Young people today have a different view of race and religion as compared with older generations, and conversations in school play a big role in helping students navigate differences, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said yesterday.
The generation before him had a tolerant view towards diversity and co-existing, while his own generation became more accepting and appreciative of other cultures.
"But if you ask people of my generation to sit down and have a conversation (about sensitive issues), it feels awkward, and almost a bit embarrassing and uncomfortable.
"This generation is different. They actually want to talk about it. But they need facilitation, and they are honest about it," he said.
The minister was speaking during a media visit to Tampines Secondary School yesterday, where he joined students to commemorate Racial Harmony Day.
Racial Harmony Day falls on July 21, but as that day is during the one-week school midterm break, celebrations were brought forward.
Mr Ong said the Ministry of Education (MOE) is encouraging principals to hold more in-depth conversations in school, including during character and citizenship education classes.
During the Budget debate in March, it was announced that schools would engage secondary school students on contemporary issues - such as bullying, using social media, and race and reli-gion - fortnightly.
MOE is training more teachers who can specialise in this and can facilitate such discussions, said Mr Ong. But he emphasised that context matters in discussing race and religion.
"We are constantly under the influence of American social media, American pop culture, but we are not American. Our histories are totally different."
This will be a topic teachers will have to carefully engage students on, he noted.
"The starting point has got to be our own conversations and dialogues. You are bound to discover that students are reading things on the Internet, getting ideas that are more 'Americanised', for example, and when you bring it up, then you can have a contestation of ideas respectfully, and then that is how students get to internalise them."
Just sending them reading material is not going to help, said Mr Ong, adding: "You need that engagement."
At Tampines Secondary, teachers use conversation cards and board games to engage students in discussions on issues involving race, religion, culture and tradition.
In a Secondary 3 class The Straits Times observed, students discussed various scenarios and how they would respond to them.
For example, a given scenario was someone being surprised that a Malay student does well in mathematics, and complimenting the student that "you are actually really smart for a Malay".
In response, students said this was a backhanded compliment with improper tone and hurtful phrasing, as it sounded sarcastic. They discussed how they would let the person know that it could be offensive, without using aggression.
Secondary 3 student Goh Sun-Jin, 15, said he has learnt to be more sensitive about recognising other people's perspectives.
"Sometimes, our words may affect them harshly and they may not be brave enough to speak up," he said, adding that his friendship with classmates of different ethnicities - Filipinos, Malays and Indians - has taught him much about differences in cultures.
In a Secondary 1 class, students took part in a quiz, with questions such as which ethnic group the game chapteh - played with a weighted shuttlecock - is associated with. A number of students answered "Malay", with a student explaining "the word sounded Malay".
The teacher later revealed that the game has its origins in China, and advised students to avoid making assumptions.
In a separate visit, Second Mi-nister for Education Indranee Rajah joined pupils at Juying Pri-mary School to mark Racial Harmony Day.
Across Singapore, students were encouraged to appreciate the country's racial and cultural diversity.
Given the safe management measures in place in schools, this year's commemorative activities largely took place through classroom-based activities and discussions instead of school-or cohort-wide events.