Mother-tongue conservatives voice existential fears

As mentioned in the post Weighting the second language in the Primary School Leaving Examination, the Education Minister recently hoisted a trail balloon, about adjusting the way the overall score is computed in the PSLE exam.

Unsurprisingly, a howl of objection has arisen from linguistic conservatives — and here I use the word “conservatives” in a relatively clinical, non-judgemental way, to mean those who prefer to conserve the status quo.

There is a large segment of the population here whose cultural and linguistic orientation is primarily Chinese. In their eyes, there has been a steady retrenchment of their culture and language in Singapore, and they are highly sensitive to any move that would cause further erosion. It is an existential question to this group.

Most of the arguments from their side that I’ve seen in this debate are along these lines: Reducing the weightage would signal to students a decreased importance for Chinese — and to this constituency, second language is reflexively equated with Chinese. Children will put less effort into it; standards will fall, and in time Chinese will be further marginalised in Singapore society.

Wei Meng Ho, in his letter to the Straits Times (published 6 May 2010) wrote: “Reducing weighting is analogous to a relegation of the subject’s importance, both tangibly and psychologically. An immediate reaction will surely be a redistribution of resources by both pupils and schools. In the long term, I fear a situation where the standard of second language would decline irreversibly, emaciated by lack of passion, and disinterest.”

Yeo Hwee Yann in her letter (also published in the Straits Times, 6 May 2010) wrote: “I dread to think of the far-reaching impact on the younger generation when they are given the green light to do away with anything they are not so good in.”

Wei Meng Ho appears to discount the argument put out by educators (and many parents) that the bigger the stick, the more exam-oriented the subject is, the more children hate learning Chinese and the harder it is to inculcate a love and joy of learning it. Learning is best achieved when a child wants to learn — surely a pedagogical truth — but the do-or-die stress associated with tests and examinations produce the opposite motivation.

There is also the question of teaching methods. This is being addressed separately by the Education Ministry. For too long, Chinese has been taught to pupils as if that really is their mother tongue. For a great many, it is not. It was politicians’ ideology that mandated the term “mother-tongue”, not demographic reality. More than half of six- and seven-year-olds starting school come from homes where English or Singlish is the mother-tongue.

To teach Chinese to them would mean teaching it as a foreign language. Yet, the blindsidedness stemming from the ideological position that these foreign languages are “mother-tongues” to the children has meant a terrible mismatch between teaching methods and pupils’ needs.

Add to that the pressure from examinations, and it is no wonder that Singapore has created this monster of a problem that has rumbled, unsolved, for decades.

As Barabara Chen wrote in her letter to the Straits Times, published 8 May 2010: “Every pupil I know requires private tuition in Chinese. At the Chinese tuition centre my children attend, there are even a few children whose parents are native Chinese speakers.Why do so many of us need help to teach our children Chinese?

Providing the answer, she said “our children have limited or no contact with Chinese in their living environment. There is a bias towards English in school, games, Internet activities and, with more than half of them, their families…. With such a language landscape, it is unrealistic to expect most children to achieve the same level of competency in Chinese as in English.”

A good PSLE score (in which the second language has a 25 percent weightage) is important for getting to good secondary schools. It used to be also essential for getting a place in local universities, though my impression is that universities have at last become more flexible (could readers update me on this please?).

Knowing this, parents pile pressure onto their kids. Result: the kids hate Chinese even more. They still don’t do well.

This is compounded by the proficiency standard expected. Predicated on the assumption that it is a mother-tongue to everybody, all children have been expected to attain the same high level. This has recently changed; the ministry has instituted a lower standard as an option, whose introduction also raised a hue and cry, and possibly as a result, the lower option has been only sparingly implemented. The vast majority of kids still labour under the higher standard expected. (Furthermore, how that lower standard factors into the overall PSLE score, I am not clear. Again, if any reader can enlighten me, I’d be grateful.)

But second language scores correlate poorly with a child’s intelligence or academic prowess. So for years, otherwise bright students, who for whatever reason — linguistic aptitude, home environment – aren’t good in their second language have been shut out of good secondary schools and university places. But because they do well in other subjects, they get places in universities abroad, and then, very often, they don’t return. Singapore has suffered a steady loss of talent as a result.

