April 1999

Creating a Chinese elite




It's been fun watching the government try to get its foot out of its mouth. By itself, the "Chinese Elite" episode looks like a bit of comedy at the government's expense -- something which, believe me, huge numbers of Singaporeans enjoy -- but my take on it is that it is one more proxy battle in the long-running contest between the English-speaking and the Chinese-speaking citizens, except that in this case, the government bet the wrong way, and is squirming as a result.

Our official statistics present Singapore's racial composition as Chinese 77.2%, Malay 14.1%, Indian 7.4% and Others 1.3% [1998 Singapore Yearbook]. This is just the colour of the skin. It says little about cultural and linguistic affinities. It conceals the great faultline of Singapore society, the divide that splits the majority Chinese community down the middle between the English-speaking and the Chinese-speaking [1]. The struggle for ascendancy between these two sides has been the underlying tension in Singapore society for over forty years.

The linguistic background

Up till about 50 or 60 years ago, each racial community in Singapore spoke its own language, and had its own schools teaching, naturally, in its respective language. The Christian missionaries and the colonial government had a few English-language schools. From these schools came the local elite of the colonial era.

Through much of the 1950's and 1960's, anti-colonial politics had a very strong Chinese flavour, they having the numbers and the fervour to push their agenda. The newly-independent government, made up of many English-speaking ministers, learnt very quickly that they could not ignore the strength of the Chinese-speaking. If the latter were to feel too marginalised, they might become very shrill. This would provoke the other minorities, and next thing we knew, we might have racial riots on our hands. With this danger ever present, the habit of taking pains to accommodate them was ingrained, a habit we can still see today.

However, to enable some social cohesion, the government first made it compulsory for all students in Chinese, Malay and Indian-language schools to take English as a second language. It was felt that being neutral to all races, English would be an acceptable intermediating language.

It has turned out to be more than that. Over the decades, enrollment in English schools grew rapidly, at the expense of the Chinese, Malay or Indian-language schools, and gradually more and more Singaporeans became English-speaking. Language and culture are inextricably linked. Those coming out of English schools had a different worldview from those coming out of Chinese schools. The faultline opened. The rival symbols of the two camps were the universities. One taught in English, the other, Nanyang University, taught in Chinese.

By the late seventies, enrollment in non-English schools had fallen so much that it was neither economic, nor sensible for the children's future, to continue teaching in the local languages. The government took a deep breath, and made English the medium of instruction in all schools. Soon after, without the feed of new students from Chinese schools, Nanyang University was euthanasiaed. The ensuing storm of protest was deafening. The government was accused of murdering Chinese language and culture in Singapore.

Steps had to be taken to mollify them. Promises were made to maintain the teaching of Chinese in the English schools. The hours set aside to teach Chinese as a second language were increased. In some schools, termed 'SAP schools', Chinese was to be taught as an equal first language alongside English, so as to preserve a Chinese tradition. Admission to the remaining English-language university was contingent upon a pass in the second language (i.e. Chinese language, in the case of racially Chinese students), to make sure everybody took Chinese seriously.

Around the same time, the government, for some reason, began to worry about the increasing westernisation of the younger generation of Singaporeans. It should hardly have surprised anyone; it was the natural outcome as a generation grew up educated in the English language. But the old fogies in the Singapore government saw the drug menace in the West, long hair, anti-government and civil rights marches, and nudity on Broadway, as the end of civilisation, and felt that younger Singaporeans had to be inoculated against such tendencies.

Going back to Asian roots was a good idea after all. Stress Chinese culture to prevent too much westernisation among our kids. Perhaps it was a coincidence, perhaps not, but the Chinese language syllabus was revised in the late eighties to set higher standards.

That was ten years ago.

January 1999

In January 1999, the issue opened up again. Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Parliament that the way Chinese was taught in schools had to be revised. He revealed that the last ten years had been misery to many parents and schoolchildren, particularly those from English-speaking families. The standard for Chinese was just too high. Parents had been paying thousands of dollars for private tuition, kids had been spending hundreds of extra hours each year trying to cope. Many still failed, and were denied admission to university, however good they were in other subjects. It was a loss of talent Singapore could not afford.

He revealed that conditions had changed dramatically between the late eighties and the late nineties. Ten years earlier, only 10% of Chinese schoolchildren in Primary 1 (the first grade of school, roughly 6 to 7 years old) came from English-speaking homes. Now, 40% of them do. Chinese was a foreign language to them; the teaching of it and the standards expected of it, had to reflect reality.

He announced that the required standard of Chinese-as-second-language would be relaxed and brought back in line with the early eighties. In addition, a new less-demanding "B" syllabus would be introduced to cater to those who were unable to keep pace even with the relaxed normal syllabus.

Many of us could see that this was his main message. It had become a huge political liability for the government to insist on the old syllabus and the old, near-impossible standards. Many of the parents agonising over their children's future because they failed in Chinese were very much part of the establishment; the civil service had long been a more English-speaking place than most.

Evidently in fear of another fierce backlash from the Chinese-speaking community, for diluting standards and murdering their language and culture again, the government provided a sweetener. In fact they made sure that the sweetener would steal the headlines. The government would expand enrollment in SAP schools, allowing more students to take Chinese as an equal first language to English. To give the plan a catchy handle, the government said they were going to create a 'Chinese Elite' for the future.

