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Friday, May 14, 2010

Mother Tongue Faux Pas? Not At All!!

Petunia has a soft spot for the underdog. Petunia also hates to see people being unfairly accused. And all I can say is poor Dr Ng Eng hen. It's quite saddening to see people on the internet accuse him of making a policy U-turn on the Mother Tongue issue. There can't be a U-turn because there never was a policy change to begin with.

It is not a bad thing for our Ministers to throw up possible ideas for discussion with the populace. It is an even better thing that after hearing from the populace, our government listens and uses the feedback to strengthen policy.

In the past, our government always knew best. In the past, our government thought through every policy and when people gave feedback, it defended policy aggressively, and most times, successfully too. To be fair, many of the policies thus implemented worked very well, bringing Singapore to where it is today. No one can look at Singapore today and say that the PAP did a bad job. But then, people began to feel that it was an arrogant and uncompassionate government. Lately though, 2 Ministers have floated ideas before casting policy in stone. These were ideas-in-progress.

Mrs Lim Hwee Hua spoke of breaking up long bus routes into short ones. There was an uproar and an outcry and a hoo-ha. And Mrs Lim Hwee Hua's ministry noted the feedback, strengthened her ministry's idea-in-progress and the result is that not all long bus routes will go.

Dr Ng Eng Hen spoke of reducing the Mother Tongue weightage. A lot of people make him out to be a fool. I don't think so at all. I think the man merely broached a topic for discussion and then concluded the discussion after everyone had said their piece. His conclusion addressed the concerns of all parties. (1) The weightage does not change so as not to disadvantage those who are good in Mother Tongue; (2) The weightage does not change because Asia (China, India, Indonesia and Malaysia) is on the economic ascendance; (3) Teaching Mother Tongue as a Foreign Language methods will be strengthened so as to help talented pupils from English-speaking homes make the grade in Mother Tongue.

I have taught a foreign language before and I know that the strategies and philosphies are different, whether one is teaching a child who speaks the language at home... or one who does not. Once the MOE has decided to address this issue, I have no doubt that children like Little Boy and The Daughter will receive a better grounding in Chinese. This will address the concerns of parents whose children spend an inordinate amount of time on Mother Tongue. These are are exactly my concerns and I feel that Dr Ng's conclusion has addressed it.

In essence, our government started a dialogue with us and included our feedback in its decisions. LKY lead a people who were less educated. As a country, we were toddlers then. His government was autocratic. His government always knew best. Gee... I too was autocratic when my kids were toddlers - e.g,, "Little Boy! You play with those matchsticks again and I will pinch you black and blue!!"

That, in essence, was LKY. He was a leader of his time.

LHL's government leads a people who are vastly more discerning and educated. We have grown up. But not truly grown up. We are but adolescents. And for all of us who are parents of adolescents, we know that this is the age where they develop judgment, and the first people they judge are their parents. Adolescence is the time when parents are harshly judged by children... and when children fight their parents for control over their own world... Some parents hang on tight for fear that their child veer out of control.

Then there are violent struggles. Go peek in on Thailand and look at those awful photos of a General with a bullet hole in his head.

Other parents, who have spent enough time on their children in their early years, know that their kids have a good grounding in all that matters. So these parents let go. These parents initiate discussions with their teenagers, respect their views and delegate personal authority. And apart from a few spats, adolescence passes by uneventfully. Our government is doing just this and there are political adolescents who take this new "respect for the populace's views" as a sign of incompetence?

Come on... when I ask The Daughter whether the somewhat low-cut dress or the mini-skirt looks better on her, it is not because I don't know how to dress myself... or that I have no clue what she should wear. I ask because I want to respect her burgeoning sense of identity. If I have to decide for her, I can. But will she be happy?

I cannot believe that Dr Ng and the legions of intelligentsia in his Ministry did not know that Mother Tongue is a sensitive issue. He started a discussion on Mother Tongue and then concluded it. That's all. He does not look like a fool. The man is doing his job.