* * * * *

The debate is not joined. The mother-tongue conservatives’ arguments do not address this reality, except perhaps obliquely. They seem to ignore the fact that to many, Chinese is indeed a foreign language. They resist the introduction of a lower standard as an option, and they get very anxious, as we can see in the published letters, about anything that might signal a loss of equivalency with English.

Instead many of their arguments assume that (a) only racially Chinese kids are the ones learning Chinese and (b) since they are racially Chinese, it goes without question that their families feel the same way as they do, which is to place a very high value on feeling culturally Chinese. Where this leads to is particularly disturbing, an example of which can be seen in one letter in the Straits Times, discussed in the box at right.

Despite the point that the bigger the stick, the more counterproductive it is, the conservative side will simply not believe it. That’s why the argument is not joined. It flies against their assumed model of human behaviour. For them — and not coincidentally, it is one well-known trait of the conservative mindset — great store is placed on authoritarian measures to shape behaviour. The flip side is a lack of faith in others’ self-motivation or soft encouragement.

Instead, if the child isn’t doing well, push harder — seems to be the instinctive response. Learning, in their view, must necessarily be an effortful endeavour, with the stick not far away. Remove the stick, and people won’t learn. This comes out, for example, in Wei Meng Ho’s letter’s last sentence: “Learn by overcoming barriers, not lowering them.”

* * * * *

There is also a sense of victimhood that makes this issue so emotional. Many adults who grew up in Chinese-speaking homes had to struggle doubly hard to learn English. Without English, there was no chance of further education here. If we could make it, their thinking goes, why do we need to get soft towards kids from English-speaking homes struggling with Chinese?

More currently, there is another argument: Children from Chinese-speaking homes today may still be struggling with English. They rely on the 25-percent PSLE weightage given to their second language to make up for the relatively poorer score they obtain for English (also 25 percent), in order to assure themselves a place in a good secondary school. Any reduction in the weightage of the second language will disadvantage this group, who probably are the children of the adults who struggled to learn English as a foreign language a generation ago.

Indeed, this angle should not be ignored. As Singapore becomes more cosmopolitan, what with steady immigration from China and elsewhere, the issue should be framed wider. It shouldn’t be treated as “What shall we do with the weightage of the second language?” but how to have a more flexible education system that caters to kids from different environments, with different aptitudes.

It is here that I fear we run up against an ingrained bias in favour of order and authoritarian methods, both among our bureaucrats and the mother-tongue conservatives. This bias produces a desire for uniformity of standards and one-size-fits-all solutions (“order”), rigid teaching methods and externally-enforced measurements (authoritarian styles).

It also produces a fetish for rankings and hierarchy: good schools and bad schools. Good scores and bad scores.

Why can’t we imagine a testing regime that is merely designed to find out a child’s palette of talents and skills, and then point them to secondary schools that are designed to cater to different abilities?

They may all teach the same basket of subjects, but each school tailors its teaching methods and expected standards to the kinds of pupils it seeks to attract and that it prides its reputation on. There may be schools for those stronger in science and mathematics but weaker in second language. Another school might cater to those stronger in Chinese than English. Or Malay than English. A third might nurture those with artistic talent. Or sports.

I know we have a sports school. I know we’re opening an arts school. But why a single school? Why not have an education system where variety is the norm, not the exception. Where encouraging children to flourish where they can, and not force-feed them where they can’t, is the governing ethos?

23 Responses to “Mother-tongue conservatives voice existential fears”


  1. 1 George 8 May 2010 at 22:58

    Bravo, Alex!

    A most balanced and rational piece on the subject.

    In the course of the debate -through the letters written and posting esp in the ST –
    it has become painfully and uncomfortably obvious that Singaporeans in the so-called ‘conservative’ mould is demonstrating the inertia of a very static mindset. Apparently, for them Mandarin is like a crutch rather than just one of the means available for the transmission of culture. And, I am amazed at their desperation that they unquestioningly accept Mandarin as ‘mother tongue’ ignoring the reality that it is no more than a lingua franca to facilitate communication among Chinese who actually speak a host of different mother tongues, aka, dialects. And, in fact, linguists regards many of the Chinese dialects as languages in their own rights.

  2. 2 Chas Belov 9 May 2010 at 00:01

    “Instead many of their arguments assume that (a) only racially Chinese kids are the ones learning Chinese and (b) since they are racially Chinese, it goes without question that their families feel the same way as they do, which is to place a very high value on feeling culturally Chinese.”

