Singapore Government Press Release
Media Relations Division, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts,
MITA Building, 140 Hill Street, 2nd Storey, Singapore 179369
Tel: 6837-9666




Staff, Alumni and Students

Friends and Fellow Singaporeans

My wife and I are honoured to join you this evening to commemorate The Chinese High School�s 85th Anniversary and Hwa Chong Junior College�s 30th Anniversary.

First, let me congratulate both schools for their outstanding achievements.

Over the years, The Chinese High School and Hwa Chong Junior College have nurtured and prepared their students well for the future. You have given them a well-rounded education and groomed them into responsible citizens.

The schools� achievements are due to their principals and teachers and, in no small measure, the strong support of their alumni. You, the alumni, have contributed your time, services and money. Your bond with your alma mater has made it stronger, and will benefit many successive generations.

Mother Tongue Language Policy

Recent Public Debate

In January, the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced refinements to the Mother Tongue Language policy. These refinements include offering Chinese Language Syllabus B (CL B) from Secondary 1 and relaxation of the Higher Mother Tongue Language eligibility criteria.

The changes to CL B sparked off a public debate. Letters from the public and newspaper commentaries appeared almost daily.

After the University Admission Committee announced that the mother tongue grade need not be counted in the university admission score, there was another round of letters and commentaries in our newspapers.

As the learning of the mother tongue is a vital issue, this evening, I want to speak on this, and why it is important for Chinese students to study and do well in their mother tongue.

On the CL B issue, the views in English and Chinese newspapers were, to be expected, divided. The Straits Times carried views sympathetic to those facing difficulties learning Mandarin. They supported the Ministry�s move to provide greater flexibility and felt that CL B would motivate students to learn the language at their own pace.

Some Zaobao readers also supported MOE�s move and felt that CL B was useful for students with learning problems. But others expressed concerns whether CL B would be a "soft option" and lead to the further decline of Chinese language standards. They lamented the lack of a conducive environment for Chinese language learning in our schools.

The position of both the English and Chinese media hardened over time. For example, one commentary in The Straits Times, under the banner "Don�t Impose Mother Tongue as 2nd Language", described the changes as "the crumbling of the hardline stance of the mother tongue policy" (Laurel Teo, The Straits Times, 6 March 2004, page 30). The writer questioned the need for students to learn their mother tongue and suggested that the Government should keep its bilingual policy but need not dictate mother tongue as the second language.

Zaobao commentaries responded strongly and urged the Government not to "give in" further. They took issue with the English press for overplaying the difficulty of learning Mandarin and questioning the need to learn it. Some Chinese writers felt the English media was trying to undermine the position of Chinese language in Singapore.

But ironically, at one point, both the English and Chinese media seemed to agree with each other. Both advocated that the Government should abolish its mother-tongue policy and leave the choice to parents and students.

A writer to TODAY (Cheng Shoong Tat, "Open Up Chinese B Syllabus", TODAY, 5 February 2004, page 3) argued that Mandarin should be made optional so that the language "will cease to become an increasingly politicised issue�The majority of Chinese Singaporeans will be in a better position to make rational choices..." The writer concluded that the rational choice is clear, given the growing importance of China.

Zaobao translated and published this letter. A few days later, a Zaobao commentator, under the headline "Allow the Goats to Graze Freely", took the same line of argument (Chua Chim Kang,"放羊吃草" Zaobao, 8 February 2004, page 30). He said that the development of the Chinese language had long been "kidnapped by a vocal minority". He argued that for the future of the language, the Government should "delink the learning of Mandarin from politics" and those who hated learning the language should be allowed to drop it.

Earlier this week, there was a lively discussion in Parliament on the mother tongue issue when MOE�s budget was debated. Some Members of Parliament, mainly Chinese-educated, expressed concerns that the Government was de-emphasizing Mandarin and wondered about the future of the Chinese language in Singapore. Others, mainly English-educated, spoke in support of MOE. Many called for more innovative methods of teaching Mandarin.

No Change In Government Policy

I understand the concerns and sentiments expressed by members of the public and the MPs.

