Bilingual policy


Bilingualism has been the cornerstone of Singapore’s language policy since the People’s Action Party (PAP) was elected to power in 1959. The policy entails an emphasis on using English and the mother tongue languages, particularly that of the three main ethnic groups: Mandarin for the Chinese, Malay for the Malay community and Tamil for the Indians. English was to become Singapore’s working language, while the mother tongue would serve to strengthen an individual’s values and sense of cultural belonging. The bilingualism policy has been implemented primarily through the education system, which requires students to study the English language and their respective mother tongues. In addition, annual campaigns are held to promote the learning and speaking of mother tongue languages as well as to encourage the use of grammatically correct English among Singaporeans. The Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism was established in 2011 to help nurture a love for bilingual learning in young children.

Background
Before Singapore attained independence in 1965, a diverse range of languages were spoken by its population, which comprised three main ethnic groups – Chinese, Malay and Indian. The Chinese made up the majority of the population and mostly spoke dialects such as Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese at home. The bulk of the Malay population spoke the Malay language, while the majority of Indians spoke Tamil.1 The education system then comprised primarily private Chinese-, Malay- and Tamil-medium schools. In addition, there were the government-run schools and government-aided mission schools that taught in English.2 Most students in Singapore were enrolled in Chinese-medium schools at the time.3

In 1953, the colonial government issued a white paper on bilingual education in Chinese-medium schools. The paper proposed the introduction of bilingual education in these schools in exchange for increased financial assistance. To qualify for government aid, the schools were required to teach the English language and also have subjects such as mathematics and science taught in English.4 The proposal was approved by the Legislative Council in December 1953 and introduced the following year.5

Following the involvement of Chinese-medium school students in protests and riots of the mid-1950s – such as the demonstrations and clashes in 1954 over mandatory conscription and the Hock Lee bus riot in 1955 – the colonial government formed a nine-member all-party committee in May 1955 to study the reasons for these students’ hostility towards the government.6 At the time, most of the Chinese-educated were poor. Unlike the English-educated who enjoyed good job opportunities upon graduation, job prospects were generally unfavourable for the Chinese-educated. In February 1956, the All-Party Committee of the Singapore Legislative Assembly on Chinese Education submitted its report to the Assembly.7 The key recommendations included an emphasis on multilingual education and equal treatment for schools regardless of the medium of instruction, so as to achieve social cohesion between students from the English stream and those from the vernacular stream of education.8 The committee’s proposals were accepted by the government, but not formally implemented. The report, however, became a roadmap for the PAP after Singapore attained self-government in 1959.9

Introduction of bilingualism policy
The PAP government’s bilingualism policy began when it was elected to power in 1959. The party inherited an education system comprising English-medium schools that were run or aided by the colonial government as well as the ethnically segregated vernacular schools that received little or no government aid.10 The newly formed government was acutely aware of the importance of language policy and education for nation-building and managing ethnicity. As such, its key education policy goals included the equal treatment of schools in all language streams – as was proposed in the all-party committee report – and the adoption of bilingualism in the school system.11

On 8 December 1959, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew made his first key speech on the importance of a bilingual education system at the Gay World Stadium.12 In Singapore’s context, bilingualism entails an emphasis on using English and the respective mother tongue languages of the three main ethnic groups.13 English was chosen by the PAP government as Singapore’s working language given its importance as the language of international business, diplomacy and technology. A common knowledge of English would also bond the different ethnic groups by enabling them to communicate with one another. In addition to English, Lee firmly believed that knowing one’s mother tongue was necessary because it provided access to one’s cultural heritage, thereby strengthening one’s values and sense of cultural belonging.14

The study of a second language was made compulsory in primary schools in 1960 and subsequently in secondary schools in 1966.15 Students in vernacular schools had to study English as a second language, while those in English-medium schools were required to learn an additional language. Due to a shortage of trained teachers in those early years, the government did not require the second languages taught in English-medium schools to be mother tongues.16

When Singapore gained independence in 1965, English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil were proclaimed under Article 153A of the Singapore Constitution as the four official languages of the nation. Malay, Mandarin and Tamil were thus officially designated as the mother tongue languages of the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities respectively.17

Key developments in bilingual education policies
1960s to 1980s
The government introduced a series of initiatives during the 1960s and ’70s to implement the bilingual policy in schools. These included making second languages compulsory examinable subjects in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) in 1966, and then in the Cambridge School Certificate examination – predecessor of the General Certificate of Education (GCE) examination – in 1969.18 To extend the use of second languages in schools, a range of subjects were taught in these languages from the latter half of the 1960s onwards. For example, mathematics and science were taught in English at vernacular primary schools, while civics and history were taught in Chinese at English-stream schools.19 The government also experimented with the practice of language exposure time (LET) – the amount of time a student was exposed to the second language either through language lessons or through its use as the medium of instruction for other subjects.20 To emphasise the importance of bilingualism, the second language was assigned double weightage in the PSLE in 1973. This gave it equal importance as the first language, which had been assigned double weightage in 1963.21 The double weightage for both first and second languages, however, was removed in 1985 to improve the accuracy of streaming pupils based on their PSLE results.22

