Remarks by Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education, at the 4th Mother Tongue Languages Symposium on Saturday, 29 August 2015, at the Suntec Singapore International Convention & Exhibition Centre

Published Date: 29 August 2015 12:00 AM

News Speeches

To all our teachers, parents and our colleagues from MOE HQ,

1. One of the most significant decisions that we made about Singapore education is to have bilingualism. The use of English connects us with one another across languages, across races, and it connects us to the world so that we can plug into this international language, the language of science and technology and commerce.

2. But the Mother Tongue Languages connect us to our roots, to our values, to our heritage, to our culture. And this is what makes Singapore multi-racial. How do we continue with our Mother Tongue Language policy, continue with our work in Mother Tongue Language learning? We look back and say that we have achieved a lot. While we look forward, we have to think about what’s next for us. What have we done correctly and what can we do to be even better? I’ll say that there are three things that we can do.

Make it unique

3. First, making the learning of mother tongue in Singapore unique to Singapore. Why unique to Singapore? We have this rich multi-cultural heritage in Singapore, where our forefathers came from all different parts of the world. We have to build on this very rich heritage. We got to reach deep into the heritage and bring it together.

4. And in that regard, I’m reminded of a big river - a big river draws its sources from all the small little rivers all over the land, and when they all come together at one point, that point of confluence, that point of connection, is an extremely rich point. And this is how we can build on this rich cultural heritage, and do something special and unique in Singapore.

5. We are also special in that if you look at the geography of Singapore, we are right in the heart of Asia. We are also very globally connected. We should make the best use of that very special position in the world.

6. That’s my first point. Let’s make it special, let’s make it unique. Let’s draw from this rich heritage and make it our own Singapore bilingual policy.

Make it alive

7. Now the second thing that we need to do is to make the learning of languages alive. It is how we use it every day, how we find it useful, meaningful and enjoyable. And in that regard, I’m very happy that we now have a lot more cultural performances, a lot more books that are written in different Mother Tongue Languages, and a lot more programmes, whether it is on television, on radio, on mass media, or actual plays, dances and performances. And of course, in every day communication and every day usage.

8. We have to help our children learn this language so that it is something that is alive. It is not something that they learn in the textbook and then they put it away and just sit for the exam. It has to be part and parcel of them, and part and parcel of their lives. So keep it alive, keep it meaningful.

Make it easy

9. And the third thing is to make it as easy as possible for our children to learn the Mother Tongue Languages. Now to all the teachers here, let me assure you that I don’t mean lowering standards in the exams. I’m not asking you to set easier papers, but rather, let us find ways and means to help our children learn the language naturally and easily. I think we have to put in a lot more effort in this area. What we have done is a great start - for instance, this emphasis on pre-school learning, where we help our children to learn the languages easier. We start earlier so that they have a better foundation and by doing that, hopefully, as they progress, they find it easier and easier to learn.

10. We have to look at the best research on language learning and bilingualism. We have to find the best types of resources that can appeal to children at different ages that can help them learn the language. And we have to find better ways that the parents can link up with the children, can communicate with them and make it interesting for them. We can find better ways in which teachers can make the learning of these languages fun, easy and meaningful. I believe that all that can be done by keeping it unique, keeping it alive and keeping it easy.

Going forward

11. If we can do all this well, we will make our multi-cultural policy a big asset for Singapore and for Singaporeans.

12. About two weeks back, I was at the renaming of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies after our first President Yusof Ishak. I quoted what he said, which was how we must not see the differences in race, language, or culture as a stumbling block, but in fact, it is a special strength of Singapore that will be important for our prosperity, happiness and progress. I think those are very wise words.

13. So going forward, I am sure that we can do a lot more and MOS Sim Ann and I, as well as all our other colleagues, are very committed to this very special cause and to make sure that we build on the great foundation that has been laid over the past, more than 50 years, but ever since our independence and take it much further and do it much better. I am confident we can do that. Why am I confident? Because we have great teachers. Just as we saw today, all our teachers in our pre-schools getting these awards. We will continue to invest in training and developing our teachers and to making sure that you have access to the best research and the best knowledge and the best resources possible for the learning of languages.

14. So on that note, I want to once again thank all our teachers for your effort, our specialists in MOE HQ and our universities for working very hard on this. By working together, we can create a better learning environment for all our children. By creating that better environment for all our children, we can make Singapore an even better society, an even more multi-cultural society where we can draw the strengths from our different traditions and make this uniquely Singapore. So thank you very much to all for your hard work.

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