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Social Harmony and Diversity: The Affordances and Constraints of Harmony as an Educational Goal

by Li-Ching Ho - 2017

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 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.

There is a pressing need to consider how citizens should live together, especially in societies that are increasingly ethnically and politically diverse (Allen, 2009; Hess & McAvoy, 2014; Parker, 2003). How, for example, can schools contribute to building social cohesion? How too, can we adopt ways of thinking that allow us to “think past anger” (Hattam & Zembylas, 2010, p. 29) and produce more “hospitable ways of inhabiting the world with others” (Zembylas, 2009, p. 374)?

Multicultural and citizenship education scholarship in many democracies has largely focused on other issues such as creating a more just society; challenging power, privilege, and inequity; and teaching students to be critical, reflexive, and socially engaged (see, e.g., Banks, 2007; Ladson-Billings, 1994; McLaren, 1994; Nieto, Bode, Kang, & Raible, 2008; Sleeter & Grant, 1987). Less attention, however, has been paid to how education systems of other countries such as China, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates give greater emphasis to the concepts of harmony and social cohesion (Ho, 2009; Richardson, 2004; Wan, 2004).

This study, therefore, seeks to address two questions: (1) How is the concept of harmony used as an educational goal by the Singapore state? (2) What are Singapore teachers’ conceptions of multicultural education? Singapore is an interesting case because it is a young and ethnically diverse illiberal democracy with an interventionist government that overtly espouses Confucian values such as harmony in political discourse, state laws, education policies, and especially in social studies curricula focused on multicultural education (Ho, 2010; Zakaria, 1997). In this paper, I draw 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 Singapore teachers’ conceptions of multicultural education.

This paper starts by examining different conceptions of multicultural education and the promises and pitfalls of the concept of harmony as one of the goals of multicultural education. I then compare this concept to other similar concepts such as social cohesion (Beauvais & Jenson, 2002), political friendships (Allen, 2004, 2009), and peace education (Johnson & Johnson, 2005) expressed by scholars from different national and cultural contexts. In the next section, I investigate how 24 Singapore social studies teachers conceptualize harmony as a goal for multicultural education. Using this data, I examine the extent to which teachers disrupt the politicization of harmony by the state and consider the affordances and constraints of harmony as an educational goal. I then conclude by arguing that there is a need for a reconsideration of the purposes of education in a multicultural society and suggest that the Confucian concept of harmony offers an opportunity to reconceptualize the fundamental nature of social relations within a nation-state.


In many countries, the definition, purpose, and enactment of multicultural education has been greatly contested because, embedded within multicultural education, are highly contentious issues such as the role of minorities, immigrants, national identity, and the boundaries of the nation-state. The definition, conceptualization, and enactment of multicultural education, however, cannot be divorced from wider historical and sociopolitical contexts because the definitions of terms such as culture and multicultural differ significantly from one national context to another (Sleeter, 2010).

Multicultural education is constructed very differently and serves very different purposes in different national contexts. Multicultural education within the United States, for example, has focused on four foundational principles: cultural pluralism; social justice and the elimination of prejudice and discrimination; cultural affirmation in teaching and learning; and academic equity and excellence for all students (Bennett, 2001). Advocates of transformative multicultural education, for instance, call for a reconceptualization of curricula so that students are able to critique societal inequities, challenge how history and policies have been written, and take action to promote social justice (Banks, 2008; Miller-Lane, Howard, & Halagao, 2007). Canadian scholars of multiculturalism, in contrast, have greatly emphasized the idea of “group differentiated rights” (Kymlicka, 1995) or what Taylor (1994) calls the “politics of recognition.” Kymlicka (1995), for instance, draws on the liberal values of autonomy and equality to argue that minority identity groups have “a valid claim, not only to tolerance” but also “explicit accommodation, recognition and representation within institutions of the larger society” (p. 147).

Some European countries, on the other hand, have placed a significant amount of emphasis on the concept of social cohesion (Green, Preston, & Sabates, 2003). The Council of Europe (2010), for instance, published an action plan for social cohesion and articulated a strategy focused on addressing social, political, and economic disparities, marginalization of minorities, shared social responsibilities, and promoting a “climate of trust” (p. 6). Countries with a strong Confucian tradition such as South Korea, Japan, and China, in contrast, focus on other issues that are unique to their own historical, political, and cultural contexts (Hirasawa, 2004; Hong, 2010; Lee, 2004; Wan, 2004). In Japan, a largely ethnically homogenous country, the term “multicultural living-together” is frequently used by government authorities instead of multicultural education because it emphasizes “peaceful coexistence of differences and social harmony” (Hirasawa, 2009, p. 165). In China, a country with more than 50 officially recognized ethnic groups, the school curriculum greatly emphasizes harmony, national unity, and political stability. Students are required to “know about stories of national unity and show equality, harmony, and respect between nationalities through examples” (Wan, 2004, p. 362). Likewise, in Singapore, the government requires all state schools to promote national values including racial and religious harmony as one of the key goals for multicultural education (Ho, 2009). These values are encapsulated in a national slogan that reads: “We must preserve racial and religious harmony: We value our diversity and are determined to stay a united people” (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2007a, n.p.).

Although current literature within multicultural education attends to the influence of cultural narratives, teachers’ experiences, and teachers’ personal beliefs of multicultural education, less attention has been paid to how teacher perspectives and pedagogy are mediated by national policies and narratives. In one of the few studies explicitly focusing on the influence of national policies on teachers’ thinking of multicultural education, Alviar-Martin and Ho (2011) found that Singapore teachers’ perspectives of multicultural education and diversity were greatly influenced by national political discourses such as meritocracy. Other studies have also shown how teachers mediate and adapt policy as they decide how to enact it in their classroom. Spillane (1999), for instance, argued that teachers’ zones of enactment play a central role in terms of how the teacher implements instructional reform. Different zone of enactment characteristics may also affect the extent to which teachers revise their practice.

