Good international relations classroom best served by open minds

Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan (right) met with Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, on Jan 8, 2019.
Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan (right) met with Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, on Jan 8, 2019.PHOTO: ST FILE

I am all for intensifying international relations education in our classrooms (Teach students about S'pore-Malaysia relations, by Mr Phillip Tan Fong Lip; Jan 15).

International relations, however, is a subject highly vulnerable to subjectivity.

Deans, faculty members and even students may arrive at such programmes with deeply carved mentalities of who the "good guys" and "bad guys" are in the international arena.

Most classrooms of international affairs seem to gravitate towards an accustomed mainstream unanimity.

How can anyone even be so sure who the "bad guys" are?

While Country A would not hesitate to point to Country B as the bad player, I am certain another would be just as quick to mark the former as bad.

Besides, is such a distinction even possible when no country is inherently good or bad?

A more worthwhile inquiry, perhaps, would be to examine each country's failings and triumphs, rather than assassinate the character of any particular country in entirety.

Former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara put things in perspective when he said he would have been labelled a war criminal for schematising the bombing of Japan had America lost World War II.

There's no lack of justification for one's own ideological structures. One will argue they are fighting terrorists, another defending the free world, yet another battling on behalf of their supreme being.

Only via explorations from multiple angles with an eclectic approach to information, can more useful and wide-ranging lessons be extracted.

At the very least, the school environment must offer safety for freedom of speech and inquiry in the spirit of academic enterprise.

An international relations classroom is best served by open minds, a diversity of views and wide-ranging inquiry - that could mean challenging conventional wisdom too.

To be truly effective, an international relations school must reject the novellas of good guys and bad guys to truly become a supranational institution that produces people capable of solving our world's problems.

Lily Ong (Madam)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2019, with the headline 'Good international relations classroom best served by open minds'. Print Edition | Subscribe