Speeches/Interviews

May 28, 2019

Opening Address by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education at the 9th Teachers’ Conference 2019 at Singapore Expo Hall 2

My Parliamentary Colleagues and GPC members

Members of senior management of MOE

Principals, Teachers, friends, ladies and gentlemen

Learning Languages for Life

1. This is my first time attending the Teachers’ Conference, and appropriately today I will talk about how to be, a student for life.

Tribute to Educators

2. I want to first thank all teachers for supporting the changes we have been making to the education system. Any major change will succeed to the extent that it is being supported the compounds of our school.

3. The first major change, done under Minister Ng Chee Meng’s time, is the new PSLE scoring system, coming on stream in 2021. The first batch of students affected is currently in P4. We will share more on the transition from PSLE T-scores to Achievement Levels in the coming months. I am sure once we do that, there will be many questions from parents and students. MOE will prepare the information packages, and I’m sure principals and teachers will patiently explain the changes to parents. I thank you in advance.

4. Two, the reduction in school-based assessments to free up curriculum time. I knew students would support this move, but I was a bit apprehensive about the reaction of parents because we are so accustomed to an examination culture. But I was very glad most parents supported the move.

5. MOE has laid out a schedule for schools to complete implementation by 2021, but many schools have plans to run ahead of MOE, which is a good thing.

6. By 2020, more than half of our primary schools would have removed P3 and P5 mid-year examinations – one year ahead of schedule. A few principals I met told me that they have already done so this year – so they are a full two years ahead of schedule.

7. As for secondary schools, more than 90% of secondary schools would be removing their S3 mid-year examinations in 2020, also a year ahead of schedule. There are also schools removing mid-year examinations at other levels, not stipulated by MOE. And I think this is the correct way of doing things, MOE sets down a set of guidelines, but schools can vary and run ahead of schedule if they want to. I think that is a more flexible system as opposed to a fully centrally planned and controlled system.

8. So what we are seeing is that the mentality of competing for ever higher scores in ever more tests and examinations, is giving way to a new movement to take a balanced approach in teaching and assessments, and bring about greater joy of learning. This shift was made possible because of the wise judgement of educators like you, and with the support of parents. So once again, thank you to all of you.

9. A third important initiative is UPLIFT. Colleagues will know my personal conviction on this matter. I believe in reducing the inequality in education outcomes, not by capping the performance at the top, but by lifting up weaker students at the bottom.

10. Minister Indranee is leading the efforts in this area, and I know she has been getting a lot of support from schools too. One important initiative is the UPLIFT Scholarship. This scholarship, combined with the revised Direct School Admission system, provides an effective tool for our secondary schools to admit a better mix of students from different backgrounds. And you can do this wisely and judiciously. So please use them well, for both measures are designed to go hand in hand.

11. Another significant change is the phasing out of the streaming system and replacing it with Full Subject Based Banding (SBB). This is a complex and difficult change, and again I am thankful to many teachers and parents for their support, advice and counsel. I am especially grateful to Boon Lay Secondary and Edgefield Secondary for their breakthrough efforts, which informed our eventual policy.

12. I asked Lee Peck Ping, Principal of Edgefield, what made him do something so different? He said because during an MOE Workplan Seminar, apparently I said on stage that I encourage principals to try out innovative ideas. So he said licence had already been given, and so he proceeded! I am glad he felt I gave him the right nudge at the right time.

13. MOE is finalising the pilot programme for Full SBB, to be implemented next year. We were planning for 25 pilot schools, but several more have stepped forth and asked to be included. We will settle at just below 30 schools, to make sure MOE can give the pilot schools proper and adequate support to ensure they succeed.

14. These initiatives – Joy of Learning, UPLIFT, One Education System Many Subject Bands – are key prongs of the Learn for Life Movement. This Movement represents a new phase of the education system, to better prepare us for the future.

15. A major plan like this will of course go beyond three major thrusts. Today, I will talk about the fourth thrust of the Learn for Life Movement. It involves changes perhaps not as major as the previous ones, but I think nevertheless very strategic and important to our future. I call this ‘Learning Languages for Life’.

