SINGAPORE - Young people today have a different view of race and religion as compared to older generations, and conversations in school should continue to evolve, as they play a big role in helping students navigate differences, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung on Thursday (July 16).
The generation above him had a tolerant view towards diversity and co-existing; while his own generation became more accepting and appreciative of other cultures.
"But if you ask people of my generation to sit down and have a conversation (about sensitive issues), it feels awkward, and almost a bit embarrassing and uncomfortable.
"This generation is different. They actually want to talk about it. But they need facilitation, and they're honest about it," he said.
The minister was speaking at a media visit to Tampines Secondary School on Thursday, where he joined students to commemorate Racial Harmony Day.
Racial Harmony Day falls on July 21 this year, but as that is during the one-week school mid-term break, celebrations have been brought forward.
Mr Ong said the Education Ministry (MOE) is encouraging principals to hold more in-depth conversations in school, including during character and citizenship education (CCE) classes.
During the debate on the ministries' budgets earlier in March this year, it was announced that schools would engage secondary school students on contemporary issues - such as bullying, using social media, and race and religion - fortnightly.
The MOE is training more teachers that can specialise in this and can facilitate such discussions, he added.
But he noted that context matters in discussing race and religion.
"We are constantly under the influence of American social media, American pop culture, but we are not American. Our histories are totally different."
This will be a topic teachers will have to carefully engage students on, he noted.
"The starting point has got to be our own conversations and dialogues. You are bound to discover that students are reading things on the Internet, getting ideas that are more 'Americanised', for example, and when you bring it up, then you can have a contestation of ideas respectfully, and then that's how students get to internalise them.
"I think just telling students, sending them reading material is not going to help. You need that engagement."
At Tampines Secondary, teachers used conversation cards and board games to engage students in discussion on issues such as race, religion, culture and tradition.
In a Secondary 3 class The Straits Times observed, students discussed various scenarios and how they would respond to them.
For example, a given scenario was someone being surprised that a Malay student does well in mathematics, and complimenting the student that "you're actually really smart for a Malay".
In response, students said this was a backhanded compliment with improper tone and hurtful phrasing, as it sounded sarcastic. They discussed how they would let the person know that it could be offensive, without using aggression.
In another Secondary 1 class, students took part in a quiz, with questions such as which ethnic group the game chapteh - played with a weighted shuttlecock - is associated with.
A number of students answered "Malay", with one student explaining that "the word sounded Malay". The teacher later revealed the game has its origins in China, and advised students to avoid making assumptions.
In a separate visit, Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah joined pupils at Juying Primary School in commemorating the occasion.
Across Singapore, students were encouraged to "appreciate the country's racial and cultural diversity" and reflect on the role they play in building a more cohesive Singapore, especially during the Covid-19 period.
Given the safe management measures in place in schools, this year's commemorative activities largely took place through classroom-based activities and discussions instead of school- or cohort-wide events.