Religious Knowledge

Singapore Infopedia


Religious Knowledge (RK) was introduced as a compulsory programme at the upper secondary levels in schools from 1984 to 1989.1 It replaced the Civics and Current Affairs programme in the school curriculum.2 The aim of the programme was to inculcate moral values in students through education in religion. The RK programme offered Bible Studies, Buddhist Studies, Hindu Studies, Islamic Religious Knowledge, Sikh Studies and later on, Confucian Ethics as study subjects.3 The classes mainly educated students on the history, basic teachings, beliefs and practices of the respective religions.4 RK was officially withdrawn as a compulsory programme after 1989.5 It was replaced by the Civics and Moral Education (CME) programme in 1992.6

Plans to introduce the teaching of RK in schools emerged in light of a thorough review of education policies during the late 1970s in Singapore. This particularly referred to two primary reports on education that were published in 1979: (1) the Report on the Ministry of Education 1978, widely known as the ‘Goh Report’ and (2) Report on Moral Education 1979. In addition to identifying shortcomings in the education system and proposing recommendations, both reports highlighted concerns pertaining to moral education and religion in Singapore. The first report on the bilingualism and streaming policy, produced under the chairmanship of then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education Goh Keng Swee, included remarks by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on the importance of imparting moral values and cultural traditions by combining Asian religious teachings with Western methods of scientific inquiry.7 Likewise, the second report on moral education programmes, produced under the chairmanship of then Minister for Communication Ong Teng Cheong, criticised the civics programme for placing minimal emphasis on cultivating moral values. It posited that religious studies reinforced the teaching of moral values, citing mission schools as an example. It was noted that students in mission schools had better academic performances and that teachers in these schools taught moral education more effectively due to their strong religious backgrounds. Hence, the Ministry of Education (MOE) was urged to allow mission schools greater flexibility in implementing religious instruction programmes.8

Following these reports, the MOE undertook steps to refine the Moral Education syllabus.9 Mission schools were given greater flexibility in implementing religious instruction programmes and Bible Knowledge was allowed as a pre-university admission subject from the 1980 GCE ‘O’ Level examinations onwards. Previously, Islamic Religious Knowledge, studied generally by Muslim students, had already been accepted as a pre-university admission subject.10 Islamic Religious Knowledge and Bible Knowledge were taught as elective subjects in the secondary school curriculum by Islamic religious teachers and mission schools respectively.11 The MOE also studied the possibility of introducing the study of other religions as part of the moral education programme.12

The decision to introduce RK as a compulsory subject was outlined at the first Schools Council meeting in January 1982.13 The council was presented with two reports that put forth opposing views on moral education and religion. A report by moral education programme director Robert Balhetchet positioned religion and moral education as distinct realms while a report by Director of Education Chan Kai Yau and Specialist Inspector (Moral Education) S. Ganesamoorthy positioned the teaching of religion as an effective way to combat social and moral issues and develop a moral individual.14 Then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education Goh Keng Swee agreed that the teaching of religion would be an apt way to produce honest and upright citizens.15 It would also cultivate an understanding and appreciation for the origins and teachings of religions that had influenced the civilisations and cultures of our society.16

Official implementation
In 1984, RK was officially implemented in all schools, with Bible Knowledge, Islamic Religious Knowledge, Buddhist Studies, Hindu Studies and Sikh Studies offered as subject options.17 Confucian Ethics was introduced as a pilot project in Chinese in 15 schools and English in 18 schools before being rolled out to all schools in 1986.18

Under the curriculum, all RK classes were taught in English. Additionally, Buddhist Studies and Confucian Ethics, and Islamic Religious Knowledge were also taught in Chinese and Malay respectively.19 All upper secondary students were required to study one of the religious options available. Schools accepted the students’ choice of religion, subject to parental consent. Parents who did not want their children to study Religious Knowledge had to seek exemption directly from MOE.20

The government was mainly in charge of organising the curriculum and assessment as well as staff training. They sought assistance from various religious organisations in the preparation of curriculum materials and training programmes for teachers.21 As religion is a potentially sensitive topic in a plural society like Singapore, RK teachers had to strictly adhere to guidelines set by the MOE. Teachers were not allowed to use classroom periods for proselytising or evangelising. They could not conduct religious and worship practices such as prayers, meditation and preaching, and mass conversions during lessons. The use of religious objects and artifacts was also not permitted in classrooms.22 The main aim was to focus on the moral and ethical aspects of every religion.23 Teachers were encouraged to use a variety of reference materials ranging from audio and video tapes to books and other visuals to provide insight into the different concepts of the religions.24

As a general guideline, three periods per week were allocated to RK lessons. Students sitting for the GCE ‘O’ level examinations could select RK as an elective subject for consideration of admission into pre-university. This also applied to students from the normal stream sitting for the GCE ‘N’ level examinations who wished to promote from Secondary 4N to 5N.25

