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  1. In his National Day Rally speech in 1997, the Prime Minister spoke of the importance of maintaining our Asian heritage, and particularly the challenge faced by the Chinese community in maintaining its roots. He highlighted two issues:

    1. Firstly, reproducing a core group of Singaporeans who are steeped in the Chinese cultural heritage, history, literature and the arts. We need them to be Chinese language teachers, writers, journalists, community leaders, MPs and Ministers; and

    2. Secondly, setting realistic standards for Chinese Language in schools, standards that students of average ability can achieve with a reasonable effort, especially students from English-speaking home backgrounds.


  1.     Following this, the Ministry of Education has done a comprehensive review of the teaching of Chinese language in our schools. The study involved school principals from both SAP schools and English-language schools, MOE’s curriculum development staff, its policy officers, MOE’s ministers, and myself. The study covered the following issues:

    1. Encouraging more students to study Higher Chinese (HCL) in schools, and achieve a deeper understanding of Chinese culture;
    2. Developing a few more schools with a stronger Chinese environment;
    3. Reviewing the cultural content of the Chinese language syllabus;
    4. Setting the appropriate standards of Chinese Language (CL) to be expected of the majority of students; and
    5. Addressing the problems of pupils who have difficulty learning Chinese.

  1. The Government has accepted the study’s recommendations. The policies on teaching and learning Chinese have long term implications and affect many teachers, pupils, and parents. Before I present the main changes, let me explain our overall approach to the problem.


  2. The Government’s long-standing policy on bilingualism and learning of mother tongues in schools remains unchanged. English is and will remain our common working language. It is the language of global business, commerce and technology. But the mother tongue gives us a crucial part of our values, roots and identity. It gives us direct access to our cultural heritage, and a world-view that complements the perspective of the English-speaking world. It provides us the ballast to face adversity and challenges with fortitude, and a sense of quiet confidence about our place in the world. Maintaining our distinctiveness and identity as an Asian society will help us to endure as a nation. This applies to all ethnic groups.

  3. In teaching the Chinese language (CL), we have two objectives:

    1. To develop the pupil’s linguistic skills, in terms of listening, speaking, reading and writing; and
    2. To transmit Chinese culture and traditional values through the study of CL.

  4. These twin objectives recognise the importance of CL as a means of transmitting culture and values. The level of language skills we can aim for will vary for different groups of pupils, depending on their aptitudes and abilities. But we want to inculcate these cultural values even in pupils who have difficulty learning CL, if necessary partly by using English.

  5. While the strategic goals have remained constant, their implementation has changed over time, to adapt to changing circumstances. Most recently, in 1991 a committee chaired by then-DPM Mr Ong Teng Cheong reviewed the CL syllabus. It recommended significant improvements to the teaching and learning of Chinese language in schools. These have since been implemented, including a completely new set of textbooks for all levels, with much improved cultural content.


  6. However, the situation continues to develop. Several trends affect the learning and teaching of CL in Singapore:

    1. Firstly, the language profile of Singaporean families is changing rapidly. More Singaporean homes are now English-speaking. Younger families are much more likely to be English-speaking than older ones. In 1988, only 20% of the Primary 1 cohort came from English-speaking homes. By 1998, the figure was 40%. In 10 years, the proportion has doubled. It will continue to rise. This will have a major impact on the learning and teaching of Chinese Language in schools.

    2. Secondly, globalisation and the knowledge economy are putting a premium on internationally mobile talent. Successful Singaporeans have many opportunities to live and work overseas. This makes it more critical to develop among them a sense of Singaporean identity and belonging through learning the mother tongue. But it also means being more careful to make realistic demands on pupils learning CL, so that parents do not associate a Singaporean education with burdensome CL requirements.

    3. Thirdly, a counterbalancing factor is the continued rapid growth and opening up of China. China will be a major global player in the 21st century. A command of CL will be valuable asset for many jobs and careers, even if the person does not live or work in China. This is true of the public service, and will be so in the private sector too. Singaporeans brought up to be bilingual will be at a significant advantage. This gives a practical purpose to learning CL, and will motivate pupils to master the language.


