Values education in Singapore

Compulsory values education was first implemented in schools in Singapore in the late 1950s through civics, ethics and religious studies classes. The purpose of values education is to impart moral values and help students become responsible members in their families and communities, and better citizens. In response to changes in educational policies, national needs and pedagogical approaches, the curriculum for values education has evolved from early programmes such as Civics (1958), Religious Knowledge (1958) and Ethics (1959) to Character and Citizenship Education (2014).

Compulsory values education was implemented in the late 1950s, when education was undergoing major reforms towards a centralised education system and a Malayan-centred curriculum. The first notable mention of values education was in the White Paper on Educational Policy of 1956, in which the government announced its intention to implement civics education in all schools to build a “common Malayan loyalty” and provide facilities for religious or ethical instruction.1 The government saw moral and religious education as a way to curb juvenile delinquency and to keep youths away from Communism and other subversive influences.2

In 1956, the Ethics and Religion committee – comprising members of the Ministry of Education and leaders of the Buddhist, Christian, Confucian, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities – was formed to report on the value of religious studies or ethics as a compulsory subject in schools.3 On its recommendations, the Ethics programme was rolled out to all non-mission and non-Malay schools in 1959. Depending on each school’s resources, students could also opt to study their own religion, instead of Ethics.4

The aims of Ethics were to impart moral virtues, promote good habits and inculcate civic consciousness.5 A series of teaching guides and syllabus were produced to support its teaching: the primary school syllabus “Right Conduct”,6 the secondary school syllabus,7 a teacher’s guide,8 and four volumes of stories on the right behaviour.To engage secondary school students, teachers were encouraged to bring them to the courts and the Legislative Assembly to learn about the organs of state.10

Religious Knowledge
The implementation of religious knowledge classes was met with greater challenges, because of the lack of qualified teachers and study materials.11 In September 1958, the first religious classes on Islam began on an experimental basis in government Malay schools.12 The programme was later extended to other religions in 1959, after the education ministry involved various religious authorities in curriculum planning and the running of classes. When classroom teaching was not available, students could attend lessons at places of worship.13

Introduced in November 1958, the Civics programme for secondary schools covered topics such as community, public and social services, organs of state, government, law and order, defence, citizenship rights, and racial harmony.14 In 1966, the education ministry launched a comprehensive programme of moral education and civic training for primary and secondary schools. The civic training syllabus for primary schools emphasised character formation, good habits, moral development and citizenship responsibilities. The secondary school syllabus was developed along similar lines, with the aim of inculcating a noble character, a healthy body, good habits, and love for one’s country and community. These topics were explored in the context of the individual, the family, the school, the community, the nation and the world.15

Education for Living
After a review of the primary school Civics syllabus in 1973, a new interdisciplinary programme that combined civics, history and geography was introduced to replace Civics in primary schools. Called Education for Living, the programme was delivered in the mother tongue (Chinese, Malay or Tamil) and implemented in phases, beginning with Primary 1 and 2 in 1974. In secondary schools, Civics continued to be taught.16

Report on the Ministry of Education 1978
In 1977, values education came under review again when the Ministry of Education set up a committee to study how moral education could be introduced to schools. Instead of formal classroom lessons, the committee proposed the integration of moral education, physical education and extra-curricular activities. The committee also favoured the use of English as a medium of instruction over the mother tongue. However these recommendations were overturned with the subsequent release of the Report on the Ministry of Education 1978 and the Report on Moral Education 1979.17

The 1978 report was prepared by a committee led by Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee to identify problems in the education system and propose solutions for reforms. Foremost among the proposals was to develop a new programme to replace the existing Education for Living and Civics. The committee advocated the use of mother tongue, which was believed to be a more fitting medium of instruction for imparting traditional values and understanding Asian cultural traditions. Storytelling, especially of Asian tales, was also recommended as a teaching method. The committee proposed that civics be taught at a basic level in secondary schools and removed from the primary school syllabus entirely, as its concepts were too advanced for children.18

Report on Moral Education 1979
In 1978, Acting Minister of Culture Ong Teng Cheong was tasked to form a team to evaluate the existing moral education programmes. In its Report on Moral Education 1979, the committee concluded that Education for Living and Civics were ineffective, because the content coverage was too wide, the presentation too dull and the language level too difficult for students in the English stream to understand. They proposed that these courses be replaced with a single programme called Moral Education, which would focus on personal behaviour, social responsibility and loyalty to the country. The new programme would also incorporate the teaching of Asian values. On the medium of instruction, the committee felt that mother tongue would be a more effective language for the transmission of Asian moral values and cultural traditions.19

