Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, at the Opening Ceremony of Bookfest@singapore 2019, Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre

Published Date: 06 December 2019 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Mr Desmond Wee, Chairman of POPULAR Holdings Ltd

Mr Chou Cheng Ngok, Group CEO and Executive Director of POPULAR Holdings Ltd

Board of Directors and Key Management of POPULAR Holdings Ltd

Ladies and Gentlemen

1. I am delighted to join you today for the Opening Ceremony of BookFest@Singapore 2019. This year marks the 95th anniversary of POPULAR, and I would like to extend my congratulations to POPULAR Holdings on achieving this significant milestone.

2. The evolution of POPULAR reflects that of the education system in Singapore. In the early 1900s, most people in Singapore spoke their mother tongues at home. Chinese schools were also growing rapidly, funded by many philanthropists such as Mr Tan Kah Kee, and the Chinese clan associations like the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan. In 1929 alone, more than 15 Chinese schools were established.

3. It was around that time, in 1924, that Mr Chou Sing Chu established the Cheng Hing Company. In line with the mood of the times, Mr Chou was deeply passionate about the Chinese culture, and he actively promoted it through the distribution and publication of Chinese storybooks.

4. In 1936, he opened the very first POPULAR retail bookstore in North Bridge Road and very soon, POPULAR became a leading distributor and publisher of Chinese materials in the region. It served the masses, as its Chinese name implies.

5. After Singapore's independence in 1965, English became our common working language in this multiracial nation. At the same time, all students in school continued to learn their mother tongues, to preserve their heritage and strengthen our sense of belonging to our culture. So, the bilingual policy was born.

6. It was also around this period when there was a rapid shift away from vernacular schools. Parents registered their children to English-medium schools in droves, with the hope that an English education would make it easier for their children to embark on good careers and secure good jobs. Many Chinese schools, as a result, suffered falling enrolments. By 1987, all schools switched to teaching in English. I was in secondary school around that time and witnessed the shift from Chinese medium of instruction to English.

7. Hence, in the 1980s, to cater to the changing needs of the population, POPULAR bookstores started selling English books. At the time, I visited POPULAR at Bras Basah Complex quite regularly. It was opened in 1980 as the largest bookstore in Southeast Asia. While there was a choice of English and Chinese books, I only bought Chinese books, specifically the martial art novels by Jin Yong (Mr Louis Cha).

8. As our education system continues to develop and mature, so too has POPULAR. It has diversified its offerings to include stationery, lifestyle products, and gadgets. It has gone into selling assessment books, reflecting the hopes and aspirations of parents and students of the times.

9. Today, we have entered the digital and globalisation era. The way we teach, and the way students learn, is changing. As for POPULAR, it is a regional company and has outlets across Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. At the BookFest this year, POPULAR will be showcasing software and technology that will augment students' learning experience with Chinese and coding. It continues to move with the times.

10. But this is also a time when the learning of mother tongues is at a crossroads. On one hand, more and more of our students are speaking English at home, with siblings, and also with their friends and with their parents, making the term 'mother tongue' a bit of a misnomer. It used to be the language you spoke at home, but now, for many families, the mother tongue is actually English. At the same time, our region is thriving. Being well-versed in mother tongues will help a young person stepping into the working world have better access to opportunities in the region. This will confer a significant competitive advantage to them if they are bilingual. Further, as the world gets increasingly globalised, there is a quiet realisation that we need our mother tongues to stay true to our roots and help build a stronger national and cultural identity.

11. Hence, Mr Chou Cheng Ngok, POPULAR's current Group CEO, also started the non-profit Chou Sing Chu Foundation in 2004 to inspire greater interest in Chinese language and culture. The Foundation has published many Chinese children's books and literary works. It has also held many talks and exhibitions, and organised over 300 storytelling sessions at public libraries and primary schools since 2015. MOE thanks the Foundation very much for this very active programme on the ground. The Foundation has also donated over 67,000 Chinese children's books to the National Library Board and primary school libraries. It is really a labour of love, for the Chinese language and culture.

12. Looking ahead, we need to continue ensuring that the learning of the Chinese language is alive and well. We cannot motivate young children to learn Chinese by telling them this is to preserve the culture, 传承文化 – it is too burdensome a reason for them. We need to motivate them such that they will find it fun and useful to learn the language and its culture.

13. This is the mission of all the stakeholders of the language. A major intervention is in early childhood education. The Government has, in recent years, invested a lot more in this sector, and will continue to invest more in the next five years. This targets children aged five to six, and includes the setting up of MOE Kindergartens since 2014. In MOE Kindergartens, we make the learning of languages, including mother tongues, a key focus of our education philosophy. Because of MOE's approach, I find that other Anchor Operators are also referencing the MOE practice. I think that for the five- to six-year-olds in K1 and K2, we are seeing a stronger practice of the teaching of the languages, including mother tongues.

14. MOE Kindergartens have introduced the Starlight Literacy Programme, to expose students to their mother tongue languages through storytelling, games and other interactive activities. This will help build a strong language foundation in the children, especially in listening, speaking and early literacy skills.

15. But more can be done for children aged zero to four, and they are outside of MOE's radar today because our MOE Kindergartens only start at four years old. From aged zero to four, they are under the parents' radar. Because research has shown that the earlier a child is exposed to two languages, the better it is for the child, in terms of learning the languages and for the cognitive development.

16. This will require the involvement of parents, to immerse their children in a bilingual home environment, where the children are exposed to English and mother tongue through conversations, books, songs and other multi-media materials. The Lee Kuan Yew Bilingual Fund, with the support of MOE, is actively looking into ways to reach out to parents with children of that age, and making teaching tips and resources available to the parents. POPULAR can certainly play a part, and I strongly encourage POPULAR to work with the Lee Kuan Yew Bilingual Fund.

17. For older children, MOE has announced that it is also expanding the Language Elective Programme (LEP) for students who have the aptitude in mother tongues. From 2020, we are extending the LEP from the Junior College to secondary levels. Over 250 students are expected to join the pilot batch of LEP in 15 secondary schools next year. Three more Junior Colleges will also come on-board the programme, which will bring the total number of participating Junior Colleges to 11.

18. We are fortunate to have an organisation such as POPULAR, which has lived through the modern history of Singapore, and evolved alongside our nation. I want to thank POPULAR for its efforts over the years in promoting the learning and use of the Chinese language, and also very importantly, promoting the habit of reading books. The recent PISA study has shown that Singapore kids are less interested in reading, and I can understand why, because there is so much competition for children's time now. But I think reading is one of the best habits a child can have, so we will work together to preserve that good habit amongst our children. Just like the other mother tongues, it is an important component of our education landscape, and our identity as Singaporeans. We will make sure that the teaching of mother tongues continue to thrive and to do well in Singapore.

19. The BookFest is a good platform, which encourages Singaporeans to stay in touch with their mother tongues in a fun and informal setting. There is a comprehensive selection of Chinese materials available, which will suit every age segment. I hope that everyone will learn something new or pick up a good read at BookFest 2019. I wish everyone an enriching and rewarding day ahead. Thank you.

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