So, for those Singaporeans who keep on judging the PAP harshly despite having prospered under its rule... AND despite ample present evidence that it listens and includes our views, know that it is because you are as yet political teenagers. Those who are truly political adults merely discuss, conclude and move on to better things.

It isn't so much that I support the PAP for the sake of supporting it. After all, I have asked people not to vote for George Yeo before. But every citizen has a vested interest in the relative political calm and the strong performance of the Singapore government. Too often, brickbats are thrown and not enough bouquets.

So here is one big bouquet.

13 comments:

Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...

very thoughtful entry, this. i like your analogy alot. well done!

petunialee said...

Fry - Long time no see! But gee... thanks!

Blur Ting said...

You give credit where it is due. The best part is, you've analysed and summed it up so nicely for people like me who have not been following hte episode closely from day 1.

petunialee said...

Ting - Thanks for the bouquet!!

Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...

i pop by daily, though i may not always speak up but the heart is always around. like with Blur Ting's blog too. hehehe..... =)))

Miang Vincent said...

There are differing views. Some recalled how he came down very hard on an NTU professor for publishing the 'wrong' statistics when it was later found that the statistics were compiled from data provided by his ministry, earning him the disrepute of being a 'hardliner'. Many worried that his statement was a forgone conclusion. Can't fault them also.

michele said...

Sorry Petunia, but when I read your take on "mother tongue", I can't help be give out a cynical laugh.

See, I was one of of the "victims" of PAP's "mother tongue" policies. First of all, I belong to a minority group which do not count Mandarin, Malay or Tamil as a "mother tongue", but of course I had to take a 2nd language which happened to be Mandarin. My parents thought I'd have more opportunities in future.... oh, what irony in that statement!

At school, I was made to take on a chinese name even though I do not have one. For some strange reason, chinese teachers then had a huge chip on their shoulders & treated all students who were poor in the language with pure scorn. I didn't hate the subject, I simply couldn't pick it up, so for a good 11 yrs of my student life, I was picked on & humiliated in front of the class.

Because of "mother tongue", I was in the normal stream. If you think it is simply stretching 4 yrs to 5, you're so misinformed. To cut a long story short, the curriculum was so easy for the first 4 yrs, then suddenly the last year was crammed for the big Os. Which was why N level students of my time were frightened out of taking O'levels & were encouraged to move on to (then) VITB. Well, what doesn't kill me, makes me stronger.

My O-level grades were good enough to get me into any JC, except it was on "conditional terms". That's right, the damn "mother tongue" that's not my mother tongue rears its ugly head again. I couldn't stay in JC unless I pass the subject. If I had F9 for the subject for 11 years, it was unlikely I was going to pass it in the 12th. All doors to a local further education for me were shut. Fortunately, my parents were able to send me abroad & I came back with an hons degree.

Now fast forward to the present time when stupid old man Lee admitted he made a mistake in the education policy. Basically, he equated the learning of languages to a person's intelligence. That would mean people like me who simply couldn't pick up a "mother tongue" (that wasn't mine) were considered stupid & a national policy dictates that I wasn't worthy of any more education. How do you think I feel? BTW, he may have admitted he made a mistake, but he never apologised. I am one of the hundreds of lives he had ruined. I'm very grateful towards my parents who sold their shares & tightened their belts just to give me a better education, and the country that allowed me to continue my studies when my very own wouldn't. Just imagine those who didn't have the means to do what I've done, or depended on the local education system to a better life.

Well, Petunia, if you want to suck on the blue pill for the rest of you life, you go ahead, the red pill was forced into my mouth a very long time ago. First of all, the term "mother tongue" is a joke. Minorities like me don't consider any of the languages as a mother tongue. Even if you're chinese, mandarin is not a mother tongue, it is an official chinese language, a language of commerce. In the old days, it was the official court language. Mother tongue to the chinese are their dialect, something the govt is so keen in eradicating off this country like a pest. I could go on but it's enough for one comment. But I'll leave you with this to ponder: Your kids will go through this national curriculum that you so gladly agree with PAP, but how do you feel that when it comes to local tertiary education that foreign students who don't need to adhere to local education policies (mother tongue & the likes), have poor english skills, are welcomed, even given scholarships, when more deserving local students (could be your children) are denied places?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not angry with you, I simply can't believe the naivety in your writing.

petunialee said...

