Fri, Nov 06, 2009
The Straits Times
Bilingual policy was most difficult: MM

By Jeremy Au Yong

INTELLIGENCE does not necessarily translate into a flair for languages.

That was the lesson Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said he learnt in implementing the bilingual policy in schools.

'Initially, I believed that intelligence was equated to language ability. Later, I found that they are two different attributes - IQ and a facility for languages. My daughter, a neurologist, confirmed this,' he said in an interview carried in Petir, the People's Action Party magazine.

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Asked to pick policies he would have implemented differently, he cited the teaching of bilingualism, especially in English and Mandarin, as the most difficult policy.

'I did not know how difficult it was for a child from an English-speaking home to learn Mandarin,' he said.

'If you are speaking English at home and you are taught Mandarin in Primary 1 by Chinese teachers who teach Mandarin as it was taught in the former Chinese schools, by the direct method, using only Mandarin, you will soon lose interest because you do not understand what the teacher is saying.

'You spend time on extra tuition, and still make little progress. Many were turned off Mandarin for life.'

In the end, the Government recognised that students with the same ability in other subjects may not be able to cope being in the same second language class. It took 30 years for the issue to be resolved.

'Eventually, we settled the problem in 2004 by teaching the mother tongue in the module system. Had we done this earlier, we would have had less wastage of students' time and effort, and less heartache for parents,' he said candidly.

While acknowledging the initial approach to the policy was unsatisfactory, he pointed to other policies that were spot on.

Asked about factors which had an impact on the PAP's success, he pointed to winning people's trust, and foresight: 'One attribute with the most lasting impact has been our approach of tackling problems early.'

He cited the Area Licensing Scheme as an example. The 1975 scheme was the precursor to the Electronic Road Pricing scheme and charged motorists for driving into parts of the Central Business District.

'The Area Licensing System, we implemented before cars became so numerous that it became politically difficult. Many big cities in the West are trapped and cannot do this,' Mr Lee said.

Petir also carried comments from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong in its latest issue. Released yesterday, the edition also marks the PAP's 50 years in power.

PM Lee took the opportunity to look ahead and reflect on the future for the PAP and Singapore.

The party must aim to be fresh and relevant, and its policies, organisation and activities must constantly evolve to keep up with the times.

He said: 'The PAP carries a special responsibility for Singapore. The party needs to be there on issues which matter to Singaporeans - bread-and-butter issues like jobs, education, health care and housing, as well as softer issues such as the environment, the arts and rejuvenating our city.'

SM Goh commented on the policy he was most proud of, and his biggest worry for Singapore.

The policy he singled out was Edusave, which was introduced in 1993 to pay for enrichment programmes for students.

'My own experience prompted me to introduce the scheme. I was helped by a government bursary in secondary school and university. Without the financial assistance, I might not have been able to complete university,' he disclosed.

His biggest worry? The declining birthrate. The shortfall could be made up with new immigrants, he acknowledged, but it could affect Singapore's make-up too.

'Yes, we can top up the population with new immigrants. We can be a cosmopolitan country. It sounds good, but it is not the same as having a Singapore populated mainly by the Singapore 'tribe'.

'It has taken 50 years for this tribe to evolve. With new immigrants, the texture of Singapore will be radically altered. There will be more tribes. It will take time, perhaps more than one generation, for them to integrate.'



Changing times

'Singapore politics will change, but not because I leave politics. It will happen because of significant changes in Singapore's economic and social conditions.

'I cannot say what these changes will be with a change in generations. For certain, many new discoveries and inventions will make communication, transportation and travel faster and cheaper. The result is closer economic integration.

'As the most open and connected city in the world, the impact of this on Singapore will be considerable.

'The PAP will have to change, to adjust and adapt its political, economic and social policies to achieve the 'Singapore Dream' for this more affluent generation.'

- Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, when asked how Singapore will change when he leaves politics


This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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