the weakening of empathy 2009

Presented at Teaching History in Singapore: The State of the Craft
A Roundtable Presented by the Singapore Heritage Society
Monday 30 November 2009, National Library Building
By Loh Kah Seng

‘When someone is expressing ideas, do not say, I don’t like the idea, because you are discouraging them’.

‘It was basically a struggle to get past his lessons. When he asks us questions then we answered him, he will ask us more questions about the answers. This in turn creates a never ending cycle of questions until class ends. When I leave class, I end up with more questions in my head than answers as he never said the answers in the first place! This is a very bad thing and it will not obviously help me in my examination’.

‘Tutorial is about discussion and the free rights to exchange personal opinions albeit biased or judgmental. However the tutor is always correcting the students’ personal views and saying they are wrong. I think it is very unfair’.

These are critiques from my student feedback when I was teaching Singapore history modules in the university. They were Singapore Studies modules, general courses which are compulsory for undergraduates except those from Medicine, Dentistry and Law. Besides highlighting, rather painfully, that I was not always an effective tutor, they also open windows into how university students believe history should be taught. They allow us to return to the themes I brought up earlier, on ‘class struggles’ and teaching students in the postmodern age.

The criticisms concern the issue of historical empathy, the act of ‘getting into someone else’s shoes’. The importance of not just knowing about Singapore but also doing it from a Singapore vantage point is implicit in NUS’s official statement on the purpose of Singapore Studies: they are meant to ‘strengthen a student’s understanding of the economy, geography, history, politics, and society of Singapore’ and ‘expose students to different perspectives on the critical issues confronting Singapore, and a deep appreciation of the conditions affecting decision-making in a Singapore operating within a regional and global context’.

While many students from different faculties did well in my classes, a large number were bewildered and frustrated by my lessons, particularly when I attempted to engage them in more open-ended and provocative questions. That intellectual and emotional displeasure later led the students to express critical feedback on my teaching.

My ‘class struggles’ involved mostly passive resistance. I argue that they represent a widening gap in historical empathy, rather than knowledge, between the teacher and the taught. I do not seek to place the blame on the students for their academic frustration or ignore other factors which might have led them to feel this way. Many Singapore Studies students hail from outside the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and have a very basic understanding of Singapore history. A tutor may have a class of 25 with very different backgrounds in and aptitudes for history. Some students, particularly the foreign students from the region and China, have virtually none of these. They also have to struggle with the demands of writing, speaking and thinking in English and crafting argumentative essays. But even local students with a sound command of English and good writing skills have been resistant to approaching Singapore Studies from new angles.

I will draw from my experience two test cases of historical empathy. As a social historian, my approach has to offer to students a corrective to the standard Singapore story, by standing in the shoes of ordinary Singaporeans. One case is the notion of space, dirt and disease held by the people in colonial Singapore. How did they live in a tiny cubicle without light and good airflow? How did they warmly embrace the attap house with very basic amenities and a pail toilet built over a river? Why did they refuse to visit modern hospitals and take Western medicine when they fell sick? So I played the devil’s advocate and challenged the students with historical situations that appeared plainly irrational. Sometimes, logic led to empathy. If the shophouse cubicles were cramped, stuffy and dark, the residents simply spent most of their time outside, in the verandahs, the streets, the kopitiams, coming home only to sleep. I was then able to get the students to critique the notions both of an Eurocentric modernity and a linear history. But frequently, other students found it psychologically easier to dismiss such ways of life as inferior, as dangerous, and support the perspectives of the colonial state. In doing so, they reinforce their own notions of modernity, urban space, dirt, and disease.

The other instance lies at the other end of the social spectrum, when ordinary people refused to tolerate difficult living conditions and responded in collective anger. On the 1955 Hock Lee Bus strike, I posed the question, can the strike be seen as more than a riot and disruption of the socio-political order? I challenged the students to consider this: if it was morally justified for the weak to utilise their weapons, even if the consequence was to bring about a great deal of inconvenience for those who used public transport? I asked them, what if they had booked a flight only to find that the airline employees had gone on strike? For many students, this was a bridge too far. It was easier for them to criticise the workers for disrupting industrial peace and stand on the side of those who desired a disciplined labour and economic progress. There is a ready-made historical explanation the students can turn to: the workers must have been exploited by the communists. I suggested that workers in postwar Singapore were not morons – they didn’t go on strike because someone stepped onto a stage and began agitating them! I asked them if they would do the same if someone came to the class and urged them to demonstrate at Speaker’s Corner? Most of them smiled.

So this is the context. Those of us involved in Singapore Studies and Social Studies run two risks. One is to run afoul of students who dismiss National Education as state-disseminated propaganda. The other is to be accused of correcting students, imposing our ideas on them, violating their rights as students. This comes from local students who have been brought up in a society which does not know strikes, kampongs and anti-colonialism. This also comes from foreign students who have recently come to Singapore and admire its stability and progress. One of my foreign students explained, Singapore is so successful today, Lee Kuan Yew had to suppress the communists. These are claims from the postmodern classroom in Singapore which we cannot afford to ignore.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s