Moral education, social studies and religious knowledge
The 1980s was a period of experimentation for values education. Education for Living and Civics were gradually being phased out and replaced with two moral education programmes: Good Citizen, and Being and Becoming.20 Good Citizen was based on the moral education syllabus recommended by Dr (Rev) Robert Balhetchet, the education ministry’s consultant.21 Initially only available in Chinese, the Good Citizen textbooks were launched in 1981 to replace Education for Living for Primary 1 and 2 students. The programme was later expanded to include other mother tongue languages and other primary levels.22

Dr Balhetchet developed the syllabus for Being and Becoming, which was introduced to Bukit Merah Secondary School in 1980, and subsequently rolled out to lower secondary school students and some primary schools.23 Despite being implemented at the same time in primary schools, the two programmes represented different teaching approaches. While Good Citizen adopted a more didactic approach, Being and Becoming used journalling, discussions and activities to help students understand and internalise the moral precepts. This innovative approach to learning was not readily accepted by some teachers who were accustomed to the more traditional styles of teaching.24

In addition, Religious Knowledge and Confucian Ethics were instituted as compulsory and examinable subjects for Secondary Three and Four students in 1984.25 This policy was later reversed by the government in 1989 in the face of religious revivalism in Singapore. In so doing, the government stated its position of neutrality on religious matters, and that religious education was the prime responsibility of parents, with schools playing a minor role.26

Civics and Moral Education
In 1992 the Ministry of Education implemented a new moral education programme called Civics and Moral Education. Initially developed for upper secondary school students to address the gap left by Religious Knowledge, it became a programme implemented in primary and secondary schools. The new courseware placed a greater emphasis on citizenship education, such as the five shared values: placing society before self; upholding the family as the basic building block of society; respecting the rights of individuals and offering community support; resolving issues through consensus, not conflict; and racial and religious harmony.27

National Education
In 1997, the National Education programme was launched, adding another dimension to values education. The aim of the initiative is to develop national cohesion in students by fostering a sense of Singaporean identity, recounting Singapore’s journey as a nation, helping students understand the unique challenges and vulnerabilities of Singapore, and instilling core values such as meritocracy and racial harmony.28 National Education is not taught as a separate subject but infused into the school curriculum.29

Character and Citizenship Education
In 2011, then Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat announced that the various strands of values education – Civics and Moral Education, National Education and co-curricular activities – would be streamlined and offered as an integrated programme called Character and Citizenship. The curriculum focuses on inculcating personal, moral and citizenship values that would prepare young Singaporeans to meet the challenges of a changing global world.30 Character and Citizenship was introduced to primary and secondary students in 2014, and pre-university students in 2016.31 The Character and Citizenship programme is supplemented by other programmes that inculcate values through community involvement, such as Values in Action (2012), which succeeded the Community Involvement Programme, and Values in Practice (2016).32