Let me reiterate that despite the recent changes made by MOE, the Government has not changed its longstanding bilingual policy or shifted its position on the mother tongue. Bilingualism and learning the mother tongue will remain the cornerstone of our education policy.

English is not our native language nor are English culture and customs, our culture and customs. But for practical reasons, and because we are a multi-racial society, Singaporeans accept English as our working language. To ensure that Singaporeans remain grounded in our ancestral Asian culture and values, we require our young to study their mother tongues in schools, be they Mandarin, Malay or Tamil.

Our policy is to encourage every Singaporean to study his or her mother tongue in school for as long as possible and to as high a level as he or she is capable of achieving.

Over the past 40 years, English has become the dominant language in our society through the choice of pragmatic parents. It is the language of administration, commerce and technology. Parents have chosen to send their children to English language schools for their children�s future prospects. Mandarin has been losing out to English.

But those who have suggested that CL B was introduced to satisfy the demands of a small group of English-speaking Singaporeans are wrong. What we have is a real learning problem. And we want to try and help those with this learning problem to at least have some proficiency in Chinese. We are looking for a practical solution.

Data from MOE show that the number of Primary One Chinese students who speak English more frequently than any other language at home has risen from 10% in 1980 to 50% in 2004. This is a rapid increase in just one generation, and the trend will continue. The change in the home language environment has made the learning of the Chinese Language even more challenging. To some of our students who lack the exposure, Mandarin is as good as a foreign language. This is our basic difficulty. We cannot make them master Mandarin by simply forcing them.

Students have different abilities and talents. There are many subjects to learn in school. Our students now spend a disproportionate amount of their time learning Mandarin, at the expense of other subjects and their overall academic performance.

A 1999 survey commissioned by the MOE found that Primary 5 students who were weak in Chinese spent almost twice as much time studying Chinese than Maths and English. A balance should be maintained so that our students can continue to receive a well-rounded education.

MOE now has almost 40 years of experience with our bilingual policy. The evidence is conclusive that we cannot put all students through the same Mandarin syllabus and pace, and expect them to acquire the same proficiency. MOE�s overall strategy is, therefore, to tailor Chinese language learning according to our students� diverse home language backgrounds and learning abilities; to cut coat according to cloth, so to speak.

Such a customised approach of teaching according to each individual�s ability is, in fact, not new. The great Sung Dynasty Confucian Scholar, Zhu Xi (朱熹) in his "Annotations on the Analects" (论语注) said that "when Confucius taught his students, he taught according to each individual�s ability and interest" (夫子教人, 各因其材).

MOE introduced the CL B syllabus in 2001. The CL B syllabus emphasises practical communication skills to facilitate the learning process. Far from wanting to lower the standard of Chinese, this is in fact a salvage operation. It is to help those who cannot cope with Chinese not give up totally. MOE hopes that the easier CL B will sustain their interest in the language.

This also allows us to safeguard the standard of the normal Chinese language which the majority of our students take. Without CL B, the standard of the normal Chinese language may have to be lowered over the long term so as to cater to the slower learners.

There has been no sharp spike in the numbers taking up CL B since it was introduced in 2001.

In 2001, 1.9 % of the cohort took CL B at "O" levels. In 2002, it was 2.4% and in 2003, the figure rose slightly to 2.6%.

MOE also told me that since CL B was introduced at Secondary 1 this year, only 119 pupils or less than 1% of the cohort took it up. MOE has not set any targets for the number of students offering CL B. Concerns about students rushing to take up this so-called "soft option" have not been borne out.

You may also be pleased to know that the relaxation of the eligibility criteria for Higher Chinese has produced encouraging results. Since the beginning of this year, 1,348 Secondary 1 pupils who would not have qualified under the previous criteria were given the opportunity and have opted for Higher Chinese.

I am also encouraged by the take-up rate for Higher Chinese in our secondary schools over the past 3 years. The percentage of each secondary school cohort who took up Higher Chinese has been around 17%. So each year, we have about 21,000 students across all secondary levels studying Higher Chinese.