Importance of Learning Languages

16. Why is learning languages important? There are at least three reasons:

17. First, languages are generative skills, meaning language provides access to other knowledge and improves cognitive function. In bilingualism, those benefits are accentuated.

18. There is a significant body of neuroscience research which shows the difference between monolingual and bilingual students.

19. The differences can start from a very young age. One experiment showed that infants who are exposed to a monolingual environment are more likely to observe a person’s eyes when he is speaking; whereas a baby exposed to bilingual home environment will likely observe the person’s mouth, because the baby is trying to decipher which language he is speaking.

20. When they are older, bilingual students tend to acquire better executive function, such as being able to pay attention longer, multi-task, exercise high level thought, having an active working memory, etc.

21. A 2015 paper by the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology showed that bilingual children aged four to six were better able to put themselves in the shoes of people they are interacting with, and therefore they display greater empathy and communications skills.

22. The underlying mechanism is rather fascinating. Because languages are being processed all the time, it engages most parts of the brain. Using neuroimaging, researchers discovered that learning two languages can result in structural changes in the brain, such as increase in Grey Matter density and White Matter integrity.

23. Personally, I have always felt that English is like an algorithm – efficient, analytical and logical. But Chinese is based on logograms, and is more holistic and historical. Both languages have profoundly shaped the way I think, analyse and approach problems, and look at life.

24. The second benefit of bilingualism is its significant economic value. Over the years, our familiarity with different cultures and languages has helped position Singapore as an important centre for investment and trade.

25. In the coming decades, this will be even more important as Asia is the fastest growing economic region in the world. Knowing our MTLs allow us to access valuable business and employment opportunities, in our immediate region, in China and in India. This is our hinterland.

26. When I visit China I often meet Singaporeans who are working there. Several have told me that they were not strong in Chinese in school. But whatever foundation that was laid for them at that time has enabled them to further their learning of the language now, and now they could converse effectively in Chinese and operate in China. So the subject they used to fear became the subject that was most useful to them now in their career.

27. Third, and even more crucial, language learning is central to a country’s cultural identity. Occasionally I will come across the argument that the still nascent Singapore identity should revolve around English, in the same way that the identity of Japan revolves around the Japanese language, and that of France revolves around French. That is not possible. Japan and France have far longer histories than ours. Japan is also a much more homogenous society.

28. We adopted English as a common working language for practical reasons, as it is the language of international commerce. However, while we may cheer for Liverpool or Manchester United and watch Hollywood movies, the cultures of the English-speaking world are not our culture.

29. We cannot just adopt someone else’s culture. We need to learn our own MTLs to understand the cultures of our respective communities. Then, over a long period of time, we collectively draw from our respective ancestral cultures to build our own unique Singapore identity.

30. It is a balanced approach where the parts and the whole co-exist with synergy. We must always avoid the ideological extremes of insisting in one extreme that being Singaporean means we reject all our ancestral cultures and just focus on our short national history, or allowing every community to fully assert its cultural identity, leaving no common space for a Singaporean identity to emerge.

31. A wise mentor once told me, Singapore is more like a rojak. There are various types of fruit and ingredients, you can taste them separately, but there is also a sauce that brings them together. Therefore, the sum is larger than the parts.

32. Our language policy – learning English plus MTLs - is central to preserving this balance, and in nurturing the Singaporean sense of self. That is why I feel strongly about the need to maintain the diverse education landscape, where church-based, clan-based schools, SAP schools and Madrasahs all co-exist.

33. By adhering to this spirit of balance and growth, a common Singaporean identity is developing gradually - in the language we use, the food we eat, the shared experiences over the last 53 years, and the common ethos as a people.

Language Learning – A Worldwide Quest

34. Singapore is not the only country who saw value in bilingualism. Many countries treat this as a priority too.

35. I was recently at an event called ‘European Union (EU) Comes to Your School’. This was initiated by the Ambassadors from EU countries to Singapore, where they visit our schools to help students better understand the EU.

36. The panel discussion between the students, EU ambassadors, and myself during the launch event was conducted in English, but the Ambassadors would at times codeswitch to speak to each other in French and German. The Finnish Ambassador impressed the audience when she said she spoke five languages, and was trying to learn Chinese as her sixth.