In 1978, a study team led by then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee was formed to identify the problems in Singapore’s education system.23 The team’s findings were presented in the Report on the Ministry of Education 1978 (also known as the Goh Report), which concluded that the policy of bilingualism was not “universally effective”. The conclusion was based on the finding that over 60 percent of the students who sat for the PSLE and GCE O-Level examination from 1975 to 1977 had failed either one or both languages.24 English and Mandarin were new languages to most of the Chinese students as 85 percent of them spoke dialects at home. The team’s assessment was that the one-size-fits-all education programme did not cater to students with differing abilities, particularly when most of the students were learning two languages they were unfamiliar with. The team also made the assessment that students were unlikely to achieve the same level of proficiency for both English and their mother tongue.25 This study led by Goh was a milestone in Singapore’s bilingual policy.26 The study also resulted in the introduction of the New Education System in 1979, which entailed a major restructuring of the education system into one with ability-based streaming at the primary and secondary levels.27

In 1979, passing a second language became a pre-university admission requirement.28 To encourage effective bilingualism, language performance also became part of the criteria for university entry by the early 1980s.29

By the late 1970s, a strong shift in parents’ preference towards an English-medium education for their children had resulted in a rapid decline in the number of vernacular schools. In 1979, the Special Assistance Plan (SAP) was introduced in nine Chinese-stream secondary schools to preserve the culture and traditions of the best Chinese schools and to develop these schools into effectively bilingual institutions.30 In addition, after years of declining enrolment in the vernacular schools, the national stream was introduced in 1983 which required all schools – with the exception of the SAP schools – to offer English as a first language and mother tongue as a second language by 1987.31

In 1980, Mandarin became a compulsory second language for Chinese pupils in English-medium schools. This policy was subsequently extended to the other mother tongue languages, making it compulsory for Malay and Indian pupils to study Malay and Tamil respectively.32 However, non-Tamil Indian students have been allowed to study Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi or Urdu as a second language since the 1990s.33

1990s to present
By 1990, the number of dialect-speaking Chinese households had fallen significantly, while the number of Mandarin- and English-speaking families had risen. However, with the increasingly widespread use of English among Singaporeans, the number of Mandarin-speaking households has been on a steady decline since the 1990s,34 and the proportion of Malay and Indian children using English at home has been on the rise.35 In 2015, English was the most common language spoken at home in Singapore.36

The trend of more Singaporeans speaking English at home has resulted in varying levels of proficiency in the mother tongue languages among students.37 Major reviews on the teaching of mother tongue languages in schools have been conducted since 1990 in response to this trend.38

In June 1991, the Chinese Language Review Committee was formed to evaluate how Chinese was being taught in schools. Led by then Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong, the committee released its report in May 1992 and its recommendations were accepted by the Ministry of Education (MOE). These included renaming the subject of Chinese as “Chinese Language” when it is a  second language and as “Higher Chinese” when it is a first language, so as to correct the impression that Chinese was an unimportant subject; and allowing selected students beyond the SAP schools to take Higher Chinese and Chinese Literature in the GCE O-Level examination.39

During the National Day Rally in 1997, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong highlighted the difficulties in learning mother tongue faced by Chinese children from English-speaking homes. A second Chinese Language Review Committee was formed thereafter to study the problem. Led by then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the committee found that the textbooks adopted after the first review were too difficult for some students. Several key changes were introduced as a result. These included the introduction of a simplified Chinese-language “B” syllabus in 2001 for secondary and junior college students struggling with the language, the return of Chinese-language textbooks to the standard before the review led by Ong as well as giving more students the option to study Higher Chinese.40

In 1999, Malay and Tamil language review steering committees were also established, chaired by then Minister for Education Teo Chee Hean. Following the reviews, “B” syllabuses for Malay and Tamil languages were introduced. In addition, new programmes and facilities for teaching Higher Malay and Higher Tamil were developed.41

A third formal committee to review the teaching of Chinese was formed in February 2004. Led by then Director-General of Education Wee Heng Tin, the committee’s report in November 2004 resulted in an overhaul of the Chinese-language curriculum. The key change entailed the introduction of a modular system for teaching Chinese in primary schools. Under the system, pupils with little prior exposure to Chinese would take simpler bridging modules in primary one and two, while the rest of the cohort would undergo the core curriculum. In addition, pupils with the ability and interest could pursue the more advance enrichment modules.42

The teaching of mother tongue languages was again revamped in 2012 following a mother tongue language review in 2011 led by then Director-General of Education Ho Peng. The changes included a greater emphasis on interaction skills and oral literacy in primary schools so as to enhance pupils’ ability to connect with their cultural heritage and communicate with others using their mother tongue.43