  7. We want every Singaporean to study his mother tongue in school for as long as possible, and to as high a level as he is capable of. The human brain has a finite capacity. Only a minority of people – at most 10-15% of the population – have the IQ and the aptitude for languages to master two languages equally well. Even fewer can think in more than one language. But most people can master one language well, and have a working knowledge of a second.

  8. In our schools English is the main medium of instruction, and must be learnt at the first language level. For the mother tongue, we want pupils who can also do it at first language level, or close to it. For the rest of the pupils, mother tongue instruction will have to be at second language level. What this second language level consists of is an empirical question, not a matter of opinion or dogma. It is what pupils of average ability can achieve with a reasonable effort. But whether a pupil learns his mother tongue at first or second language, we will provide him the support, facilities, and incentives to make the effort.

  9. This approach to teaching the mother tongue, applied to Chinese, will enable us to nurture a Chinese cultural elite, especially from among those who have taken HCL and studied in SAP schools. It will also help us build a broad base of Chinese Singaporeans who have learnt CL, and will continue to use Chinese beyond the formal education system.

  10. The effort required of pupils to study CL must be comparable to the effort required for other subjects. It cannot be disproportionate. In terms of results at key milestone examinations, there is no major problem with CL. Most pupils score good grades for CL, indeed even better than for English Language. But this is not the full story.

  11. MOE commissioned Forbes Research to do a survey of teachers, students and parents on the teaching and learning of CL. The survey found that many pupils are spending more time studying CL than other subjects. Pupils who are strong in other subjects but weak in Chinese spend almost twice as much time outside of school studying Chinese as Mathematics. More surprisingly, even students who are strong in Chinese as well as all other subjects spend almost 40% more time studying Chinese than Mathematics, and 20% more time studying Chinese than English.

  12. MOE is working to re-orientate the entire education system to an ability-driven paradigm. It is designing mass customisation models to allow each pupil to proceed as far as he can in the areas in which he excels. This applies to all subjects. We will adopt a more customised strategy to teaching CL in line with this overall approach. We will set different target levels of achievement for pupils of different abilities, based on what pupils of that ability level can attain given a reasonable amount of effort. This will encourage each pupil to strive for the highest standard that he is capable of.

  13. Some pupils are not academically outstanding all-round, but have a strong aptitude and interest in Chinese. We should provide them with encouragement and opportunities to study HCL. Many academically outstanding pupils do HCL. But they often go on to study subjects like engineering or law, and pursue careers in business or government where they no longer use much Chinese. Fewer take up professional careers centred on Chinese language and culture, for example in teaching, the media, or the arts. Encouraging more students whose academic results are good but perhaps not as outstanding to study HCL will help build up a functional Chinese elite.

  14. On the other hand, there are also talented pupils who are not able to cope with existing CL standards, even though they have high cognitive ability, do well in all their other subjects, and have good potential to contribute to Singapore when they grow up. We should not turn these pupils against CL. We should encourage them to develop an interest and a basic level of mastery, which they can build on later if they need to.

  15. Pupils who have exceptional difficulties coping with CL are a small minority. But we cannot ignore their problems. They are overwhelmingly male (three quarters or more). Most but not all are from English-speaking homes.

  16. Not all pupils have the same home environment or natural ability in learning CL. We must recognise the large difference which the home language makes to learning CL. A CL syllabus may present no problem to a child who speaks Chinese at home. Chinese is probably his master language. His CL lessons reinforce and formalise words, phrases and grammar which he already knows. But the same syllabus can be extremely challenging for a child who speaks English at home, uses Chinese only occasionally outside class, and for whom far from being a master language, Chinese is a totally new language which has to be learnt from scratch.

  17. It is significant that most of the pupils who are very weak in Chinese are boys. This shows that the problem of this group is not just lack of motivation, or not trying hard enough. It reflects innate differences between males and females, in brain function and aptitude for learning languages. It is a well established fact that girls are much better at languages than boys. We must acknowledge and allow for this reality.

