Workers’ Party and race politics: a dangerous ploy

There was something about the Workers’ Party leader throwing down a challenge to Education Minister Ng Eng Hen that disquieted me.

Workers’ Party chief Low Thia Khiang said in an e-mail statement in Chinese yesterday that the Government’s reassurances about the mother tongue issue meant it has made three commitments on its teaching and standing.

One, the Ministry of Education (MOE) will never again review the weighting of mother tongue languages in the Primary School Leaving Examination, nor will it find other avenues to do so.

Two, the MOE committee set up to review the teaching and testing of the mother tongue languages will only chart the directions for their teaching in the next 10 to 15 years, and not re-examine their value in the education system.

Three, the mother tongue at primary level holds the same weighting in terms of teaching hours and examination marks as other subjects.

Mr Low said this final undertaking is based on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s statement that the mother tongue will continue to be the cornerstone of Singapore’s education policy in the future, as it was in the past.

He then pointedly added: ‘If the MOE feels I have misunderstood, please immediately clarify to avoid creating the wrong impression again (and cause) people to feel happy for nothing.

— Straits Times, 13 May 2010, Govt has made 3 commitments on MTL: Low Thia Khiang

In his first point, Low said he understood that the government would NEVER again review the weighting of second language in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Firstly, I don’t recall reading the minister saying that; secondly, no administrative policy can ever be be carved in stone to that degree.

Low’s second point is of similar nature, subtly demanding a concrete assurance that nothing will change for the next 10 – 15 years, and even after that, while teaching  methods might change, the”value” will never change. Who knows what the world is going to be like a generation from now? No right-thinking person should hold policy hostage to such immutability.

His third point is merely a restatement of what the government said.

What is Low trying to achieve with his first two points? Immediately, it struck me that Low was trying to be mischievious, to provoke Education Minister Ng Eng Hen into denying points One and Two and by so doing, alienating the Chinese-speaking community (“people to feel happy for nothing”). Then the emotive debate will start all over again, but this time with the Chinese-speaking community even more radicalised than before, not just demanding no change now, but no change ever.

One might say, well, this is politics. That’s how politicians score points. Get used to it. Now that the government has assuaged the (existential) fears of the Chinese language and culture-identified community, the Workers’ Party will naturally try to rouse dissatisfaction again, by shifting the community’s expectations further to the extreme.

Yes, it is politics, but it is irresponsible and dangerous politics. Low knows very well that “mother-tongue” (read: Chinese language fluency and acculturisation) issues are closely intertwined with ethnic sensitivities. Low would also know that no sensible policy-maker can give perpetual undertakings (and I certainly hope that should the Worker’s Party come to power, they too would understand how to make policy).

Yet, instead of working towards common ground, by this kind of messaging, the Workers’ Party is widening faultlines, by stoking communal grievances. This can lead to long-term costs that all of us in this society will have to pay. One need to look no further than across the Causeway to Malaysia, where rigid loyalties to race and religion have become the measure of everything and the barrier to good policy.

14 Responses to “Workers’ Party and race politics: a dangerous ploy”


  1. 1 hahaha 14 May 2010 at 11:33

    mother tongue does not only mean mandarin but all others belonging to different ethnic groups.
    Have you read the berita and the tamil daily to find out the discussions in there?
    LTK has gave a very good opinion on it and hey, he agrees with the old fart, on what LKY did 40 years ago to have 2nd languages!
    Cannot see your argument of radicalism!

  2. 2 chloe_ask@hotmail.com 14 May 2010 at 15:11

    Mr Low specifically mentioned “mother tongue”, never did he used the word “Chinese” or allude to racial politics. Don’t even try to smear him with the favourite PAP label of language chauvinism! What he is doing is to set the record right, and show us the meandering politician that Ng Eng Hen is.

  3. 3 yawningbread 14 May 2010 at 16:44

    Ah, but did you notice that his email message was in Chinese?

