Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Citizenship Imaginations: An exploration of young Singaporeans' active citizenship

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posted on 2021-12-08, 08:11 authored by Thaiyalan, Siva Gopal

Nurturing young people to be active citizens has increasingly captured the imaginations of politicians and education policymakers in many countries in recent years (Jochum, Pratten, & Wilding, 2005; Kallio & Häkli, 2013; Nelson & Kerr, 2006; Ross, 2012). Politicians and policymakers in some countries, who have traditionally preferred more passive forms of law-abiding ‘good’ citizens, are seeking more participatory forms of citizenship, largely fuelled by their concerns about a perceived civic deficit among young people, characterised by declining rates of voting and community engagement (Ross, 2012). However, efforts to promote active citizenship among young people have been narrowly confined to public participation, for example, voting and volunteering. This focus on public participation overlooks young people’s diverse forms of citizenship practices in their personal and private worlds, and thus has the potential of leading to a false perception that young people are apolitical, apathetic and disengaged (Bessant, Farthing, & Watts, 2016; Wood, 2014). Moreover, citizenship education that aims to nurture active citizens has focused too much on trying to fix the perceived civic deficit in young people, neglecting how young people actually learn in and through the everyday practices in their lived world (Bessant et al., 2016; Biesta, 2011).  Similarly, educational policies and programmes in Singapore have prioritised nurturing active citizens, but these have also focused on didactic forms of citizenship education, through formal and public participation, such as volunteering and service projects (Han, 2015). Although all young Singaporeans undertake such forms of citizenship education, little is known about how active citizenship is actually defined in educational policies in Singapore and exactly what kind of citizens these policies and programmes aim to nurture. Moreover, not many studies have examined how young people understand and enact these policies, who or what has shaped their citizenship perceptions and practices, and what their experiences with citizenship in their everyday lives are. This thesis advances a call to recognise young Singaporeans’ experiences with citizenship beyond a focus on their formal and public forms of civic learning and participation, and to turn our attention to their lived and relational experiences in their everyday lives.  This research examined the citizenship experiences of 40 young Singaporeans aged 17–25. A qualitative, case study approach was adopted where verbal and visual data were collected from a series of focus group dialogues and a visual methodology, photovoice. A thematic analysis of policies and programmes for citizenship education was also conducted to identify the kinds of citizen that are prioritised by the Singapore government, and this was analysed against what shaped young people’s citizenship and how they lived and imagined their citizenship in their everyday lives. Central to this thesis is the exploration of young people’s citizenship imaginations, which I define as a quality of mind that enables the ability to critique social, political and economic contradictions in everyday life in order to maintain, continue and repair the world in order to live in it as well as possible. This conception of citizenship imaginations is guided by critical and feminist theories, particularly a feminist ethic of care.  The findings in this research suggest that policies and programmes for young people’s citizenship and citizenship education in Singapore prioritise character-driven citizens, social-participatory citizens and ‘citizen-workers of the future’ who will contribute to the social cohesion and economic prosperity of Singapore. Although at the surface level many participants’ conceptions of active citizenship seemed to conform to the government’s policy intents, a deeper analysis revealed that these conceptions were undergirded by a relational disposition rooted in care. It emerged that participants prioritised relational forms of citizenship that were focused on small, mundane and everyday acts of care with, and for, family, friends, others in the community and the natural environment. At the same time, their citizenship imaginations involved active critiques of society and politics, a search for social justice and a prioritisation of relational forms of care as their citizenship practice in their everyday worlds. Their citizenship imaginations also comprised an ideal Singapore society that is more inclusive, with a lighter focus on economic success, and more reflective, dialogic and critical forms of education.  Three big ideas emerged from the findings of this research. First, policies and programmes that aim to foster active citizenship amongst young people need to recognise and include their experiences with citizenship in their everyday lives. The second is a call to attention to the politics in young people’s everyday relational forms of citizenship. And the third is that young people’s citizenship imaginations can be awakened through more critical forms of education for active citizenship. This research contributes to theoretical and methodological advancements in researching young people’s lived citizenship in a number of ways, and also presents the potential to reimagine policy formulation, curriculum design and engagement strategies that seek to foster active citizenship among young people. Drawing from the findings, this thesis proposes a unique model of nurturing critical and caring citizens in Singapore.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970113 Expanding Knowledge in Education

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Education


Wood, Bronwyn; Milligan, Andrea