    And (c) that it is necessary to speak Chinese in order to feel culturally Chinese.

    Hardly true. If so, I would need to speak Hebrew to feel Jewish (even though my granparents’ tongue was Yiddish — I’m not sure why you didn’t cover the issue of Chinese children whose mother tongue is Cantonese or Hokkien, or has that issue largely gone away?). I’m not even religious. Yet I feel Jewish and have even written a Jewish play.

    By the way, I’m guessing there are also white children growing up in Singapore as Singaporeans. What are they assigned as their second language? Do they get 50 percent for English?

  3. 3 Rui An 9 May 2010 at 00:56

    It’s a systemic flaw. Any form of tinkering with the methods of assessment is a mere elaboration of a pedagogical approach that is inherently problematic.

    But in the absence of a systemic overhaul, I do think that leaving the weightage as it is is the lesser evil we should settle for. Will reducing the weightage reduce the pressure and the detestation for the subject? I doubt. The very reverse may happen.

    The prevalent problem is the will to learn. Your argument tends to suppose that there is a fundamental will to learn the language that is unfortunately suppressed by the unrealistic expectations placed upon the child. Children coming in from English-speaking families already come with the pre-conceived notion that their prescribed “mother tongue” bears little direct relevance to their lives. The knowledge that the subject holds a lower percentage will only serve to reinforce these pre-conceptions.

    But as I’ve said (and as you’ve highlighted), the fundamental problem is systemic. The effects of changing the percentage accorded to the subject will only led to marginal effects (whether positive or negative).

    I also find your suggestion of a more flexible grading system that accords the percentages according to the student’s natural aptitude in the subject, mentioned in an earlier article (“Weighting the second language in the Primary School Leaving Examination”), overly liberal. While it is important to affirm the strengths of the students and encourage development in areas in which he can best excel, the importance of foundational skills at primary school level cannot be downplayed. There is of course, also the possibility that a child’s area of strength can change and as such, such a confirmation of a child’s area of aptitude at such an early age may be premature and may even psychologically stifle his will and potential to develop in other areas.

  4. 4 yawningbread 9 May 2010 at 10:00

    Belov – “issue of Chinese children whose mother tongue is Cantonese or Hokkien”

    There is no outcry from this angle, I think because (1) social engineering has largely succeeded in Singapore, and more Chinese-speaking Singaporeans identify with Mandarin than with dialects, (2) those who continue to identify with dialects are now close to retirement age, or else belong to a lower social-economic group (it is their lack of success going through the education system that produces both results: low socio-economic group and incomplete identification with Mandarin).

    In any case, this issue should not be confused with a mother tongue debate. It is not about mother-tongues. It’s about the importance and recognition of Mandarin versus English in Singapore society. It’s a contest between two constituencies both of which are based on acquired, or else recently indigenised languages.

    Belov – “By the way, I’m guessing there are also white children growing up in Singapore as Singaporeans. What are they assigned as their second language?”

    All schoolchildren have to do a second language. You cannot choose English as a second language (And that’s precisely why I think “mother-tongue is a misleading misnomer; the subject really is a second language). Children of white parents or mixed-race parents have some choice as to what they take up. Many choose Chinese.

  5. 5 anony 9 May 2010 at 10:23

    Mother tongue is indeed a misnomer. No where in China did the Chinese Communist Party decreed it as a mother tongue! Mandarin is a “dialect” of the Northern Chinese. Mandarin was NEVER the mother tongue for billions of mainland Chinese. In China, it is officially known as the “common language” or in hanyu pinyin, Putonghua or 普通話. It was introduced to encourage literacy and to forge a common China national identity.

    FYI, China still recognizes the value of Chinese “dialects” or the different Chinese languages, its dialects not languages becos its not mutually intelligible based on linguists definition eg a Szechuan native speaking his language would not comprehend anything spoken by a Hokkien & vice versa. There are official cultural classes within China to encourage the kids to understand their own cultural language.

    Going by the same analogy, Mandarin should not be defined as the mother tongue for Chinese Sporeans as most are descendants of southern Chinese. PAP was instrumental in spreading this mother tongue propaganda. So for those who want to argue about cultural legacy, your legacy is either Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Hainese, Hakka.

