The connection is inherent in the nature of the subject itself. Social studies exist on the school curriculum to prepare students to participate critically in the common life of the country and to recognise its place in the world. Participation requires them to understand how Singapore is larger than the sum of its parts. Thus, the different races, religions and languages of this country are legitimate sources of its identity because primordial or visceral attachments to family, kin, race, religion or ideology are natural. However, sources are not outcomes, and beginnings not ends. Exclusive ethnicities cannot create an inclusive and lasting allegiance to the nation. Citizenship is a special calling that depends on the ability of Singaporeans to understand, accept and communicate with one another on the basis that the nation is a collective enterprise which goes beyond the reach of its constituent ethnicities. Social studies enable this idea to be handed down in schools as a legacy to the young.
Likewise, social studies encourage students to understand how life within Singapore is related to the world outside. Young Singaporeans, like their forebears, have internalised largely the idea that the world does not owe their country a living. However, it continues to exist by finding a niche in the globalised economy and in the interstices of great-power politics. As the dynamics of the world change with the resurgence of old powers such as China and India, and the emergence of religious extremism as a wild actor in world politics, students need to grasp better the intricacies of the coming world order in which Singapore must survive and seek to survive. Social studies, in the great tradition of civics - preparing individuals for the rights and duties of citizenship - have to enable the young of a city-state to build bonds within the country even as they explore what might anchor it in a world in uneasy transition.
In this context, thinking critically must go beyond mastery of incremental information and extend to grappling with topical issues that force students to look beyond existing policies to deal with current problems. They should be able to refine their responses to domestic and international issues, from the widening of the economic gap and the social consequences of immigration; to the imperative of multiracial Singapore remaining a secular state even as some countries trumpet majoritarian rights in the guise of religion.
There are no easy answers, but the questions are all-important. It is in the ability to generate questions beyond old answers that social studies will contribute to the creation of a resilient national culture in Singapore. Educationists owe their charges a civic education befitting the times.