‘Troubling’ knowledge production in Singapore’s education system


I arrived in Singapore in 2006, a new Assistant Professor at the National Institute of Education (NIE). This was an exciting time in my field of humanities and social science education. The Ministry of Education (MOE) was launching new inquiry-based syllabuses, and NIE was transitioning from a teacher training college to a more research-focused institution as part of Nanyang Technological University (NTU). These developments provided me with tremendous opportunities in terms of research funding, as well as work with Ministry officials, NIE faculty and Singapore’s teachers to develop inquiry-based curriculum and pedagogies for humanities and social studies educators.

This was not my first time living in Singapore, but up to this point I had been a social studies teacher. I started in the U.S. in an experimental school-without-walls, going on to international schools in Israel, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan. I taught middle school social studies at the Singapore American School (SAS) from 1989-1994. Both my children were born in Singapore and ended up graduating from SAS where my wife, Rindi, taught 4th grade.

Family photos in 1993 and 20 years later in Singapore.

As a social studies educator, I have always supported inquiry-based learning. Students learn to ask questions and critically think about information sources and social issues, consider different viewpoints, and build their own evidence-based claims. Inquiry helps students build knowledge as they study historical and contemporary social problems. These capacities are critical to an informed citizenship. Indeed, inquiry-based history and social studies education are typically seen as vehicles for civic education.

My role at NIE was my first position as a professor. I had studied history (and psychology) at the University of Rochester, with Marxist social historians like Christopher Lasch (whose work I continue to draw on). I obtained a Masters degree in social sciences from Syracuse University, followed by a PhD in Curriculum, Teaching, and Educational Policy from Michigan State University. As an education scholar, I have drawn on critical theory, postmodern and poststructural theories, and more recently postcolonial and decolonial perspectives. As a scholar, I support free and open inquiry without interference as a basis for research knowledge and educational practice.

Access to a range of perspectives is essential to the knowledge-building enterprise in scholarship and in classrooms, as well as for informed decision-making and civic action. However, during my 16 years at NIE, teaching and researching certain issues and exploring particular perspectives in Singapore’s political and educational contexts was fraught with challenges. I share here three vignettes that illustrate some of the challenges I experienced related to teaching and researching topics perceived as sensitive.

Mark Baildon taught Social Studies classes at NIE. Social Studies had been introduced in 2001 as a compulsory and examinable subject at the upper secondary level for 15- to 17-year-old students.

Notions of criticality and OB markers

After arriving, I quickly learned about Singapore’s vague ‘out of bounds (OB) markers’, delimiting unacceptable areas of public discourse around controversial or politically sensitive issues. It was hard to fully understand what they actually meant for academics. However, I knew Singapore’s officials had acted against critique of the government: bringing a defamation suit against the Far Eastern Economic Review; bankrupting political opponents like J.B. Jeyaretnam through lawsuits; and telling the author Catherine Lim her criticism was out of bounds.

In my Secondary Social Studies Post Graduate Diploma in Education (PGDE) classes, students discussed the government reprimand of blogger Mr Brown. We had conversations about the controversies over Chee Soon Juan’s leaflets and a planned rally at Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park in 2006. These fairly mild forms of protest or dissent caused anxiety to my students, who were about to enter the teaching profession. They pointed out that teaching social issues and viewpoints critical of government positions was fraught with uncertainty. These uncertainties and anxieties were expressed by many students over the years. In classes, we explored how these tensions could be managed, as well as a range of approaches to teach controversial issues and promote critical thinking and understanding about them as civic issues.

I also taught a course for Social Studies teachers in Singapore’s secondary schools. Grounded in the Thinking Schools, Learning Nation and National Education reforms launched in 1997, Social Studies was introduced in 2001 as a compulsory and examinable subject at the upper secondary level for 15- to 17-year-old students. While purporting to teach critical thinking, Social Studies also aimed to instil a deep sense of national identity and cohesion by emphasising the “Singapore Story,” and the enlightened governance by the People’s Action Party since independence in 1965.

