Unless one is very active beyond school activities, students enrolled in niche schools like the Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools or madrasahs (Islamic schools) are unlikely to meet peers from other races, save for brief interactions with their neighbours and in public settings like shopping malls and libraries.
In Singapore, these niche schools exist to serve a specific purpose for the different groups of students.
The SAP education system was established to cater to academically strong Chinese students who are interested to immerse themselves in Chinese culture and language. The SAP school curriculum allocates time for students to take up enrichment classes like Chinese calligraphy, paper-cutting, and lantern-making.
Madrasahs, on the other hand, are Islamic institutions that offer a combination of religious and secular education for Muslim students in Singapore.
Being an institution that places rigorous emphasis on Islamic studies, their core curriculum allows students to deepen their knowledge in religious theory and practices. There are six full-time madrasahs in Singapore, including Aljunied Al-Islamiah and Wak Tanjong Al-Islamiah.
While these niche schools help to promote Chinese and Islamic culture respectively, SAP and madrasah students may lack inter-racial camaraderie. This is because the nature of niche schools targets a specific group of students, resulting in a student population with little diversity.
SAP schools have a majority Chinese student population, which may cause non-Chinese students to feel out of place, ostracised or even discriminated. Some SAP students may not be aware of the sensitivities of other races and cultures.
Similarly, the majority of students admitted to madrasahs lack exposure to diversity. Studying in a full-time madrasah, these students lack interactions with people of another race or religion.
19-year-old National Junior College scholar Sabrina Yusoff recalled: “At Halloween Horror Nights, my senior, who graduated from a SAP school, asked if the hijab was part of my Halloween costume. Though we all had a good laugh at his blatant ignorance, I was actually really shocked.”
Not understanding other cultures or interacting with friends of other races may lead to misconceptions too.
Nicole Ng, 19, who graduated from Nan Hua High School said: “My classmates once gossiped about the Malay teachers in my school and commented how their children will grow up to be “terrorists”. It was the first time I witnessed such discrimination. Of course, people like them are rare and few [in our school], but they certainly do exist.”
Arif Zikri, 19, who attended Madrasah Al-Arabiah for two years to complete his ‘O’ levels, said: “Since I already have connections with friends from other schools, I didn’t feel that my interactions with other races were hindered. But, I do agree that everyone else around me were less exposed to diversity.”
Alumnus Rusyaidi Radzi, 19, from Madrasah Aljunied, admitted: “Unless the student makes an effort to get involved with the community at large, I feel that we have limited experience in dealing with [friends from] other races and religions.”
“However, it doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t tolerate others. It is just that we have few real-life conversations with people of other races. Hence, [we have a] common shock when non-Muslims help us find prayer rooms or go out of their way to find us halal food,” added Rusyaidi, who spent 12 years in a madrasah and is planning to study political science in university.
However, niche schools may not be too bad after all.
Catholic High School alumnus Kenneth Chun, 19, said: “In CHS, [our student population is] majority Chinese. Interaction with other races is limited and we can be quite ignorant. However, I had a half-Indian classmate who enjoyed his time in CHS. We were very accepting of him and he even picked up Mandarin.”
“I feel that SAP schools seem exclusive because you need to learn Chinese to get in. We don’t actually discriminate, but it is the criteria we have and in keeping with our Chinese tradition, we end up with only Chinese students,” added Chun, who only had Malay and Indian friends when he entered junior college.
SAP schools help Singaporean students strengthen their Mandarin while making them effectively bilingual—a useful trait they can use in the workforce. Since China is a rising economic powerhouse in the world, proficiency in Mandarin is more important than ever.
Madrasahs too help students deepen their faith and expand their religious knowledge. As interfaith understanding is becoming ever more relevant in Singapore, visionary religious leaders are essential.
What do you think, how can we promote better racial integration and cultural awareness among students in SAP schools and madrasahs?