Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung at the 8th Mother Tongue Languages Symposium, at Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre

Published Date: 24 August 2019 12:00 AM

News Speeches

My Parliamentary Colleagues and GPC members

Chairpersons and Members of the Mother Tongue Language Learning and Promotion Committees

Colleagues, friends, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen

1. I am happy to join all of you today at the 8th Mother Tongue Languages (MTL) Symposium Opening Ceremony and the Outstanding Pre-School MTL Teacher Award presentation.


2. The theme for this year’s Symposium is “A Garden for Joyful Discovery”. The organisers drew inspiration from our “City in a Garden” vision for Singapore. Just like how our parks are lush, diverse and ecologically rich, so should learning opportunities – in terms of programmes, resources and various modes of lesson delivery. Similar to how parks, gardens, nature reserves are linked through park connectors into an extensive network, we too need to link up the learning of MTLs, from pre-school to lifelong learning.

3. To promote the learning of MTL, we organise this Symposium every year. It is a collaboration between MOE and the education community. There are 40 sharing sessions and workshops, and 43 exhibition booths to share good teaching practices in schools as well as home. I thank all our partners for your contribution to this Symposium, and I hope everyone will find the resources at the Symposium useful.

4. I would also like to thank the three Mother Tongue Language Learning and Promotion Committees, chaired by Ms Low Yen Ling, Dr Faishal Ibrahim, and Mr Vikram Nair, for organising a wide range of MTL-related programmes to cater to diverse student interests and needs.

5. We should also recognise our MTL teachers. They have been unwavering in upholding the MTL education policy. It has not been an easy journey working against the backdrop of globalisation, spread of social media, and wider use of English. Today, we are recognising the contribution of MTL teachers, including 13 outstanding pre-school MTL teachers.


6. Earlier this year in May, I spoke about ‘Learning Languages for Life’. I described it as a key thrust of our Learn for Life Movement. This is the fourth thrust. Today, let me briefly recap some of the key considerations and our strategy to promote learning of MTL and why it is important to feature this. SMS Chee Hong Tat will then elaborate on how we are improving the MTL curriculum in secondary schools.

7. There are significant benefits to learning our MTLs well:

  • First, extensive research has shown that learning two or more languages helps brain development and improves cognitive abilities of the child and benefit the child in the long term.

  • Second, our region is the fastest growing in the world, and knowing our MTLs well allows us to access valuable economic opportunities around the region. Many countries recognise this and they are also pushing ahead with multi-lingual education policies. Bilingualism is no longer Singapore’s unique advantage so we must work harder on this.

  • Finally, language is the window to culture, and as a young country, we must draw on our respective rich ancestral cultures, to build our unique Singapore culture and identity. I am glad that through the commemoration of the Singapore Bicentennial, we have raised the awareness of this aspect of nation building.

8. Together with MOE’s efforts, students, parents and the society at large are increasingly cognisant of the benefits of learning MTL.

9. In 2011, when I first participated in politics, some of my young friends working in the social media field advised me that it is very important for a politician to have some standout qualities. Some, like Ms Denise Phua, are well-known for championing support for students with special educational needs, others are known for passion in areas like environment, taking care of the aged, healthcare and education. As for me, they said the public will most likely remember me for being effectively bilingual.

10. It never occurred to me that this trait can leave an impression on people. That was when I realised that because of the change in our regional environment, society was starting to value language skills more than before.

11. This has also led to a shift in the way we leverage bilingual talent. In the past, in a Government agency, it used to be that if there is an officer strong in, say Chinese, and did Chinese studies in the university, he will be asked to engage the Chinese community, help prepare speeches to be delivered in Mandarin, or do translation work. While these are important work, it also sent the signal that knowing an MTL well will narrow your job scope and it becomes a double-edged sword.

12. Today, for instance, in the private sector, if you know an MTL well, you may be asked to look after the important accounts in Malaysia, Indonesia, India or China, or be posted to these important markets for business development. You are more likely to be valued for your bicultural expertise and perspective. Knowing an MTL opens up opportunities, and this change will gather pace.

13. So how do we plan to help our students learn MTL better? We are taking a four-pronged approach.

  • First, we will lay a strong foundation in languages through pre-schools. This will be the focus of MOE Kindergartens, which will set a benchmark for best practices.