Campaigns and events
Speak Mandarin Campaign
One of the findings in the Report on the Ministry of Education 1978 – that widespread use of dialects in homes was impeding students from learning Mandarin in schools – led to implementation of the Speak Mandarin Campaign (SMC). The campaign was officially launched by Lee on 7 September 1979 at the Singapore Conference Hall. At the time of its launch, the campaign’s aims included getting youths in Singapore to give up the use of dialects as well as to have Mandarin replace dialects as the language used in coffee shops, hawker centres and other public places.44 Lee believed that the extensive use of different dialects was keeping the Chinese population fragmented, and replacing the dialects with Mandarin would lead to less division within the Chinese community.45

As part of the SMC, Chinese parents were urged to speak Mandarin instead of dialects at home to help make learning Mandarin in schools easier for their children.46 In addition, frontline employees of government departments, hospitals and clinics were required to speak Mandarin, except to those over the age of 60. Passing an oral Mandarin test also became mandatory for Chinese taxi drivers to renew their licence.47

The SMC became an annual nationwide campaign following its launch in 1979.48 By 1990, predominantly dialect-speaking Chinese households had fallen to 48 percent of the population from 76 percent in 1980. Over the same period, Mandarin-speaking households increased from 13 percent to 30 percent.49

With the increasingly widespread use of English among Singaporeans, the SMC shifted its focus during the 1990s towards encouraging English-educated Chinese Singaporeans to speak Mandarin in their everyday lives.50

The SMC has developed into a year-round campaign led by the Promote Mandarin Council. The campaign is now focused on encouraging Chinese Singaporeans to learn and speak more Mandarin, as well as inculcating and deepening their knowledge and appreciation of Chinese culture, heritage and language.51

Malay Language Month
Campaigns have been held intermittently since the 1960s to promote the Malay language.52

In 1982, a Malay Language Month was organised by the Central Council of Malay Cultural Organisations in an attempt to address the falling proficiency standards in Malay among the younger generation.53 In 1988, the Malay Language Month was revived as a biennial event. Organised by the Malay Language Council, it became an annual event in 2010. Various activities are held during the event month to encourage the Malay community to speak their mother tongue in their daily lives.54

Tamil Language Festival
The annual Tamil Language Festival was held for the first time in 2007. Spearheaded by the Tamil Language Council, the event aims to promote the Tamil language and culture as well as to instil confidence and pride among the Indian community in speaking the language.55

Speak Good English Movement
With the growing popularity of Singlish, the homegrown colloquial variety of Singapore English, the Speak Good English Movement was launched on 29 April 2000 to encourage the use of grammatically correct English among Singaporeans.56

Media
Media was increasingly used to support and promote the government’s bilingualism policy in the 1970s. On 30 May 1977, the twice-weekly “Bilingual Page” section was launched in The Straits Times newspaper to stimulate readers’ interest in the Chinese language and help them learn it. The frequency of the section was subsequently increased to thrice weekly on 4 September 1978 and then five times per week on 6 August 1979.57 In 1978, two documentaries on bilingualism were broadcast on television: Bilingual Scholars in Mandarin and A Balance of Languages in English.58

In line with the objectives of the SMC, dialects used in programmes, movies and advertisements on television, radio, Rediffusion as well as in the cinemas were replaced with Mandarin by the early 1980s.59 During the ’90s, the government began to allow a small number of dialect programmes on Singapore Cable Vision (now known as StarHub TV) to provide entertainment for senior citizens who could not understand Mandarin well.60

Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism
Mooted by Lee, the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism was established on 28 November 2011 to complement MOE’s efforts in the teaching and learning of English and mother tongue languages. It aims to nurture a love for bilingual learning in young children so as to create a stronger foundation for language learning in their later years.61

By July 2012, the fund had raised S$119 million in donations, exceeding the original target of S$100 million.62 The contributions included the first pledge of S$10 million by Lee, and an additional S$2 million from the sale of 200 autographed copies of his book, My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore’s Bilingual Journey.63



Author

Cheryl Sim



References
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58. Sung, B. (1978, November 23). Behind RTS’s spotlight on bilingualism. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
59. SBC radio on target in switch to Mandarin. (1982, November 26). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lee, K. Y. (2012). Lee Kuan Yew, my lifelong challenge: Singapore’s bilingual journey. Singapore: Straits Times Press, pp. 155–156. (Call no.: RSING 306.4495957 LEE)
60. Wang, H. L., et al. (1996, March 15). Govt allowing some dialect entertainment. The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
61. Phua, M. P. (2012, March 15). Bilingualism fund raises $113m, beating target. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Bilingualism.sg, Singapore. (2014). About the fund. Retrieved 2016, July 18 from Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism website: http://www.bilingualism.sg/about-the-fund/about-the-fund
62. Chan, R. (2012, July 7). Proposals sought to boost bilingualism. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
63. Phua, M. P. (2012, March 15). Bilingualism fund raises $113m, beating target. The Straits Times; Toh, E. (2011, November 29). Mr Lee launches fund to boost bilingualism. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.



The information in this article is valid as at 31 August 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

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Politics and Government>>Education
Education
Politics and Government

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