My course used a seminar format to critically investigate and discuss issues and research in social studies education relevant to this curriculum. Many teachers expressed a lack of confidence in their capacity to lead classroom discussions, think critically, and teach critical thinking about the social issues in the MOE syllabus, due to a lack of experience. They were accustomed to learning and teaching that was exam-oriented, and lecture-based with prescribed curricula. Their training had little emphasis on discussion, inquiry-based learning, and critical reading and thinking.

Oppostion politician Chee Soon Juan speaking at Speakers’ Corner in 2006. The government’s reaction to even mild forms of protest made Baildon’s trainee teachers worry about how to teach social studies in ways that promoted critical thinking.

In 2008, I taught a Masters-level course and conducted a small-scale case study that examined how the teachers in the course viewed teaching critical thinking about social issues. Findings revealed tensions related to teaching critical thinking in an examination culture, uncertainty around Singapore’s OB markers, and the tension teachers experienced as civil servants teaching what others (school leaders, students, parents, officials) might perceive as critical of the Singapore government. Teachers received conflicting messages about critical thinking from a state that cherished order and stability. For example, one teacher stated that critical thinking for social change was handicapped by Singapore’s political contexts, that they had little experience considering political alternatives. Teaching critical thinking, they said, mainly consisted of introducing thinking routines to help students perform well on examinations.

The study led to a paper in the Cambridge Journal of Education. I was surprised when the editors of the journal contacted me asking if I wanted to go ahead with publication. They were worried that I might get into “trouble” for its content. I was also surprised when NIE’s Dean in the Office of Education called the article “brave”. My surprise likely reflected my own naivete about the stakes of knowledge production in Singapore at the time. The article won the Cambridge Journal of Education Best Paper Award in 2009.

Operation Coldstore and the Singapore Story

Challenges also exist in teaching critical thinking in history education. The Singapore Story is a core feature in Singapore’s schools. At the launch of National Education, then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasised that “the Singapore Story is based on historical facts…[not] an idealised legendary account or a found myth [but rather] objective history, seen from a Singaporean standpoint.” This official position makes it a high stakes subject to ensure that young Singaporeans get the “correct” version of their history for the purposes of developing national identity, collective memory, and beliefs about the legitimacy of Singapore’s political, economic and social order. As a result, the curriculum has avoided certain controversial historical episodes.

The 50th anniversary of Operation Coldstore was observed in 2013. Memories of this event challenge the official history and complicate teaching critical thinking in history education, notes Baildon.

One example is Operation Coldstore. In that episode, the People’s Action Party (PAP) government led by Lee Kuan Yew arrested and detained 113 alleged members of a Communist front organisation without trial. Historians still debate whether this was necessary due to the communist threat or whether it was mainly an effort to weaken political opposition to PAP rule. In 2013, the 50-year anniversary of these events prompted a flurry of online public debate and debate among historians.

This became relevant to work I did in 2015 on the Historian’s Lab.[1]This project emphasised authentic historical inquiry by developing rich discipline-based curriculum tasks and innovative pedagogies to support Singapore’s secondary history syllabi. For example, we developed video cases of historians’ thinking and practice addressing historical problems, along with curriculum and pedagogical resources hosted online. These were intended for secondary school history teachers and students, as well as use in NIE’s teacher education and professional development courses.

The project drew on international research that emphasised the importance of students’ active investigation of historical problems, such as historical controversies, public debates about the past, and debates historians have about different interpretations of the past. Treating history education as a disciplinary practice to investigate historical problems required teachers and students to critically assess claims made about the past and examine the reasons and evidence provided to support various claims. As I have argued, since controversies involve dispute, contention, and competing claims, they can be prime opportunities to develop essential reasoning skills.

The Historian’s Lab website included research-based curriculum resources, video tutorials, pedagogical tools, and game-based learning to support the teaching and learning of history.

