[lg policy] Singapore: Mother tongue: A hot button issue

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed May 5 14:33:22 UTC 2010

Mother tongue: A hot button issue

The intimate link between Singapore's bilingual policy and the
island's political, economic and social fundamentals, influences and
constrains the direction of language planning

by Eugene KB Tan Updated 11:10 AM May 05, 2010

Language policy planning is taken very seriously in Singapore. Given
the island's multi-lingual make-up, language is both a socio-economic
and political resource.
So, it is no surprise that language policies require a delicate
balance of competing - and sometimes, conflicting - objectives,
interests and expectations. Among the mother tongues, the teaching of
and perceived emphasis (or lack thereof) on the Chinese language
continues to arouse strong emotions among Chinese-Singaporeans, who
are in fact more heterogeneous than widely perceived.  This can be
seen from the recent heated public reaction, especially in the Chinese
language media, to the Education Minister's remarks that his ministry
is considering a reduction in the weightage given to mother tongue
languages at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).

Currently, mother tongue languages are given a 25-per-cent weightage,
the same as English, mathematics and science. The strong reactions
for, and against, reducing the weightage of mother tongue languages at
the PSLE, are not new. They resurface and get an airing whenever
reviews of the teaching of Chinese language are conducted. The
heart-felt emotions revolve primarily around the perceived waxing or
waning of the importance of the mother tongue in our education system
and, by extension, in our society.
English-speaking ethnic Chinese are generally inclined towards less
emphasis on the importance of the Chinese language. They see no reason
for weakness in the Chinese language to hold back students in their
academic progress.

For Chinese-speaking ethnic Chinese, any attempt to make the subject
"easier" is seen as inflicting a mortal wound to the importance of the
Chinese language. Their concern centres on the perceived dumbing-down
of what is seen as the already-low standards in Chinese, as well as
fears that making the subject easier or less important compromises
efforts to nurture a core group of Chinese cultural elites.


Success in Singapore's education system has been largely predicated on
academic ability and one indicator of academic ability was bilingual
proficiency - doing well in the mother tongue language. The bilingual
policy was first premised on the belief that nearly everyone could be
effectively bilingual. Since 1999, the focus has been to encourage
students to learn as much of the language as possible but doing away
with the one-size-fits-all approach. More significantly, since 2004,
the Government accepted that not all students can be effectively
bilingual.With more students coming from English language-dominant
homes, the Government has been increasingly cognisant of the
challenges that some students face in learning their mother tongue.

The Prime Minister's statement on Monday sought to reassure all
stakeholders that the Government has heard the public outcry and would
address it. He reiterated that "emphasis on mother tongues is a vital
feature of our education system". For critics, pragmatism in language
policy is seen as expediency and detrimental to the well-being of the
Chinese language. In contrast, the Education Ministry views language
pedagogy and policy as doing what is necessary to attain the objective
without being overly encumbered by tradition, ideology or convention.

The big debate revolves around how to ensure that Chinese language
remains a living language (widely used, appreciated and of social
relevance) rather than being a mere examination subject. Given that
Chinese is not yet the "natural" mother tongue for many
Chinese-Singaporeans, the Education Ministry's focus in recent years
has been to develop differentiated teaching approaches and customising
learning for students of different abilities in the Chinese language.
What can we expect when the Prime Minister and Education Minister meet
the media, possibly next week?  We can expect a reaffirmation of the
foundational principles in Singapore's language policy.

One, the fundamental commitment to bilingualism will be reiterated.

Two, that the mother tongue languages are vital vehicles for cultural
transmission, providing ethnic groups with the critical ballast to
keep their cultures alive and thriving.

Three, that the policy of nurturing a group of cultural elites remains

Four, that a pragmatic approach to the learning of mother tongue
languages is necessary to keep them alive and relevant at the cultural
and economic level. This means enabling each student to develop as
high a level of mother tongue language proficiency as possible.

A reassurance of the commitment to excellence in mother tongues is
also likely to be a salient message. There are unlikely to be any
major policy shifts. Singapore's bilingual policy, with its intimate
links to the island's political, economic and socio-cultural
fundamentals, intimately influences and constrains the direction of
language planning and development of the mother tongue.

The writer is assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management
University's School of Law.

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