Friday, 23 April 2010

Politics and policy-making

Last Friday, I spoke to a class of NIE students. These were Masters students doing a class on curriculum in Singapore, and it seems that the tutor has traditionally done a forum in the last class of the course. I spoke together with NMP Viswa Sadasivan and Ms Lisa Lee, a JC teacher.

I talked about various things, and two of the questions I posed for the class were:

  • Who are the people making policies in education -- the politicians and bureaucrats, or the educational professionals?

  • And what are their motivations in policy-making?

The point I was trying to drive at, is that policies -- in general, not just in education -- are frequently or usually made by politicians and bureaucrats, who may not or are usually not subject-matter experts in the particular area. The policies may be, at least partly, consciously or unconsciously motivated or driven by extraneous considerations.

I am not saying that policies are self-serving or are designed in such a way as deliberately benefit any particular class or that policy-makers do not sincerely believe that the policies are for the best. But I am saying that when politicians and bureaucrats make policy, especially in complex specialised areas like education, they may be driven by other considerations.

So what to make of Dr Ng Eng Hen's disclosure that the Ministry of Education is re-looking the relative weightage of Mother Tongue in the PSLE examinations? This is the latest in a long line of moves to reduce the consequences of students doing poorly in Mother Tongue, largely in response to longstanding complaints from certain parents and students about the difficulty in doing well in Chinese.

I don't have a great command of Chinese -- it's not even remotely near good. I can just about read a Chinese newspaper article, with some struggle and a fair bit of contextual guesswork -- having a dictionary helps a lot, but doesn't really speed things up all that much. Nowadays, I am almost exclusively English-speaking -- I speak Mandarin mostly to my mum, frequently to the office pantry auntie, and otherwise to service staff. The decline in my Chinese grades began in Primary 3, and culminated in an E8 the first time I took 'AO' Chinese -- by some fluke, I scored an A2 my second time. That's one instance where the truth probably literally lies somewhere in between.

So if anything, I'm a prime candidate to sympathise with the complaints of the English-speaking chattering classes. Except that I don't, not really.

After all, the playing field is level. Everybody goes through the same exam. We don't move the English-language academic goalposts for those who don't speak English at home and accordingly have a weak command of English (not coincidentally, they also tend to be from the lower- if not lowest-income households) -- why then do we always move the Mother Tongue (specifically, Chinese) academic goalposts for those who don't speak Mandarin at home and accordingly have a weak command of Chinese (who, not coincidentally, tend to come from the other end of the socio-economic spectrum)? [and the Learning Support Programme in P1 and P2 for kids who are week in English is not given enough time or resources to make a difference -- 30 minutes per day is far from enough and smacks of lip service]

We talk about meritocracy and equity of opportunity -- in fact, the Government consistently boasts about it. But true meritocracy and equity of opportunity assumes that the ground rules are fair to all, and do not permit hidden biases (admittedly perhaps unconsciously-held) resulting in different rules for different folks.

What flabbergasted me then, was the suggestion that the current PSLE weightage for Mother Tongue may be too high, because it deprived otherwise-deserving kids of places in so-called top secondary schools. When I read that, I thought there was some kind of disproportionate weightage. Well, Mother Tongue counts for 25% -- I know lawyers are supposed to be lousy at Math, but that seems about right to me since there are 4 subjects at PSLE. Seems fair to me.

Looked at it another way, reducing the weightage for Mother Tongue effectively advantages (in a relative sense) those who are unable (for whatever reason) to do well in Mother Tongue. Why don't we reduce the weightage for Math, for those who are great at multiple languages but really suck at numbers? Everybody has different strengths and weaknesses, why is one particular set of weaknesses picked out for crutches and other special treatment?

And really, is the inability to get into a so-called top secondary school really the end of the world? That is cited as the driving motivation to re-look the weightage for Mother Tongue -- but in the same breadth, we talk about the need for different measures of success beyond academic results. Irony and mixed messages, anyone?

Perspective is important in policy-making, to remain objective and keep an even keel. I don't see too much of that in this particular case.


Laremy said...

Hi Kum Hong,

FYI Yawning Bread suggested a strategy for weighting results over at his blog which provides a solution (of sorts) to what you suggested.


