Speeches/Interviews

August 31, 2019

Speech by Minister for Education, Mr Ong Ye Kung, at the Most Inspiring Tamil Teacher Award Presentation Ceremony

1. It is my pleasure to be here today at the Most Inspiring Tamil Teachers’ Award presentation ceremony 2019 to recognise teachers who are igniting in their students, a love for the Tamil language. My heartiest congratulations to all the nominees, award winners and their schools.

2. This is the 18th year that we are celebrating this award. I thank Tamil Murasu, Singapore Tamil Teachers’ Union and the Tamil Language Learning and Promotion Committee for their continued commitment to this award. Over the years, this award has recognised 190 inspiring Tamil teachers in our primary and secondary schools, junior colleges and centralised institute.

3. Why is it so important to be bilingual? Because being bilingual is a gift for life, one that our young will treasure – if they do not feel it now, they will feel it when they are older. When I was younger, as a student, I didn’t appreciate the fact that I was bilingual. Now that I am older, I am very grateful to be bilingual.

4. We live in a globalised world, where there are clear advantages to knowing more languages. More than 40% of the world’s population today speaks a second language. 80% of primary school students in Europe study English on top of their mother tongue. 300 million PRC Chinese – and that’s about the population of America – are learning English. The world has caught on to learning more languages because languages open doors to opportunities and give you an added advantage.

5. I was in Russia recently, and I visited Kazan, Tatarstan, where the WorldSkills Competition was held. I called on the President of Tatarstan and he explained to me that in Tatarstan it is compulsory for students to learn the Tatar language, which is their mother tongue. As they are part of Russia, they must also learn Russian. So they have to learn two languages. And because English is so important, in some schools, English is also compulsory. So in some places, there are three compulsory languages to be learned. People are not just bilingual; they are trilingual. This is true in Singapore too, because we live in a region where our neighbours are some of the world’s biggest economies, if not the fastest growing.

6. More importantly, learning languages is about knowing who we are. Bilingualism lies at the heart of the Singapore story. While we speak English, our culture isn’t English. Singapore became what it is because people from distant lands moved here. As a result, the burgeoning Singapore culture is a mosaic of Asian influences.

7. So while our children may not have strong ties to our ancestral countries, their mother tongue helps them understand the Singapore story. It is the heart of our Singapore identity, and we must continue to share this rich heritage with our younger generation, build on it, and shape it to the needs of the time. And with strong roots, we can fly further with our strong wings.

8. That is why we are re-invigorating the teaching of mother tongue languages, and offering more opportunities for more students to study their mother tongue language more deeply. Students have different abilities, but we must support every student to go as far as they can for the rest of their lives. We are expanding Mother Tongue Language Elective Programmes (LEP) to secondary schools, in addition to Junior Colleges. For Tamil language, we are introducing LEP to three Secondary schools and two Junior Colleges in 2020.

9. TLEP will support promising students to attain a high level of language proficiency in Tamil and enhance their understanding of Tamil literature and culture. They will participate in literary activities, local camps and overseas immersion trips. A highlight will be a trip to Tamil Nadu, where students will learn the history of the Tamil language and culture at excavation sites, that have recently unveiled artefacts dating back to 2nd century BC.

10. A lot of preparatory work is underway to set up the new TLEP centres. Students have participated in dialogue sessions to know more about TLEP, to give their feedback and views. I hear that they were excited and want to know more about the programme.

11. Our colleagues in curriculum planning and development are working with Master Teachers to equip TLEP teachers with the necessary tools and skills to conduct engaging literature lessons. They are planning literary projects, short films analysis, dramatisations and discussions with experts from literary fields. These experiences are aligned with the overseas immersion trip, so that students can better relate to what they see during those trips and make learning more meaningful.

12. Schools offering TLEP are also accepting DSA through the relevant Mother Tongue Language. They have received many DSA requests and interviews are currently in process. These are good signs, and will hopefully lead to a resurgence of interest in learning Tamil and other mother tongue languages.

13. Much is happening at the community level, too. The Tamil Language Learning and Promotion Committee (TLLPC) has been showing parents and children how Tamil can be learned in fun ways through their annual event, ‘Azhagae Tamizhae’.

14. Their preschool symposium supports educators in teaching Tamil in engaging ways. Tamil Murasu has started a literary workshop series, ‘Visai’, with the National Arts Council to nurture local writers. They also support the learning of Tamil with their students’ publications, such as Balar Murasu and Manavar Murasu. The Singapore Tamil Teachers’ union produces educational resources for primary school students, and offer professional development opportunities for our Tamil language teachers.

15. At the heart of all these efforts are our teachers, and that is why we are here today. Let me share the stories of some of our winners today. Mdm Subashini is one of our Most Inspiring Tamil Teacher 2019 winners from Sembawang Primary School. She understands what is cool to our kids and what will interest them. So she teaches the language through storytelling, activities such as fancy-dress competitions and by harnessing technology in the classroom. She uses IT platforms like SLS, iMTL and kahoot to engage her students in learning proverbs and improving speaking and writing skills. She has made MTL learning fun, engaging and authentic, as it should be.

16. Another one of our winners, Mdm Amuda, from the Umar Pulavar Tamil Language Centre, uses Skype to link her students up with literary experts in India, to provide them with an interesting and engaging learning experience. I visited Umar Pulavar Centre some time ago and I saw one of her classes in action. It is quite interesting.

17. Today, we also honouring our Tamil Language Teachers who are role models to other teachers, and have served the fraternity for more than 35 years. Mr S. Nalluraj started his teaching career in 1985 as a Tamil Teacher in Temasek Primary School. In 2001, he was posted to MOE and led the primary school curriculum planning team. In 2006 he moved on to Tampines JC where he served as HOD of ICT and retired at the end of 2017. He remained active and continues to serve the Singapore Tamil Teachers’ Union. He has inspired the love of Tamil language in his students and some of them have become Tamil Teachers themselves. Thank you Mr Nalluraj, and all our Lifetime Achievement Award recipients today!

18. With Teachers’ Day around the corner, let me end my speech by sharing a little anecdote. Back in the 1970s, there was a young teacher. She joined a secondary school to teach English. She gradually developed a rapport with her students. One day during an assessment, students were asked to write an essay titled “A rainy day”. One boy wrote his name and class, and he drew a picture of a man with an umbrella, with rain falling around him. Beneath the picture, the boy wrote “Thank you” before handing the essay in.

19. What did this teacher do? After all, this was an English lesson, and he was supposed to write an essay, and all he wrote was his name, his class, “Thank you”, and drew a picture. This was not PSLE, but a school assessment, so there was no formal, consistent assessment standards set So she had some flexibility. She felt that although he did not write anything, he had expressed his thoughts, and so gave him some marks. She believed that every effort counts. Well this teacher, who touched many lives during her tenure, was Mrs S. R. Nathan.

20. The reason I share this story is to show that, while we promote the learning of languages, before languages become languages, they first surface as thoughts. It comes from the heart, becomes a language that is spoken and written, and eventually you use the language to do more complex thinking, achieve things, and achieve fulfilment in life. Mrs S. R. Nathan understood this. As a language teacher, it is about harnessing the heart, the mind, and the language. It is about connecting students in different ways, seeing their potential, and helping them fulfil their ambitions, dreams and aspirations.

21. Happy Teachers’ Day in advance! Nandri. Vanakkam.