New cultural possibilities yet to be explored
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Dear Yuen Sin,
I agree with you that with the changes in education policy over the years, Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools, with Chinese being the only mother tongue on offer, may lack a multiracial mix.
And true, in Singapore, where the main working language is English, naturally there is no language environment for cultivating "local Chinese elites".
However, from a practical point of view, placing the heavy task of raising the level of the Chinese language on the special design of the education system today will only narrow the perspective of the issue and cause us to miss some opportunities in improving the environment.< /p>
Although the problem of an over-homogeneous environment at elite schools may exist, using the SAP schools as a scapegoat will not solve it.
To improve the language environment, we must understand why society is using less Mandarin, and then create more possibilities.
Indeed, there is now a group of middle-generation and, even, young parents who do not discriminate against, or look down upon, the Chinese language.
In fact, they are worried that their Mandarin is not good enough, and that they are unable to immerse their children in an environment more favourable to speaking the language.
A documentary last year at A Design Film Festival Singapore was about how youngsters in Hong Kong and Taiwan integrated Chinese characters into aesthetics and design, and got involved in research and creative work on Chinese typography... In their hands... valuing the Chinese language takes on a new lease of life. The possibilities are many.
Nominated Member of Parliament Kuik Shiao-Yin often shares on her Facebook page how she tries to help her daughter learn Chinese. Recently, she wrote out, by hand, lyrics of Chinese songs and joked that her writing looked alien but, during the process, she felt the opening up of the "neural pathways" of the forgotten language she had used in school.
A pilot survey of local young parents last December found that although young parents recognised the importance of learning Chinese, they were uncertain about their ability to sustain a bilingual learning environment for their children in the long term.
The findings led to much discussion among Lianhe Zaobao readers, but many still focused on the "helplessness" of the parents, lamenting that society has turned monolingual.
We must acknowledge this willingness to embrace the language - whether this is parents making the effort to ensure their children learn the language w ell or English-speaking youngsters starting to learn business Chinese as they venture out to China.
We should explore more channels beyond the existing education system so that these people will have another chance at improving their command of the language, which is in line with the purpose of lifelong learning.
As for SAP schools, though their role in the overall promotion of Chinese teaching may have diminished gradually from a policy point of view, there is definitely value in retaining them.
Looking back, it may seem the SAP school I attended was simply nurturing the embryonic self that is now me at 30, a Mandarin-speaking reporter for a Chinese-language newspaper. And yes, I know I go against the trend in my insistence on using Mandarin as my first language.
However, my four years at Chung Cheng High School (Main) were a happy accident.
I was posted to Chung Cheng based on my Primary School Leaving Examination score. I had no understanding of its history as a traditional Chinese school and never even knew that passing Higher Chinese would qualify me for point deduction when going to a junior college.
One of my regrets is that I came to have a deeper understanding of the history of local Chinese schools only after joining the Chinese media.
SAP schools are steeped in history and culture, and this is a distinctive feature that they should be proud of.
To me, the beauty of my time at Chung Cheng had more to do with less quantifiable things.
True, the school song consisted of lines of four Chinese characters arranged neatly. We were merely producing a string of meaningless sounds. However, the breath and rhythms of the singing became a part of my memory. Many years later, I am still able to feel the beauty of the lyrics.
Other memories: the willows at Chung Cheng Lake, the red pillars and green tiles of the school buildings, even the metal buttons on the uniforms - as well as the "com fort zone" of speaking Mandarin on campus and the lifelong friendships that were made.
So if you ask me about the significance of SAP schools, I cannot ignore their unintended impact on my life.
And among my peers, there are some who have benefited from this system, established a strong foundation in Chinese and further contributed to related fields such as the Chinese-language newspaper industry or the education sector.
Respecting and protecting the history of Chinese language learning is much more than cherishing the memory of an era that will never return.
A documentary last year at A Design Film Festival Singapore shows a forward-looking approach. The film was about how youngsters in Hong Kong and Taiwan integrated Chinese characters into aesthetics and design, and got involved in research and creative work on Chinese typography.
People from my generation are often seen as a product of the country's bilingual policy - either effective ly bilingual or, in many people's eyes, only half-proficient in both English and Mandarin. To counter that latter viewpoint, it is important to look beyond the merely utilitarian.
When placed in the hands of young people such as those in the documentary, valuing the Chinese language takes on a new lease of life. The possibilities are many.
Wai Mun (Translated by Lim Ruey Yan)A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2018, with the headline 'New cultural possibilities yet to be explored'. Print Edition | Subscribe Topics:
- SINGAPORE EDUCATION
- SINGAPORE CHINESE
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