  4. 4 Sinkapore 14 May 2010 at 23:30

    And just because he wrote in Mandarin, what he says has no relevance to other MTs? This is a policy that has riled across ethnicities, and it seems to me that you are the one who insinuated that it is confined to a particuliar (i.e. Chinese) racial politics.

    Yes, the Minister never said never but his words, as reported in the Chinese press, suggest as much. Hence, there is some ambiguity which rightly someone should seek clarification for.

    I am sure in the Malay press similar reactions/opposition can be seen (I am not so sure about the Tamil papers though).

  5. 5 SayCheese 15 May 2010 at 02:49

    You’d agree with him if his email was in Tamil!

  6. 6 Anonymous 15 May 2010 at 21:21

    What? You expect LTK to write in malay or tamil?

  7. 7 angkujupi 15 May 2010 at 21:56

    To all detractors of Alex Au :- Open eyes wide while saying blind words – Chinese saying.

    Who are you trying to kid? yourself?

  8. 8 angkujupi 15 May 2010 at 21:58

    Low’s politicking is as unconstructive as they come – these kind of tie-downs are simply petty showmanship … out to score points for points sake….

  9. 9 Mat Alamak 16 May 2010 at 08:14

    That’s why I always have doubts (big and small) about the opposition, even the elected ones.

    I don’t know when we will have a credible alternative. Or it is something impossible, like expecting pigs to fly.

  10. 10 yuen 16 May 2010 at 08:22

    it was a ploy, but I wont call it race politics or dangerous

    chinese chauvinism has long ceased to be significant political force; however, some of its rhetoric was inherited by others; the prevalent poor mandarin functionality is a policy failure that can be conveniently used against the government, whether or not you care about chinese culture, whether or not you have workable alternative solutions

  11. 11 ren 17 May 2010 at 01:13

    chinese chauvinism? stop promoting this false and convenient accusation of PAP. chauvinism is certainly not the preserve of the chinese speaking community. what about english hegemonism? do a self-reflection before accusing others.

  12. 12 Middle Ground 6 June 2010 at 16:18

    Protection of Mother Tongues would NEVER be branded as Chauvinism in any other countries in the world except Singapore! In other countries i know of, especially in the western european countries, such protection of Mother Tongues over English language is something the locals/natives are proud of! That is certainly not the case in Singapore, whereby Mother Tongues are looked down upon and had a lower class standard than the English Language.

  13. 13 xinyuan 9 June 2010 at 23:02

    consider also the fact that Low would be much more eloquent in Mandarin than English,

    I see a veiled personal attack against Low’s use of Chinese. If he’s playing race politics because he uses Chinese, then the entire people who speak English are equally in thrall of a neocolonial mindset and worship Queen Liz. Granted, it’s a really imperfect analogy, but I hope my point carries across.

    “Low knows very well that “mother-tongue” (read: Chinese language fluency and acculturisation)” unfair statement imo.

  14. 14 SGC 15 May 2012 at 12:10

    “…widening faultlines, by stoking communal grievances…” Are you sure the PAP is not guilty of this itself? With the way it closed down Chinese schools, promoted English at the expense of other languages, and today make the minorities feel “uneasy” with their Chinese promotion and Mandarin promotion campaigns – itself a result of its anti-Chinese policies of the past?

    There is a better way to go about with politics, and it is definitely not the PAP way.

    WP is helping a long-disillusioned community speak up, and it is doing the right thing. It is a rightful attack on the PAP for its failures and inadequacies, past and present. Instead of “misunderstanding” the WP, we should give support.

    I agree Low might have been too harsh on pressing for “permanent” non-review of Mother Tongue policies, ie. weightage in PSLE. But this is in response to a very unpopular move by the MOE. And more importantly, this should not be linked with racial politics! That is the PAP’s way of silencing reasonable, rightful discourse on Mother Tongue language learning. Why are we falling into the trap?

    Quite to the contrary to your accusation of Low as seemingly “Chinese chauvinist” as readers here have pointed out, I heard Ng Eng Hen is the “anti-Chinese chauvinist” himself. Maybe that explains why the “review” had been done – yes – in his term of office as Education Minister.


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