PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong has addressed concerns that Mandarin standards are slipping in a speech to mark the 75th anniversary of Chung Cheng High School, one of the first here to teach both English and Chinese at first-language level.
He also stressed that the Government remains committed to its goal to help all Singaporeans master their mother tongue to the best of their ability.
Speaking in Mandarin, Mr Lee said it was not appropriate to compare today's social and linguistic environment with that of the 1950s, when schools taught either in English or Chinese but not in both languages.
He also highlighted the critical role of the Government's language policies in safeguarding the learning and use of the Chinese language.
"If we did not introduce the bilingual policy, promote Mandarin and start Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools, Singapore today might be a completely English-speaking society," he said.
Given an environment where English is the lingua franca and working language, it has not been easy to maintain Singaporeans' Mandarin standard at the level it is today, he added.
Mr Lee had also addressed this concern in an interview for a book marking the 35th anniversary of the Speak Mandarin campaign.
In that interview, released last week, he said that while Chinese standards may have slipped, he remained optimistic that Singapore could achieve about 95 per cent of its desired outcome in mastering the language.
Yesterday, he elaborated on this further, pledging that the Government would continue to work hard and do its best to help Singaporeans achieve their highest potential in their mother tongues.
Besides the support given to SAP schools, it has also extended resources to all schools to help more students excel in Mandarin.
Last year, 30 per cent of Chinese students took Higher Chinese at the O levels, almost double the rate in 2000, he noted.
And some 100,000 teachers, parents and students take part in programmes by the Committee to Promote Chinese Language Learning every year.
These examples show that the Government's multi-faceted efforts to promote Mandarin have been effective, he said.
It aims to "ensure that all Singaporeans stay rooted in their mother tongue and culture, have good values and do not forget their roots". These are values that Chung Cheng has always taught its students, and were why SAP schools were set up, he said.
But at the start, it was not clear if SAP schools would succeed, said Mr Lee. It was a challenge for students to master Chinese and English at first-language level given the environment then. Many parents also wanted their children to study English instead of Chinese, as the former was perceived to have more economic value.
But the Government put in resources, teachers and students worked hard, and parents gave their support.
"All SAP schools submitted a beautiful report card in the end. You could say they all passed," said Mr Lee.
Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Seng Han Thong, who is Chinese-educated, said the bilingual policy aimed to counter the trend of parents sending their children to English-language schools, and help every student speak his mother tongue, at least at a basic level.
The policy's "net gain" is that the younger generation can communicate in Mandarin and English, rather than each group speaking its own dialect, as in the past.
Last night, banker Wee Cho Yaw, who has chaired the Chung Cheng school management committee for almost 20 years, announced that the gala dinner had raised some $2 million to be used for bursaries and the school's future development.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.