UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Educational policies in a changing society : Singapore, 1918-1959 Wilson, Harold Edmund


This thesis is a comparative study of the educational policies of successive governments of Singapore, and of the impact of those policies upon the ethno-linguistically complex, urban society of the island. Whereas in older, more homogeneous Southeast Asian communities the school functioned to conserve and transmit the society's culture, in Singapore—which lacked a single cultural tradition of its own—early educational institutions were operated by individual philanthropists, private teachers, and a variety of organisations such as Christian missions and groups of merchants, and the schools naturally reflected the different cultural affinities of their managers. Subsequently, schools came to be used to promote specific, politically determined ends, but in the achievement of these, the schools performed an innovative role with social consequences not always intended by policymakers. The study relates the nature of the governments to the kinds of policies adopted, and assesses policy in terms of the achievement of official goals, social harmony, and relevance to the needs of those being educated. The period selected provides for an examination of the policies of four types of government, each of which differed in significant respects from the others. The pre-Pacific-war British colonial regime was concerned with the production of a group of persons literate in English and able to fill clerical and junior administrative positions in government and commerce, the control of politically objectionable activities in privately-run Chinese schools, and the protection of Malays from the effects of contact with alien cultures. The preparation of society for ultimate self-rule was not given serious consideration. The Japanese Occupation effectively destroyed the passive acceptance of Singapore's colonial status, and heightened political awareness. The educational policy of the period was determined primarily with the demands of Japan's continuing struggle with the West in mind, but the new emphasis placed upon the acquisition of mechanical and technical skills called into question the island's traditional role as an entrepȏt and fostered a belief in the possibility of Singapore's technological self-sufficiency. During the final phase of overt colonialism in the island, the post-war British administration pursued an educational policy which tended to forge cultural links between Britain and an increasingly large proportion of the island's school-age population. Those left outside the English-medium schools found themselves ill-equipped to take advantage of existing employment opportunities, and disenchantment with the system was increased by fear of cultural alienation. Radical elements operating in Chinese middle schools and trades unions joined forces, taking advantage of communal fears to create a socially explosive situation. This proved to be one of the major challenges to the authority of the- government, which attempted to deal with the problem by resorting to repressive measures. The distrust which the Chinese-educated displayed towards the government persisted, and became the most intractable situation facing the Labour Front administration—Singapore's first mainly democratically elected government—which took office in 1955. The new government, acutely sensitive to popular pressures, sought an educational policy that would remove the causes of communal tension and promote a Malayan or Singaporean loyalty. In this they were only partly successful. The work concludes with a discussion of the socially significant characteristics of the educational policies of the various governments, and places the study within the wider context of education in plural societies elsewhere.

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