Flaws in our education system go beyond mother tongue

(This article first appeared in The Online Citizen.)

Written by Ng E-Jay
12 May 2010

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said so himself in November last year. His insistence on bilingualism has been wrong, causing generations of students to be put off by the Chinese language. [1]

Those remarks sparked off a heated debate over the teaching of mother tongue in Singapore’s public schools, culminating in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s and Education Minister Ng Eng Hen’s recent assurance that the weightage of mother tongue in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) will not be reduced. [2]

These reassurances come on the heels of an outpouring of concern on the part of parents and educators that diluting the importance of mother tongue in examinations would lead to students neglecting them, and indirectly, paying less attention to their cultural roots.

MM Lee’s flawed bilingualism policy has been blamed for exacerbating Singapore’s brain drain. Many of us have heard stories of people migrating because their children could not cope with learning two languages to a comparable level of proficiency within the confines of such a stressful educational system.

But the recent heated discussion on whether the weighting of mother tongue should be cut in examinations is, in my opinion, missing the bigger picture.

Even though MM Lee has admitted his error, the fact remains that being bilingual is a valuable asset in a globalized economic environment. Concerns about the ability or willingness of our nation’s youths to keep in touch with their cultural heritage are also very valid. These considerations have not changed despite the recognition that the government’s approach to bilingualism has been deficient.

It would be wrong also to think that the flaws in our educational system stop at mother tongue.

People end up migrating with their kids not just because their kid is struggling with a single subject, but because their children are kept under an oppressively stressful learning environment that emphasizes grades and other quantitative measures of performance, and treats those quantitative measures as indicative of a person’s worth.

It is only in recent years that there has been a realization on the part of the establishment that Singapore’s educational system is churning out automatons rather than thinkers, leaders and entrepreneurs, and that this is not good for Singapore in the long run.

Sadly, the discussion about examination weightings do nothing to address the far deeper underlying problems with our education system.

The real question is how to produce motivated students who are imbued with a love for learning, and what changes can be made to the present system so that students and parents do not develop such a strong emotional fixation with grades.

Furthermore, if we are going to start talking about tweaking exam weightings because students find a particular subject difficult, then we will be slowly inculcating a culture of problem avoidance, rather than harnessing the latent creativity of our students through more holistic and sensible educational policies that respect and recognize individuality, and encourage personal intellectual exploration and inquisition.

There is a reason why Singapore has produced a large number of workaholics, but has not produced any Nobel Laureates.

It is because the present educational system encourages parents and students to centre the learning experience around grades rather than around breaking new frontiers.

It is also because the present political system encourages Singaporeans to toe the line, to think mechanically, and to be reactive rather than proactive. This mindset in fact is most prevalent amongst members of the ruling elite — the very body responsible for entrenching such a political environment.

Mark Twain once remarked that we should not let school interfere with our education. Unfortunately, our schools today remain one of the biggest stumbling blocks for individuals seeking a better education.



[1] Channel News Asia, “Insistence on bilingualism in early years of education policy was wrong: MM Lee“, 17 Nov 2009.

[2] Straits Times online, “No lowering of weightage “, 11 May 2010.

  1. The Singapore’s brain drain system in the 80s and 90s were partially caused by the authoritalian policies by then PM .