In contrast, a significant proportion of other research studies have focused on how personal experiences and cultural narratives influence on teachers’ thinking of multicultural education. Numerous studies, for example, have linked teachers’ prior cross-cultural experiences such as working or interacting with culturally diverse others to their thinking about multicultural education (Adams, Bondy, & Kuhel, 2005; Garmon, 2004; Pohan, 1996). Researchers have, for instance, shown that personal experiences of racism (Pang & Gibson, 2001) and cross-cultural experiences both during and before teacher preparation (Whipp, 2013) are significant factors in teachers’ pedagogical goals and practices. In her study, Whipp (2013) noted that significant cross-cultural and field experiences in high poverty communities appeared to be linked to whether the teacher adopted an individual or structural orientation towards teaching. Teachers who were individually oriented focused mainly on developing caring and “color-blind” relationships with their students. Teachers who were structurally oriented, in contrast, focused on societal injustice, consciousness-raising, and advocacy. In addition, a study by Santoro and Allard (2005) showed how Australian student teachers’ ethnic and socioeconomic class positioning informed their constructions of identity and the ways in which they engaged with students from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Other studies also suggest that teachers can be influenced by pervasive cultural myths such as the belief that attributes success to being dependent on an individual’s merit or hard work (Castro, 2010). For instance, in their study, Mueller and O’Connor (2007) found that U.S. preservice teachers’ cultural assumptions about meritocracy, individualism, and equal opportunity shaped their understanding of multicultural issues such as institutionalized racism and oppression.


In this section, I explore the overlapping and contested concepts of harmony and social cohesion. I start by focusing on Confucian definitions of harmony and then consider how this intersects with other concepts such as social cohesion, positive interdependence, and political friendships.

Confucian ideas and values play a significant role in many education systems in East Asia (Tu, 1996). While there are disputes over the definition and nature of the Confucian heritage of these countries, certain political and social values such as duty and harmony predominate. For countries, such as China, Japan, and Singapore, the Confucian ethic of harmony has become an important part of what Tu (2008) calls the “grammar underlying the common discourse on civilized conduct” (p. 94).

According to Confucian scholars, important characteristics of harmony include seeking consensus and cooperation, having trust and respect for other members, and a willingness to sacrifice for the community. In general, scholars agree that harmony entails seeking consensus through negotiation and mediation rather than direct confrontation. This is because mutual adjustment and accommodation is seen as a more productive way of resolving conflict between cultures. Tu (1996), for example, states:

Consensus as a preferred way of decision-making, negotiation as a conventional method of resolving conflict, informal arbitration as a frequent substitute for formal legal procedures, and as a last resort, the common practice of mediation through third parties other than direct confrontation between rivals are all symptomatic of an overriding concern for group solidarity. (p. 27)

Harmony also depends on mutual reciprocity and cooperation. This is because the idea of harmony needs to be considered in particularistic and relational terms (O’Dwyer, 2003). Since an individual’s rights, duties, and responsibilities can only be defined within the context of that individual’s social roles and networks, membership of a community, therefore, provides an all-important context within which an individual operates. Individuals are not seen as “rights-bearers” removed from the context of community (Gonzales, Riedel, Avery, & Sullivan, 2001) and they do not have “equal, innate, intrinsic, and inviolate rights independent of participation in community” (Ames, 1997, p. 195).

People living in a harmonious society, in addition, should also trust and respect other members of their community. They should embrace differences and recognize how these differences can be complementary and interconnected (Angle, 2008). Finally, harmony also emphasizes values such as individual sacrifice and duty to the community. This, however, does not imply that individuals should avoid conflict or demonstrate unthinking obedience and deference to authority (Angle, 2008; Li, 2006). In fact, harmony does not mean blind submission or docility: “Confucian harmony is not mere agreement without difference; it is not meant to preserve peace at any cost. . . . It does not rule out strife but uses strife in order to achieve greater harmony” (Li, 2006, p. 592). Citing Confucius, Li (2006) argues that an exemplary person (junzi) aims to achieve harmony but not uniformity: “The junzi harmonizes but does not seek sameness, whereas the petty person seeks sameness but does not harmonize” (The Analects of Confucius, 13.23, cited in Li, 2006, p. 586). Likewise, Angle (2008) and Ames (1997) contend that harmony does not demand complete consensus and blind obedience to political leaders or to the nation but instead requires acknowledgment of criticisms and differences of opinion. Political dissent in government, therefore, is not only welcome but is actually necessary for achieving harmony. Li (2006) writes: “A government consisting of only one voice is stagnant and dangerous” (p. 586). Therefore, harmony requires attention to the diverse perspectives of all members because in a harmonious society, differences provide balance and enrich the larger community (Angle, 2008; Li, 2006).

Critics of the concept of harmony however, highlight how this concept can result in the suppression of alternative perspectives and lead to the marginalization of minority groups. At the societal level, East Asian political leaders have frequently resorted to coercion and suppression of dissent in order to maintain social harmony and order (O’Dwyer, 2003). This can potentially result in “cultural sterility” and a lack of civic commitment and responsibility (p. 56). The deferential attitude of individuals towards expert or elite authority and the preference for consensus and compromise may also result in an unwillingness to question or challenge ideas (Feng & Newton, 2012). School curricula focusing on harmony may also result in the marginalization of oppositional viewpoints and conflict avoidance. Bickmore (2006), for instance, criticized the curricula from three Canadian provinces (Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and Ontario) for focusing on harmony because it marginalized conflict and critical viewpoints and conveyed the impression that injustices belonged to the past or were essentially resolved.

