Yawning Bread. 25 September 2009

Today's kindergarten, tomorrow's world




I walk past a PCF kindergarten to get to the 7-Eleven near my home. The last few weeks, I've done that more often than usual because I was at home a lot, fixing my flat. Something struck me. The kids are now dealt with as a single batch by an English-speaking teacher. All races were represented in the batch.

Previously, this kindergarten had different playrooms catering to different language groups. There'd be one with a Tamil-speaking teacher hovering over an exclusively Tamil group of boys and girls, another with a Chinese-speaking teacher with only Chinese kids, and a third with a Malay-speaking teacher.

When and why the changes were made, I don't know. But it was about time, I thought.

As far as the kindergarten language goes, it should not be a political issue. Children need to be in an environment that is linguistically comfortable for them. However, I have long wondered whether (in the past) we have in fact made it a political issue by setting up language-segregated classes. We may have operated on the assumption that the CMIO model applies. This refers to the notion that Singaporeans can be neatly divided into Chinese, Malays, Indians and "Others", each group speaking respectively their "mother tongue": Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English. On this assumption, we pigeonhole our children into classes segregated by race.

Yet, there has been increasing evidence that Singapore families do not fall into such a pattern at all. The continued use of the CMIO paradigm in fact does a disservice to our kids, putting many of them in linguistically alien environments, using them as political footballs.

It might even be a moot question whether racial segregation at such an early age has long-term social effects.

Ng Eng Hen, the Education Minister, last week presented this slide at his ministry's Work Plan Seminar 2009:

It shows that in 2008, of six and seven-year-olds from Chinese and Indian families entering the formal school system, 60 percent came from predominantly English-speaking homes. Of Malay children, about 35 percent.

The kindergarten's move away from Chinese/Malay/Tamil classes appears to be the right response to reality.

* * * * *

I am sure that readers, looking at the above graph, would have wondered, as I did, what is meant by "English-speaking". Would it be more accurate to say "Singlish-speaking"? The fact is, the standard of English in Singapore is embarrassing, especially when more than half our population would have gone through 10 12 years of schooling with English as the language of instruction.

Minister Ng seemed aware that there is huge task in front of us. In his speech, he said,

... teachers tell me the standard of English can be improved and attention must be paid not only to reading and writing, but speaking as well. In fact, the majority of our students are strong in reading literacy, as measured by PIRLS. But language instruction should also lead to better communication skills. While most teachers are proud of our standards in say Maths and Science, we are less enamored of our standard of English. This is a sensitive subject and I raise it not to demoralize teachers and students, but to signal that we should begin concerted efforts to raise the standard of English. 

Let me be clear. We are not setting the goal to produce in all our students world class debaters or winners in elocution competitions. But we do want the majority of our students to be able to speak proper English, express themselves clearly and be understood.

I am glad that he acknowledges that too many Singaporeans, the output of our education system, do not speak proper English and cannot express themselves clearly.

He pre-ambled the above by saying the world is changing and with increasingly globally-connected economies and the rise of China and India, English and Chinese are becoming critically important.

... more school systems elsewhere are opting to teach their students a foreign language in response to the rise of China and India and a more globalised world. Some schools in Finland and US have chosen Mandarin as their foreign language and it is no longer an unusual sight to see classes of non-Chinese reciting Mandarin nursery rhymes. In my last visit to PRC a few months ago, they told me that more Koreans and Japanese have enrolled their children into schools in China, because they see a growing market and importance there.

At the same time, growing numbers of Asians from India to China, from Korea to Indonesia, are learning English so as to plug into the globalised world. Now more than ever, the strategic advantage of our bilingual policy to Singapore and Singaporeans has become apparent.

I therefore found it rather odd that following this diagnosis, his prescription was this:

We want to maintain our bilingual policy but how should we adapt it, so that it continues to be relevant and effective? I believe we can achieve an acceptable standard of English and also help our students gain proficiency in their MTL.

"MTL" means "mother-tongue language", which in our school system, means Mandarin-Chinese for racially-Chinese students, Malay for racially-Malay students and Tamil for most racially-Indian students.