  18. Besides customising the CL requirements to suit pupils of different abilities, in teaching CL we need to achieve an appropriate balance among the language skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. In adult life, most Singaporeans will more often speak and hear Chinese than read Chinese, and more often read than write Chinese. So CL teaching, and CL examinations, should emphasise more on listening and speaking skills, and also on reading skills. For HCL the present emphasis on all four skills, including writing, should be maintained.

  19. To support this approach to CL, we need appropriate markers, signals and incentives. We need to encourage students through many ways to make the effort to take CL seriously and do their best. We already have schemes to recognise and reward those who excel in CL. We must build on these. We will maintain key requirements, such as requiring students to meet a certain minimum standard in CL at ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels to proceed on to junior college and university.

          KEY PROPOSALS 

  1. I will now highlight the specific changes to HCL and CL teaching following from the review.

    Encouraging More Students to Study Higher Chinese

  2. Presently, Higher Chinese is offered by 22% of upper primary school pupils and 12% of secondary school students. We will encourage more students to study HCL, as this will be the source of the future Chinese elite.

  3. Primary Schools.

    1. In primary schools we will relax the criteria for allowing pupils to take HCL. They can do so provided at Primary 4 streaming they score Band 1 in CL, and at least Band 2 in English and Mathematics.

  4. Admission to SAP Schools.

    1. We will be more liberal in allowing pupils to take HCL, both at primary and secondary levels. In secondary schools, currently only students who score in the top 10% of PSLE, or who score within the next 10% and show their ability to handle both English and Chinese are allowed to do HCL. We will broaden this to the top 30% of PSLE students, subject to similar conditions.

    2. Currently, the top 10% of PSLE students are offered a second chance to opt for SAP schools after the PSLE results are published. We will broaden this "Second Option" to the top 30% of PSLE students who are eligible to offer HCL.

    3. These changes should increase the proportion of pupils studying HCL, especially at secondary school. How many actually opt for HCL depend on the pupils’ choices, but we hope to raise the proportion in secondary schools from the current 12% to 15-20%.

  5. Admission to Junior College.

    1. Currently, all students who obtain a pass in HCL are given two bonus points for JC admission. To encourage more students to take up the Chinese Language Programme (LEP), we will award two additional bonus points for admission into JC to students who enrol in the programme.

  6. University.

    1. We will also follow through to encourage more students to continue doing Chinese at the polytechnic and university. The number majoring in Chinese Language or Chinese Studies are unlikely to be large. But our tertiary institutions offer other courses where Chinese is useful, and ECAs related to Chinese language and culture.

    2. NUS has undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in Chinese Language and Chinese Studies. It runs two popular MBA programmes in Mandarin which cater to the needs of Chinese-speaking Singaporeans and foreigners. NTU offers Chinese electives to balance the mainly technological orientation of its undergraduate courses, and to broaden its undergraduate education. The polytechnics offer electives and modules on Chinese language and culture. Some polytechnic courses contain modules conducted in Chinese. There are active Chinese dance and drama groups and Chinese orchestras on university and polytechnic campuses. A small number of students visit China as exchange students or on study tours.

    3. MOE is exploring with the universities the possibility of introducing bonus points for entry into Chinese Studies in NUS for those strong in Chinese, and Communications Studies in NTU for those strong in Mother Tongue, at AO- or A-Level.

    4. The universities and polytechnics will strive to expand the range of options available, so that even those students who do not focus on Chinese language and culture can keep up their interest in Chinese and use it to valuable advantage in their careers.


  7. We will enhance the SAP programme to improve its effectiveness and reach. Both good academic performance and a rich Chinese environment are important attributes of SAP schools. The 9 schools were chosen in 1979, 20 years ago. They have helped to preserve the best of the old Chinese schools. But the list of 9 schools has not been updated since, although the geographical distribution of the population has shifted, and the schools have developed at different paces.

  8. We have reviewed the 9 SAP schools. Most are doing well, both academically and in terms of cultural enrichment. However, a few of them have rather low proportions of students qualifying to take Higher Chinese, and have fallen in their academic rankings. MOE has discussed the problem with these SAP schools, and will work with them to help them improve their standards.