It is important to note that the Confucian concept of harmony shares certain similar characteristics with other concepts such as social cohesion, political friendships, and positive interdependence. In spite of its widespread use, social cohesion is a “fuzzy and politically freighted concept” (Green et al., 2003, p. 456). Similar to the concept of harmony described above, social cohesion can mean (1) shared norms and values; (2) shared identity; and (3) a sense of continuity and stability (p. 456). Social cohesion can also be defined in terms of a strong civil society and active citizenry. This liberal conception places less emphasis on shared values and bonding but instead focuses more on commitment to democratic participation and institutions (Beauvais & Jenson, 2002). In addition, social cohesion can be defined as equitable distribution of opportunities and resources, and the establishment of institutions that “provide collective welfare” (Green, Preston, & Sabates, 2003, p. 456). This social democratic vision of social cohesion differs significantly from the Confucian concept of harmony because it does not just see threats to social cohesion as emanating from increasing ethnic or religious diversity. Instead, this definition suggests that social, political, and economic disparities and a lack of equality of opportunity can also be significant threats to social cohesion (Heyneman & Todoric-bebic, 2000).

The concept of political friendships articulated by Allen (2009) and the Confucian concept of harmony share a similar emphasis on reciprocity, trust, and individual sacrifice. The central project of democracy, according to Allen, depends on political friendships that recognize the importance of flexibility, sacrifice, equitability, and systems of reciprocity in order to generate “networks of mutual benefaction” (p. 45). Political friendship, Allen (2009) writes, “begins from this recognition about what we share with the people who live around us and in the same polity” (p. xxii). This is because political friendships help form the basis of a trust-generating form of citizenship that is premised on respect, ethical reciprocity, equitable self-interest, as well as the shared experiences, networks, and relationships among fellow citizens. In order to engender this trust, citizens will have to be flexible and sacrifice or moderate their interests in order to protect that of their community.

Similar to the concept of harmony, the concept of positive interdependence is premised on the assumption that a person cannot be conceived as an autonomous being divorced from her community. Drawing on social interdependence theory, Johnson and Johnson (2010) highlight the cooperative aspect of positive interdependence and they argue that there needs to be a “positive correlation among individuals’ goal attainments; one party can achieve its goal if and only if all other relevant parties achieve their goals” (p. 283). Negative interdependence, in contrast, arises as a result of competition and a perceived need to obstruct other individuals’ attempts to attain their goals. Positive interdependence, furthermore, serves as a foundation for a consensual peace, an approach that not only ends hostilities, but also develops new harmonious relationships and interactions based on mutual goals, benefits, and identity.


The Singapore government has consistently played a particularly interventionist role in order to manage what it perceives to be the potentially divisive nature of the country’s ethnically and religiously diverse population. Historically, the most divisive distinctions revolve around the related categories of race and religion. Ethnic Chinese constitute 74% of the population, with Malays and Indians making up most of the remainder. Currently, 44% of the population identify as Buddhist and Taoist, 18% as Christian, 15% as Muslim, and 5% as Hindu. Religious affiliations in Singapore, however, do not necessarily correspond to ethnic identification. Ethnic Chinese tend to identify as Buddhist and Taoist (57%) and Christian (20%). The majority of people categorized as Indian are Hindus (59%) but a significant minority are Muslim (21%), Christian (12.8%), and Sikh (5%). In contrast, nearly all Malays are Muslim (99%) (Department of Statistics, 2010).

In more recent times, the Singapore government has dealt with other significant controversial issues related to diversity, such as the headscarf (tudung or hijab) ban in public schools, the disparity in academic achievement between students from different racial backgrounds, and the political influence of conservative Christian groups (Ganesan, 2004; Neo, 2011). During important national events such as Racial Harmony Day and National Day, government leaders consistently remind citizens of the fragility of relations between diverse groups and regularly refer to the racial riots in the 1960s to justify intervening in the management of racial and religious harmony in Singapore. The political leadership, in addition, has felt compelled to underscore the potential threats to harmony, social cohesion, and the survival of the country (Ho, 2010).

Singapore’s political leaders, most notably the first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, have also consistently promoted particular Confucian societal values or principles to foster communal spirit and to define and redefine relations between diverse groups in society. For example, the former Prime Minister Lee (1994) argued that Singapore would not have overcome the challenges and survived without Confucian values such as placing the interests of society above that of the individual, respecting political leaders, and having a reverence for scholarship and academic achievement. These state-endorsed values and principles also served as a basis for the development of an overarching national identity, expressed in government policies such as the National Shared Values and National Education. Both policies emphasize values such as harmony, consensus, and national unity. The national Shared Values, for example, espouses racial and religious harmony, “consensus not conflict” (Parliament of Singapore, 1991, n.p.). Similarly, the second National Education message reads: “We must preserve racial and religious harmony: We value our diversity and are determined to stay a united people” (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2007a, n.p.). The Singapore government has also consistently advocated the idea of “nation before community and society above self” (Parliament of Singapore, 1991).

Within secondary schools, the value of harmony is addressed in extensively in the national social studies curriculum. Students attend secondary schools from the ages 13–17 and all students are required to attend social studies classes. Notably, most teachers have few opportunities to deviate from the prescribed national curriculum and textbooks written by the Singapore Ministry of Education. The subject devotes a significant part of the curriculum to multicultural education and the goal of harmony. For example, the unit titled “Conflict and Harmony in Multiethnic Societies” equates harmony to social order and emphasizes the need to support national priorities and the common good. The unit used this overarching question to frame the lessons: “Why is harmony in a multi-ethnic society important to the development and viability of a nation?” (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008, p. 11). It also reminds students of the potentially disastrous consequences of interethnic conflict in Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka, and argues that there is a need to be “vigilant against the forces of divisiveness that cause conflict and disintegration of societies” (p. 11). The curriculum also highlights government policies that are designed to promote harmony, including common schools, national military conscription, and organizations such as the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony.