    I think subconsciously parents know Mandarin is not their lingua franca, there is a mental block there to process Mandarin as “mother” tongue. Either you grew up speaking English or “dialects” or a combo. Even if you were from a Mandarin speaking school before that was abolished, you still knew in your mind & heart that Mandarin was never the mother tongue. The speak Mandarin campaign was only implemented in 1979.

    BTW, does anyone knows whether current birth certificates still specify the field “Dialect”? Mine does but that was decades ago becos Hokkien is my cultural legacy not Mandarin.

  6. 6 Mr. Yeoh 9 May 2010 at 10:30

    I am one of those who are in favor of conserving the status quo, not because Chinese will be marginalized, but because these changes are happening too quickly. The curriculum has been modified several times in the past 6-8 years, which is why we need to let the dust settle while people get used to these adjustments. I think 10-15 years is a suitable timeframe to wait and see. Over-tweaking complicates any future study on its effects since “root causes” become less clear, and meanwhile our children/parents will feel unsettled because they have to deal with uncertainty in curriculum rather than focusing on good education.

    Weighting flexibility is a nice idea although it could backfire. If I knew that my weakest subject is only 10% of my total score, would I even bother studying for it? That would defeat the purpose of including the subject in my curriculum in the first place; but since it’s in the curriculum anyway, this flexibility becomes an illusion of choice. Customization can start in secondary school so students can capitalize on their strengths. Primary school however, is for building a good foundation i.e. the pedagogy focuses on ensuring that a decent standard is achieved nationwide. Equal weightings will encourage students to focus more on overcoming their weak subjects to achieve this minimum standard.

    While I do not support the idea of “streaming” and “gifted education”, some form of benchmarking needs to happen at some point as part of education’s feedback process. Some might argue against rankings or score-based comparisons, and all I can say is we might as well start getting used to being compared with each other since it will happen to everyone eventually (e.g. in the workplace). Six years is a reasonable length of time to let our children prepare for a big exam like PSLE – with language as one of the components. Indeed, politics will determine what subjects are “good for the country”. And if language happens to be my weak subject, then this may have ramifications on getting into a good school in future. (To answer your question Alex, I scored C for both ‘O’ and ‘A’ level Chinese and still made it into a local university… so yes they are more flexible now.) But ultimately we are not going to find a system that favors everyone, and we need to focus our efforts on the learning process instead of pulling out too many ideas from the hat.

    Leave our kids alone!

  7. 7 KiWeTO 9 May 2010 at 10:44

    When will we consider the quantum change?

    or is that too extreme for our risk-adverse decision makers at MoE?

    No grading system has the divine right to continue to exist. Nor any testing regime. Can we give up the sacred cow that is billingualism?

    If we are truly advanced, should we not then have a big think-tank evaluation of our education system, how we choose to test our students to find out what they are good at, and by extension, give them aid and support in necessary-in-life areas so that they can achieve competency in those areas also?

    Do we still need to be linked to the Cambridge system of examinations, especially when the mother tongue papers are graded here in the first place? (or at least, that was was I was told as a student years ago.)

    If Singapore is the educational tourism destination that it seeks to be, isn’t it time to have the true Singapore brand of education qualification?

    If we are the meeting point of east and west, should we not attempt to differentiate our “educational tourism” industry by making it a system that reflects and respects the educational philosophies of east and west?

    Why not just start all over instead of tweaking and tweaking? Any system will have its supporters and detractors. If it is time for the current sacred cow to die, then we might as well make sure that we either have a new calf in the wings, or make sure cow-rearing is turned into beef-butchering or steak selling.

    E.o.M.
    [from one who has had difficulties with mother tongue-chinese EVEN though the father exclusively used mandarin with sons in childhood.]

  8. 8 yawningbread 9 May 2010 at 13:46

    To Mr Yeoh and others – thank you for your erudite contributions.

    If we really think hard about it, the issue really boils down to this: Why do we compute an overall PSLE score at all? Fine, test the four foundational subjects: English, Maths, Science and Second Language – but why do we need to compute a combined score? Why reduce capabilities (which we know are multi-dimensional) to a uni-dimensional ranking?

    It’s this attempt to compute a single score that raises the question of weighting. Without computing a single score, the question of weighting will not arise.

    So what happens if we test the four foundational subjects and NOT generate an overall score. Then PSLE results will take the form of four gradings in a string. E.g. ABAD (for a child who is excellent in English and Science, pretty good in Math and poor in his Second Language) or CBBA (for a child who is weak in English, pretty good in Math and Science and excellent in his Second Language.

