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Singapore’s ex-president urges people to ‘stand on side of humanity’ amid debate over school discussions on Israel-Gaza war

In World
February 26, 2024

The parents had sent an open letter urging the authorities to not ignore the wider context of the decades-long conflict and to deplore the loss of innocent lives. Some even expressed shock that students were discussing such a complex topic when adults felt they did not have enough room to express their sentiments about the war.

“The degradation of the human soul is so apparent when food trucks promised safe passage into Gaza were bombed. Images of IDF soldiers taking selfies, dancing, laughing and exchanging toasts after blasting to smithereens Palestinian homes are seared into our collective memories,” wrote Halimah, the city state’s first woman president, in the Facebook post.

Expressing her disappointment at the lack of progress in international efforts to achieve a ceasefire in Gaza, she said: “The degradation of the human soul is obvious as the world dithers in ceasefire efforts. International laws and international bodies are rendered irrelevant. The consensus built after the horrors of [World War II] to protect the innocents during wars has been severely compromised.”

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Her message came days after the republic’s education ministry defended its Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) lessons, which some parents had criticised for unfairly representing the Israel-Gaza war to students and failing to provide a wider historical context of the war.

The Minister of Education Chan Chun Sing on Sunday reassured parents that the lessons were not “meant to cast one side as good and another side as evil”.

“All of us, we hope and pray for peace. Not just a temporary ceasefire, or the end of the conflict only, but a long-term solution: a two-state solution where Palestinians and Israelis can live in peace. This is not easy, to say the least,” he said during an interview with local media outlets.

Chan said the CCE lessons were aimed at helping students empathise with others, understand their own emotions, verify information online and conduct conversations sensitively and respectfully. They were “not intended to be a history lesson” and neither were they “an exercise to apportion blame to one party or another”.

“Some may have only seen part of the material and come to the wrong conclusion – that the CCE lesson is meant to cast one side as good and another side as evil,” he said. “But that’s precisely what we are trying to avoid. The purpose of education is not to spread anger and hatred. It is to inculcate knowledge, understanding and empathy for all human beings, regardless of race or creed.”

Singapore law minister K. Shanmugam. Photo: SCMP

The comments by Halimah and Shanmugam caused a stir among online users, with some praising the two for speaking up for Palestinians, while others warned about potential disharmony in the multiethnic city state.

“Thank you both for speaking up for those who can’t,” wrote one Facebook user.

“The factual details are important, Mdm ex-President. Please don’t fall prey to the ‘flavour of the day’ narratives, especially if you are posting your thoughts so publicly. It does little to promote fair-mindedness, which is a hallmark of our Singapore society,” wrote another.

“Then why isn’t Singapore standing on the side of humanity?” one user challenged.

This picture taken from Israel near the border with Gaza Strip shows an Israeli battle tank positioned along the border on February 26. Photo: AFP

Political observers say that while the comments by Halimah and Shanmugam might provide some assurance about how the war is approached during CCE lessons, it may not be enough.

“I think the posts signal some effort by these politicians to calibrate and humanise their messaging to show more empathy towards the plight of Palestinian civilians,” said Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

“These remarks stand in contrast to the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) efforts to teach about events in the Middle East in ways that many members of the public felt lacked context and trivialised a complicated event that involves significant human suffering.”

While certain parents may feel assured by the Facebook posts, Chong said it was “not the same as a lesson plan pushed through the formal MOE system”. The comments might also be viewed by some as a “distraction” from the issue of how the Israel-Palestine relationship was represented in schools.

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Bilveer Singh, a political scientist from NUS, noted there was a shift in how the establishment communicated about the struggle of Palestinians since the United Nations and international organisations condemned Israel.

“It is also important to legally align with our immediate neighbours, who have diplomatically declared war against Israel’s genocidal policies in Gaza,” he said.

Domestically, the two posts sought to acknowledge the “emotional disturbance” that the war had caused among Singaporeans, said Leong Chan-Hoong, a senior fellow for social cohesion research at the Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“We need to acknowledge that both sides transgressed, and significant effort is required from both sides and the rest of the world to restore faith in humanity,” he added.

The government’s core position is that Singapore has been taking a “principled position” on the war, one that is in line with international law and with the aim of furthering global peace and security, Singapore’s deputy leader Lawrence Wong said in parliament in November.

“We are friends with both Israel and the Palestinians. But it doesn’t mean we support everything each side does. Instead, we consistently take a principled position, in line with international law and in support of global peace and security,” he said.

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Israel is one of Singapore’s oldest military partners. Following the city state’s acrimonious split from Malaysia in 1965, Israel provided the fledgling country with state help to build its military, a task turned down by bigger powers including India and Egypt.

The republic also maintains ties with the Palestinian Authority that governs the West Bank, and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan held talks with counterparts in Ramallah in 2022.

Singapore’s government has had to strike a careful balance between allowing its citizens to exchange views on the war and maintaining the country’s hard-earned social cohesion.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has advised two social media influencers on their posts related to the war, The Straits Times newspaper reported on Friday.

Last year, the authorities banned public events related to the war, including at the country’s sole free speech zone, citing public safety and security concerns. They also issued an advisory warning against wearing symbols linked to the war.

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