37. Being fluent in more than one language is not just the unique superpower of EU Ambassadors. When I was studying for my MBA in Switzerland a good 20 years ago, I was amazed at the number of languages that my European classmates could speak. This of course was partly attributable to the linguistic closeness of Spanish, French, and Italian, but I had classmates who spoke Russian and French, or Swedish and Chinese.

38. I now learned that most European students begin studying a second language, as a compulsory school subject when they are young, between age 6 and 9. Many then go on to gain exposure to a third language for at least a year.

39. When I was in Zurich, Switzerland, a couple of years ago on an MOE study trip, I visited a neighbourhood school. I observed a class, where I met two young students - a girl from Portugal and a boy from Nigeria. Both moved to Switzerland with their parents only two years ago when I met them.

40. I asked them how did they cope with a new language environment? The girl told me she spoke only Portuguese and some English when she arrived, while the boy spoke English plus his African tribal language. They had to undergo intensive German lessons after moving to Switzerland. A year later, they were able to keep up with their lessons, which were all taught in German. And both were attending English and French lessons. French is also an official language in Switzerland.

41. It dawned on me that language learning was central to the Swiss education system, and they start early. Students are immersed in that environment from a very young age, understand what is expected of them, try their best to cope, and most of them somehow cope.

42. It is not just Europe. In Asia, an estimated 300 million PRC Chinese are learning English – that is close to the total number of people in the United States! English is now a compulsory subject in primary schools in China, with a national curriculum. Similarly, it is increasingly common to meet Europeans who can speak Chinese, or to meet Australians who can speak Bahasa Indonesia.

43. Singapore is not alone in upholding a bilingual policy, and we should not think that this will always be our enduring advantage.

An Environment for Language Learning

44. Our educators probably already know this, but my encounters reinforced a few core principles in language education.

  • The first is that the younger we start learning two languages, the better, like the Portuguese girl and the Nigerian boy I met.

  • The second is the more we think we can learn two languages, the more we are actually able to do it. This is the same psychology when you train as a group to run the marathon. You draw strength from one another and make what you initially felt was impossible, possible.

  • The third principle is that learning language is a lifelong endeavour, which the Finnish Ambassador embodied.

  • Finally, language policy cannot be separated from the larger environment we live in. In Europe, the language landscape is so diverse, and to get along, Europeans have been learning each other’s languages. Similarly, in Singapore, we are a multilingual society because our ancestors are immigrants from different lands. English becomes more important over time as we plugged ourselves more deeply into the global economy.

45. This leads us to ponder - How will our environment change and how will that affect the learning of languages in Singapore? I believe we are at a historic juncture where the learning of languages has the potential to thrive further. Why do I say that?

  • First, our region is prospering. Southeast Asia, India and China are all growing. Singapore’s multiculturalism gives us a great economic advantage in this environment. Parents and students know that.

  • Second, while the percentage of families using an MTL as the dominant language at home has dwindled, the percentage of bilingual families has gone up from 80% to 90% over the last 20 years.

  • Third, a new generation of Singaporeans is curious to uncover and learn about the history and DNA of our nation. Compared to their parents and grandparents, the young today is not as emotionally connected to their ancestral lands, and by extension, their mother tongues. But this is replaced by a new-found curiosity to understand Singapore. This generation feels most strongly about being Singaporeans, and they want to find out what makes up Singapore. Ultimately, they will still trace back to the ancestral lands and mother tongues, but the motivation and the dots they connect are different. The first dot will be Singapore and what it means to be Singaporean.

46. It is timely for us therefore to reinvigorate our efforts in language learning, particularly our MTLs. It will be an effort fit for the times. Like all the significant initiatives we have announced recently, language teaching will also take a few years to evolve. We have taken some steps recently. Today, I will announce further steps.

First, An Early Foundation in Pre-School

47. Our system needs to expose students to MTLs early, and lay a strong foundation through pre-schools. While MOE cannot stipulate what all pre-schools should do, through MOE Kindergartens, we can be a pace-setter and standard bearer for language learning in the early years.

48. At MOE Kindergartens, language learning is a top priority. Children receive 100 minutes of language instruction every day – one hour of MTL lessons and 40 minutes of English lessons. The teachers use stories, games, role-playing, song and dance, set in the local context, to make languages come alive.

