Yawning Bread. 11 May 2010

Mother-tongue policy undermines education and our future

by Jonno





Mother-tongue issues mask the real socio-political objective of divide-and-rule in Singapore. Despite the so-called racial harmony objectives, the adherence to mother-tongue policy is just an obstacle to the real issue of providing education! Proper education equates to higher economic performance. The higher institutions of learning are invariably located in developed countries with high GDP incomes. Singapore and Hong Kong are exceptions to the rule as their high GDP incomes are masked by high external investments as well as outputs from govt linked companies (as in Singaporeís case).

The real purpose of education is to provide the mechanisms for a thinking mind, broad communication and language skills and an expansive outlook (broadmindedness)! So far, education in Singapore is all about overcoming the hurdles in mother-tongue, primary streaming, PSLE, Independent or gifted, GCE ĎOí & ĎNí levels, HSC ĎAí levels & so on. Only in Singapore, education is more about achieving objectives rather than learning. This is a worrying trend.

The Mother-tongue policy has. clouded the education process by appealing to the chauvinistic, the emotional and the discriminatory. Why? To the majority, whatís the purpose of learning Mandarin? The early majority are overseas Chinese migrants whose main language were diverse dialects ie. Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese, etc. Mandarin or Chinese was not widely spoken then! Only those with chauvinistic ties to the motherland ie. China harped on learning Mandarin. The more pragmatic ones simply learned English and got better paid as a result during those times. During that era, English took centre stage over mother-tongue languages especially Chinese.

The shift towards a mother-tongue policy occurred as the English-speakers began to agitate for more democracy and reforms. How better to alienate them in one brush stroke than to make mother-tongue mandatory? In silent and inconsequential exile, assertive minorities like Eurasians, Anglicized Indians and Chinese began a slow migration out of Singapore. Of course, the majority stood with the govt on this issue as they had everything to gain, and it showered the ruling party with electoral favours with 60-70% of the votes in the heartlands.

To say that learning Chinese would help local businessman do well in business in China is bull-shit! US & European businessmen have been doing business in China without any knowledge of Chinese and they are doing very well! Language skills are important but they should not be restricted to mother-tongue Ė itís backward and restrictive! It also creates narrow-mindedness!

Having watched the mother-tongue policy for over 2 decades, Iím beginning to see worrying issues: Singlish as opposed to proper English; 'Us' versus 'Themí attitude i.e. a clannish behaviour overseas; either an inability to express or a loud aggressive behaviour to perceived wrongs; timid and inward-looking, etc.

Singlish was the half-baked end result of the mother-tongue policy. Over the years, the standard of English in Sípore has been declining. TV Shows like Phua Chu Kang only parodies the underlying language problems in Sípore. For a Síporean who thinks he speaks good English, he would be barely understood in our neighbouring Australia. Theyíre in for a rude awakening!

Because they are unable to communicate in proper English overseas, most overseas Síporean students studying in US, UK, Canada, Australia and NZ tend to congregate together like same bird species. They find comfort in their own type as only they can understand one another. Because of this poor ability in communication skills, both orally and written Ė Síporeans tend to be Ďorder-takersí than Ďorder-giversí due to lack of confidence and inability to express oneself! Technically, Síporeans are very proficient due to their academic inclination but other than that, they are totally deficient!

The ugly Síporean persona results from this Ďlackí of self-confidence. It manifest through rudeness and bad behaviour. Because of this inability to communicate well, the ugly Síporean lashes out whenever he or she perceives a lack of respect or some injustice done to them.

The lack of communication skills and English language proficiency were not so bad during the Manufacturing and Commerce era (circa 1980s Ė 2000s). They were masked by the technical proficiency of the Síporean workers who were diligent in upgrading their technical skills. However, as manufacturing and outsourcing migrated to PRC/India in 2000 onwards Ė there were mass structural unemployment. The avenues left the unemployed were security guards, taxi drivers, insurance agents, etc. The Internet era (2004 post-dot-com onwards) seemed to have bypass Sípore as the communication and language skills deemed paramount in this area were not evident in this region. It was no coincidence that PM Lee went gung-ho for the casino cum integrated resorts option Ė there were none left on the table!

Whatever they do, this mother-tongue policy should be replaced by a more pragmatic language policy. If not, it will be a slow death for Sípore and Síporeans alike.  


Foreword by Yawning Bread

This was originally submitted as a comment to an earlier article Mother-tongue conservatives raise existential fears. However, because it offered a number of forcefully argued viewpoints and fresh perspectives, it justified standing by itself. Thus, I have converted it into a guest article, so that it can have its own comments trail, addressing the new angles he has raised.