    The string is a helluva lot more useful for streaming than a single score. It suggests to us what speed of learning he can undertake in Secondary school for various subjects; it suggests what would be the appropriate pedagogical method to use for him for a particular subject, whether weak or strong.

    This means highly varied streaming (again without attaching to it hierarchical ranking) in Secondary school to suit the pupils’ abilities and foundational backgrounds. Why is it so difficult to do this? Or is it not difficult to do, just difficult for our rigid minds to contemplate?

  9. 9 yawningbread 9 May 2010 at 13:58

    Anony wrote: “its dialects not languages becos its not mutually intelligible based on linguists definition”

    Erm… while there is no hard and fast definition, the usual linguistic understanding is actually opposite to your assertion. When a variant of a language diverges enough such that others speaking the same language are unable to comprehend your spoken variant, then that variant is considered a language by itself.

    But, as I said, this essay is not about mother tongue. It’s about the testing of PSLE scores of the SECOND LANGUAGE. Can we stay on topic please?

  10. 10 Mr. Yeoh 9 May 2010 at 16:58

    Alex,

    I can only think of one reason why we compute an overall PSLE score: administrative convenience.

    PSLE scores determine which secondary school a student goes to. And the process of secondary school allocation is centralized in MOE. It is much easier to rank 30,000 students based on a single score than by leaving gradings in a string. I imagine our bureaucrats would start off with the intake numbers for each secondary school, and then run down their Excel spreadsheet matching off top scorers with their first, second, third choices and so on until the spaces are filled up for that school. Then they draw a line at the last student (the “cut-off” point) and continue working down the list.

    This method is quick, fuss-free, and best of all, indisputable. (“Sorry Mr Tan, your daughter scored 229 which is below our cut-off of 230. Case closed.”) Our bureaucrats need not answer difficult questions from parents or waste their time dealing with appeal cases. On that note, I’ve always wondered: what happens when there’s a tie for the last spot, i.e. when the cut-off for a school with 400 vacancies is 230 points, and say 30 students with 230 points ranked that school as their first choice… who gets that 400th vacancy?

    It is indeed quite sad that a 12-year old child needs to be reduced to a single score, and leaving the grades in a string would make more sense. (Interestingly, ‘A’ level grades are left in a string whereas ‘O’ level results and some universities grade their students on a single score.) If the PSLE system is overhauled in favor of leaving grades in a string however, MOE will either have to develop a robust method to justify their allocations, or decentralize the process to the secondary schools. I’m somewhat skeptical that either option would appeal to them.

  11. 11 yuen 9 May 2010 at 17:33

    >what happens when there’s a tie for the last spot,

    my guess: random selection (lottery); this is the method for primary 1: after admitting priority cases like siblings of current students, children of staff, children of alumni, applicants with home addresses within 2km, etc, the remaining places are allocated to applicants in the next category by lottery

    • 12 quirkyhill 9 May 2010 at 20:26

      i believe i read somewhere that students’ scores are rounded to six decimal places and ranked accordingly, therefore it is highly unlikely that two students have exactly the same scores.

      i think i read it from kiasuparents.com, but i can’t find the link now.

  12. 13 yawningbread 9 May 2010 at 21:07

    What more proof do we nee that the Singapore system reduces everybody to digits…. to six decimal places, no less!

  13. 14 liew kai khiun 9 May 2010 at 21:07

    Hi Alex,

    I think you have done a fantastic job in untying what would seemingly be the ideological gridlock in Singapore’s educational structure, one that is not just a pedagogical matter, but tightly interlaced with ideas of governmentality, culture and society. The Singapore classificatory regime of the Singapore state has while simplifying society to reducible digits, has also at the same time, created deep and irresolvable socio-cultural complications and contradictions.

    Although they constantly emphasize on objectivity, it is perhaps the state’s linkage of so call “mother tongue” education with racial categories that have created this frankensteinian condition where ethnic/class interests become so intimately linked to educational-cultural policies. Hence, any “move” to devalue Chinese language education becomes one against the vernacular working classes and the “Chinese educated” cultural intelligensia by the dominant Anglicised, male, hetrosexual, upper class ethnic Chinese elite. In this respect, you did have a very important recognition on the very real issue of victimhood.