49. At NTUC First Campus, a pre-school anchor operator, being a bilingual communicator is one of their key child development outcomes. They also provide one hour of MTL lessons plus 30 minutes of MTL reading time every day. Including other daily activities, MTL exposure accounts for about 50% of contact time with children.

50. Pedagogies are evolving to be more immersive and interactive, to make language learning come alive. For example, Hari Raya Puasa is near. So children may be asked to use their MTLs to talk about how the holiday is celebrated. Come Deepavali, our children may also be asked to work together to make their own kolam and discover more about the Festival.

51. When I visited an MOE Kindergarten some months ago, the teachers told me that children respond very positively to this teaching approach. Parents also notice the remarkable progress in their child’s language learning.

Second, Encourage More Students to Study MTL Deeply

52. Our schools will continue to help our students go as far as they can in learning languages, by pitching language learning at a level suited to their abilities. Over the years, the number of students taking Higher MTL at ‘O’ Levels has been rising.

53. We will continue to develop students who have the aptitude for languages to achieve a level of proficiency comparable to good students in China, Taiwan, Malaysia or Tamil Nadu. We can give broader and better support to students with the potential to do so.

54. Today, as part of our effort to develop such bilingual and bicultural talent, we offer the Chinese and Malay Language Elective Programmes (LEP) at selected Junior Colleges (JCs). For JC students studying Tamil, the programme is hosted at the Umar Pulavar Language Centre, and named the National Elective Tamil Programme (NETP). So three JC level MTL programmes - Chinese LEP, Malay LEP and NETP for Tamil.

55. The JC students are required to take H2 MTL and Literature. They also engage in a wide range of enrichment activities, from creative writing workshops to overseas immersion trips.

56. Over the years, the LEP has successfully produced a core group of effectively bilingual and bicultural graduates. Many built their professional careers on their bilingual skills, in education, journalism, communication, diplomacy, or translation. Others went into various careers where their language skills continue to distinguish them.

57. We can do more to widen the participation of these programmes. There is a certain perception that the study of MTLs deeply, through the LEPs or NETP, are only for a selected group of students. We need to move away from that. Instead, it should be the more the merrier, and a larger group of students should feel confident that they can do it.

58. We will take some time and effort to bring this about. Our first significant step, is to extend LEPs to secondary schools. That way, we build up a pool of students who study MTLs more deeply at a younger age, and can articulate into the LEPs or NETP at JC levels. A total of 15 secondary schools will offer LEP from 2020, they include:

  • Three for Malay (Anderson Secondary School, Bukit Panjang Government High School and Tanjong Katong Secondary School);

  • Three for Tamil (Commonwealth Secondary School, Riverside Secondary School and Yishun Town Secondary School.); and

  • Nine for Chinese [Anglican High School, Chung Cheng High School (Main), Dunman High School, Hwa Chong Institution (High School), Maris Stella High School, Nan Chiau High School, Nan Hua High School, Nanyang Girls’ High School and Temasek Junior College (Secondary Section).];

59. The Chinese LEP secondary schools are mostly SAP schools. It is natural to start with these schools, but in time, we should extend to more non-SAP schools, to broaden participation.

60. In addition, we will strengthen the LEP for JCs. Today, Malay LEP is available at Jurong Pioneer JC, Tampines Meridian JC and Yishun Innova JC. We will open two new Malay LEP centres in 2020, making it a total of five. The new centres will be hosted at National JC and Raffles Institution (JC).

61. Today, while there is a NETP at Umar Pulavar Language Centre, there are no Tamil LEP hosted at JCs. From 2020, we will introduce the Tamil LEP at two JCs, at Anderson Serangoon JC and National JC.

Third, Support Students Who Face Difficulties Learning Languages

62. We must recognise that the abilities to learn languages vary widely amongst students. MOE will also continue to support students who face difficulties learning MTLs. Many have no problems with listening and speaking, but find it challenging to read and write.