Michele - I am sad to hear your story. I suppose that's why it makes sense to have differentiated teaching, going forwards. In my post, I do not defend past policy. I defend the policy going fowards.

Going forward, people like you would benefit from being taught Chinese as a foreign language... and that was not done in the past.It was a terrible flaw in the system, I think.

I say so, because like you, I was caught in the system after spending the better part of my childhood outside the country. I couldn't cope with Chinese either. French is my Mother Tongue and I am not French.

Except that I learnt French as it was taught as foreign language. And I am quite happy to be bilingual French-English.

I think we mustn't throw out the baby with the bath water. Bilingualism should stay but refinements wrought to it with provisions for people like you and my children.

My children have a tough time with Chinese because I am illiterate in Chinese. Nonetheless, I did find some strategies I could use as a non-Chinese speaker to help my children learn.

The story you tell is less frequent than another sad story that one hears far more often. That of the Chinese speaking child who needs to master every subject in English. These people hurt too and there are far greater numbers of them.

I am not that naive that I don't see the pain. I just think that the pain is worth the reward at the end. I suppose people would say that I am unfeeling or unempathetic...

but our pain does not change the fact that bilingualism in the past has prevented bloody racial riots (or the Chinese masses would have revolted) and in the present has allowed Singapore a direct route into China, India and the region.

Despite knowing that there are stories of pain (and also experiencing my own story of pain), I am glad my children have an opportunity to learn Chinese.

But of course, my story is far less sad than yours is. And to prevent further painful stories such as yours, differentiated teaching will help.

I look forwards to that because it will help my children.

michele said...

Hi Petunia, I'm all for learning a 2nd language, I believe it is useful. My daughter who is now in kindergarten enjoys mandarin which is a good thing. I believe it's the method of teaching the language that makes a difference. It was explained to me that when NANTA was shut, the graduates there played 2nd fiddle to NUS; they had limited jobs & didn't get paid as well as the english-speaking grads. A lot of them became 2nd lang teachers to survive. You can see why there is an outpouring of scorn on students poor in the language - they believed that it is so because those students looked down on the language.

I empathise both chinese & english-speaking students who are bright but unable to secure a 2nd language grade good enough for higher education, which was why I brought up the subject of foreign students who don't need 2 languages or despite having poor english, securing tertiary places, leaving out such local students.

Yes, I'm cynical and unfortunately, I don't see the future for locals as optimistic as you. We have 4 official languages - english, mandarin, malay, tamil. The govt doesn't allow any chinese dialect tv or radio channels, or dialects to be spoken on air. Discourage dialect-speaking. Yet because of the influx of indian nationals, there is now hindi channels & even hindi language at schools. Hindi isn't one of our national languages yet it's allowed in both entertainment & education. Chinese dialects (which are also languages btw) on the other hand, which are the mother tongue of almost all local chinese, the gateway to the customs, culture, heritage, history of local chinese, are banned. What irony.

After what i've been through and what I see around me, it is difficult to put my faith in the local education system. I work in a place that is close to the local universities, I have friends in them and from the info I've gathered, our Us are more a service industry, marketing themselves regionally as premier learning centres (marketing themselves internationally was a failure judging from the entertainment factor their ad had brought them).

I wouldn't want my children to be entangled in the politics of local education, or hope it'll improve for them. Whether they do well in 2nd lang or not, I'll be sending them abroad to further their studies. I don't want to depend on the govt for both mine and my children's future, neither do I owe them anything.

petunialee said...

Michele - Thanks for commenting and commenting in measured tones too! I appreciate that you took the time. And this IS a most interesting discussion, even though we seem to disagree on some points.