Apart from the focus on the value of harmony, the Singapore Ministry of Education has also regularly introduced other policies and initiatives designed to promote “critical thinking” (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2013). Two of the most influential initiatives are Thinking Schools, Learning Nation proposed by the former prime minister (Goh, 1997) and the 21st Century Competencies framework (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2013). Thinking schools, according to Goh (1997), “must be the crucibles for questioning and searching” and they should help develop future generations of “thinking and committed citizens” (n.p.). Similarly, the 21st Century Competencies framework argues that “critical and inventive thinking” is necessary to help Singapore students “thrive in a fast-changing world” (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2013, n.p.). Teachers, in particular, are expected to incorporate pedagogical strategies that help students think “independently and critically,” take calculated risks, become innovative, and be “discerning in judgment” (n.p.).    

Notably, in spite of the state’s focus on critical thinking in schools, the Singapore ruling elite has chosen not to enact Li’s (2006) interpretation of the Confucian value of harmony especially with regard to the importance of the diversity of views in society. The role of a good Singapore citizen, according to the state, is not to challenge the status quo because harmony—defined as stability and order—is necessary to ensure the survival of the state. According to several scholars, the ruling party’s vigorous promotion of values such as filial piety, respect for family and elders, order and stability, obligations, and societal harmony (Freeman, 1996; Mahbubani, 1998) are designed to maintain the status quo, suppress political dissent, and to legitimize the government’s authoritarian rule (Hill, 2000). The Singapore government has, furthermore, enshrined into law certain prohibitions to free speech and assembly that prevent or deter democratic behavior, including strikes, protests, or public demonstrations because political leaders fear the destabilizing effects of dissent and political pluralism. This preference for political stability and order is also reflected in the secondary social studies curriculum and textbooks. For example, according to the textbook, the role of the Legislature is to make laws that help “keep order in society” (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2007b, p. 30).


The study’s data were obtained from a larger 2-year project examining Singapore teachers’ perceptions of diversity and multicultural education. The research team consisted of two principal investigators who were education professors in the only teacher education institute in Singapore and a full-time research assistant. The two main research questions guiding this study are: (1) How is the concept of harmony used as an educational goal by the Singapore state? (2) What are Singapore teachers’ conceptions of multicultural education?


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. The interviews lasted between 60 and 90 minutes and were conducted in English as this is the primary medium of instruction in Singapore.

The researchers started by identifying experienced teachers who held leadership positions such as heads of department within the field of social studies education. Using a snowball sampling strategy, other teachers were identified based on recommendations from the initial group of teachers. The researchers’ primary criteria of selection included the different types of public secondary schools in Singapore, gender, ethnic affiliation, and years of teaching experience (see the appendix). All participants obtained their teacher certification from the National Institute of Education, the only teacher education institute in Singapore. All the participants were civil servants and were employed by the Singapore Ministry of Education. The sample included three teachers who identified as Indian/Sikh, three teachers who identified as Malay, and 18 Chinese teachers. Eleven of the teachers were female and 13 were male. In terms of teaching experience, the sample consisted mainly of teachers with at least 5 years of teaching experience (16 of 24). Eleven of the teachers held leadership positions in schools (e.g., heads of department). The sample comprised 16 teachers from regular government schools, four teachers from elite government schools (schools that admit the top 10% of students), and four teachers who were temporarily attached to other administrative or curricular divisions. The Ministry of Education has the responsibility of assigning teachers to schools and other divisions, including the curriculum development and the assessment divisions and teachers who are assigned to these positions frequently spend several years there before moving back to schools.

This study purposefully selected social studies teachers because they are assigned the main responsibility for teaching social and citizenship issues, including the main unit focusing on multicultural issues. The semistructured interview protocol included questions that focused on the teachers’ conceptions of multicultural education. 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 and why they thought that these understandings were central to multicultural education. Although the interview protocol did not include questions that specifically asked about the concept of harmony, harmony emerged as an important theme for all the teachers. Because harmony appeared to be a salient category of meaning expressed by the participants (Marshall & Rossman, 2006), the interviewers were able to follow up with probes that helped elicit in-depth and detailed information about their understandings of harmony (Merriam, 2009). For example, based on the participants’ initial responses that focused mainly on harmony as the primary goal of multicultural education, the interviewers then asked the respondents to explain why they thought harmony was central to the definition and purposes of multicultural education.

One of the limitations of the study, however, was the lack of questions that explicitly asked teachers about their opinions of alternative conceptions of harmony. In addition, the study, as designed, only focused on secondary social studies teachers. A worthwhile direction for future research, therefore, would be developing a larger study that specifically addressed both primary and secondary social studies teachers’ understandings of harmony in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding about some of the issues and themes that emerged from this study.


The data analysis, shaped largely by the constant comparative method, was data-driven and inductive (Miles & Huberman, 1994). The researchers individually coded sample interview transcripts at the initial stage of analysis in order to get a sense of the whole, to understand the ways in which the texts described dominant perspectives, and also identify incidents, comments, and questions that expressed unusual or contradictory views (Creswell, 1998). The researchers then employed the constant comparative method by comparing particular incidents and insights from the interviews with other incidents from the same data set. If a similarity was detected, the researchers assigned tentative codes to text segments. Concurrently, interesting patterns and apparent contradictions were also noted (Miles & Huberman, 1994). In the second stage of analysis, the researchers collaboratively reviewed the interview transcripts to identify similarly coded texts and these codes were then refined and revised to minimize inconsistency and redundancy. The researchers then sought to characterize the patterns that unified each group (Tesch, 1990).