Gracie Lee

1. Legislative Assembly of Singapore, White Paper on Education Policy (Singapore: Legislative Assembly, 1956), 6. (Call no. RCLOS 370.95951 SIN).
2. “Ethics to Be Taught in Colony Schools,” Singapore Standard, 2 February 1956, 2; “Moral Ethics Bid in Colony Schools,” Singapore Standard, 22 February 1956, 2; “Religion for Schools Begins in ’58,” Singapore Free Press, 9 August 1957, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “Morals for the Masses at School,” Sunday Times, 4 December 1955, 13 (From NewspaperSG); “Moral Ethics Bid in Colony Schools”; “Religion May Be a ‘Must’ in All Colony Schools,” Singapore Standard, 10 June 1957, 3 (From NewspaperSG); “Religion for Schools Begins in ’58.”
4. Ministry of Education, Annual Report 1958 (Singapore: Government Printing Office, 1959), 1 (Call no. RCLOS 370.95951 SIN); “Religion or Ethics for All,” Singapore Free Press, 6 January 1958, 5; “Choose Your Religion Courses Soon,” Singapore Free Press, 4 March 1958, 7; “Religious Education for All,” Sunday Standard, 16 March 1958, 4; “Religious Choice at Primary School,” Straits Times, 31 October 1958, 7; “Religious Instruction Poses a Problem,” Straits Times, 9 January 1959, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Ministry of Education, Right Conduct: Syllabus for Primary English Schools (Singapore: Ministry of Education, 1958). (Call no. RCLOS 372.832043 SIN)
6. Ministry of Education, Right Conduct; “Syllabus Out for Ethics Classes,” Straits Times, 8 November 1958, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
7.“480 Trained to Teach Ethics,” Singapore Free Press, 2 April 1959, 7; “Ethics Guide for Teachers,” Straits Times, 28 July 1959, 9. (From NewspaperSG); Ministry of Education, Syllabus for Ethics in Primary and Secondary Schools (Singapore: Ministry of Education, 1961). (Call no. RCLOS 375.17 SIN)
8. Right Conduct: A Teacher’s Guide to Books 1 and 2 (Singapore: Federal Publications, 1959. (Available via PublicationSG)
9. Ong Teng Cheong and Moral Education Committee, Report on Moral Education 1979 (Singapore: Singapore National Printers, 1979), 2 (Call no. RSING 375.17 SIN); Ministry of Education, Stories (Singapore: Ministry of Education, 1959). (Call no. RCLOS 372.832044 STO)
10. Ong and Moral Education Committee, Report on Moral Education 1979, 2; Ministry of Education, Syllabus for Ethics in Primary and Secondary Schools, 15.
11. “Religious Instruction Poses a Problem.”
12. “Religious Studies Begin in the Schools,” Singapore Free Press, 6 September 1958, 5; “Assistance to Choose Textbooks,” Singapore Free Press, 17 October 1958, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Schools Get Go-Ahead on Religion,” Singapore Free Press, 21 November 1958, 5; “Religion in Schools: Teachers Now under Training,” Sunday Times, 11 January 1959, 5; “All Ready Now for teaching Religion to Schoolchildren,” Singapore Free Press, 16 January 1959, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Civics Course for Students,” Sunday Tiger Standard, 2 November 1958, 3; “Civics for Students in Colony,” Singapore Free Press, 7 November 1958, 7; “Students to Have Civics Course,” Straits Times, 7 November 1958, 4; “Syllabuses to Bring About Common Loyalty,” Singapore Tiger Standard, 18 April 1958, 6; “Moral, Civic Training in S’pore Schools,” Straits Times, 2 December 1966, 13 (From NewspaperSG); Ministry of Education, Syllabus for Civics in Secondary Schools (Singapore: Ministry of Education, 1958). (Call no. RCLOS 375.3 SIN-[RFL])
15. “Call for Views on Civics Lessons,” Straits Times, 30 March 1967, 6; Ministry of Education, Primary and Secondary Schools Civic Syllabus and Programme of Training (Singapore: Government Printing Office, 1969) (Call no. RCLOS 372.832 SIN); Ong and Moral Education Committee, Report on Moral Education 1979, 2; Ministry of Education, Annual Report 1966 (Singapore: Government Printing Office, 1959), 6 (Call no. RCLOS 370.95951 SIN); Ministry of Education, Annual Report 1967 (Singapore: Government Printing Office, 1959), 6. (Call no. RCLOS 370.95951 SIN)
16. Ong and Moral Education Committee, Report on Moral Education 1979, 2–3.
17. “Story of Moral Education,” Straits Times, 26 October 1982, 14; Teresa Ooi, “About-Turn! Goh Gives the Order in His Report on Moral Education,” New Nation, 16 March 1979, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Goh Keng Swee and Education Study Team, Report on the Ministry of Education 1978 (Singapore: Printed by Singapore National Printers, 1979), 1–5. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 SIN)
19. Ong and Moral Education Committee, Report on Moral Education 1979.
20. June Tan, “How Do We Get Out of the Minefield of Moral education?” Sunday Times, 6 December 1981, 6; “Story of Moral Education.”
21. “4 New Books for Primary Schools,” New Nation, 26 November 1980, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Awareness of the Self and the World,” Straits Times, 18 September 1981, 9; June Tan, “Classes in Moral Education Next Year,” Straits Times, 27 November 1980, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “Experiment in Moral Education at Bukit Merah,” Straits Times, 8 July 1980, 7; “6-Step Moral Education Programme for Schools,” Straits Times, 20 August 1980, 6; “Being – What You Are and Becoming – a Better Person,” New Nation, 19 August 1980, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
24. June Tan and Hedwig Alfred, “Moral Education Runs into Cultural Barrier,” Sunday Times, 5 December 1982, 15; Bertilla Pereira, “School Drops Moral Education Scheme,” Singapore Monitor, 19 February 1983, 4; “Common Syllabus for Moral education,” Straits Times, 18 January 1982, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Hedwig Alfred and June Tan, “Changes in Learning,” Straits Times, 3 January 1984, 40; “Religious Knowledge as a Study Subject,” Business Times, 6 December 1983, 3; “Moral Lessons, Then Religion,” Straits Times, 18 January 1982, 1; June Tan, “Religion to Be a Compulsory Subject,” Sunday Times, 17 January 1982, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “Religious Knowledge as a Compulsory Subject to Be Phased Out: Dr Tan,” Business Times, 7 October 1989, 2; “We Erred in Making RK a Compulsory Subject – Dr Tay,” Straits Times, 7 October 1989, 23; Bertha Henson, “RK to Be Replaced with Civics,” Straits Times, 7 October 1989, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
27. “Younger Pupils Will Be Taught New Civics Course,” Sunday Times, 24 February 1991, 13; M. Nirmala, “Students Learn Civic and Moral Values through Active Role in New School Programme,” Sunday Times, 9 February 1992, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Chua Mui Hoong, “BG Lee: Knowing the Past Will Prepare Young for Future,” Sunday Times, 18 May 1997, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “What National Education Means,” New Paper, 17 May 1997, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Teh Shi Ning, “Education to Centre on Character-Building,” Business Times, 23 September 2011, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Sharon See, “Character and Citizenship Classes for Schools,” Today, 15 November 2012, 24; Janice Heng, “New Policies in the New Year,” Straits Times, 1 January 2014, 8 (From NewspaperSG); “Character & Citizenship Education,” Ministry of Education Singapore, 11 December 2017.
32. Lim Min Zhang, “Grooming Socially Responsible Citizens,” Straits Times, 17 July 2017, 9; Yuen Sin, “Getting Pupils to Put Values into Practice,” Straits Times, 21 April 2016, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Caroline Koh, “Moral Development and Student Motivation in Moral Education: A Singapore Study,” Australian Journal of Education 56, no. 1 (2012): 83–101. (From ProQuest Central via NLB’s eResources website)