    As for myself, I refused to acknowledge any true ownership of both English and Mandarin as my mother tongues. They are in contrast HMV (His Master’s Voices); imperial languages that have brutal legacies of colonialisation and assimilation. My Mother Tongue is Cantonese, and I have also felt that if we should have a “local language” it should be Bahasa Melayu or Hokkien. But I feel compelled to take sides on this matter as part of the “conservatives” not because I believed in the use of the stick in forcing “culture” down people’s throats.

    Although i am technically “English educated”, having been in a mission school for a decade (and doing better in English than Mandarin), I have also felt bitterly aghast with the privilege, insularity, arrogance, and (western) dependent world-views of the so-called “English educated” petit-bourgoeis who run this country, and their disregard and contempt for those who have a different language system from them which is seen as “useless” as seen in some of the letters to the papers. This suggestion by the education minister Ng Eng Hen (also “English” educated”) is therefore ideological as much as it is paedogogical, and what i fear would be the continued marginalisation and tokenisation of not just the cultures, but the reference points and the knowledge systems that come with them. I don’t think this sentiment is confined to the “Chinese educated” alone.

  14. 15 recruit ong 10 May 2010 at 09:39

    “Meritocracy on a crutch”, that is the heart of the issue.

  15. 16 Harvey Neo 10 May 2010 at 11:28

    Hi Alex

    The fact of the matter is that MT is the best performing subject amongst primary school students as a whole. Not only that, it is also the subject that has the highest percentage of quality passes (A and A*).

    So the claim that children have to quit Singapore (or the Singapore education system) because of their low MT scores is greatly exaggerated. As it is, such children are already ahead of the game (with their three other subjects), reducing the weight of MT is further perversing a “meritocracy” that already favours the advantaged. Like you mentioned/implied in your article, those who will ultimately be compromised by this proposed change are the masses of students whose Bs in MT can help pull their Cs in other subjects (particularly English and Math).

    Doing away with scoring in the PSLE exam is unrealistic I fear (both pedagogically and logistically). I propose tinkering with the scoring system to a “subject-blind” one. For example, students’ top two performing subjects will make up 30% each of the total score, the third best performing subject (25%) and the worst performing subject (15%).

  16. 17 George 10 May 2010 at 12:44

    Hi kai khiun,

    In my view, the heavy hand of the govt is responsible for the present state of affairs.

    It is important and relevant to reach back and question why were Chinese-, Malay-, Tamil-medium schools dismantled?

    Was it for pragmatic or political reasons? The answers may be inferred from the context of the circumstances then. For example, there were lots of challenges to the govt from the Chinese-ed.

    Building a ‘multi-racial society’ via pushing English as the primary and common medium of education. The subsequent creation of SAP schools could be interpreted as a breaking down of this resolve no doubt under pressure of the Chinese community behind closed doors.

    Then what about the ‘Pledge’ that has been downgraded/watered down by none other than one of the ‘creators’ himself, to that of mere ‘aspiration’?

    Seems like nothing is sacred and respect is scant where it suits the ever changing political whims and fancies of this pragmatic-to-a-serious-flaw govt.

    Yesterday’s white can become tomorrow’s black, if there is economic advantage to be had.

  17. 18 Ben 10 May 2010 at 22:52

    Hm…I don’t know.

    Unlike the other 3 subjects English, Maths and Science, the three Mother Tongue papers is the only one where standards among them can differ – because different groups of teachers set the papers.

    It’s quite possible thus for one Mother Tongue paper to be harder (or easier) than the other.

    Consequently, the group having the easier paper will benefit from the overall T-score while the group having the harder one will lose out.

    For English – or Maths or Science – this problem does not arise because all the pupils take the same papers set by a common group of teachers.

  18. 19 Chun Wee 11 May 2010 at 16:18

    Hi,

    First of all, this is a good article. However, you do not address the fact that Mandarin, whether it ought to be considered a Mother Tongue or not, is indeed a global language of huge importance. There has been many a time when I travelled in the region and the only common language between me (and my travelling companions) and the locals was Mandarin. Things would have been really, really difficult if we had not been conversant in Mandarin.

    Thus even if Mandarin is akin to a foreign language for many of our younger generation, it is desirable for students to learn it. I mean no offence by saying this but none of the other Mother Tongue languages in Singapore are spoken on such a wide scale as Mandarin is.

