Against this backdrop, he says that Singapore's language policy also needs an update. That is why the Education Ministry is now reviewing its mother tongue language policy - in particular, the 25 per cent weighting given to mother tongue languages at the PSLE level.

The key question here, he says, is whether we keep the old norms and assumptions and ignore global trends and the new language environment.

His conclusion: 'I say we will need to update it and we have to take these factors into consideration.'

But some pet peeves, such as regular tests and assessment, won't change.

Amid all the changes, he stresses that the baby shouldn't get thrown out with the bath water. 'As we change, and we certainly must change, we don't want to unwittingly or inadvertently remove the pegs that make our system strong,' he says.

These pegs include the importance placed on 'learning and hard work', literacy, numeracy and science. There is merit to a system which gives a realistic assessment of a student's potential and doesn't attempt to 'perch everyone on a narrow academic peak in university'. Instead, it allows youngsters to reach for peaks by taking different routes, such as those offered by the Institute of Technical Education and the polytechnics.

Also, regular testing and assessment is another peg that is here to stay. Some countries, he notes, experimented with moving away from tests in the belief that children should study in an 'unfettered environment' but eventually went back to it.

Summing up, he says the Singapore education system is robust and mature enough to take into account the different aspirations of different groups. 'It is when we have more confidence that we can actually re-arrange the boxes without taking away the moorings.

'If it's possible to have a system that accommodates more, why shouldn't we do it? Especially if it doesn't hurt us and as long as we keep the fundamentals. I think we won't go far wrong if we create space and a system that maps itself to the different talents of our population.

'If I can create space for a child with high linguistic ability, if I can create space for a child who can be a wonderful dancer... and I can support a child who's slower, but can build in 21st century competencies to make him a productive citizen, then I think then we will all be richer for it.'

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