Education in Contested Times: Cultivating Students’ Capacity for Public Discourse

Terence POON
NUS Futures Office
Office of the President

Terence and his colleagues at the NUS Futures Office discuss how trends in public discourse can result in more frequent heated discussions and breakdowns in constructive dialogue. They suggest some ways in which students can be equipped with the skills to handle public discourse to mitigate such breakdowns.nus students

Photo taken from NUS News 

Poon, T. (2023, April 27). Education in contested times: Cultivating students’ capacity for public discourse. Teaching Connections.


In March 2021, Dana Teoh, an NUS student at the time, wrote in the newspaper Today that she was reluctant to ask questions about transgender issues for fear of causing offence and being attacked (Teoh, 2021). Some Facebook netizens called Teoh “brave” and urged her to “keep going on”. Others said she was “stupid” and “transphobic” (Chua & Koay, 2021).

This incident is an example of how people, in talking about sensitive issues, sometimes shout past each another. How do we, as teachers, engage students in a productive discourse about hot-button issues, which could polarise viewpoints, and more importantly cultivate their capacity to do so?


Growing Risks of Breakdowns in Dialogue

It is uncertain that a similar breakdown of dialogue will occur in Singapore and in our higher education learning environments—our classrooms, labs and halls on campus. However, three trends suggest that it is plausible.

First, the feeling of social solidarity—that societies are in it together—is at risk of erosion. This raises the chance of conflict. For example, a 2018 CNA documentary, “Regardless of Class”, showed students from various educational tracks in Singapore (Low, 2018). On Facebook, some criticised the Integrated Programme students as “elitist” (Woshie, 2018). In an accompanying survey, nearly half the respondents picked income inequality as the likeliest to cause a social divide (Paulo & Low, 2018).

Second, more issues have become lightning rods. Climate activist Greta Thunberg, for example, blamed national leaders for failing to mitigate climate change fast enough, saying “How dare you!” (Thunberg, 2019). In turn, she got ridiculed because the crew of her net-zero yacht took a few flights to reach it (Worrall, 2019).

In 2019, controversy broke out in Singapore when an ethnic-Chinese actor, Dennis Chew, portrayed a Malay and an Indian in an advertisement. Some lambasted the advertisement (Yeoh, 2019), while others lambasted the lambasting (Angtehkor, 2019). Race is still a potentially hot-button issue.

Third, people contest the rules of the game–who gets to speak and how–making it harder to discuss issues. You may want to reason based on facts, but others may contest this preference. For example, populists pit “us” (the “people”) against “them” (the “elites”). Some believe that populists feel and think like the people. And if they lie, it is because they speak for the people (Fieschi, 2019). As such, in the contest between two populists in Brazil’s presidential election in October 2022, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s campaign portrayed the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro as a cannibal, and Bolsonaro’s called Lula a Satanist (Faiola & Pessoa, 2022).


Cultivating the Capacity for Public Discourse in Our Graduates

Given this changing landscape when it comes to discourse, how do we prepare our graduates—future citizens—to navigate this potential future? The NUS Futures Office would like to suggest three questions for the NUS community to consider:

  • One, what skills and predispositions might educators need to facilitate dialogue on controversial topics? These may include skills in dialogue techniques, such as empathetic listening, and training students in them; in scaffolding dialogue, such as getting students to come up with ground rules during discussions and share personal stories; in reading the room, such as noticing when a student squirms in his/her seat; and in de-escalating conflict, such as reframing comments and referring to ground rules (Burgess, n.d.).
  • Two, what tools and methods for dialogue might we adopt? For example, Taiwan used the digital platform to discuss and agree on the policy for private-hire cars. visualises agreements and differences, and encourages people to come up with positions that broaden agreement. As the platform lets people post statements, and to click to “Agree” or “Disagree” but not reply, it discourages extreme comments (Miller, 2019). Might educators use tools, such as, to facilitate dialogue in class?
  • Three, how might we tweak our curriculum to encourage perspective-taking? In participatory machine learning (ML), for example, community members participate in identifying problems to address with ML, rather than leaving it to experts, whose solutions may inadvertently cause unfairness (Martin et al., 2020). In citizen science, scientists and laypeople work together to create knowledge, from defining questions to gathering data (European Citizen Science Association, 2015). Projects include tracking water and air quality, and identifying birds and galaxies. Courses that incorporate participatory ML and citizen science could help students create knowledge, empathise with different groups, and learn to bridge social divides.


Call to Action

When the NUS Futures Office started exploring how public discourse may change, the team was concerned about potential public relations snafus and unplanned outbursts in class. Now, however, we think the key question is how NUS might prepare our students—and future citizens—to navigate a potential future of polarised dialogue and to hopefully improve public discourse.

While we make a few tentative suggestions in this blog post, we may have asked the wrong questions and given wrong answers. In the spirit of dialogue, please join us in two upcoming workshops in May 2023 (click on this link to register) to consider what trends in public discourse might mean for an NUS education.



Angtehkor (2021, June 18). She a racists herself. [Online forum thread].

Burgess, H. (n.d.). Working with strong emotions in the classroom. Beyond Intractability.

Chua, N., & Koay, A. (2021, March 18). All the responses to NUS Student’s ‘I don’t want to be woke’ commentary, summarised. Mothership.

European Citizen Science Association (2015, Sept). Ten principles of citizen science.

Faiola, A., & Pessoa, G. S. (2022, Oct 28). The cannibal vs. the Satanist: Toxic politics is poisoning Brazil. Washington Post.

Fieschi, C. (2019). Populocracy: The tyranny of authenticity and the rise of populism. Agenda Publishing.

Low, M. (TV Producer). (2018). Regardless of class [TV series]. CNA.

Martin, D. J., Prabhakaran, V., Kuhlberg, J., Smart, A., & Isaac, W. S. (2020, April 26). Participatory Problem Formulation for Fairer Machine Learning Through Community Based System Dynamics. International Conference on Learning Representations, Virtual.

Miller, C. (2019, Oct 26). Crossing divides: How a social network could save democracy from deadlock. BBC Click.

Paulo, D., & Low, M. (2018, Oct 1). Class–not race nor religion–is potentially Singapore’s most divisive fault line. CNA.

Teoh, D. J. Y. (2021, March 14). Gen Y speaks: This is why I don’t want to be woke. Don’t cancel me for it. Today.

Thunberg, G. (2019, Sept 24). Read Greta Thunberg’s full speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit. NBC News.

Worrall, E. (2019, Aug 18). Doh! Climate messiah Greta Thunberg’s plastic boat trip will require four transatlantic flights. Iowa Climate Science Education.

Woshi, J. (2018, Oct 1). I felt so much anger and sadness at the same time watching this video. Some of these “elitist” kids have ZERO morals as compared to the “regular” kids. [Facebook comments thread].

Yeoh, G. (2019, August 1). If the Preetipls video caused any damage, it was only by revealing how stupid Chinese people are.


Terence Poon

Terence POON is Senior Associate Director at the NUS Futures Office. He and his team seek to explore the future of higher education and the role of NUS in it, in order to help the university become more alive to changes afoot.  They do this by looking to identify and study trends affecting higher education, ask fundamental questions about universities and their roles in society, and discuss these issues with stakeholders within the NUS community.

Terence can be reached at


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