Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What's the problem? Cat got your Mother Tongue?

(Unpublished - May 8, 2010)

I follow with interest the recent discussions on the Primary School Leaving Examination Mother Tongue weightage and related issues.

I believe that our educational policy should be accommodative and reflective of not only our cultural diversity, but also our cultural heterogeneity.

This is because, among the ethnic Chinese Singaporean population for instance, there are those whose “Mother Tongue” may not be Mandarin. We cannot assume that the everyone within the same ethnic category have the same “Mother Tongue” or the same degree of proficiency.

It is perhaps due to its definitional vagueness that people take the liberty to assume, judge and impose.

This also brings up another issue, whether “Mother Tongue” is a misnomer and should be treated as a second language, which readers have recently pointed out.

While I doubt the Ministry of Education can come up with a solution that pleases everyone, I believe we on our part can start cultivating the mindset befitting a multicultural society.

I believe we Singaporeans should refrain from assuming ethnic, cultural and linguistic homogeneity, and not impose this cultural ideology on others. A mature diverse society should be moving beyond this conflation.

It can otherwise be detrimental to the esteem of our young, as they are either faced with cultural bigotry or sheer ignorance, and made to feel ashamed that their “Mother Tongue” language proficiency does not appear to match their ethnic category.

The government should revise the “Mother Tongue” language to be a “second language”, which infers a more neutral standpoint. This way, whichever cultural, traditional or prideful ideological inscriptions can be left to the family of the young.

At the same time, it does not help that the notion of “bilingualism” is often couched in the economic imperative and the ascension of the Chinese economy. The greater the overemphasis the more we risk alienating, or creating a system that alienates, those who may not be in the position to be proficiently bilingual, or in this case, proficient in English and Mandarin.

Then again, may we continue to ask why we are using bilingual proficiency as an academic benchmark for our young?

I advise the government to, apart from looking at statistics, numbers and the majority vote, also approach the issue sociologically.

A one-stop cure-all solution in a singular set of policies may not be suitable for a diverse society, and we need a multi-prong approach to the issue. This involves the state coming up with choices and alternatives, and the population maturing to be truly multicultural.

Ho Chi Sam

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