The Historian’s Lab provided contextual background about Operation Coldstore. This included information on the Cold War, Barisan Socialis and the left-wing political leaders, trade unionists and students who were arrested. Information was provided on its impact as a key turning point in Singapore’s history, as well as the debate and controversy surrounding it. The curriculum package included primary sources, such as a telegram from Britain’s Lord Selkirk to the Singapore Security Council and reflections on the episode by Coldstore detainee Poh Soo Kai, a founding member of the University Socialist Club and the PAP. There were also excerpts from accounts by two historians with different views. Loh Kah Seng claimed that Coldstore was designed to weaken political opposition and led to the establishment of a one-party state, while Kumar Ramakrishna disputed historian P.J. Thum’s view (similar to Loh’s) while claiming that the Communist threat was very real during the Cold War period of the 1960’s.

Driven by open-ended inquiry into whether Operation Coldstore was a genuine security threat or politically motivated (or both), students were guided to analyse primary sources and the historians’ claims and evidence. They were to consider the words and phrases used to convince readers of their arguments, and counterarguments that might challenge the historians’ views. Students were then guided to construct their own arguments. They were tasked to consider different interpretations, evaluate the strength of the evidence, and develop their own conclusions supported by what they considered the most compelling arguments and evidence.

Examples of Historian’s Lab materials on Operation Coldstore.

As part of the Lab’s research (and previous work by Suhaimi Afandi at NIE), we found three broad categories of students’ ideas. Most students (over half) viewed historical accounts as factual and objective accounts of the past. About one-quarter understood that there could be multiple versions of the past, based on historians’ viewpoints. A third group understood that historical accounts are based on the interpretive work of historians and could be evaluated using disciplinary criteria and standards (a higher level of understanding).  

To wrap up the project, I presented our research findings to MOE officers involved with the eduLab grants, a former NIE Director and Dean of the Office of Education Research, and members of the NIE committee managing the grants. I shared the outcomes of the project as well as curricular and teaching resources, such as several inquiry-based curriculum packages with video resources focused on particular historical problems. I also shared pedagogical innovations, such as “The Chronologer,” a pedagogical device developed by Suhaimi Afandi, that helped students situate Singapore’s history in regional and global contexts.

The presentation included modules on Operation Coldstore and “What is Temasek?”, which required students to investigate a range of primary sources dating from 14th to 18th century Malay, Chinese, Southeast Asian and European accounts. There was also a Singapore Surrenders! game that focused on causation and chronology during World War II.

Historian’s Lab materials: the Singapore Surrenders! game.

During the presentation, there was a noticeable buzz in the room. At one point I stopped because it seemed no one was paying attention. Apparently, there was concern about the Operation Coldstore module, and the eduLab group had asked the Dean of the Office of Education Research to meet with me later to help me understand the “sensitivity” of Operation Coldstore in Singapore and consider whether it was appropriate for secondary students and teachers.

When I met with the Dean and a member of NIE’s edulab committee, I started spewing and sputtering, saying we weren’t going to “put our heads in the sand” about public issues or debates among historians that might be contentious. After letting me express my views (and emotions), the Dean came over to me, said, “Mark, Mark, Mark…” and hugged me. This was one of the kindest moments I’ve experienced as an academic.

It was also disarming and led to a conversation where I did my best to reasonably convince him that the module was based on research in history education, that Operation Coldstore had become a matter of public debate as well as debate among Singapore’s historians and that the module supported historical reasoning skills in the History curriculum. His gesture enabled us to discuss the purposes of helping teachers and students engage with historical controversies and how this might be done in Singapore. He skillfully defused the situation, and I believe it demonstrates the role of social harmony, relationality and trust in Singapore’s contexts, which also works to blunt critique at times.

Mark Baildon was interviewed about global citizenship education in 2021.

Knowledge production in the neoliberal university

After serving as Head of the Humanities and Social Studies Education Academic Group for several years, I was appointed to an Associate Dean position in NIE’s Office of Education Research. There, I oversaw NIE’s knowledge mobilisation and partnerships units. My position involved translating research knowledge to inform policymakers, teachers and school leaders, organising knowledge exchanges to engage NIE’s researchers with MOE officials and practitioners, and supporting partnerships to develop high-impact projects in priority research areas. The purpose of this work was to emphasise the co-production of knowledge, and to strengthen the research, policy and practice nexus.

