Skip to main content

Advertisement

Advertisement

Literature too can help Singapore students engage with Asia

In an age with heightened concerns over Covid-19, climate change and fake news, a good humanities education can help us think critically and creatively about real world issues and deal with uncertainties. It nurtures our ability to think in abstract terms and equips us to be discerning about issues in our immediate context.

Literature too can help Singapore students engage with Asia

The authors say literature lends itself naturally to the pursuit of a deeper appreciation of Southeast Asia’s geographies, histories, cultures, languages and economies.

In an age with heightened concerns over Covid-19, climate change and fake news, a good humanities education can help us think critically and creatively about real world issues and deal with uncertainties. It nurtures our ability to think in abstract terms and equips us to be discerning about issues in our immediate context.

Contextualisation is one reason why we should celebrate Education Minister Ong Ye Kung’s recent announcement in Parliament that the humanities curriculum in Singapore will feature more content on Asia over the next three years.

Singapore is, after all, smack in the middle of Southeast Asia. Developments in the region will certainly affect Singapore not just in economics, but so too in politics and culture.

In his parliamentary speech, Mr Ong said that the Singapore’s humanities curriculum “must provide students with a deeper appreciation of the geographies, histories, cultures, languages, and economies of countries in the region”.

He added that the curriculum review is part of the move to help students know Asia better, and it will be rolled out alongside plans for more overseas trips and learning of regional languages.

News reports of the announcement said that content on Asia and Asean (Association of Southeast Asia Nations) in particular will be featured more explicitly and prominently in social studies, history, geography and economics subjects in secondary school and junior colleges over the next three years. 

Literature was not mentioned as one of the humanities subjects that would play a key role in enabling students to better appreciate Asia.

We feel that the exclusion of literature would be a missed opportunity.

Literature lends itself naturally to the pursuit of a deeper appreciation of Southeast Asia’s geographies, histories, cultures, languages and economies, which Mr Ong outlined as the basis for this change.

This is certainly the lesson to be gleaned from the interdisciplinary module “The Multicultural Archipelago in History and Story” that runs at Singapore University of Technology and Design.

The elective traces the evolution of multiculturalism in the Malay Archipelago through literary and historical texts. The module recognises that the region has not just been imagined as a Malay space (Nusantara), but it had also been imagined as Chinese and Tamil spaces in the form of Nanyang and the Suvarnadvipa respectively.

For instance, students who read the traditional Javanese book Serat Centhini in the module now better understand why not all Malays in Indonesia are necessarily Muslims, or how the Islam practised there is different from the Arabised form of Islam practised in, say, Saudi Arabia.

The book showcases the deep influences of Hinduism and Islam in shaping life in Java.

Another compelling reason for incorporating more literature from Asia is that it offers us the opportunity to close the gap between the education and practice of literature in Singapore.

In practice, the literary scene in Singapore has made headway with tying Singapore Literature, or SingLit, to the region. Since last year, the Singapore-based Epigram Fiction Prize is now open to Southeast Asians, with the top prize of S$25,000 awarded in January this year to Malaysian writer Joshua Kam.

Then there is the annual Singapore Writers Festival, one of Southeast Asia’s premium literary events, which consistently features panels that situate Singapore within the region. In practice, SingLit is also Southeast Asia Lit.

The move to read more locally and regionally should also be reflected in pedagogy. It makes little sense to have our students read only about life in far-off places like the United Kingdom.

Over the years, the Ministry of Education has encouraged the study of Singapore literature.

Students who take the GCE ‘O’ Level Literature in English examination have to study a range of poems from Singapore, the West and postcolonial countries such as India and various countries in Africa.

The set texts for prose and drama include Singapore literature as well. In the future, the case can be made for including literature from Asia and having those works translated into English.

Literature provides rich insights into the complex everyday lives of diverse individuals and societies in Asia. Last year, researchers from the National Institute of Education worked with teachers to design a unit titled “Exploring Asia through poetry”.

Over the course of 10 weeks, students from three schools considered prominent stereotypes of Asians in mass media and how this may be disrupted through readings of poetry by Singapore and other Asian writers.

They explored poetic forms such as Landay (traditional Afghan poetry), Ghazal (a poetic form with its origins in 7th century Arabic poetry) and dialogic poems.

Poetry was also used as a launch-pad to discuss present day issues in Asia as students examined the voices of refugees and others marginalised by forms of injustices.

While the turn to Asia is indeed laudable given that for years, our humanities curriculum has focused on the West, it would be a mistake to overlook the significant role that literature can play in deepening students’ critical and empathetic understanding of Asia.

In the Analects, Confucius himself encouraged the study of literature and poetry arguing that “the Odes can give the spirit an exhortation, the mind keener eyes. They can make us better adjusted in a group and more articulate when voicing a complaint. They teach you to be humane.”

Literary texts, unlike historical or expository texts, do not make definitive, authoritative claims to knowledge. Their inherent power lies not so much in the lessons they teach but the ethical invitations they give.

These are invitations to understand, empathise and imagine other worlds including those nearest to us. Indeed, the inclusion of stories from Asia in our humanities curriculum would activate students’ critical, aesthetic, and affective appreciation of the diverse cultures and voices from Asia.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Nazry Bahrawi is a senior lecturer of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Singapore University of Technology and Design. Suzanne Choo is associate professor in the English Literature and Language Academic Group at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University.

Related topics

education literature South-east Asia humanities

Read more of the latest in

Advertisement

Popular

Advertisement

Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.

Aa