An inductive analysis of the interviews revealed that harmony was a key element in the participants’ understanding of multicultural education. Within the superordinate category of harmony, several subcategories were identified: (1) knowledge of social norms and beliefs; (2) interpersonal communication; (3) respect and empathy for others; (4) necessary for the development of the country; (5) citizens’ responsibility; (6) critical thinking; and (7) challenging societal inequities. The first three subcategories were then collapsed into a larger category—harmony as interpersonal relationships. The fourth and fifth subcategories were collapsed into a second larger category—harmony as national survival. Finally, the subcategories of critical thinking and challenging societal inequities were combined into a third larger category—critical conceptions of harmony.


In this section, I discuss the key findings from the study about Singapore teachers’ beliefs about harmony as an educational goal. First, the participants utilized different and competing national discourses to substantiate their different conceptualizations of harmony. The participants overwhelmingly agreed that one of the goals of education in general was to promote a harmonious society. Their responses also reflected how they consciously and unconsciously assumed that the primary goal of multicultural education was to achieve societal harmony—a perspective that was significantly different to other more conventional goals such as challenging power, privilege, and inequity (see, e.g., Banks, 2008; Nieto, Bode, Kang, & Raible, 2008). Second, most of the participants defined harmony in terms of interpersonal relations and obligations to the national community. Nearly half of the participants expressed a belief that an individual had a responsibility to maintain societal harmony in order to ensure national survival. These participants largely framed their discussion of goals of harmony at a societal rather than an individual level, and they highlighted how harmony was essential for economic progress, political stability, and national unity. Third, the majority of the participants did not challenge the Singapore government’s preference for a conception of harmony that emphasizes political stability, the suppression of dissent, and what Young (2002) calls “the norm of order” (p. 47). Only three teachers articulated a conception of harmony that was focused on critical thinking and equity.


Almost all the teachers identified societal harmony as one of the most important goals of education. To these teachers, harmony was an intrinsically worthwhile educational end and most of them defined harmony in terms of enhancing interpersonal relationships through shared knowledge and experiences, good communication, empathy, and respect for diversity and difference.

A third of the teachers, including Alex, Kay, Wee, Nancy, and David, defined harmony as the development of shared knowledge of social norms. They felt that students’ lacked the ability to interact with each other because they did not have the necessary understanding of other cultures and religions. Alex, an experienced Indian teacher, for example, felt that students should acquire a deeper understanding of people from other groups so that it would be easier for them to accommodate diverse viewpoints. David, a Chinese department head, developed this idea a little further. He believed that not only was it important to expose students to different races and religions, but he also felt that was essential to educate them about the how these groups interacted. Thus, to him, students needed to know “how the society functions” and how the interaction of different cultural groups could result in greater understanding and harmony. Similarly, Ling, a female Chinese teacher from an elite boys’ school, felt that harmony could be achieved by helping her students “understand that there can be solutions that we should be looking for.” She emphasized that she wanted her students to know how problems could arise as a result of differences and to identify solutions to help promote harmonious relations.

Several teachers including Mark and Ken, defined harmony in terms of communication across groups. Mark, a department head, argued that improved communication could result in the development of a harmonious society. He stated that students should be exposed to different perspectives and beliefs as this would make them more sympathetic to other people’s needs: “That awareness will allow each other to be more sensitive to each other’s needs ... and in that sense it will bring about better communication.” Mark wanted his students to “see beyond themselves” because he thought that this would help them become more sensitive to other people’s perspectives. Interestingly, he used this analogy to illustrate his point:

It’s like the ten blind men discovering an elephant. They are all seeing about the same thing but in their own mind-set of things, they see the elephant as a fan, they see the elephant as a hose, they see the elephant as a tree trunk.

Notably, the majority of the participants defined harmony as empathy and respect for diversity and difference. For example, Ling, a female Chinese department head at an elite boys’ school, believed that the purpose of multicultural education was to help students “respect each other’s differences and appreciate the fact that we are different.” Ken, a young teacher, agreed with this sentiment. He thought that his students were “self-centered” and therefore he felt that education should focus on teaching empathy, mutual accommodation, and understanding. This, he argued, could help create a more harmonious society: “If you want people to live in a harmonious country then you’ve got to let people know what is going on within other segments of the country, so they can understand.” He thought that this exposure and interaction could help reduce prejudice, and discrimination—issues that the teachers thought could cause disharmony in society.  


Notably, nearly half the participants explicitly framed harmony as a means to an end, with the end defined largely as national survival. Echoing the state’s assertion of “nation before community, and society above self” (Parliament of Singapore, 1991), teachers such as Komala, Hoon, Kah, and Larry argued that harmony was important because they felt that this was essential for the survival of nation-state. Embedded within their responses was an assumption that individual citizens had duties and responsibilities to the larger community and consequently, these teachers felt that individual citizens had an obligation to prioritize national harmony and unity above other sectarian, group and individual interests. For example, Hoon, a male Chinese teacher, argued that the primary purpose of multicultural education was to develop harmonious citizens and ensure the country’s survival: “This comes back to the whole thing about harmony . . . . (this) is going to have an immediate and extensive impact on the future of Singapore.” He felt that Singapore could not afford to ignore the threat of disharmony as this would jeopardize its very existence:

Racial harmony, religious harmony is something that sometimes people take for granted, which I think is quite dangerous, because you look at society like Sri Lanka, look at Lebanon, they used to be prosperous, but you just take some differences, and if people exploit such differences for their own purpose, whether its greed, political power, economic power, the country can be torn down.

