Background/Context: There is a pressing need to consider how citizens should live together, especially in societies that are increasingly ethnically and politically diverse. Even though multicultural education is constructed very differently and serves very different purposes in different national contexts, relatively little attention has been paid to how education systems of countries such as China, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates give greater emphasis to the concepts of harmony and social cohesion.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This study explores some of the ways in which multicultural education is defined and conceptualized in East Asian countries. This paper draws on the case study of Singapore to interrogate the concept of harmony, investigate the implications of the state incorporating this concept as an educational goal for the public education system, and examine teachers’ understandings of multicultural education.
Research Design: The study adhered to the qualitative case study design. The data consisted primarily of semistructured individual interviews with 24 Singapore secondary social studies teachers, as well as relevant curricular and political documents such as the national Social Studies curriculum, political speeches, and official government publications. Guided by the literature, the interviewers asked questions to surface the participants’ understandings of the definition, purposes, and practices of multicultural education. Subsequently, the interviewers used follow-up questions to probe further and elicit additional description of how the teachers arrived at these understandings. The data analysis, shaped largely by the constant comparative method, was data-driven and inductive.
Conclusions/Recommendations: By illustrating some of the affordances and constraints of incorporating harmony as an educational goal, this study offers multicultural education scholars and teacher educators an opportunity to better understand some of the ways in which multicultural education is conceptualized in East Asian countries with strong Confucian traditions. The findings from this study suggest that a focus on harmony as an educational goal may help facilitate a move away from programs that emphasize the development of individual students’ social and political competencies towards programs and policies designed to promote communal trust and social cohesion. Finally, this study illustrates the some of the challenges teachers face when balancing the goals of building trust and harmony within society and interrogating entrenched interests, institutional inequality, and unequal power relations.