  • Second, we will encourage students with the aptitude, to study MTLs more deeply. A key initiative is the introduction of the Language Elective Programme, or LEP. We started out with LEP in junior colleges, and will introduce LEP for all three MTLs in 15 secondary schools from next year. This was what I announced back in May. We will also add two Malay and two Tamil LEPs at the JC level.

  • Third, we recognise there will also be a group of students who need more help with MTL, and we must find ways to support them better.

  • Fourth, we will also promote the learning of a third language, or a second MTL of another community, at a conversational level. This is important in bringing our diverse communities closer together.

  • Finally, we will also make the learning of languages a lifelong journey, and part of SkillsFuture. We will do so by setting up language learning centres and facilities all over Singapore, to cater to adults who continue to learn MTLs.

14. Today, I will elaborate further on two of the above approaches – how secondary schools running the LEP can attract more students with talent in MTL and how we can better support students who have difficulties learning MTLs.


15. We want to encourage students with talent in MTLs to take up the LEP, especially now it is extended to secondary schools. Secondary schools offering LEP are also keen to attract MTL talent from a broad spectrum of primary schools, and are using the Direct School Admission (DSA) exercise to attract these students.

16. The interest from parents and students has been very encouraging. This year, LEP schools have received around 750 applications from students who come from 160 primary schools. These students have expressed interest in studying MTL literature, and are active participants of storytelling, public speaking, creative writing and even translation. I hope many of the students will secure their DSA places and join the LEP and make learning of MTL their passion.

17. At the same time, we must recognise that the ability to learn languages vary widely amongst students. Today, we have Learning Support Programmes for English and Math at lower primary level. This has worked very well. Students who need additional support are taught in small groups of five to eight, and this has really helped the students. We will take a similar approach for the learning of MTL, through the Mother Tongue Support Programme, MTSP.

18. We have piloted the MTSP last year in 14 schools for Chinese and five schools each for Malay and Tamil. The students in this programme receive differentiated instruction in class to enable them to cope with the common MTL curriculum at Primary 3 and 4. Learning resources like Tamil letters and picture cards for Malay and Chinese are specially developed to help address students’ linguistic needs. Various hands-on activities illustrate the practical usefulness of the languages, and motivate them to learn.

19. A study conducted by the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language revealed that students undergoing MTSP in the pilot schools showed significantly higher levels of engagement in their Chinese Language lessons. When posed with questions, these students produced 14% more sustained oral responses and around 3% more written answers. Students’ interest and confidence level in learning Chinese, as well as language proficiency, especially oral expression, has risen.

20. Teachers have also observed that students showed more enthusiasm participating in lesson activities, and are more willing to use MTLs in their day-to-day interactions. Hiranya from Huamin Primary shared that MTSP has helped improve her Tamil language ability, and she is now more motivated to revise her work at home. Her grandmother said: “In the past, Hiranya had difficulty holding continuous conversations with me in Tamil. Now it is easier for me to speak in Tamil as she can respond in Tamil. I am very happy to see the change in her.”

21. The positive feedback received from piloting the MTSP has strengthened our conviction that even for students who think it is not possible to learn MTL or extremely difficult to learn MTL, we can support them to pick up the language with confidence, and joy. Knowing another language, especially MTL, will serve them well for life. As such, from 2021, MOE will introduce the MTSP for Primary 3 students in all schools. In 2022, the programme will be extended to all Primary 4 students.

22. I hope parents can work with our teachers and schools, to help our young pick up and maintain the use of MTLs. Speak to them in MTL, or speak to each other in MTL, for the more words they hear, the more likely they will pick up the language. We must create an environment and a culture that supports and encourages everybody to continue to learn languages for life.


23. In conclusion, let me go back to the theme of this year’s symposium – our garden of learning and discovery.

24. Where I live, a mature tree just collapsed. The tree is obstructed on one side, so for many years it grew towards the opposite side – so it’s a lopsided tree. Recent prolonged dryness has caused the roots to become weak, until it could not hold the lopsided weight anymore, and the tree toppled. I was sad because I saw the tree grow for many years. It was like losing a friend.

25. Singapore is growing and spreading its wings too. We are connected to every corner of the world, people travel in and out of Singapore. But as we globalise, we need to have strong roots to balance our strong wings with firm roots. That is why the study of MTL is of core importance in our education system, society, economy, and nation.

26. I wish everyone a fruitful and an enjoyable experience at the 8th Mother Tongue Languages Symposium.

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