I will come to the 'Chinese Elite' bit in a while, but it needs pointing out that it was not the Education Minister Teo Chee Hean who made the announcement in Parliament, but the Deputy Prime Minister. To me, it was another indication how nervous they were about a backlash. Teo Chee Hean is typical of the English-speaking group; his grasp of Chinese is poor, and he would be a very convenient target for the Chinese-speaking should they wish to demonise the government's new policy. Lee Hsien Loong, coming from a Chinese-medium school himself, was a more palatable choice for announcing and defending the changes.

The Chinese-speaking front

I suspect that the government was so focussed on the possible backlash from the Chinese-speaking community, that it spent almost all its preparation time constructing a public relations strategy for that front.

To sell its new policy, it spoke about its intention to ensure that there would always be a small critical mass of Chinese Singaporeans immersed in Chinese culture, and who would be fluent in the language. It played to the sentiment of the Chinese-speaking section by talking about preserving Chinese culture in Singapore. It pushed forward the economic justification, saying Singapore needed a section of our population able to understand and engage with China, as that country looms ever larger on the horizon, a thought that would surely warm their hearts. This future knot of Chinese Singaporeans, cultivated to be as Chinese as realistically possible, was to be called the 'Chinese Elite'.

From the point of view of addressing the Chinese-speaking, it was a quite a good term. The way the Chinese see their culture, they are quite elitist. They see nothing wrong with being elitist. They believe that culture is necessarily led and refined by a class of intellectuals.

Despite all that PR, there was still much discontentment about the proposed changes in the Chinese curriculum. Most of the Chinese speaking felt that the main reason why the kids found the old syllabus hard-going was simply a lack of motivation. The government tried to explain that motivation can only take one so far. If something is impossible, it is impossible. I wonder how many accepted the government's explanation, for I believe the 'lack of motivation' complaint masked a deeper issue.

The deeper issue, now as in battles past, was about the government's abandonment of the Chinese-speaking's ideals. To put it bluntly, those ideals are of a Chinese community in Singapore remaining virtually as Chinese as the people of Taiwan, Hong Kong or China. Furthermore, the dream is not for a small 'Elite' subcommunity, but for all Chinese Singaporeans to remain Chinese. Hence the issue is really not one of educational standards or language capability, but the slow throttling of their culture in Singapore, and everything that is dear to them. It is extremely emotive.

The government knew the Chinese Dream well and were ready to deal with the flak from that quarter. What took them by surprise was the bombardment from the English-speaking side.

The English-speaking front

By this point in Singapore's history, the year 1999, the English-speaking side is no longer all Chinese. Many Malays and Indians have also become English-speaking, sharing many similarities in outlook. Together, their numbers have increased considerably, and with passing year, more are added to their ranks.

This new majority flexed their muscles and took issue with two things: the notion of a 'Chinese Elite' and the SAP schools.

Straight away one can see the cultural chasm. To the English-speaking, the word 'Elite' has a, well, very elitist ring. It reeks of social class, snobbery, privilege and undemocratic power. Add to that the word 'Chinese', and there is the stink of a new class of masters defined by race or language.

Faced with the furore, one cabinet minister after another, including Mr Lee Kuan Yew, had to explain that creating a new power elite from a future generation of Chinese-speaking was not the intention. More words were brought in. "Intellectuals", "cultural elite", and so on, to reduce the concept to something a little more innocuous. It was a rare sight, to see our cabinet scramble so ignominiously.

The SAP schools issue could not be so easily managed. By their very nature, i.e. teaching Chinese and English equally at first-language levels (though all other subjects like Mathematics or Chemistry are taught in English), SAP schools tend to be single-race schools. The complaint was that these schools did not create an environment for children to be sensitive to other races and cultures. Letters and feature articles asserting that this was not so were highlighted by the press to rebut the accusation, but I don't know if anyone is convinced.

The new balance in Singapore society

I think, in a way, this episode revealed that the weight in Singapore society has shifted decisively to the English-speaking side. It had to come sooner or later, as the Chinese-speaking section grew older, and more of the English-speaking moved into their thirties and forties. The government however, as the saying goes, were like generals preparing for the last war. They readied themselves for massive criticism by the Chinese-speaking side, but failed to foresee the attacks from the English-speaking side.

The funny thing is, in essence, the change in language policy was meant to favour the English-speaking side, and yet they were up in arms. Why?

At its core, it was a question of values. Take the question of multiracialism and nonracialism. This debate has been rumbling for years now, in various guises. Generally, the Chinese-speaking side is for multiracialism, by which they mean separate communities developing within their own cultures, but interacting with each other harmoniously and on equal terms. The English-speaking side tends to think in terms of nonracialism, meaning the ideal of a colour-blind society with a shared Singaporean culture, rather than one preserving discrete Chinese, Malay or Indian cultures.

The concept of a 'Chinese Elite' and racially-segregated SAP schools are antithetical to the nonracial idea. The English-speaking side, not surprisingly, expressed opposition to both those concepts. They saw the government as pandering to the chauvinists. Perhaps the English-speaking were also emboldened by the fact that at last, the government heard their 10 years' of complaints about the old Chinese language policy, and relaxed the syllabus.

But it isn't over until it's over. There will be plenty more of such debates in Singapore society, as we wrestle with the question of what being Singaporean means.

Yawning Bread 



  1. Throughout this essay I use the terms 'English-speaking' and 'Chinese-speaking' to represent two poles of a spectrum. It's a spectrum more of culture and worldview than of language use, although they are inextricably related. Many Chinese Singaporeans today are bilingual. Many do not have strong views about culture and they are often called the 'apathetic middle'. Others, while bilingual, identify with one pole of opinion or the other.
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