Withdrawal of programme
In March 1989, the MOE decided to review the teaching of RK in schools. The decision came after a study conducted by the National University of Singapore (NUS)’s Sociology Department for the Ministry of Community Development on Religions and Religious Revivalism in Singapore concluded that the government failed to exercise neutrality in religious matters through its implementation of the compulsory RK programme. By designating specific RK subjects to be taught under the programme, the government had provided the impression of according preferential status to certain religions that contradicted its secular position when handling religious matters in Singapore.26 Hence, then Education Minister Dr Tony Tan proposed three options for consideration: (1) discontinue the teaching of RK and re-introduce the Civics programme to the school curriculum, (2) replace the RK subjects with a general subject on the study of world or major religions or (3) offer RK as an optional subject taught outside curriculum hours. The MOE, Government Parliamentary Committee on Education and Feedback Unit proceeded to conduct various meetings and hearings with teachers, principals, parents, academics, religious leaders and the public to gather feedback on the teaching of RK in schools. Due to diverse perspectives and the complexity of the topic, Dr Tan also considered the global climate of religious consciousness and acknowledged that there was a heightened consciousness of religious differences and propagation of religious beliefs worldwide. He cautioned that religious harmony and religious tolerance in Singapore could be disrupted if the government failed to remain neutral and fair in handling religious matters. He put forth the MOE and government’s recommendation to withdraw RK as a compulsory subject.27

In October 1989, the government formally announced its decision to discontinue the teaching of RK as a compulsory subject. Instead, it became an optional subject taught outside curriculum hours. Furthermore, the government only permitted students up to the year of admission 1994 to use RK as a subject for entry into pre-university and disallowed it thereafter.28 RK was replaced with the Civics and Moral Education programme that was already being taught at the lower secondary levels and was extended to the upper secondary levels as well. The latter programme undertook a secular approach and built awareness of the shared values and aspects of nation-building and cultivated appreciation of the beliefs and practices of the different races and religions in Singapore.29

Liviniyah P

1. Charlene Tan, “From Moral Values to Citizenship Education: The Teaching of Religion in Singapore Schools,” in Religious Diversity in Singapore, ed. Lai Ah Eng (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies jointly with Institute of Policy Studies, 2008), 323. (Call no. RSING 200.95957 REL)
2. Ministry of Education, Singapore, Guide Book for Principals on the Implementation of Religious Knowledge (Singapore: Ministry of Education, 1988), i. (Call no. RSING 377.1 SIN)
3. Ministry of Education, Singapore, Guide Book for Principals, i.
4. Charlene Tan, “The Teaching of Religious Knowledge in a Plural Society: The Case for Singapore,” International Review of Education 54, no. 2 (March 2008): 177
5. We Erred in Making RK a Compulsory Subject — Dr Tay,” Straits Times, 17 October 1989, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Civics Is In, RK Phased Out,” New Paper, 7 October 1989, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Goh Keng Swee, Report on the Ministry of Education 1978 (Singapore: Singapore National Printers, 1978), v. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 SIN)
8. Ong Teng Cheong, Report on Moral Education 1979 (Singapore: Singapore National Printers, 1979), 7, 12. (Call no. RSING 375.17 SIN)
9. “Religious Studies as Pre-U Entry Subject,” Straits Times, 25 October 1979, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Tan Chee Teik, “A Revival of Bible Knowledge in Schools Likely,” Straits Times, 27 October 1979, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “Religious Studies as Pre-U Entry Subject.”
12. “Buddhism and Hinduism as Exam Subjects?” Straits Times, 27 October 1980, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “The Goh Plan to Save Singapore from Becoming a Nation of Thieves,” Straits Times, 17 January 1982, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Yes Says Ministry of Education Report,” Straits Times, 17 January 1982, 10; June Tan, “Religion to Be a Compulsory Subject,” (1982, January 17). Straits Times, 17 January 1982, 1; “No Says Catholic Priest Dr Balhetchet,” Straits Times, 17 January 1982, 10; “Religion ‘Must Not Replace Moral Education’,” Straits Times, 13 June 1981, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “Goh Plan to Save Singapore.”
16. Tay Eng Soon, “The Opening Ceremony of the Seminar on Being and Becoming Programme for Principals and Teachers,” speech, Temasek Junior College, transcript, 5 December 1983, Ministry of Culture. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. tes19831205s)
17. “Religious Knowledge As a Study Subject,” Business Times, 6 December 1983, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Caroline Boey, “Forty-Three Teachers Begin Course on Confucianism Today,” Singapore Monitor, 3 July 1984, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Ministry of Education, Singapore, Guide Book for Principals, i.
20. Hedwig Alfred, “Religious Knowledge Parents to Choose,” Straits Times, 4 August 1983, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Tan, “From Moral Values to Citizenship Education,” 326; Grace Chng, “More Courses in Religion Planned for Teachers,” Straits Times, 29 January 1982, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Hedwig Alfred, “No Preaching in the Classroom,” Straits Times, 6 December 1983, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Alfred, “No Preaching in the Classroom.”
24. Ministry of Education, Singapore, Guide Book for Principals, 3.
25. Ministry of Education, Singapore, Guide Book for Principals, 3.
26. Eddie C.Y. Kuo, Jon S.T. Quah and Tong Chee Kiong, Religion and Religious Revivalism in Singapore (Singapore: Ministry of Community Development, 1988), 15, 40, 41, 44 (Call no. RSING 200.95957 KUO); Parliament of Singapore, Teaching of Religious Knowledge in Schools, vol. 54 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 6 October 1989, cols. 574–637. (Call no. RSING 328.5957 SIN)
27. Parliament of Singapore, Teaching of Religious Knowledge in Schools, cols. 574–637.
28. “Crucial for Govt to Be Neutral in Religious Matters,” Straits Times, 7 October 1989, 23; “Religious Knowledge as Compulsory Subject to Be Phased Out: Dr Tan,” (1989, October 7). Business Times, 7 October 1989, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “Civics/Moral Education for Secondary Students,” New Paper, 26 February 1990, 7; “RK to Be Replaced with Civics,” Straits Times, 7 October 1999, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at October 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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