63. Foundation MTL curriculum in our primary schools, as well as the MTL ‘B’ Syllabus in our secondary schools, cater to this group of students by focusing on strengthening their oral and listening skills. By and large they have worked well, to help these students stay in touch with their MTLs. When they are older and more mature, some may well pick up learning the language again, especially if their work requires it.

64. There are also students who need dedicated support and attention for language learning. We are piloting ways to support this group, and will study the results before rolling out a learning support programme for them.

65. There will also be a small group of students with extenuating circumstances. They may have been away from our system for a prolonged period of time and have no exposure to MTL, or have special educational needs. On a case by case basis, MOE will consider exempting them from MTL.

66. The application numbers for exemption have been falling over the past few years. MOE will continue to work with parents to ensure that such decisions are carefully considered, and centred on the well-being of the child.

Fourth, Support Students with the Interest and Aptitude to Learn a Third Language

67. Beyond English and MTLs, there are many students who are interested to learn more languages. But we need to differentiate three groups of third languages:

68. One, our official MTLs. For a Singaporean student to learn the MTL of another community is commendable, because that is exactly the rojak spirit I was talking about – knowing your culture deeply, and at the same time reaching out to understand another fellow Singaporean’s language and culture.

69. This is why for eligible students who take Malay or Chinese as an examinable third language subject, we recognise the effort by offering two bonus points for entry to JCs and Millennia Institute.

70. But not everything we learn in school needs to be examinable. We can provide opportunities for students to learn the MTL of another ethnic community at a conversational level, as a non-examinable programme. And this should be open to as many students as possible.

71. We have already implemented Conversational Chinese and Malay programmes in many schools, as an enrichment activity. Some schools, especially a few of the SAP schools, take this very seriously. For example, Year One and Two students in Dunman High School take weekly conversational Malay lessons.

72. Today, about 25,000 primary and secondary school students participate in these programmes every year. In the coming one to two years, MOE will encourage and support more schools to offer these conversational MTL programmes as a voluntary enrichment programme.

73. There are practical benefits too. Many jobs involve interacting with Singaporeans from all walks of life. These include customer service workers, salespersons, social workers, healthcare workers, and also MPs and Ministers!

74. Today, when I meet a pak cik or mak cik in the community, I will try my best to speak to him or her in Malay. You can see their eyes brighten up. After a few sentences and they realise I am struggling, and they will try to use some English. So we meet halfway and have a nice conversation with a certain pre-established rapport and trust.

75. The next group of third languages is the national languages of selected developed countries – French, German, Spanish, Japanese. These are countries with internationally reputed universities and have established MNCs in Singapore and around the world. So knowledge of their languages gives students access to new education and career opportunities, and over time, strengthens bilateral co-operation between Singapore and these developed countries.

76. This is why students take up these third languages as examinable subjects at ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels. This is also why only students in the top 10% of every cohort are invited to participate in these courses, because the academic demands of taking three examinable languages are significant.

77. Notwithstanding, MOE will explore how we can make the learning of a third language more flexible. For example, it need not be treated as a four-year long marathon that starts from Secondary One and ends at the ‘O’ Level examinations. The current mode makes this a binary choice for secondary school students – either take the examination or drop out altogether.

78. Instead, language learning can be broken up into a few levels, and can be taken at different times, even when in Polytechnic, University or adulthood. As we study how to introduce more flexibility in the learning of such third languages, we can also consider expanding the opportunities to more students with the interest and aptitude.

79. The final group of third languages are the regional languages. We now live in the fastest growing region in the world. Our region is peaceful, with different countries working more closely with one another. Job and economic opportunities are opening up in the region, and in time, more young Singaporeans will find themselves working outside Singapore, not in New York or London, but in Shanghai, Jakarta, Ho Chih Minh City and Bangkok.

80. That is why our Polytechnics, and Universities such as SMU, are sending their students to the region for student exchanges, internships and community projects.

81. But the language learning needs here are different from that of French, German or Japanese where we prepare students for examinations. It will be more practical to teach these regional languages for functional use, which will come in handy if our students venture into these countries one day.

82. Today, we offer two regional languages – Bahasa Indonesia and Arabic. Students can take the examinations at ‘O’ Level, but at a considerably lower proficiency level compared to German or Japanese.