Singapore is a “tightly coupled” education system (Dimmock & Tan, 2013). MOE, schools, and NIE work together closely around key areas of development steered by government and Ministry decision-makers. Since funding comes mainly from the Ministry, a high level of accountability was demanded to ensure NIE research and teaching was aligned with the overall directions set by MOE. There is an emphasis on evidence-based research that the Ministry and schools could utilise to improve education.

Academics whose work fits into the state’s agenda have a greater likelihood of getting research funding and promotions. For NIE researchers and faculty, this meant a need to focus on research and teaching knowledge deemed necessary by MOE to meet perceived needs and established educational aims. This meant making sure research focused on key priority areas and making sure teacher education was grounded in a fundamental set of assumptions – that it must be “practical” (i.e., utilitarian, instrumental), that scholarship and teaching should be aligned with the needs of the nation, and generally with the needs of the economy. This tight alignment made it challenging to be a critical scholar or a critical educator focused on social justice, critical praxis, or critically questioning dominant paradigms, ideologies, and government policies, including education policy and practice.

NIE is part of Nanyang Technological University, which has focused on neoliberal measures of performance, possibly at the expense of excluding more transformative forms of knowledge, social practices, and social change, Baildon notes.

While the drive to translate research knowledge and provide evidence-based studies for policy and practice is laudable, it merits closer examination. As part of Singapore’s ideology of pragmatism, it views knowledge as ‘neutral’ and reduces educational problems to the level of technical difficulties and solutions (Chua, 1983). My former professor at Michigan State University, Cleo Cherryholmes (1988), distinguished this as a form of “vulgar pragmatism” that values efficiency over criticism and the “unreflective acceptance of explicit and implicit standards, conventions, rules and discourse-practices that we find around us” to make things “better” while instrumentally “reproducing accepted meanings and conventional organisations, institutions, and ways of doing things for good or ill” (p. 151). This reinforces and reproduces the status quo and directs research and teaching toward the outcomes desired by the state.

NIE also operates within NTU, the neoliberal university par excellence, which has risen faster in rankings than other young research-intensive universities around the world. It has focused on relentless innovation, growth and competition to meet the needs of the global economy. It has pursued managerial, private sector management practices to monitor and manage research output. And it has engaged in savvy branding to attract students, faculty and funding. NIE researchers had to balance the demands of producing ‘practical’ knowledge for Singapore’s education system while also meeting the expectations of producing knowledge privileged by the university – abstract, generalised, theoretical, and analytical (rather than context specific, practice-oriented aims shaped by education system imperatives).

Accompanying NTU’s vision of excellence in academic output were increased ‘productivity’ expectations, proxy measures of quality (e.g., impact factors, H-index, citations), and more time and energy spent on faculty accounting for their outputs. Many scholars have highlighted the legacies of colonialism and neoliberalism in these shifts in university governance and management. Neoliberalisation in higher education entails the application of capitalist and market logics, an emphasis on human capital development and employability, top-down, hierarchical management schemes of academic rank and metrics used to measure and sort individuals. These trends privilege particular forms of knowledge production, while marginalising others (such as Indigenous knowledge systems). They perpetuate hierarchies and injustices, and exclude more transformative forms of knowledge, social practices, and social change. What and whose purposes do neoliberal universities like NTU serve?

After 16 years at NIE, Mark Baildon left Singapore for the United Arab Emirates University’s College of Education. He will join Indiana University in August 2024.

Reflections: The Double Binds of Knowledge Production in Singapore

These vignettes point to academics and educators in Singapore managing double binds or conflicting messages about knowledge production. They highlight the challenges of teaching critical thinking while instrumentally preparing students to perform well on exams and staying within Singapore’s OB markers; teaching in ways aligned with historical reasoning and practice focused on authentic historical problems within the confines of the Singapore Story; and some scholars desiring to be critical scholars within a ‘pragmatic’ education system and the neoliberal university. According to Bateson (1972), double binds tend to be used as forms of control without open coercion. They create uncertainty and confusion which makes them difficult to respond to or resist.