Siew Kum Hong said...

Thanks Laremy. Alex is as always smarter than me. Having said that, I don't know if institutional deprioritisation of weak areas (instead of working on improving in those areas) is necessarily the right way to about it or the right message to send at that age.

Gary said...

The issue,IMO, is why include the 2nd language at all?

English is obviously important since it is the medium of instruction here. It is the 'enabler' of the ability to acquire an education in Singapore schools.

A second language does not have the same status, so it is illogical in the first place to give it a weightage equal to English, Science and Maths, the latter two I hope need no elaboration regarding their importance and relevance to modern society and living.

Given the long, persistent standing problems and issues over the learning and mastery of the second language, esp. Mandarin, over 40 years, IMO, only a mad man could continue to insist on extracting blood from stone.

For the recalcitrants -those who dogmatically insist on the prime importance of the second language - I would like to ask:

1.Do you have a solution?

2.Is it crucial or important that people MUST PASS their 2nd language exams in school in order to effectively communicate with others? (For the Chinese, Mandarin IS NOT the universal 'mother tongue'. In Singapore, the TRUE mother tongues of the vast majority of ethnic Chinese are Hokkien, Teo Chew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese, Shanghainess, Heng Hua etc. There is also the anomaly that NOT ALL 2nd languages spoken by Singaporeans are taught in school. Is there a reason why not given the perpetually touted claim of their importance to culture, heritage etc. Why is this overlooked for the minority language groups? Why this discrimination? In fact, a minority is much more likely to lose it then the major groups like Chinese, Malays and Tamil.When you take a microscope to the issue, you see lots of flaws in the current situation.)

If people on their own accord choose not to help themselves in such matters - through clans association, heritage classes and what not - why should govt for purely political reasons imposes it on them? And in the process actually killed, is killing some of the people's true heritage and culture through its 'ONE SIZE FITS ALL' language policy.

I can go on and on but perhaps anyone who don't agree can comment on his disagreement with my views?

Irene said...

While Alex's solution sounds elegant, I am not keen on it as this effectively encourages students and parents to 'give up' on the weakest subject and concentrate on the 3 strongest ones. I agree with Mr Siew that this is probably not what we want to encourage for 12 years old students, who still have the potential to achieve stronger foundation in their weakest subject.

I don't really want to go into the discussion of whether Mandarin is the 'real' Mother Tongue. I agree that the term "Mother Tongue" is a misnomer. However, I work in a multi-national environment and I have Filipino/Indian/Indonesian colleagues who are learning Mandarin. Just being proficient in English alone will not be sufficient for the global economy. Languages are like keys - the more you have, the better it is.

I would support the policy of choosing your own 2nd language, be it Chinese, Malay, Hindi, Japanese etc. I am just not convinced that instead of taking our bilingual education policy further (optional Chinese course on par with Taiwan/China, more opportunities to do 3rd language etc), we are giving it up and letting the entire world overtake us.

Just a little bit of information about myself - I come from a Mandarin speaking family and I did not learn any English until I was in school. Many students like me accepted that there are certain expectations of us - we went on to meet, or even exceed the expectations.

If the education system shifted the goalposts for us back then, I am pretty sure that I won't be able to write this post now.

Gary said...

" I would support the policy of choosing your own 2nd language, be it Chinese, Malay, Hindi, Japanese etc. I am just not convinced that instead of taking our bilingual education policy further (optional Chinese course on par with Taiwan/China, more opportunities to do 3rd language etc), we are giving it up and letting the entire world overtake us."

Irene, I agree we should be allowed to choose a 2nd or even 3rd language or even no additional language of our choice.

If making the formal learning/teaching Mandarin compulsory makes so much economic or educational sense, then all those with such aspiration would automatically go for it. Forcing it down the throat as is our case is in fact retrogressive. It doesn't help one bit when the language is also very difficult to effectively master for people who do not use it at home.

But I do question your logic that we are doing 'better' because of the present policy because to start of with we have always people who are effectively bilingual. The Mandarin speaking Singaporeans, like your parents for example, have always been among us. Our unique problem is that of the govt being always suspicious of them because this group in the earlier days had made plenty of trouble (in the govt's view) by having the guts and gumption to challenge it on many issues - called for or uncalled for.