Hoon’s response echoed some of the rhetoric used by Singapore’s political leaders such as the need for citizens to be constantly vigilant against communal conflict and divisive influences within the country (Ho, 2010). Likewise, Larry argued that national unity was essential to Singapore’s survival because it lacked natural resources and consequently needed contributions from every citizen. He said: “People are the most important resource that we have . . . . we need people from every single ethnic group, gender group or whoever to contribute to the society.” Patricia, a female teacher belonging to the Chinese majority, echoed these sentiments, mentioning that she agreed with the state’s goal of national unity: “You need to be united even though you’re of different races and religion.”

Notably, teachers from minority groups also shared very similar sentiments about harmony as an essential component for national survival. Komala, a very experienced female teacher from the minority Sikh group, was one of the strongest proponents of national unity. Komala’s comments reflected her deep belief in harmony and national unity as the foundation for the survival of the country:

When I teach, I only see myself as a Singaporean. . . . .Even to the students, I always tell them Singapore first. . . .  You shouldn’t see yourself as Malay, Chinese, Indians, you know because this is safety. We’ll bring you towards unity. . . . If you think yourself as a Chinese, Indian, Malay, you know, then you’re in trouble. So you should think yourself as a Singaporean.

Interestingly, even though she was a member of one of the smallest ethnic groups in Singapore, Komala still maintained that the country would be “in trouble” if citizens chose to prioritize their identification with a particular ethnic or racial group. Likewise, Zainal, a male teacher of Malay ethnicity, emphasized the significance of promoting social cohesion and “working towards a common identity and common goal.”

Not all teachers, however, placed as much emphasis on national goals and membership of a nation-state. In contrast to the other teachers who defined harmony as primarily involving identification with the nation-state, six teachers argued that it was also important to recognize and celebrate differences and to consider how these differences could contribute to societal harmony. Consequently, they argued that the definition of harmony should also incorporate membership of an ethnic community. Echoing the Confucian argument that uniformity or sameness (tong) does not necessarily contribute to harmony (he) (Li, 2006), David explained that it was important to appreciate one’s racial heritage, including “where we come from, who we are, and what makes us different from the rest.” Using the National Day celebrations as an example, David argued that harmony was not just about a common national identity: “The common identity is not the end of the story . . . . we can strengthen and reconnect with our past, as a Chinese, Malay or Indian, or even Eurasian. We shouldn’t be looking one way, it should be multiple ways.” David argued that harmony did not mean that a citizen should give up his or her own distinctive heritage. It also did not mean that the different groups should be forced to interact with each other all the time or to be totally uniform in their behavior: “Racial harmony doesn’t mean you have to live, sleep, eat, play, work, everything together.” Likewise, Kah, a department head at an elite school, described how he preferred to focus on what his colleagues have in common rather than to emphasize their differences: “I do not look at the differences, but I’d rather focus on the similarities . . . we are all here for the same cause.” Similarly, Ken suggested that it was perfectly acceptable for different racial groups to congregate together and he explained that this did not indicate the lack of harmony in society.


The previous sections described how the majority of the participants drew on state discourses of harmony in their responses. In this section, I examine three teachers’ definitions of harmony that differed substantially from that of their colleagues and the Singapore state. These three teachers, Brandon, Heidi, and Wen, had significantly more critical conceptions of harmony and they spoke explicitly about the importance of teaching students how to examine and challenge inequitable systemic and structural issues in society.

All three teachers defined framed harmony as critical thinking and argued that it was important for students to learn how to critique structural and systemic issues. Interestingly, this perspective closely paralleled the pedagogical goals highlighted in Singapore’s 21st Century Competencies framework such as developing students who are independent and critical thinkers, and teaching students to be “discerning in judgment” (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2013, n.p.). For example, Brandon, a teacher in an elite boys’ school, emphasized that harmony entailed valuing multiple perspectives and recognizing individual and structural inequality: “Multicultural education? Perspectives . . . you get them to question the underlying biases, their assumptions, their beliefs.” Brandon, in addition, spoke at length about the importance of teaching his students to be able to think critically because he felt that it was the best way for the students to understand the importance of harmony in society:

Critical thinking . . . encouraging and giving opportunities to students to think about their thinking, to think about why they say something, why they basically- to examine why they take a stand on an issue, what basis they make a claim . . . how valid those claims are and how they measure up to yours . . . that’s first and foremost the most important thing.

The second teacher, Wen, defined harmony in terms of equitable allocation of opportunity and resources: “I think first of all . . . everyone gets equal opportunity and resources . . . maximum exposure to as diverse a reality yet possible in Singapore, and yeah basically not leaning towards any dominant majority.” To Wen, it was important for her students to question and challenge dominant discourses, reevaluate how resources are distributed in society, and ensure that this did not favor any particular group.

The third teacher, Heidi, argued that harmony required students to “think outside their own experiences” in order to acquire new understandings about ideas and perspectives that were unfamiliar to them. She described her lesson thusly:


The first lesson is usually on the concept of conflict . . . and the main learning objective of the lesson is to get students to see that differences exist not only along racial and religious lines, but these in a way are social constructs, and these are created based on perceptions over time . . . it’s just that race and religion have been . . . emphasized and reinforced over time, and therefore they tend to become more divisive lines of conflict.

Heidi’s construction of harmony and conflict in her social studies classroom deviated significantly from the perspective presented in the formal social studies curriculum. She challenged the primordial constructions of race that were implicit in the curriculum and explained that these “social constructs.” In addition, she wanted her students to understand that there were many potential fault lines in society apart from religion and race—the two issues that were given the most prominence in the curriculum.

Notably, even though these three teachers expressed considerably different beliefs about harmony compared to the other participants, they also relied on state discourses to support their beliefs. The teachers, however, utilized different and competing national discourses to frame their responses. The three teachers relied on pedagogical discourses based primarily on state education policies and frameworks that promoted critical thinking such as Thinking Schools Learning Nation (Goh, 1997), and the 21st Century Competencies framework (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2013).