    To address the main issue, however, what some Singaporeans are calling for now is for the Mother Tongue weightage to be lowered even as all other aspects of the PSLE grading criteria remain the same. As you agree in your article, this would be grossly unfair to those proficient in Mother Tongue but weaker in other subjects. Moreover, it will set a very bad precedent – will parents whose children are poor in Mathematics next start angling for its weightage to be lowered? They will feel justified in doing so if the Mother Tongue weightage drops.

    That is where my objection to the proposal lies. It is completely unfair to accord Mother Tongue less weighting while preserving the current PSLE grading structure. It will disadvantage a fairly large proportion of students; even as those angling for the weightage to be cut speak of the “injustice” of being forced to learn a second language, their proposal will create a considerable injustice of its own. After all, those weak in Mathematics, English or Science also must work very hard to pull up their grades. Personally, I was weak in Mathematics when I took my PSLE, and I worked very hard for a good grade.

    Primary school subjects are taught at a foundational level. Already the Ministry has recognized that Mandarin is difficult to learn for a vast proportion of students in Singapore, and has worked to address the problem. Which other subject is taught at 3 levels at the O Level standard? There is no English B to help out those weaker in English. Yet selfish parents keep coming back to try to disadvantage others in order to put their own children ahead.

    So by all means, reform Mother Tongue teaching methods or tear down and reconstruct the entire primary school grading system. Just do not commit the grave injustice of disadvantaging an entire group of students at one shot.

  19. 20 Dinesh 14 May 2010 at 04:09

    I was struck by Ben’s point: among PSLE subjects, MT is the only one where all students do not take the same exam, ie. no level playing field.

    + WORSE: some languages are easier to learn than others. I’m familiar with Malay, Tamil and English. I won’t hazard an opinion on which – Tamil vs English – is easier to learn as a foreign language, but am confident that Malay is easier than either. I also wonder if Mandarin, as it is now taught here, is the hardest of the 3. If so, isn’t this unfair to Chinese students?

    + MAKING IT EVEN WORSE: MOE’s grotesque policy linking race to MT. Correct me if I am wrong, but this prevents such options as Chinese kids from English-speaking homes (even with Peranakan ancestry, or Malay-speaking family members and domestic helpers) from choosing Malay as MT.

    So two thoughts here:
    [1] make Chinese easier for Primary school students (especially if the current standard makes them learn things of limited practical value. I’m all for the idea that Primary school MT focus on oral ability) -AND/OR-
    [2] free students from the obligation to study a particular MT on the basis of their ‘race’. This will have the added benefit of forcing the subject to be renamed ‘Second Language’.

  20. 21 yawningbread 14 May 2010 at 12:35

    There was a very telling slip of the tongue by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the press conference. As reported by the Straits Times, which carried excerpts of his replies to reporters’ questions (Straits Times, 14 May 2010,Differentiated teaching according to aptitudes), he said:

    “The situation 45 years ago was different from what it is today. First, 45 years ago, most of the parents spoke Mandarin, or at least dialects. The Chinese language, to a large extent, was the mother tongue of most of the Chinese students.”

    So, if (a) 45 years ago, the Chinese language was the mother tongue of most Chinese students, and (b) the situation is different today… isn’t he admitting that Chinese is NOT the mother-tongue of most racially-Chinese students today?

    So why stick to the nomenclature of “mother-tongue languages”, instead of referring to them as Second Language or Foreign Language?

  21. 22 Ben again 14 May 2010 at 23:00

    Hm…not too long ago, a Tamil teacher was found guilty of tweaking PSLE Tamil pupils’ Mother Tongue answers.

    So, you see, people can get carried away – even teachers, who are supposed to have integrity to protect the standard of our education.

    What makes the setters any different? Would they be motivated to set a very hard and challenging paper for their own race group? This is a very touchy issue and I’m merely throwing out the question.

    A relatively easy or difficult paper can make a big difference in which premier school you go to.

  22. 23 STATELESS CITIZEN 8 August 2010 at 21:56

    My mother tongue will always be Hokkien. Why should i change my mother tongue to mandarin just because they want to “import” hundreds of thousands of mandarin speaking chinese from Malaysia and China. If they want to come here they should change to suit us and not we change to suit them. They should learn English, Malay or local dialects. India is also one of up and coming economic superpower, don’t you think we should also learn Tamil?


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