  9. We will therefore retain all 9 existing schools on the SAP programme. In addition, we will make Nan Hua Secondary a 10th SAP school. Nan Hua will help to cater for the additional PSLE students who will now be given a Second Option to apply for a SAP secondary school, but who may not be admitted into the most popular SAP schools. Nan Hua is also in Clementi, in the Western part of the island, whereas most existing SAP schools are in the Eastern half of Singapore.

  10. At the Junior College level, we will set up a third centre for the Chinese Language Elective Programme (LEP), at Nanyang Junior College, as the Minister for Education announced last week. However, Nanyang JC will continue to accept non-Chinese students. Indeed it has vibrant non-Chinese cultural programmes. It organises a dikir barat competition and an Indian drama festival every year, and I hope will continue to do so.


  11. As the purpose of teaching Chinese is not purely utilitarian, but to transmit heritage and values, the cultural content of the textbooks is important. While learning the language, we want the pupils to pick up stories and fables, learn about historical characters, and imbibe lessons for life.

  12. We have reviewed the contents of the CL and HCL textbooks. Compared to the textbooks which they replaced, the present ones are far richer and more interesting.

  13. However, we can improve the cultural content of the textbooks further. MOE will do so progressively as part of its curriculum review process. In addition, we will introduce an enrichment course, "Introduction to Appreciation of Chinese", for all lower secondary students in SAP schools.

  14. But we have to be mindful to maintain a balance between including more cultural material, and helping students to master the basics of the language. For example, we explored the possibility of reintroducing a few passages of classical Chinese or wen yen into the HCL textbooks. But the advice of the teachers and professionals was that the students today would have difficulty coping with them. We also cannot make the contents so dense with cultural messages and historical facts that pupils cease to relate to them. We must teach Chinese as a living language to be used in our daily lives, and not something from the past that is no longer relevant to the present.


  15. The new textbooks for CL were written after the Committee chaired by Mr Ong Teng Cheong had completed work and published their report. Since their introduction in schools, MOE has received feedback from parents and teachers that the new textbooks are significantly harder than the old textbooks. This had not been the intention of the Committee. Its aim had been to improve the cultural content of the textbooks, and not to raise their difficulty level. We therefore convened a panel of professional educators to review the level of the new textbooks, and specifically compare them with old ones.

  16. The panel confirmed that the new CL textbooks are significantly harder, in terms of words and phrases, grammar, content, length of passages, and overall workload on students.

  17. This has to be remedied. We will revise the primary and secondary CL textbooks. We will rewrite them to preserve the cultural content, but pitched at a level of difficulty that is realistically achievable by the majority of students with reasonable effort. Simplifying the language of the textbooks will make their content more accessible to students. This will lighten their load, and restore the CL standard to roughly what it was before the present textbooks were introduced.

  18. Rewriting the CL textbooks will take some time. Meanwhile, as an interim measure, schools will continue to use the present textbooks, but will skip certain of the more difficult passages. MOE has identified the passages to be excised, and will brief schools and parents on the details.

  19. As for HCL textbooks, the panel has found that the new textbooks are also more difficult than the ones they replaced. However, feedback from schools is that HCL students are coping with them. We will therefore not be rewriting the HCL textbooks to reduce their level of difficulty.

  20. This problem of textbooks having become harder raises the question whether examination standards have similarly gone up. Pupils and parents will be reassured to learn that CL examinations have not become harder. We have verified that examination standards have remained constant, especially the key PSLE and ‘O’ level examinations, as indeed was the intention all along.

  21. However, we will be revising design and format of the PSLE CL examinations, to give greater weighting to listening and speaking skills, and to test the skills that we want the children to learn. The type and nature of examination items will be revised. There should be a core of questions that most reasonably proficient students will be able to answer, and a number of more difficult questions to discriminate students who are above average and those who are outstanding. The overall standard expected of pupils will be maintained at the present level.

  22. MOE will also review the ‘O’ level CL examination format, but our preliminary conclusion is that the changes will be fewer than for the PSLE CL examination.

