The Singapore Dilemma

So, the PSLE results came out today, November 26 2009. My son did well (got 3As and an A*) and his “aggregate” is 241. Next step is to apply for secondary one. In a way, the system is freer now compared to when I did my PSLE 38 years ago. He has a much wider range of options but there are some Singaporean idiocyncracies in it. FWIW, he did very well for his second language Malay, getting an A for it. Considering that my Malay was all from National Language which was from my primary and secondary school days, and we don’t speak anything other than English at home, I am really, really pleased to see him do very well in it. Full credit goes to his school Malay teacher, his Malay tuition teacher and his daily reading of the dead-tree edition of Berita Harian.

Last week or so, Lee Kuan Yew apparently acknowledged the mistake of his ways in insisting on a second language as an important subject. There are more to it that just this admission of mistake.

Firstly, the schools use the term “Mother Tongue” when referring to second language. This is a not too subtle spinning done by the PAP-led government to subconsciously suggest that the second language done in school is the child’s “mother tongue”. Of the four official languages in Singapore, historically, only Malay and Tamil are indeed the mother tongues of those who are Malay and Tamil. To every one else, the four official languages are technically non-mother tongues. But the clever use of “mother tongue” helps to imply to the Chinese Singaporean, the Malay Singaporean and the Indian Singaporean, that Mandarin, Malay and Tamil are their respective mother tongues. It is not and never has been. Clever PAPesque wording but stupid social engineering.

Keeping that in mind, let’s consider the plight of a Singaporean child going through school. She has to do a 2nd language compulsorily. Compare that with a foreign child attending the same school who is exempted. Who do you think would do better overall – given that no time and energy is spent on a subject with weightage that is not needed? Is it then a surprise to read enough stories of Singaporeans who uproot and move to Australia (mainly) and citing that the 2nd language policy is the push that made them leave? How many good people did we loose as a result of one man’s flawed reasoning? Singapore invites people from all over to settle on her shores and contribue to the economy, culture and the arts. But these newbies are not burdened with the mandatory 2nd language albatross.

Earlier this year, at a secondary school open house, I asked if students who join the school next year can choose to continue or discontinue the second language? The reply was that “so long as Minister Mentor is in the cabinet, it will continue to be a requirement to do 2nd language” – not the exact words, but the winks, nods and smiles implied it and I choose to put those words in their mouths.

The exam system has been gamed by those who can answer questions in the way that the graders cannot but pass and whether or not the child has any learning per se, is hard to determine. Looking at my son’s primary six science and english language text books, the contents of the books were so superficial that it is no surprise that the teacher did not even use it the whole year.

All is not rosy. Too many mistakes are in the system and political leadership is called for. Not sure if Lee Hsien Loong can rise to it, not sure if Ng Eng Hen (the education minister) cares, but we need to fix the problems. We are loosing (and have lost) good people due to stupidity on the part of the policy makers aka politicians from the PAP.


  1. I wouldn’t dismiss second languages as drag
    My guys have to learn Chinese (if it would be father tongue, it would be German) and they do struggle. However fluency in more than one language is essential and Singapore students have a clear advantage here (in Germany the second language becomes mandatory in what is the equivalent of Primary 5 only) If you go for a German A level you even have to pick up a third language for 2+ years (it doesn’t count for the A level finals, but you need to have a pass grade they years before). What I would change is the selection of language. Why tie it back to the ethnicity? An open choice would fit better into the 21st century.
    My 2c
    🙂 stw

    • Re: I wouldn’t dismiss second languages as drag
      Stephen –
      Thanks for the note. It is not that I am dismissing 2nd language outright. I think it is very important to learn languages – I personally have learned Malay, Tamil, Esperanto and French. But, for all ends and purposes, the language learning should be fun. It is not like learning Math, Science etc which is factual based, experiment verified. Languages have to be made fun and enjoyable. I did struggle through my French but I did make it somehow.
      What Lee Kuan Yew and his policies did over the years was to assume that *every* child can do two languages are the same level. Language skills are not the same as math, science, art etc. They require a form of immersement that is not the same as the non-language subjects/topics. The language one thinks in, dreams in, speaks in, jokes in, helps form the basis of one’s being.
      Singapore is the ONLY country on the planet that has had (and will continue to have) it’s citizens LEAVE the country because of the ridiculuous 2nd language academic requirements. Not 2nd language per se, but the academic requirements. I have written about this on my blog, numerous letters to the daily paper over the years – even when I had no skin in the game per se. I hate to see my fellow citizens GIVE UP on Singapore because of this stupidity.

  2. Why can’t we go back to the basics that is why can’t we just emphasize English for academic purposes and leave the choice of the 2nd language as an option without the need to link it as an important criteria leading to higher education.
    Afterall, why do we need a second language to excel in life and how many of us exactly make us of 2 languages in our working life probably with the exception of interpreters or translaters.
    If our govt had not politicise educational issues, it would not have lead to the current problems. So why can’t we just forget about mother tongues. In the first place, there are just too many mother tongues to handle.

    • Thanks for the note. Please identify yourself. That notwithstanding, I anticipate that the forthcoming general elections (I reckon in December 2009), we have to bring this up as an issue.
      I am told that LKY’s grandchildren were *exempted* from 2nd language because of “reading difficulties”. Of course, what is fit for the masses is not needed for the elite. But then, I could be completely wrong.

  3. I agree that it is unfair to Singaporeans to have the second language requirement, especially for admission to university. Foreigners can just breeze in without a second language, and locals have to slog to pass. Another example of the unbalanced playing field between locals and foreigners.
    Despite my difficulties with Chinese when I was in school (I blogged about it here) I still think 2nd lang should be mandatory and an examinable subject. Just that a pass should not be a requirement for uni entry.
    But I don’t see why 2nd lang should be tied to ethnicity. All Singaporeans should be allowed to choose Chinese, Malay OR Tamil as our 2nd language, regardless of our ethnicity. And yes, that should apply to Gujarati, Burmese, Filipino or ang moh Singaporeans — all Singaporeans should learn English and one other official language.
    Gerald Giam

    • Gerald –
      Thanks for your note and thanks also for using the right term “2nd language”. Yes, by all means, examine and test for competency of the chosen 2nd language, but that is where it should stop. Anyone can go overseas and not have to give two hoots to the 2nd language pass/no pass requirement.
      As a citizen, we have a lot of things *stacked against* us, than the foreigners who are living and working here. No, I am not begruding that, but clearly, citizens should not have to put up with crap. The government goes out of its way to molly cuddle “foreign talent” while dissing locals.

    • +1.
      Indeed, the trouble with the State as is today, is that the leadership is too beholden to one person. That one person has to graciously step down from the scene and let the country move on. He is really an albatross on the collective necks of this country.

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