Singapore’s bilingual policy, mistake or not?

TL;DR – Well-played MOE, well-played.

This topic Is Singapore’s bilingual policy a mistake? was discussed on question-and-answer website Quora and Adrianna Tan, Founder & CEO of Wobe.io & Gyanada.org shared this pretty thought-provoking reply:

It helps our workforce:

I couldn’t agree more with using English as a primary language over our other option, which is Malay; it has really helped our workforce in addition to all those nice cultural things.

We all kinda had a bad experience with our Chinese lessons: 

I had a horrid experience with the Mandarin syllabus and teachers in the 90s in a collection of the mid range to “elite” schools I went to: they were all uniformly bad. I wasn’t bad at it, I never failed, I just hated Chinese homework, Chinese classes, teachers. I only developed an interest in learning Mandarin properly after I was done with formal education, in the context of needing a better writing and reading skill set for my personal interest (Singapore history research circa post-WW2).

The bilingual policy alienates two groups of people:

I fear the policy alienates two groups of people: (1) the so-called middle upper classes that have spoken English for ages, with parents and grandparents unable to speak Mandarin (2) the so-called lower income groups and their children, who tend to go to more neighbourhood schools and have less of a head start when it comes to education due to fewer opportunities.

So those in Group (1) aka the “Haves” turned our like this:

I realised people there had a level of Mandarin which was comparable to 8 year olds, could not read or speak or write it, had intensive Mandarin tutors, never used it in daily life because they never went to hawker centres and had chauffeurs so no bus or taxi uncles to speak to 🙂 This bilingual policy prompted many of their parents to send them to boarding schools in Australia, the UK or US so that they could stop facing the torture of Mandarin at school. Nothing wrong with that, perfectly acceptable form of escapism if you can afford it.

And as for the “Have Nots”:

These guys aren’t stupid, just told that they are: they barely understand anything at school because all their relative don’t speak English (or speak English badly), and they don’t use English at all. These kids, if lucky, end up beating the system and their odds. Most of them continue being regarded as failures at school, hence lose self-esteem and interest in school. Seems to me to be a rather circular process, and needlessly so. I am glad I know so many smart people who have chosen to teach at these schools to try to make a difference.

And then we have those in between:

For kids like me who are in-between, quite competent at both languages, it still takes quite a bit of effort to work on one language such that you are at a point beyond fluency. English has been that language for me; my Mandarin is sadly quite competent, but rusty since I have zero cultural affinity with Chinese culture (my Hindi, Arabic and Thai on the other had are improving tonnes).

Quite sad, but reflective about Singapore’s social structure, no?

[media-credit name=”Wikipedia” link=”https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a3/Students_of_Nan_Hua_High_School,_Singapore,_in_the_school_hall_-_20060127.jpg” align=”aligncenter” width=”900″]Students_of_Nan_Hua_High_School,_Singapore,_in_the_school_hall_-_20060127[/media-credit]

Here’s the full post if you’re interested,

Thanks to the bilingual policy, we all (technically) speak, read and write English + a mother tongue.

I couldn’t agree more with using English as a primary language over our other option, which is Malay; it has really helped our workforce in addition to all those nice cultural things. (Disclaimer: I live in Malaysia now, and while I see the point in Malay as a unifying main language, English to me makes more economic AND cultural sense, but more on that next time).

However, I can’t help but feel we have scarcely given our mother tongues the necessary attention. I don’t know about the teaching of Malay or Tamil in schools from a personal perspective, I had a horrid experience with the Mandarin syllabus and teachers in the 90s in a collection of the mid range to “elite” schools I went to: they were all uniformly bad. I wasn’t bad at it, I never failed, I just hated Chinese homework, Chinese classes, teachers. I only developed an interest in learning Mandarin properly after I was done with formal education, in the context of needing a better writing and reading skill set for my personal interest (Singapore history research circa post-WW2).

The policy has worked very well for some people — those you imagine were already effectively bilingual at home already, without the interference of the school system. I consider myself somewhat effectively bilingual: I can do English, Mandarin and various Chinese dialects, but will always only be able to write and publish in English because that is my dominant tongue.

I fear the policy alienates two groups of people: (1) the so-called middle upper classes that have spoken English for ages, with parents and grandparents unable to speak Mandarin (2) the so-called lower income groups and their children, who tend to go to more neighbourhood schools and have less of a head start when it comes to education due to fewer opportunities.

Kids in (1) are alienated completely because for more than 10 years, they have been bored to tears and/or left behind completely for nearly an hour a day, or more. My secondary school and its contemporaries (other schools in a similar “league”) was one such place: I realised people there had a level of Mandarin which was comparable to 8 year olds, could not read or speak or write it, had intensive Mandarin tutors, never used it in daily life because they never went to hawker centres and had chauffeurs so no bus or taxi uncles to speak to 🙂 This bilingual policy prompted many of their parents to send them to boarding schools in Australia, the UK or US so that they could stop facing the torture of Mandarin at school. Nothing wrong with that, perfectly acceptable form of escapism if you can afford it.

The kids in (2) face a rather different destiny: I am generalising here based on the many years my father and I gave free or low cost tuition to kids like that in our neighbourhood. These guys aren’t stupid, just told that they are: they barely understand anything at school because all their relative don’t speak English (or speak English badly), and they don’t use English at all. These kids, if lucky, end up beating the system and their odds. Most of them continue being regarded as failures at school, hence lose self-esteem and interest in school. Seems to me to be a rather circular process, and needlessly so. I am glad I know so many smart people who have chosen to teach at these schools to try to make a difference.

For kids like me who are in-between, quite competent at both languages, it still takes quite a bit of effort to work on one language such that you are at a point beyond fluency. English has been that language for me; my Mandarin is sadly quite competent, but rusty since I have zero cultural affinity with Chinese culture (my Hindi, Arabic and Thai on the other had are improving tonnes).

Additionally I am suspicious of the sinification of Singapore. Nothing to do with the recent immigrants, I must add: more in terms of how Mandarin has so arbitrarily replaced or tried to replace our amazing range of Chinese dialects. I would regard Teochew as my mother tongue, not Mandarin, and I still vividly remember the humiliation and fear I faced in my first Mandarin lesson in kindergarten where I somehow imbibed the idea I could never be a real Chinese person unless I spoke Mandarin (bullshit). I decided then I wouldn’t care about being Chinese if Mandarin was the price to admission.

I am also worried about the inflexibility of our bilingual policy. A kid who is half and half or quarter this and three-quarters that, doesn’t appear to have much of a choice about which language they should learn. I would like parents to have the choice to choose the language they should learn. I for one wish I had the chance to have left my Mandarin education to a private tutor (I believe I would have learned more, and been happier), and taken the chance to learn Hindi, Tamil OR Malay instead for my second language at school. You can’t arbitrarily say a kid has to learn Chinese because of the colour of his dad’s skin: this pigeon-holing and archaic patriarchal system won’t help 21st century Singapore at all.

Overall, the best thing about the policy for me has been the training I needed to go on to learn many more languages. But for now our English/Mandarin/Malay/Tamil matrix is boring, albeit politically well-played.

(Cover image via)

 



Author: Flora Lim

Instagram addict, military wife and chocoholic down with a serious case of wanderlust, Flora spends 97% of her time building her business and the other 3% on her blog floraisabelle.com


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