  23. The changes in examination and textbooks will be introduced and implemented with sufficient notice to pupils, parents and teachers to make the necessary adjustments.


  24. The adjustment to the CL standard will mean the vast majority of pupils should be able to cope with CL. However, it will not solve the problem of the minority of pupils who find it very difficult to cope with CL. Their number is still quite small, but the proportion of English speaking families is growing. If we ignore the real problems these children have learning Chinese, they are likely to develop a lasting aversion to the language and culture, which will be counterproductive. Worse, public support for the CL policy from parents will weaken, and the Government will come under pressure to lower CL standards across the board.

  25. To address this problem, we will introduce an alternative CL ‘B’ syllabus, at the secondary and JC levels, for these pupils to take. This should help them to attain a basic level of proficiency in CL, and hopefully instil in them a positive interest in Chinese culture, traditions and values. At the same time it will enable us to maintain a higher standard for the majority of pupils who have no difficulty coping with the HCL and CL syllabi.

  26. The CL ‘B’ syllabus will be similar in teaching content to CL, but with simpler texts and a smaller word list. The examination format will give greater weightage to listening to and speaking Chinese, as these are skills that are likely to be of most use to this group of pupils later on in life. A pass in CL ‘B’ syllabus at the ‘O’ and ‘A’ level examinations will qualify students to enter JC and university. However, the CL ‘B’ syllabus result cannot be used to compute the ‘O’ level aggregate for admission into JC, or earn any "A" level points used for university admission.

  27. We decided against introducing CL ‘B’ syllabus at the primary level. We want to encourage all Chinese pupils to strive to do well in CL and not give up easily, as our policy objective is to have all Chinese Singaporeans learn CL for as long as possible and to as high a level as possible. Currently, weak pupils are putting in extra effort at the PSLE, and the results show that the vast majority are coping. MOE will monitor the situation in primary schools and reconsider this if a problem develops later.

  28. CL ‘B’ syllabus is not intended as soft option in lieu of CL. MOE will work out safeguards and incentives to ensure that students who are able to cope with CL will continue to offer CL, and not opt for CL ‘B’ syllabus. MOE estimates that 80-90% of each cohort should be capable of doing HCL or CL, so only a minority will need to do CL ‘B’ syllabus.

  29. MOE will work out the implementation details for this new syllabus. CL ‘B’ can be made available to pupils sitting for their GCE ‘O’ and ‘A’ level examinations in 2001, at the earliest.


  30. Although our review has focused on Chinese language, the philosophy and approach behind the CL policy framework also applies, with suitable modifications, to the teaching and learning of other Mother Tongue Languages.

  31. MOE has started to review the Tamil Language syllabus, to ensure that the standard is appropriate and not too difficult. We will introduce ‘B’ syllabus for Tamil and Malay, if this proves necessary.

  2. The policies I have outlined are a refinement and updating of the existing framework, not a dramatic change. They will guide the teaching and learning of Chinese Language in schools. They will provide pupils and parents, teachers and curriculum specialists a clear understanding of the principles and rationale behind the Government’s policies on Chinese Language.

  3. These changes will help to maintain a Chinese cultural elite as one important component of our multi-racial society. They will also give all Chinese Singaporeans enough mastery of CL to acquire the cultural values and heritage that are part of our social DNA.

  4. The shift in language patterns among Singaporeans reflects the broader social changes in Singapore society. We have undergone a momentous transformation in one generation. The transformation is far from over. Singapore society must continue to adapt, to stay abreast and relevant to the global economy.

  5. We will need to review our mother tongue policies regularly, to take into account the continuing evolution of our society, changes in the external environment, as well as new research on language learning. A flexible and realistic approach to teaching and learning mother tongues will keep them alive and flourishing in Singapore, and help us to maintain our Asian heritage and identity in a rapidly changing world.







  1. Teaching of CL is a vital issue. Before settling these changes, I discussed them with Chinese educated MPs, and Chinese newspaper editors. I was relieved that they understood the problem, and accepted the need for changes, though they were naturally concerned about the impact of adjusting CL standards, and introducing CL ‘B’ syllabus.