I should also explain that the recent relaxation of the Mother Tongue Language criteria for university admissions is part of a larger review to give our universities greater autonomy. NUS and NTU can now decide how best to admit students. The university admission criteria will continue to entail minimum mother tongue proficiency but it will not be compulsory to include the applicants� mother tongue grades in the university score.

This change will enable the university to use broader measures of merit when assessing candidates. Students who do well in Chinese language will be recognised for their achievements, while those who are weak will not be penalised. It is a fairer approach.

Learning Mother Tongue Will Become Even More Important

Will this make our students de-emphasise Chinese? I do not think so for the majority of students. Certainly not for the students with foresight.

The reason for my optimism is that proficiency in the Chinese language will become even more important for two reasons: firstly, the rise and increasing importance of China, and secondly, the need to preserve our Singaporean identity, culture and values, particularly in a globalising world.

Rise of China

Since its "open-door" policy in 1978, China�s transformation has been spectacular. China could overtake Japan as the second largest economy in the world by 2050. China�s already significant influence on global and regional events will continue to increase in the future.

I first went to China in 1971 during the height of the Cultural Revolution. I have been there many times since. Each time I visit China - and I have been to many parts of the country, not just Beijing and Shanghai - I marvel at the speed of their physical and economic transformation. But I am even more impressed by changes in the thinking and outlook of the Chinese people � their openness to new ideas, their hunger for progress and their great desire to learn and catch up. This software change is even more important than the hardware improvements.

China is the biggest story of the 21st century. Its remarkable growth provides immense opportunities. We cannot compete with China in many areas because of its abundant labour and resources. But we can ride on its growth.

We can secure a niche for ourselves in China. We are silly if we do not use this window of opportunity to deepen our knowledge of China and strengthen our ties with its people.

At the national level, we have built up a good relationship with China. We have been sharing our developmental experience with them. Each year, hundreds of Chinese officials come here on study visits.

To maintain and strengthen our ties with these officials and to do business in China, our command of the Chinese language and our understanding of China are important assets that we must continue to nurture. Here, we have an advantage over other countries. It would be stupid to de-emphasise Chinese and lose this edge.

An anecdote which the Ministry of Trade and Industry provided me with drives home this point. A former EDB official recently joined a MNC which operated in Singapore and China. He was asked to work on business development. When he met his British boss for the very first time, his boss asked what the officer felt he should learn more about. The officer replied that he would like to gain more knowledge on the technical aspects of business operations. His boss thought otherwise and told him that it would be of greater importance for him to learn more about China instead.

Yes, learn more about China. Not only must our business people understand the Chinese system, our future leaders, both at the political and senior officials� levels, must acquire a good understanding of China and form networks with their Chinese counterparts. This means more than just speaking, reading and writing functional Chinese. We have to develop a deeper appreciation of Chinese culture and a good understanding of their mindset.

The answer is to produce a significant group of bilingual Chinese elite. This group will be effective in both English and Chinese. They will have a mastery of the Chinese language and understand Chinese culture, history, literature and the arts more deeply. To achieve this, more of our students must study in China.

Traditionally, our students gravitate towards the US and UK. In 2003, there were about 4,200 and 4,600 Singapore students studying in the US and UK respectively1. However, in recent years, some of our students are starting to venture into China. In 2003, a total of 370 Singapore students were studying in Chinese universities2. This figure surprised me. I would encourage more Singaporeans to go to China for both undergraduate and post-graduate studies.

Since 1993, the PSC and MOE have sent 42 scholars to China for undergraduate studies. The courses of study include Chinese language and literature, international relations and economics. I have asked the Public Service Commission to send more to China.

Our scholars have found their stay in China beneficial. A PSC scholar who studied international relations at Beijing University said he found his 4 years in China enriching. He not only mixed with the best and brightest Chinese students but made friends with top students from the US and Japan. This is because Beijing University has many international exchange students from top universities like Harvard and Tokyo University. This young PSC scholar also took the opportunity to travel all over China. He said it was "amazing to know that one can experience snow in Harbin, hot desert in Inner Mongolia, tropical beaches in Hainan Island and metropolitan living in Shanghai, all within the same country." He is now working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, looking after Singapore�s relations with China.

