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.