  2. We have twin aims – (1) to maintain a Chinese cultural elite, and (2) to set realistic standards in CL for all pupils, including those from English speaking homes.

  3. Our policy on bilingualism and learning of mother tongues in schools is unchanged. We want to develop linguistic skills, and also transmit culture and traditional values. But implementation of this policy needs to adapt to changing circumstances.

  4. The Chinese cultural elite are an important source of strength for our multi-racial, multi-religious society. Their group instincts, political and social values, and social cohesion complement the different spirit and outlook of English educated Singaporeans. Chinese High School and Raffles Institution are both outstanding schools, but the pupils they produce are sharply of different moulds. Singapore society would be poorer, and weaker, if it had only one of the two.

  5. This is why we are trying hard to maintain a Chinese cultural elite. It will not be easy, because our working language is English, and the environment is Westernised. But our policies, like the additional LEP and 10th SAP school, will make a difference.

  6. But we cannot aim to preserve our Chinese elite exactly in the form of the 1950s or 1960s. That was a product of the particular phase of our history: post war colonial Singapore, in an anti-colonial struggle for independence. The Chinese elite played a major role, both on the Communist and non-Communist sides. Their support was again important later, in an anti-communal struggle after Singapore entered Malaysia. That period has passed.

  7. Even in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, the values and culture have not remained static. They have evolved differently, in response to different political and social pressures. So the Chinese elite in Singapore must develop, and help Chinese culture to play its rightful role in shaping our cosmopolitan society and knowledge economy of the 21st century.

  8. Equally important to our mother tongue policy is setting realistic standards for all pupils. We must accept the human limits of our pupils. Very few can be equally proficient in two languages. As Goh Choon Kang told me, it is like a computer loaded with Chinese software. The computer slows down, and sometimes the whole system hangs up.

  9. MPs know from personal experience with children how difficult it is to master both English and Chinese. Even Chinese educated parents who speak Chinese at home find that the Chinese standard of their children is not quite up to their own levels. Some have children who struggle with CL, or HCL, especially in secondary school.

  10. I myself did not find Chinese easy in secondary school and pre-U, despite being in a Chinese school throughout and speaking Chinese at home with my father. Even now although I read LHZB and watch the Chinese news every day, if I have a major speech or interview in Chinese, I need to spend some time preparing and practising, to brush up the language. Otherwise the sentences and thoughts do not flow.

  11. There are pupils who do better than me at languages, and score distinctions in both English and HCL. But there are also many others who like me find it difficult.

  12. Teachers know this. I asked them if we could include a few classical texts in the HCL textbooks, because the classical passages which were taught in the old Chinese schools left a deep and permanent impression. But they told me it was not practical, because the students would not be able to manage it. So there are limits, even for HCL.

  13. We must set our Chinese requirements at a realistic level, particularly for CL, which the main bulk of the students take. The standard cannot just depend on we like to see, but also on what empirical experience tells us that students can reach and cope with.

  14. Several Chinese educated MPs have expressed concern that new CL ‘B’ syllabus should not become a soft option. I agree that we have to watch this. But our experience with CL gives us some reason for confidence.

  15. At P5 and P6, 22% of pupils are doing HCL, even though our guidelines are more stringent. Parents are encouraging their children to opt for EM1, and study HCL.

  16. The  Forbes survey found that 80% of parents thought CL was an important subject, and 80-90% of pupils also thought so. More than 90% of parents supported using Chinese textbooks to inculcate values. This confirms my impression talking to parents, including parents who are themselves Chinese educated. They know Chinese will be useful to their children. They want their children to learn Chinese. They try all means to supervise their children, and help them to do well – with tutors, immersion programmes in China or Taiwan, incentives. But they find the pressure very high. We cannot ignore this feedback.

  17. The changes we are making will help to maintain our mother tongue policies in a changing environment. This will not be the last time we have to review our policies, or discuss them in this House. But provided we keep them up to date, and take a realistic and practical approach to the issue, we can maintain the role of Chinese culture, values and language in our society.


Page Last Updated : 02-Jan-2008

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