Charlene Tan, “The Teaching of Religious Knowledge in a Plural Society: The Case for Singapore,” International Review of Education 54 (2008): 175–91.

Desmond P. Pereira, Robert P. Balhetchet and Moral Education for Singapore Schools Project Team, Being and Becoming (Singapore: Longman Singapore [for] Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore, 1986). (Call no. RSING 370.114 BEI)

Eng Soo Peck et al., Report on the Moral Education Programmes: “Good Citizen” and “Being and Becoming” (Singapore: Institute of Education, 1982). (Call no. RSING 370.114095957 REP)

Jason Tan, Values Education amid Globalization and Change: The Case of Singapore's Education System (Hong Kong: Faculty of Education, Hong Kong Institute of Educational Research, Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2008). (Call no. RSING 370.114095957 TAN)

Joy Chew Oon Ai, “Civics and Moral Education in Singapore: Lessons for Citizenship Education?” Journal of Moral Education 27, no. 4 (1998): 505–24. (From ProQuest Central via NLB’s eResources website)

National Library Board, “Community Involvement Programme,” HistorySG, last updated 2014.

National Library Board, “National Education,” HistorySG, last updated 2014.

National Library Board, “Report on Moral Education 1979,” HistorySG, last updated 2014.

National Library Board, “Report on the Ministry of Education 1978,” HistorySG, last updated 2014.

S. Gopinathan, “Moral Education in a Plural Society: A Singapore Case Study,” in Education and the Nation State: The Selected Works of S. Gopinathan (London; New York: Routledge, 2013), 109–19. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 GOP)

S. Gopinathan, “Being and Becoming: Education for Values in Singapore,” in The Revival of Values Education in Asia and the West, ed. W. K. Cummings, S. Gopinathan and Y. Tomoda (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1988), 131–45. (Call no. RSING 370.114 REV)

Tan Tai Wei, “Moral Education in Singapore: A critical appraisal,” In Education in Singapore: A Book of Readings, ed. Jason Tan, S Gopinathan and Ho Wah Kam (Singapore: Prentice Hall, 1997), 91–102. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 EDU)

The information in this article is valid as at July 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

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