How many and how well are Filipinos and other foreigners mastering the language? Anecdotally, I can tell you the vast majority speaks passably a 'likeness' of it. Extremely, few (there are of course the minority exceptions)are effectively bi-lingual.

You in fact had an edge over the average by being Mandarin speaking at home. I learned to speak both English and Mandarin basically only when I started schooling!

Confronting the situation after 40 years is hardly a whimsical or premature decision as some have claimed. In fact it is already late, a lot of damage has been perpetuated on many many generations of young Singaporeans. Just look at what China's Mao did to China with his Great Leap Forward and later the Cultural Revolution. The biggest drawback of Asian culture/mentality is the over reliance on the leaders being always right, always correct. Such deferential attitude and state of mind have wrought severe damage in the lives of their people coupled with the 'face' that is expected to be given by people to their leaders often by the leaders themselves or their sycopantic hangers-on.

Dag said...

Excellent observation on how those who are bad at Mandarin tend to be from richer, English-speaking families. Any proposal to reduce the weightage of MTL will disproportionately benefit children who are already privileged while penalising children who are already disadvantaged. This is highly unfair.

I came from an English-speaking family but I had no problems getting A1 for Higher Chinese. The key is hard work and constant exposure to the language. Even if your parents don't speak Mandarin, you can expose yourself to it by reading Chinese literature, watching Chinese shows, making friends with Mandarin-speaking kids (especially since we have so PRC students nowadays), etc.

From my anecdotal observations, students who struggle with Mandarin do so because they lack respect for the language and think of it as a useless burden. They would never pick up a Chinese story book unless it was necessary for schoolwork. They refuse to mix with Mandarin-speaking kids (and some even look down on Mandarin-speakers). With such a mentality, no wonder they will do badly for Chinese. The Government should not be shifting the goalposts for them.

luvpeazejoi said...

I quote from Lianhe Zaobao (dated 24th April, Saturday):





It seems that more primary school students are doing worse for Maths and Science. So then the question to ask is, why aren't parents complaining about Maths and Sciences, and why is Mother Tongue commonly made the scapegoat for a child for not being able to enter a so-called branded secondary school?

Next, we've all seen how China astounded the world during the 2008Olympics, and in time to come the Shanghai Expo will be officially launched - 2 feats that Singapore and many other countries will find it difficult or impossible to replicate. Not that I'm a huge fan of China, but it's a fact that China is on the rise, and becoming bigger and better than ever.

Singaporeans are known to be pragmatic. Some parents' call for the weightage of Mother Tongue Language to be reduced in PSLE is indeed pragmatic, but on the other hand severely short-sighted.

Pragmatism aside, it's not like economy and results are the only two important things in anybody's life. The question is, how do you understand your culture, heritage, roots and appreciate your identity if you can't even have a good grasp of your mother tongue and insist on viewing it with lower importance? If our races do not form the basis of our identities, then let's just leave out the race column in the NRIC altogether. If we insist on putting a label on the NRIC, then I suppose we should go beyond the formality and try to inculcate some values into the young.

I am also not particularly in favour of the idea that a certain quota should be reserved for students who scored brilliantly in all 3 other subjects besides Chinese. So for e.g., Top School ABC has a total of 600 vacancies for Secondary one students. If 500 vacancies are reserved for the top scorers of all 4 subjects, and 100 vacancies are deliberately set aside for the category of students mentioned above, what if there are another 100 students who happened to score A stars in all 4 subjects but are unfortunately banned from the top schools as they happened to be 501, 502.... and 599 on the list? Is it fair to these students who have excelled in all subjects and are more bilingual? If I'm a parent, I will surely question why priority is given to other
students who are in actual fact, worse off.

I have no idea since when, and how did bilingualism become so underrated.

I also have no idea as to why we should belittle our heritage just so that our children can secure a place in a top secondary school.

We've all see how the world has changed in recent years. And just as we embrace change, it is necessary to change with a value in mind.

