By Kor Kian Beng
IN SEPTEMBER 1989, a Singaporean mother, Mrs Pauline Tan, wrote an impassioned letter to The Straits Times, criticising the way the Chinese language was taught in schools here and the impact it had on her nine-year-old son.
She said her son, then studying in Primary 3 at a Methodist school, was having suicidal thoughts because he hated having to study Chinese every day.
Wrote Mrs Tan: 'He was constantly ridiculed and scolded by his Chinese teacher. He felt ashamed and shunned his classmates. He found Chinese boring. It is spelling, dictation, writing, tests and more spelling, dictation, writing and tests.'
As a result, she and her husband made plans to migrate to Australia. It was to spare her son further misery with the Chinese language, wrote Mrs Tan. The couple also have a younger son, who was aged five then.
Her letter sparked widespread criticisms, with many readers - especially those from the Chinese-educated community - lambasting her controversial move.
Many wrote in to express their anger over the Tans' 'absurd' decision, and pointed out that Chinese-educated Singaporeans also had to overcome difficulties with the English language to compete with the English-educated for jobs.
One reader said: 'At times, I find some English-educated Chinese Singaporeans too pampered.'
Some readers showed sympathy, saying the school and parents should have detected the problem earlier and done something to help the boy before he got into serious difficulties with the language.
For the next 20 years, there was no news about Mrs Tan and her family - until this week when she penned another letter to The Straits Times, which was published on Tuesday.
It was in response to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's comments last week that the Government had made mistakes with the bilingual policy.
She wrote: 'I am comforted that finally someone at this high level of government has come round to see my point of view, which I have voiced for a long time.'
She was also pleased with Mr Lee's comments that the policy would be adjusted to suit students of different abilities.
Speaking to Insight on the phone from Brisbane, Mrs Tan, 60, said the family had obtained Australian permanent residency in 1990 but uprooted for Down Under only two years later.
That was because the couple wanted their elder son to complete his Primary School Leaving Examination here, and time to wind up the family business. She declined to specify the industry.
She had also harboured hopes that there might be changes to the education system after the publication of her letter - and after she contacted the Ministry of Education for help. But her elder son told her that the situation had barely improved in his school.
Mrs Tan acknowledged that the home environment was a key factor in determining a child's interest towards the learning of any language. The couple were English-educated and spoke mostly English to the boys at home.
Still, she felt that the teaching style could have been less harsh, and the bilingual policy more flexible, to suit various types of students. 'We definitely wouldn't have migrated if the situation had been different,' she said.
On the adverse reaction to her 1989 letter, Mrs Tan said that she was unperturbed by it.
She said: 'I was just a voice saying the policy was wrong and that we should make changes. I wasn't trying to make people follow my example.'
After all, it was not easy in the new land, as the couple encountered challenges like loneliness, she said.
The couple ran an export business, and later a property consultancy, until they retired two years ago.
But Mrs Tan said she felt she had made the right decision when she saw her sons enjoying and doing well in school again.
She declined to name her sons nor let Insight speak to them. The reason is that they are not aware that she had written to the press. She said only her husband knew about the Forum letters.
Both sons, aged 29 and 25, graduated from Queensland University of Technology and are doing well in life, said Mrs Tan.
Her elder son is now working as an IT specialist in Brisbane and the younger one is doing his doctorate studies in mathematics at Oxford University.
She said her elder son still feels bitter over his school experience.
'When we returned to Singapore for visits, I would ask him at times if he wanted to visit his primary school. He did not want to go back there at all.'
Does the family plan to move back some day? Mrs Tan would only say that her sons now feel more Australian than Singaporean, though she still feels 'deeply Singaporean'.
'It's such a pity that Singapore has lost some talented people as a result of some of its policies,' she said.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.