This study examined how the concept of harmony has been utilized by the Singapore state within public education and explored how 24 teachers’ conceptualized harmony and multicultural education. In general, the findings indicate that the participants shared very similar understandings of the centrality of the concept of harmony for multicultural education in Singapore, which also tended to reflect government values.


Teachers’ professional identities and their interpretations and reactions to policies are shaped by the interaction between their own beliefs and attitudes, and the social, cultural, and institutional environment within which they operate (van den Berg, 2002). Even though the participants held different views about the purpose of multicultural education, it is notable that all the participants’ responses reflected state promoted discourses and policies, albeit different ones. The findings from this study, therefore, extend the work done previously by Ho and Seow (2015) and others demonstrating the significant role of the nation-state in establishing dominant national discourses that influence how concepts such as harmony are framed and taught in schools.

First, the participants’ belief in the primacy of national affiliations and civic obligations mirrored the Singapore state’s position on the relationship between individual rights and group interests. In general, the teachers’ responses suggested that they agreed with Oldfield’s (1990) contention that individuals are not “sovereign and morally autonomous beings” without any obligations to the wider society beyond “the minimally civic” (p. 179). All the participants acknowledged the mutual obligations and reciprocity inherent in being a member of community. In addition, their responses indicated that they privileged societal relations and/or national obligations above that of individual rights.

Some teachers like Hoon, Larry, and Komala, furthermore, believed that individual citizens had an obligation to prioritize national harmony and unity above other sectarian, group, and individual interests. The teachers’ positions appeared to reflect the claims made by Confucian scholars about an individual’s rights, duties, and responsibilities being embedded within the context of her family or community (Ames, 1997; Dallmayr, 2002; Nuyen, 2002). These responses also appeared to support the communally based conception of citizenship consistently advanced by the Singapore government. This conception of citizenship, articulated in the National Shared Values document that states “Nation before community and society above self” (Parliament of Singapore, 1991), unambiguously privileges the needs of the nation-state above that of the individual and the community.

Second, the majority of the participants also appeared to share the Singapore state’s preference for a particular interpretation of harmony that privileged social order and political stability. Notably, in spite of the assertions made by prominent Confucian scholars about the nature of harmony and the importance of diversity and dissension, the majority of the teachers did not explicitly challenge the Singapore government’s preference for what Young (2002) calls “the norm of order” (p. 47). Instead, they echoed the former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s assertion that social order was essential for Singapore’s survival:

The expansion of the right of the individual to behave or misbehave as he pleases has come at the expense of orderly society. In the East the main object is to have a well-ordered society so that everybody can have maximum enjoyment of his freedoms. This freedom can only exist in an ordered state and not in a natural state of contention and anarchy. (cited in Zakaria, 1994, p. 111)

None of the teachers, in addition, questioned the Singapore government’s explicit promotion of harmony as a central educational goal and only a minority troubled the politicization of the concept of harmony by the Singapore state. Most of the participants, instead, seemed to unquestioningly support the values of compromise, mutual accommodation, and consensus—values that have been strongly promoted by the Singapore state and incorporated into public and education policies. The findings of this study, therefore, support the Ho, Alviar-Martin, and Leviste’s (2014) finding that many teachers in Singapore preferred to follow the social and political norms established by the state apparatus in large part because the state is able to control teacher behavior in the classroom through various direct and indirect means. The Singapore government’s contradictory policies and messages, for instance, can result in teachers having a heightened sense of uncertainty and consequently, adopt a more conservative and conformist approach in their curriculum decision-making (Helsing, 2007).  

Teachers, Spillane (1999) writes, “are the final policy brokers” (p. 144) because their interpretations and enactment of policies are shaped by how their own professional and personal beliefs interact with the prevailing institutional and cultural norms. Three teachers, Brandon, Wen, and Heidi, explicitly attempted to redefine the national discourse on harmony and they chose to utilize a competing pedagogical discourse focused on critical thinking. Additionally, they were exceptional in that they positioned harmony as a platform for a critical examination of societal and institutional inequities. Notably, this discourse has been consistently articulated by many political leaders, including the Senior Minister of State for Education who called for priority to be accorded to promoting “critical and inventive thinking,” encouraging students to generate “novel ideas,” and eliciting diverse opinions (Rajah, 2013). Interestingly, because of the official support given to educational policies that encouraged “critical thinking,” these three teachers were in a position to manipulate the different and competing political discourses and offer an officially supported pedagogical rationale for their relatively unorthodox teaching approach that challenged the state’s hegemonic interpretation of harmony.

Notably, these three teachers consciously chose to interpret the message of harmony in ways that reinforced their strongly held belief that a deeper and more lasting form of societal harmony could be achieved if their students were given opportunities to clarify their understandings through a critical examination of diverse viewpoints, challenging inequitable social structures, and questioning power relations. Similar to studies that showed how student teachers had varied responses to the messages of teacher education courses and interpreted them in ways that supported their worldviews (see, e.g., Feiman-Nemser & Buchmann, 1986), the three teachers’ positions represented how they mediated the demands of national policy and their pedagogical beliefs. Wen’s belief in “challenging dominant discourses” and Heidi’s argument that race was just a “social construct” were in part, facilitated by their enthusiasm for reading and learning about alternative perspectives, particularly from nonmainstream media sources. Brandon was likewise a firm advocate of not relying solely on the official textbook and consistently introduced other primary and secondary sources in his social studies lessons. As Brandon pointed out: “If you don’t teach in a way that encourages thought, you know, you can tell them it’s important to preserve and maintain racial and religious harmony in Singapore, but they’re not going to internalize it.”


