Singapore Character: Unis have key role

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat.
Education Minister Heng Swee Keat.PHOTO: MATTHIAS HO FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

To secure Singapore's destiny in the next 50 years, it is important to preserve key traits of "the Singapore Character", such as hard work and integrity, and universities play a key role in this, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat.

Universities are not just places where knowledge is gathered, and he said they must have a deeper sense of purpose - they should also be places to foster character as well as ethics, values and empathy.

Mr Heng made the points in a speech on Wednesday night at the inaugural award ceremony of the Singapore Teaching and Academic Research Talent Scheme.

Academics and students interviewed agreed that universities have a role to play in helping to develop character. Singapore Management University student Chan Han Ye, 23, said it would be useful to be exposed to discussions on the Singapore Character at university.

Professor Ang Peng Hwa, of Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, agreed, saying: "The students are older and have given more thought to the issue."

In his speech, Mr Heng also noted that universities can help develop a Singapore character and identity by focusing on holistic education that develops the moral character of the young.

He added they can do this too by supporting lifelong learning and innovation to keep Singaporeans resilient; nurturing a commitment to serve the community; and building a strong Singaporean core with a passion for the nation.

Associate professor Tan Ern Ser of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said the entire education system from kindergarten to university should be involved in helping to foster character.

He suggested this can be done through the study of philosophy, history, business ethics, national education and even biographies.

On biographies, he said: "Students could evaluate the actions of the people studied, and decide for themselves what is worth emulating and what should be avoided.

"For instance, when studying Hitler, one gets to understand the evil of racial prejudice, the unfair treatment of minorities, and its destructive impact on humanity," he said.

But National University of Singapore political scientist Bilveer Singh said some institutions lack Singapore staff and Singaporean-oriented curriculum.

"You need dedicated Singaporeans who have the heartware, empathy and passion to impart these values, traditions, sweat, tears and joys of our trials and tribulations to make a true nation.

"Otherwise you simply do not understand how nations are cemented, especially those divided by sharp racial, linguistic and religious fault lines."

Additional reporting by Amir Hussain

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2015, with the headline 'Singapore Character: Unis have key role'. Print Edition | Subscribe