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.

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About harishpillay

father, husband, son, hacker, friend, human
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