There was a switch. He spoke about the imperative of acquiring Chinese to engage with a rising China, with mention of a rising India, but he not say what language would be needed (might it be Hindi?), and then said our response should be to teach mother tongue better. The fit between "mother tongue" and Chinese is only true for racially-Chinese students. For Malay and Tamil students, there is no fit between his diagnosis and his cure. He fell back on the politically convenient CMIO answer, even if it was a poor response to a changing world.

* * * * *

I know that what I am implying will get me flak, because it's happened before. Any suggestion that Indian and Malay Singaporeans should have the option of learning Chinese is seen as a racist attack (by me) on them. This accusation of me being a racist is further confirmed, in my accusers' minds, when I suggest the possibility that in the distant future, Singapore may well be a predominantly Chinese-speaking place.

It's rather strange, though, how my frequent calls for a better standard of English doesn't get me labelled as a racist. Oh, that must be because I am not Anglo-Saxon by descent. So, as a Chinese, I can call for better and wider use of English, but cannot argue for wider use of Chinese? Doesn't it make whoever imposes such a rule more a racist than I am? After all, isn't he the one who is confining my speech and thoughts on the basis of the colour of my skin?

Ng Eng Hen spoke of children from Korea to Finland learning Chinese. Yet it still seems politically taboo to talk about non-Chinese Singaporeans learning Chinese.

The CMIO model has done enormous damage to Singapore. Yes, it was a product of our socio-political history, but it was politics that deliberately kept it alive and widely-applied far longer than needed. Like in the kindergartens. The result is that we continue to be a race-conscious society, and we continue to conflate language with race in a hard and fast way. Sure, language is associated with race, but the association should be descriptive and socio-historical. Instead, in Singapore we treat it as prescriptive and obligatory. And it holds us back. We have learned to use race to resist the erasure of boundaries.

This seems really silly to me: To anticipate career and economic opportunities for future generations able to speak Chinese in addition to English, and then do nothing to prepare non-Chinese Singaporeans for that future, simply on the ground of their skin colour. I would say that neglect is racist. My call for letting them opt for Chinese is in fact the non-racist thing to do. Giving people equal opportunities regardless of race surely cannot be the wrong move?

Note the word I use: "opt". I am saying: Open the door for them. I am not saying: Force them to learn Chinese. Open the door and let market and social forces dictate.

And what about the prospect of Singapore becoming a predominantly Chinese-speaking place? First, let me say that prospect depends a lot on how the world unfolds in the decades to come; it is hardly guaranteed. On the other hand, it is not really within our control, either. As a small city, we will be impacted by forces greater than us if we want to remain engaged with the world.

It is one of the possible scenarios for Singapore. My guess is that it is not a remote scenario, but people may disagree and some of those who instinctively think it is remote take the view that my mentioning it alone is to wish it to come true -- that it shouldn't happen, but I am some kind of provocateur trying to make it happen. Ha! If only I had such power.

I mention the scenario because I think we need to get real and, as a society, address the "what if" of it. What if that happens and the world or region around us changes into a predominantly Chinese-speaking one?

It is precisely those who cling to race who feel threatened by that prospect, because to them race is closely identified with what words and sounds are permitted to issue out of their mouth.

On the contrary. We should view the prospect of a predominantly Chinese-speaking world with equanimity. It is just a language. Just as we Singaporeans of all races have moved together into a predominantly English-speaking world (witness the graph above, again), so another generation of Singaporeans, of all races -- and mixed races -- should be able to move into a Chinese-speaking world.

Better that way than one in which the racially-Chinese Singaporean moves ahead and is able to integrate with that world, and the non-Chinese Singaporean is left behind. For that would be the surest way of fracturing our society.

Yawning Bread 


Yawning Bread will be at a forum on Inequality to be held at Sinema Old School on Saturday, 26 September 2009.

The short forum will follow the screening of the Oscar-winning film Crash, starting at 7:30 pm that evening.

For more information, check out these links:

Sinema Old School's Social Action Festival

Sinema Old School's Latest News

Programme: Crash, including ticket information.

Advice: Go VERY early. Buying tickets at the counter is a painfully slow process.