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On mother tongue, uni places for poly grads and more

Q How would you respond to worries that mother tongue languages, including Chinese, could be taught as foreign languages in the future?

The question must be, as an educator, how effective am I? It's like asking, will I be worried if one day maths is taught a particular way, say using the model method?

So, the right question to ask is how effective is the method?

China's Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, a language proficiency examination, uses different levels. At level two, you should be able to understand simple language and at level four, you should be able to read newspapers. That's very sensible. The system is geared towards non-native speakers, but suppose we find that it is more effective. Are we then going to say, well, no, that's not the way to teach. My point is we shouldn't be conscribed by labels. The more important point is: Is it effective?

In the same way, we could argue about how we teach English. Previously we thought that we could get away from grammar and syntax, but found that that was really wrong. So we had to come back (to grammar and syntax).

Maybe we should quote Deng Xiaoping: It doesn't matter whether the cat is white or black, as long as it catches rats. We should be happy that it can deliver.

Q How would you address concerns that the Ministry of Education (MOE) is setting the bar too low for mother tongue languages?

All of us understand why mathematics and science is needed. English will be required in the workplace. Chinese, for some, will certainly be an asset because China is rising.

But, if you were to ask whether someone with no language ability - but who excels in mathematics and science - can progress, the answer must be 'yes'.

So we must support those who have good language abilities to go as far as they can in their mother tongue language. But, to meet the diverse talents of our population, we may want to see whether we can have a system that also meets the needs of those who have no language ability but have strengths in other areas. I'm not sure whether the either-or construct has been just or relevant for tomorrow - whether that's the best model for our children.

Q Even with the additional university places that will be offered through the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), only 20 per cent of polytechnic graduates will win a place at the local universities, while 70 per cent of junior college students will get a shot at university education locally. Why the gap, and do you see this gap closing as the calibre of polytechnic graduates improves?

Our planning norm has always been to set the standards and then see if you can meet them.

Because Singapore is small, to keep it up there, we need to set appropriate standards for university admission.

So, if students meet these standards, they get in. Obviously, sometimes this translates into percentages.

It is not our aspiration to send 70 per cent of our population to university, because countries that have done that have found, at the tail end, that employers know which universities are not up to mark.

We have expanded university places with SIT and SUTD. And, as I have said, as long as standards are kept, I'm prepared to review the number of places in SIT, which we can expand.

If polytechnic students perform better, more of them should qualify for university - and why not?

Just as our ITE (Institute of Technical Education) students are doing better and going to poly.

Previously, one in six ITE students went to poly. Now it's one in five, and the way they are performing, it will soon be one in four. So, if they're doing better, we will admit them.

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