To broaden their exposure, Government scholarship holders including PSC scholars will also be encouraged to take up internships with private sector companies in China, as well as our government agencies with offices in China. One young female scholar, who studied in the US, is currently spending a Gap Year in Shanghai attached to the planning division of Sembcorp Logistics3. She is a Hwa Chong Junior College alumnus. This young lady said she is finding the attachment "a good learning experience" and "a fantastic opportunity to breathe the air outside and see the difference".

When I visited China last November, I proposed to Premier Wen Jiabao the idea of setting up a Singapore-China Foundation. He agreed. The foundation will give out awards for top student exchanges between Singapore and China at the undergraduate and post-graduate levels. We hope to launch the Foundation this year. This will enhance our interaction with the Chinese.

To be able to attend courses in China, our students� Mandarin must be of a certain standard. It is not enough to speak "pasat" or "wet market" Mandarin. We need a cohort of top students each year, who have chosen Chinese as their elective. Otherwise, they will have to spend an extra one or two years trying to master the language.

I have also asked the Public Service Division to develop programmes for increased immersion of senior government officers in China. Milestone training programmes will include study trips to China where possible. Fast track Administrative Officers who have potential to become future Permanent Secretaries must understand China.

Nurturing a Generation Grounded in Asian Values

The second reason why learning mother tongue will become even more important is the need to preserve our Asian culture and traditional values. Values, culture and language are deeply intertwined. It is through language that culture is preserved and values transmitted.

We live in an increasingly globalised world. Connected by the internet and propelled by forces of Information Technology, the idea of a global village is fast becoming a reality. Singaporeans are travelling far and wide. Many of you will go overseas to study, holiday and work.

In a fast-changing world and in an age of mass communications, we need a sturdy values system to define who we are and to anchor us to a place called "home".

The English language enables us to plug into the global grid and access the latest in science, technology and fashion. But mother tongue helps us access what is critical in us: our roots, culture and identity. Otherwise, we will be mocked as "bananas" � yellow on the outside but white inside.

Singapore is not an Anglo-Saxon country nor are we situated in the West. Our neighbours are Asian. Moreover, our society will become more cosmopolitan. Hence, it is essential that we retain our Asian core.

Our Asian heritage and values give us confidence in ourselves and provide the ballast in our society.

I believe that without deep roots in our Asian culture and without a clear identity of our own, we will drift like a piece of flotsam in the sea of globalisation, following mindlessly the latest trends and fads. We will be less confident of ourselves. But if we are anchored in our Asian culture, we will be like a tall tree, rooted to the earth which nourishes us, while at the same time, reaching up for the sky.

Improving the Teaching of Chinese Language

Most Chinese Singaporeans, in fact, recognise and appreciate the importance and value of learning Mandarin. In a survey conducted by Zaobao in February, 3 in 4 students affirmed the value of learning Mandarin, given the rise of China, which they felt will benefit Singapore. 95% surveyed felt that Chinese Singaporeans should learn Mandarin. 73% of the Chinese students interviewed also expressed keenness in continuing to learn the Chinese Language even if it was no longer compulsory.

I am very heartened by this response.

The challenge now for MOE is to make Mandarin popular with our students. We must find better and more innovative ways to help our students learn the Chinese language. We should make the learning experience fun and interesting. Students would then be stimulated to explore the richness of the language.

A writer to the Straits Times Forum Page told of how her 15-year old son, who had never passed Chinese in his entire primary school career, took an interest in Mandarin after discovering the joy of playing "go" or wei qi (围棋)(Frances Ess, Head of Humanities Department, Serangoon Secondary School, The Straits Times, 8 March 2004). The son is now so motivated that he is reading Sun Zi�s Art of War to learn about strategies.