I felt the double binds myself. I believed in the importance of critical inquiry and teaching and researching public issues that might be considered controversial or politically sensitive to authorities or others in Singapore, such as social justice and free expression. Yet I also wanted to be respectful of different cultural views and practices related to these matters. As a Westerner and white cis-gendered male, I was aware that these identity markers bestowed a privileged status. I was not necessarily under the same kinds of constraints Singaporean academics likely feel. I sensed that I had greater latitude to push boundaries. Also, Singapore’s ‘pragmatic’ culture and my own desire to be ‘useful’ meant that I wanted to do research and teaching that would both support teachers in ‘practical’ ways to perform well in their school and classroom contexts, while also trying to respectfully push boundaries, provoke critical thinking, and explore issues in authentic ways. I believed this supported system goals and could enable teachers (and myself) to take on controversial issues with some sensitivity to existing norms and values in the culture.

I tried to make these felt tensions productive by working with colleagues, students and teachers around what would be helpful, how to manage boundaries, whether real or perceived, and how to push against the prevailing conservative forces that education everywhere usually faces. By nature, I am more relational than confrontational, curious and deliberative rather than wanting to push an agenda. I lean toward collaborative meaning-making rather than expressing definitive positions on issues. I also wanted to keep my job.

There were plenty of stories of academics in Singapore and colleagues in NIE who got into ‘trouble’ over issues related to race, ethnicity and inequality, and views that were explicitly critical of Singapore’s ruling party or particular policies that generated public debate. In NIE, there were stories of some colleagues receiving direct reprimands by NIE leadership or MOE officials, or told to withdraw papers. More common was self-censure and cautiousness. Colleagues were fearful that wading into controversial areas might cost them research grants or promotions. We all knew of historians and other academics who had challenged the cherished myths of the Singapore Story and were taken to task by government officials or unable to find work in Singapore’s universities and institutions. Others have chosen to work outside of Singapore’s restrictive academic environment, in places that grant a greater degree of academic freedom.

During my time in NIE, I taught students and teachers who wanted to openly discuss, question and challenge the strictures of Singapore’s education system. They found safe spaces within NIE to do so. They genuinely believed that criticism and the exploration of social and political issues contributed to improving Singapore society. At the same time, there were constant reminders of the limits to public and educational discourse. Near the end of my tenure, the historian P.J. Thum was grilled by Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam about his scholarship on Operation Coldstore, amid claims he was not an “objective historian.”

In 2019 the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) was passed to counter online falsehoods. POFMA identified two tests for censorship – there were false statements of facts, and it was in the public interest for the government to act if “prejudicial” to Singapore’s elections, security, public health, safety and tranquillity, or friendly relations with other countries. In the same year, a Yale-NUS course titled “Dissent and Resistance in Singapore” was cancelled. These messages further promote double binds related to research and teaching for academics and educators – they create uncertainty, fear, and they are difficult to navigate.

However, as reported in a paper I co-authored, public discourse reveals greater self-questioning among Singaporeans about national and neoliberal narratives. Interviews with leading Singaporean personalities across different sectors revealed that most believe the practices of governance and work in schools and other workplaces are narrowly focused, restrictive and controlling, and that Singaporeans are desirous of more plural life pathways and broader aspirations in life. The study participants highlighted a greater willingness to question Singapore’s emphasis on competition, meritocracy, efficiency, accountability, and performativity measures. Singapore’s OB markers and the double binds they create inhibit not only discussion of particular issues, but the autonomy of some Singaporean educators and academics to do work that might advance Singapore in new directions.


[1] I was the Principal Investigator for a research and development grant under Singapore’s National Research Foundation edulab Programme to develop Signature Programmes in Humanities. Historian’s Lab was part of this.


Bateson, G. (1999). Steps toward an ecology of mind. University of Chicago Press.

Cherryholmes, C. (1988). Power and criticism: Poststructural investigations in education. Teachers College Press.

Chua, B.-H. (1983). Reopening ideological discussion in Singapore: A new theoretical direction. Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, 11(2), 31- 45.

Dimmock, C., & Tan, C.Y. (2013). Educational leadership in Singapore: Tight coupling, sustainability, scalability, and succession. Journal of Educational Administration, 51(3), 320-340. https://doi.org/10.1108/09578231311311492