By Clarissa Oon
PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Education Minister Ng Eng Hen have reassured Singaporeans opposed to the move that the weightage of mother tongue in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) will not be lowered.
Bilingualism remains as important as ever, but what will change is how mother tongue languages are taught and examined, they said yesterday, in response to a recent outpouring of views on the subject.
Explaining, PM Lee said the underlying problem is that pupils today have such diverse backgrounds and aptitudes in Chinese, Malay and Tamil, and reducing the weighting for these subjects at the PSLE is not the best way of resolving the problem.
Indeed, reducing weighting 'would send the wrong signal, that we are downgrading mother tongue'. It would also not help a student reach 'the level which we would like him to reach', he explained during a press conference yesterday at the Istana.
Instead, the Ministry of Education is exploring alternative examination models, pegged to different levels of language proficiency, that 'give students progressive, successive achievable targets to aim for'.
This would be fair to both strong and weak pupils, he added. 'The better students can go further and be awarded for their achievement. The weaker students can progress as far as their abilities will allow, reach a meaningful proficiency level and get appropriate credit.'
Dr Ng stressed that such an overhaul of mother tongue teaching and examination was a long-term endeavour and would take years to implement.
As a result, present batches of primary school pupils would not be affected.
Any revisions to the curriculum and the PSLE format would take place over the next five to 15 years, he said.
Singaporeans displayed strong and polarised reactions after Dr Ng implied in a press interview three weeks ago that the PSLE weightage of the mother tongue could be cut.
Those in favour of the cut were mainly English-speaking families, who called for their children not to be penalised by poor mother tongue performance in the PSLE.
Against reducing the weightage were the Chinese and Malay communities, which voiced fears that mother tongue standards would deteriorate further.
A petition signed at the Speakers' Corner at Hong Lim Park on Sunday garnered some 2,400 signatures, mostly from Chinese Singaporeans, against a possible cut in the mother tongue weightage.
The mother tongue grade currently comprises 25 per cent of the total PSLE aggregate score, sharing equal weightage with English, mathematics and science.
Asked to comment on the furore that Dr Ng's remarks had sparked, PM Lee said it was stronger than the Government had expected, even granting the sensitivities of language, race and religion here.
However, he saw a silver lining in that those who spoke up against downgrading the mother tongue's weightage included a new generation of bilingual Singaporeans who have benefited from the bilingual education system and wanted it to continue.
He clarified there was no U-turn in policy, as the mother tongue is crucial 'not just to the education system, but to our conception of what sort of society we are'.
'We are not just people who came from outer space who have learnt English. We have histories, heritages and identities...which define us, and at the same time link us to the world we live in - Asia, India, China, South-east Asia,' he said.
But he stressed that improvements to mother tongue teaching and testing are needed to keep it alive among subsequent generations, among whom an increasing number come from English-speaking families.
The Government plans to invest more in the recruitment and training of mother tongue teachers to cater to pupils of different language abilities.
The director-general of education, Ms Ho Peng, is chairing a review of the mother tongue languages.
Her committee is exploring two key thrusts - differentiated teaching and proficiency-based testing - and will present an update in a few months.
What it will not do is remove incentives for pupils to do well in the subject, emphasised PM Lee. They will still need to perform well in mother tongue to get into a choice secondary school.
Parents who had supported a cut in the mother tongue weightage expressed disappointment that there would be no cut, but welcomed the differentiated approach in teaching and testing pupils of varying abilities.
The rival camp was relieved the current weightage would stay.
'Cutting the weightage will reduce the importance of Chinese, which should not be the case because it is such an important language,' said Ms J. Lee, 41, a homemaker and mother of two school-going children.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.