Another writer recalled how she had learnt Mandarin through listening to Taiwanese pop songs. I am told that some schools in Taiwan used Teresa Teng�s songs to teach Tang Dynasty poems. I think Teresa Teng is not so popular with our younger generation now. Perhaps, MOE can use songs by pop groups like 5566 or F4 to teach Mandarin! For those who wonder what I am talking about, these are two popular boy bands from Taiwan.

Proficiency in language can only come through speaking and practice. We need a larger environment that will encourage the use of Mandarin socially. This is where the media, both Chinese and English, have a role to play.

Zaobao recently launched a student supplement called "Popcorn", which is published with its Wednesday edition. It is simply written and covers some fashion and entertainments news, as well as student and school affairs. I hope this will make Mandarin hip and encourage young people to speak and read Mandarin. I also hope that "Popcorn" will be widely read so that our young people form the habit of reading Chinese newspapers early. Popcorn is distributed with Zaobao. I think it will be useful for The Straits Times to distribute it as well. Popcorn will then reach the English-speaking homes which subscribe only to The Straits Times.

Similarly, The Straits Times and other English newspapers can do their part to encourage the speaking and use of Mandarin. I recall that some years ago, Madam Li Lien Feng, used to write a very interesting column entitled "Bamboo Green" for Section 2 of The Straits Times. In a simple and witty style, Madam Li discussed Chinese poetry, major classics and Chinese culture. Her bilingual column was very popular and ran for more than 10 years.

One of my biggest regrets is not learning Mandarin as a boy.

During my time, there was no bilingual policy. I started school in Hwa Chiao Chinese Primary School at Pasir Panjang. I was about 6 years old. World War II had just ended. All the other students in my class were older than I. My uncle who was in the same class was four years older. A few were twice my age. My father found I had difficulty coping. So a year later, when Pasir Panjang English Primary School re-opened, he transferred me there. I started from Primary One, with other students about my age. From then on, it was English all the way. The school did not teach Chinese until I was in Primary Five. I won a book prize for the subject. But when I went to RI, Chinese was not taught. And my learning of Chinese stopped. It was a big mistake, the sort of mistake you realise only when you are older and wiser.

As Prime Minister, I have to make an effort to reach out to Chinese Singaporeans directly. I have had to take up Mandarin late in life. It is not easy.

Each year, I practise for hours just to speak for 10-15 minutes in Mandarin during my National Day Rally.

Language is best learnt young. I hope younger Singaporeans do not repeat the mistake I have made of ignoring their mother tongue.

Education reform tends to excite passion and even stir controversy. I am confident that in approaching the issue of mother tongue from a pragmatic perspective, we will succeed in helping our students develop an affinity for their cultural heritage and a love for the language, and excite them to use it from young.

If Singaporeans are proficient in both English and their mother tongues, they can access the world and play a useful role, acquire the latest knowledge in science and technology, while remaining rooted in their heritage and culture.

If we understand China and the West equally well, we can be like a transformer, connecting both the English-speaking world and Asia.

The Chinese High School and Hwa Chong have an important role to play in helping our students gain fluency in both English and Mandarin. You must set yourselves the role as preservers and transmitters of Chinese values and culture.

I am told that The Chinese High School, Hwa Chong Junior College and Nanyang Girls� High School have recently come together to offer the Integrated Programme as a family of schools. This will be a major development in nurturing a bilingual Chinese elite. The Programme will include Chinese Literature, learning the history and geography of China in Mandarin and experiential learning in China. Students will acquire a deeper understanding and appreciation of Chinese history, culture and contemporary developments.

The Chinese High School and Hwa Chong Junior College will bring their integration a step further and merge into one education institution from 2005, thereby providing a seamless 6-year integrated programme.

Once again, my heartiest congratulations to the Chinese High School and Hwa Chong Junior College on your 85th and 30th Anniversaries.

Thank you.


1Atlas of Student Mobility, Institute of International Education, New York, 2003.

2China Scholarship Council, PRC Ministry of Education, February 2004.

3Under the Gap Year Programme, PSC scholars embark on attachments with private sector organisations

for up to 1 year, before they start work in the civil service.