It is important to see beyond the present, the grades and the secondary school that one's kid is eligible for. It is important to teach our kids to have a broader perspective in life. Before that can even happen, it is the parents themselves who need to understand the larger picture, the global picture before screaming out loud simply because the child has failed to do well in one subject, which happened to be his Mother Tongue.

Gary said...

I do object in no uncertain terms the govt proclivity to change reality to suit its political purpose.


Those who buy into it are either absolute idiots or who have lost contact with their real heritage and roots. Is it not foolish for a Hokkien, Cantonese, TeoChew, Hainanese, Heng Hua, Khek etc to de facto claim that they are members of the mandarin-speaking dialect group. How absolutly ridiculous. They are the real 忘 本 (wàng běn) -people who have forgotten their roots.

Without mandarin we have no roots -that was precisely what the pap cronies were claiming when they tried to justify learning mandarin 30-40 years ago! What an insult to our real ethnic roots!

luvpeazejoi said...

Just to clarify, it doesn't matter whether your speak Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hainanese etc etc., at the end of the day, at the end of the day, you kind of read the same Chinese Characters.

Siew Kum Hong said...

@Gary if you are arguing for dialects to be taught in schools, then I would think that ship has sailed.

Anyway, apropos of nothing, I came across this earlier tonight:

luvpeazejoi said...

Hi Kum Hong,

I was just thinking for a moment, how inconvenient it would be, for the elderly who are monolingual to travel around in Singapore. The best thing that we can do for them is to have signages in different languages, especially in MRT stations and trains. Wouldn't one feel like a stranger in one's country when you are alienated by the language?

And talking about being alienated by a language, what I'm trying to point out is that, when we don't have the environment to promote the use of a particular language, it would be difficult for anyone to find it useful to learn the language in the first place. When a language feels alien to you, and you don't see why your child needs to learn it, you think it's not your mother tongue and it has nothing to do with your heritage, plus the fact that you think China's rise in power has nothing to do with you and it's of utmost priority that your child gets into a top school first, and if he ever needs to learn the language and he can pick it up later,it becomes an extremely difficult situation to manage.

Reducing the weightage of Mother Tongue in PSLE certainly does not help to improve the standard of Mother Tongue in Singapore in my personal opinion. I am not sure what is the ultimate goal that we are trying to achieve, but if anyone can kindly enlighten us with a different perspective, it will be great to hear.

Trebuchet said...

Just a few observations...

1. Look at the graph here.

2. This tells us that you can have three philosophies, i) the trend must be reversed and hence MT weighting should be increased, ii) the trend should be flattened (see i above), or iii) the trend is natural and hence MT weighting will be an increasing burden since it is less and less an MT in any sense of the phrase.

3. What it also shows is that yes, the ship has sailed wrt other Chinese languages (no, I don't call them dialects, since they are as different (or more so) from Mandarin as Italian, French and Spanish are from Latin).

4. I suggest we keep MT weighting the same and increase EL weighting. I also suggest that we allow choice of MT. Actually, I propose we don't call it MT anymore, in case it creates all kinds of ridiculous ideas about what an MT is.

5. We know that India may someday overtake China. Population-wise, it already is. So why not have more Hindi classes?

Disclaimer: I can speak and read Mandarin although I come from a no-Mandarin Peranakan background. I thought it was pretty hard, and it took up a lot of my time, though.

Trebuchet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Trebuchet said...

This is a separate comment.

Any curriculum can be seen as advantageous or disadvantageous to any particular human. Therefore it is disingenuous to talk about crutches or whatever with respect to individuals.

More important, public education should serve the public interest. This is what government (in the area of education) is about: deciding what the public interest is and then doing something about it. Since as a nation our basis is in economics and technology, math and science are important. Since we are a communications hub (in terms of transport, air travel, etc) we need English.

Mandarin, however, is not the only MT (which it seems to be only because we are a roughly 75% ethnic Chinese population). It is a good choice as a second language, even if not as an MT. But it shouldn't be the only choice. Arabic is a clever choice too, as is Hindi; Japanese, Russian, Spanish are pretty good too.

Howard Gardner would say history, the arts and mathematics are good traditional curriculum choices too.

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