83. Our universities also offer many courses on language for functional use. NUS, for example, enrols around 2,300 students in such courses, for languages such as our MTLs, and regional languages such as Bahasa Indonesia, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese.

84. Over the next couple of years, MOE will look into expanding our offering of regional languages at the conversational level and explore appropriate modalities of lesson delivery, including both online and classroom lessons.

Finally, Make Language Learning a Lifelong Journey

85. Language learning takes a lifetime. We are driven by different motivations to learn a language and may choose to learn it in different ways – diving very deep into it, or just getting acquainted with it and coming back to it later. It is like having a good friend – personal, lifelong and dependable.

86. Today, MOE has taken on SkillsFuture as part of its mission, and we have to consider how we can support language learning in adulthood.

87. In the coming year, SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) will work with more industry partners, to deliver more business language and culture programmes. More importantly, we need to make such programmes much more easily accessible, so that language learning becomes something that many Singaporean adults can do - one can easily sign up online, or register over a counter at a shopping centre or Community Club.

88. SSG is working with partners such as the Singapore Chinese Chamber Institute of Business, Singapore Press Holdings and SUSS, to roll out business language and culture courses in 20 training venues island-wide in the next two years.

89. These include five venues at Community Clubs. This first is already open, at Hillview Community Club, which is offering Chinese business language and culture courses.

90. The People’s Association has also been helping to bring conversational language programmes to our communities. A wonderful side effect of the SkillsFuture Credit policy is that it catalysed the advent of new training courses that have market demand, and one of them is language courses.

91. Today, about 65 of our Community Clubs offer conversational Chinese, Malay and Tamil language courses, half of which are eligible for the use of SkillsFuture Credit. Every year, they run about 160 classes, enrolling over 1,600 trainees. SSG will continue to work closely with the People’s Association to provide more support for these conversational language courses.

Conclusion

92. Let me conclude. I have spoken about how languages develop our minds and character, strengthen our sense of identity, open new worlds, and create new understanding.

93. I believe our young people understand this intuitively. Today when I conduct dialogues with students, a question on language learning would often pop up. Once, two students came up to me and asked if there can be classes on dialects. I politely told them our curriculum is very packed but there are classes organised by our clan associations!

94. We need to harness students’ curiosity and fascination with their ancestral cultures and history, and also that of other Singaporean communities. But to understand cultures you must learn languages, and to learn languages effectively we must make it interesting and fun, relevant to daily life, and less pressurising and burdensome.

95. We must understand that it is a very personal journey. Many can go very far and master two languages or even a third. Others may struggle with just English. The education system should encourage each child to go as far as he or she can, and all of us – as educators, parents, friends – cannot be too judgemental regardless of their achievement.

96. To tell students to learn MTLs well because that was what their parents or grandparents did, will not likely trigger their interest in MTLs. In fact, it can dampen it. But if we make this a discovery of Singapore and Singaporeans, I think we stand a better chance to ignite an inner motivation to learn MTLs well.

97. Singapore has what it takes to be a wonderful place to learn languages. When historians and anthropologists study the migration of peoples, they look at languages. Because wherever a tribe migrates, they leave behind words. And since the tribes are either hunter gatherers or farmers, the important words were often animal or food related.

98. Hence, the word for ‘sheep’ sounds similar in Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Lithuanian, Russian, Spanish, even Irish. By studying how certain things are named across different lands, anthropologists can figure out the migratory history of peoples.

99. So while preparing this speech, I asked colleagues in MOE if they could think of a food in Singapore that illustrated the migratory history of our ancestors. I got several examples, but I will share this one.

100. This is a delicacy involving steaming white flour wrapped around grated coconut, in a small dish. The Chinese version is called Kueh Tutu, and the Malay version Putu Piring. Whether Tutu or Putu, the origin is a South Indian (Malayalam) word ‘Puttu’, a similar breakfast dish. Three languages, three cultures in one small Singaporean delicacy.

101. Learning languages has to be throughout life, because it takes a lifetime to master a language. It also has to be for life, because that is the essence of living in Singapore. This collective effort is what makes Singapore a multicultural, multilingual and dynamic city - a cultural centre of the region around us.

102. I wish you a fruitful conference and a time of rich learning. Thank you.