Reaping the benefits of bilingualism

Reaping the benefits of bilingualism
In His Own Words - Bilingualism

Minister of State for Education Sim Ann said in Parliament last Thursday that bilingualism was the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew's most bold, radical and controversial policy, but it has paid off.

I was one of those beneficiaries who gained much from his forward-looking policy, as Mr Lee said that we ought to study English for economic survival, and our mother tongue to give us cultural ballast.

In 1957, I joined Raffles Institution (RI) as a student in Form II. The English headmaster often spoke of the Chinese language in a disdainful tone, and most students regarded Chinese as a pariah language.

Because I grew up with the Teochew dialect, the study of Chinese was a breeze. However I struggled with classical Chinese, as the O-level exams demanded a knowledge of the classics, and not the more modern, simplified Chinese. I passed Chinese by the skin of my teeth.

In the top class of RI, most students had seven to eight distinctions, but I had only five.

However, when I went for an interview with the Public Service Commission (PSC), its then chairman, Dr Phay Seng Whatt, was impressed with my pass in Chinese, and I was given a bursary to see me through my two years in pre-university.

My A-level results were just mediocre. As my father had six children, money was hard to come by. I applied for a government bursary and, again, the PSC was impressed with my pass in Chinese. I was given a bursary to see me through my science course at the then University of Singapore.

Today, I can read both English and Chinese newspapers and sing karaoke songs in two languages.

As I look back, I can say that Mr Lee's bilingual policy was a step in the right direction.

This article was first published on April 2, 2015.
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