There are dialects everywhere and always a single main language to unify a people. There are plenty of French dialects but only French is taught in school. I think it is reasonable to have one main language that is taught in schools. In our specific circumstamces, we have 4... more than what many countries do for their people, no?

I too don't want The Daughter to go to a local uni... Some unsavoury things ARE taking place in the shadows of our universities... and they seem to escape the oversight of anyone.

This said, up until JC, I do think that my kids are benefitting. It does require a fair amount of time investment on my part though... I think the system favours those with ample home support whether it be money or else. Ceteris paribus, if a child has no home support, he or she is unlikely to do well. Education used to bring parity.

It no longer does.

Unfortunately, those who perform poorly in the system are usually from families too poor to educate their children elsewhere.

The poor get poorer. There are things to be done about it... but the government has to recognise it as a problem first.

michele said...

Yes, mandarin will unify the chinese-speaking community, but there is no need to eradicate the chinese dialects as that would lose the essence of each local chinese family's customs. (eg) My husband is cantonese & he tells me the cantonese are very good at insulting without sounding insulting. This is all lost if translated into mandarin. i've watched a food programme on teochew food recently; the programme is in mandarin. The food had some stories & history that are significant to the teowchews, but mandarin does not have such a culture. A teochew song was featured, where the sentences rhyme & are meaningful. All lost when translated to mandarin. What i'm saying is, the govt should stop calling mandarin "mother tongue" simply because it is not. It is an official language, language of commerce, official chinese language, etc, but not "mother tongue". Dialects are considered mother tongue.

BTW, did you know our national language is malay, but strangely it is not important to learn it? Heard of any country where it is not compulsory to learn the national language? Somehow, it runs parallel to the mentality of the govt & it's people - that the emphasis of race is more important than being one as a nation. I can understand why with the infux of foreigners, that Singaporeans cannot show a unified national culture, hence seems lacking of one.

I believe you have not commented on hindi being accepted in Singapore when tamil is the official indian language here, whereas the local chinese cannot have programmes in various dialects. But it's ok, It's to show the double standards we have here.

I have more stories regarding education but i think I'll save it for personal meetups & such!

michele said...

Yes, mandarin will unify the chinese-speaking community, but there is no need to eradicate the chinese dialects as that would lose the essence of each local chinese family's customs. (eg) My husband is cantonese & he tells me the cantonese are very good at insulting without sounding insulting. This is all lost if translated into mandarin. i've watched a food programme on teochew food recently; the programme is in mandarin. The food had some stories & history that are significant to the teowchews, but mandarin does not have such a culture. A teochew song was featured, where the sentences rhyme & are meaningful. All lost when translated to mandarin. What i'm saying is, the govt should stop calling mandarin "mother tongue" simply because it is not. It is an official language, language of commerce, official chinese language, etc, but not "mother tongue". Dialects are considered mother tongue.

BTW, did you know our national language is malay, but strangely it is not important to learn it? Heard of any country where it is not compulsory to learn the national language? Somehow, it runs parallel to the mentality of the govt & it's people - that the emphasis of race is more important than being one as a nation. I can understand why with the infux of foreigners, that Singaporeans cannot show a unified national culture, hence seems lacking of one.

I believe you have not commented on hindi being accepted in Singapore when tamil is the official indian language here, whereas the local chinese cannot have programmes in various dialects. But it's ok, It's to show the double standards we have here.

I have more stories regarding education but i think I'll save it for personal meetups & such!

petunialee said...

Michele - I did have comments about hindi and tamil but I decided not to write them because that would bring the discussion over to the issue of making foreign talent feel at home... about the influx of foreign talent etc...

Whilst I have some thoughts on that, it is not a topic I particularly care about and so I didn't wish to develop the discussion in that direction.

It takes effort to formulate thoughts and logical argumentation (and especially in an online blog like this, I hate to appear like I wrote anything carelessly so I do try to write well and cogently). Since I am a lazy gal... unless I feel strongly about something, I keep my thoughts to me, you see.

But yes, we can discuss when we next meet up.