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Social studies, Little India riot, and a sad case of confirmation bias

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By Howard Lee
Parents who have had misgivings about what social studies is teaching their children in secondary school would now have reason to erase all doubt – in the most appalling way.
In a news report by Yahoo! Singapore, the social studies textbook for upper secondary school students apparently drew flak online for what appears to be a blatant omission of facts surrounding the riot in December 2013.
Images of the page that held to controversial topic stated that “riots broke out after a private bus accidentally ran over an Indian national”. It didn’t – the riot broke out after the victim was extricated from under the bus, and police were seen escorting the driver and bus coordinator to safety.
It also stated that the police was informed “within minutes” and that the riot police (SOC) was activated, but failed to say how long they took to arrive at the scene to witness the rioters who, for some reason known only to the textbook writer, suddenly decided to stop their rioting and disperse. It also hailed the government’s action as “swift”.
The “thorough investigation” was then said to have revealed “improvements” for preventing another riot – “strengthening the Home Team through strategies such as improving communication, command and control facilities, training and equipping frontline officers as well as reducing layers of approval for resource activation”.
Finally, it was stated that there were “suggestions” to “manage congregation and improve the lives foreign workers”. Again, there wasn’t – the government imposed restrictions on liquor sales and granted the police the power to strip search people entering restricted zones.
As parents, how comfortable are we with such omission of facts, and at times blatant half-truths and untruths, from what should really be an adequate description of our national ?
Or perhaps we are already resigned to the old belief that “the victor writes ”? In this case, the winner would appear to be the government – the Ministry of and the Ministry of Home Affairs, to be more precise – and we should all take it as part and parcel of life? Perhaps it might even dawn on us that we can no longer depend on our school system to teach our children what is correct, just political correctness.
Even so, the bigger issue goes beyond a matter of truth versus lies, or your version versus mine, but the broader picture of the skills our children are expected to develop in school. A report by The Straits Times indicated that the textbook was meant “to place greater emphasis on promoting active citizenship and critical thinking”. The question to ask, then, is whether such a narrative actually allows students to think critically, or does it lead to a natural assumption of a certain answer, a case of confirmation bias.
After what some have described as “a rosy look at the Little India riot”, the students were told to discuss (and by inference find outstandingly correct answers toward) “efforts to maintain internal and external security”.
The assumption that students will somehow get to the bottom of history and naturally ask why the riots occur is bordering on self-delusion. The study questions were asking for a solution, and the “correct” solution has already been presented. If they have been asked, “What really caused the riot?” or “What other approach should the government take to prevent similar riots?”, perhaps it would then occur to the students that road accidents don’t normally trigger riots.
As it is, what we have presented in the social studies textbook can hardly be a case study for triggering critical thinking. It will take students looking beyond a pass grade in the subject, a teacher who knows enough about the case and willing to push the boundaries, and a schooling system that is perpetually critical of “the facts before us”, that we would be able to reach a new plane of understanding Singapore society.
However, all we see around us is the continual emphasis on security as a national imperative, and using laws and brute hardware to achieve this. Are concepts of diplomacy, mutual respect (not tolerance) for differences, or collaborative efforts at solution finding (beyond the pathetic and highly criticised attempt at getting foreign workers to role-play as rioters) ever taught as key principles in schools?
We are still a long way off from critical thinking, so perhaps the first step is to swallow this embarrassing pill and get the facts right.

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