The central citizenship question of our time is, according to Parker (2003), the following: “How can we live together justly, in ways that are mutually satisfying, and which leaves our differences, both individual and group, intact, and our multiple identities recognized?” (p. 20). In response to this question, Parker suggests a conception of citizenship that not only recognizes and embraces individual and group differences but also unites these individuals and groups in “democratic moral discourse” (p. 25) based on enlightened political engagement and judgment or principled reasoning. Critics of theories of democratic deliberation, however, contend that this process is too individualistic and rationalistic, with insufficient attention being paid to the influence of traditional rules and unspoken norms that may limit the range of worthwhile ends or courses of actions to be deliberated over (O’Dwyer, 2003).

The Confucian concept of harmony as expressed by all the participants in this study, while sharing certain similarities to Parker’s (2003) conception of citizenship, offers another way of thinking about the goal of living together. While both conceptions, for example, emphasize recognizing and embracing individual and group differences, the concept of harmony gives particular emphasis to building societal relations and trust in nation-states with diverse populations. For example, the ideas of mutual reciprocity and accommodation among members of a community are central to the concept of harmony and this has the potential to help reconcile the different interests and priorities of citizens. A focus on harmony can, furthermore, generate trust among citizens through an identification of “methods of generating mutual benefit” (Allen, 2009, p. xix) such as equitable reciprocity, flexibility, and willingness to make sacrifices.

The findings from this study also 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. Green and Preston (2001) argue that more attention should be paid to the impact of policies, societal institutions, structures, and cultures that foster social cohesion. Mark’s goal of wanting his students to be better communicators and to “see beyond themselves,” therefore, not only reflects some of the key arguments articulated by Confucian scholars such as Tu (1996) and Li (2006) about the importance of building consensus but also reflect some of the techniques for producing trust among citizens advocated by Allen (2009), the characteristics of social cohesion highlighted by Green, Preston, and Sabates (2003), and the important elements of developing positive interdependence and consensual peace described by Johnson and Johnson (2005, 2010).

In spite of its numerous advantages, the relative lack of diversity in teachers’ perspectives also reveals one of the limitations of incorporating the concept of harmony as an educational goal. The findings from this study showed that the majority of teachers largely shared the state’s interpretation of the concept of harmony as avoiding conflict and maintaining good interpersonal relations in order to ensure national survival. In reality, as Li (2006) points out, harmony does not necessarily require a single-minded commitment to a dominant perspective and a complete sacrifice of individual autonomy to the general will. Conflict and political dissent are actually necessary for good government and the achievement of harmony. The teachers’ focus on conflict avoidance and interpersonal relations also minimizes the importance of considering how inequitable structures and processes can affect harmony. This conception of harmony, for example, precludes the social democratic understanding of social cohesion and ignores how factors such as social, political, and economic disparities and a lack of equality of opportunity can also be significant threats to social cohesion (Green, Preston, & Sabates, 2003; Heyneman & Todoric-bebic, 2000). Finally, this limited conception of harmony is also potentially problematic as it can be used as a tool to silence marginalized voices, quell political challenges, and minimize oppositional views (Bickmore, 2006).


This study offers multicultural education scholars and teacher educators an opportunity to better understand some of the ways in which multicultural education is defined and conceptualized in East Asian countries with strong Confucian traditions by illustrating some of the affordances and constraints of incorporating harmony as an educational goal. The ideal of harmony may also offer educators, particularly those living within culturally diverse societies, another useful framework for conceptualizing the goals of education. The findings demonstrated how teachers mediated between contradictory educational policies that aimed for both homogeneity and heterogeneity of perspectives and consequently selected different national and pedagogical discourses to validate their interpretation of the concept of harmony.

In general, the Singapore teachers’ explicit acceptance and incorporation of the different elements of harmony that help build social trust is particularly notable because this ideal is less emphasized in the dominant discourses of public education in North America and Europe. This aspect of harmony is particularly important because democracies, as Allen (2009) points out, rely on the allegiance and trust of citizens. In addition, by focusing on the influence of broader societal and political discourses on teachers’ beliefs, this study also offers readers additional insight into some of the political or cultural mechanisms that contribute to social cohesion at a national level rather than at an individual or community level. While an individual’s social capital or associational activity can enhance bonding within small communities (Putnam, 2001), this community cohesion may not necessarily transfer up to the societal level (Green & Preston, 2001).

The very small proportion of Singapore teachers explicitly advocating a more critical version of multicultural education, furthermore, 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 (May & Sleeter, 2010; McLaren, 1994). This challenge is especially acute in education systems that are either dominated by a strong and authoritarian government or an entrenched and powerful ruling elite. While it is important for citizens to cultivate goodwill, build trust, promote equitable self-interest, compromise, and reciprocate, it is equally important for people to recognize that the emphasis on consensus and accommodation can also potentially be exclusionary and marginalizing especially for the less socially or economically privileged groups. Young (2002), for example, writes: “(They have to) put aside the expression of their experience, which may require a different way of speaking, or their grievances and demands must be suspended for the sake of a common good whose definition is biased against them” (p. 43). The emphasis on the idea of a common good can also mask how the interests and perspectives of privileged groups dominate the discussion and eventually restrict the deliberative agenda because people may decide to limit the discussion to a narrow range of values and interests.


This research was supported by a grant from the Ministry of Education, Singapore. The authors would like to thank Keith Barton, Carole Hahn, and the anonymous reviewers for their feedback on earlier versions of this article.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 4, 2017, p. 1-30
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21668, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 4:21:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Li-Ching Ho
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    E-mail Author
    LI-CHING HO is an assistant professor of Social Studies Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests include global democratic, multicultural, and environmental citizenship education. Her recent publications include “‘There is space, and there are limits’: The challenge of teaching controversial topics in Singapore,” Teachers College Record (2014) and “Teaching controversial issues in geography: Climate change education in Singaporean schools,” Theory and Research in Social Education (2015).
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