Monday 21 November 2011

Mr Lee Kuan Yew tells of his struggle with Chinese language

New book details his own experience and Singapore's bilingual policy
By Goh Sui Noi, The Straits Times, 21 Nov 2011

FORMER prime minister Lee Kuan Yew has come out with a book on a subject close to his heart: bilingualism. It will be launched next Monday at the Singapore Conference Hall.

Entitled My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore's Bilingualism Journey, the book is the story of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's 50-year struggle to transform Singapore from a polyglot former British colony into a united nation where everyone, while knowing English, knows at least one other language, his own mother tongue.

The book tackles controversial issues such as the closure of Nanyang University and the resistance of some communities and groups to the introduction of the Speak Mandarin Campaign.

'The founding prime minister of Singapore tells why he did away with vernacular schools in spite of violent political resistance, why he closed Nanyang University, why he later started Special Assistance Plan schools, and why he continues to urge all ethnic Chinese Singaporeans today to learn the Chinese language,' said a press statement from Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), which provided editorial and publishing support for the book.

'The reader learns not only about the many policy adjustments but also the challenges Mr Lee encountered - from Chinese language chauvinists who wanted Chinese to be the pre-eminent language in Singapore, from Malay and Tamil community groups fearing that Chinese was given too much emphasis, from parents of all races wanting an easier time for their school-going children, and even from his own Cabinet colleagues questioning his assumptions about language.'

My Lifelong Challenge is also the story of Mr Lee's own struggle to learn the Chinese language, which began when he was six years old and his Hakka maternal grandmother enrolled him in a Chinese class with fishermen's children.

'In evocative detail, the man born to English-speaking parents recounts his own feelings of rebellion and humiliation at different points in his life, when faced with the Chinese language and his own inadequacy in it,' said the statement.

'This book describes in matter-of-fact yet vivid fashion his steely determination to improve his Chinese and reclaim his Chinese heritage right up to the present...'

Also included in the book is a collection of essays by Singaporeans from different walks of life, whose lives have been touched by the bilingual policy in one way or another.

The essayists include Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, educationist Chew Cheng Hai and pop star Stefanie Sun.

Said Mr Patrick Daniel, editor-in-chief of SPH's English and Malay Newspapers Division: 'This book recounts an important facet of Singapore's history.

'It contains insights born of experience about the challenge of ensuring that each community preserve its own language and culture in a multiracial nation, while adopting English as the working language.'

The book, which was two years in the making, will be jointly launched by SPH's two flagship newspapers - the Lianhe Zaobao and The Straits Times.

It comes in separate Chinese and English editions which are similar, but not identical. The 400-page Chinese edition is published by Lianhe Zaobao and the 388-page English one by Straits Times Press.

Explaining this arrangement, senior executive vice-president of the Chinese Newspapers and Newspaper Services divisions Robin Hu said: 'The readerships of the two editions, particularly those 45 years old and above, are different. They attended schools of two different language streams and hold quite different perspectives of the bilingual policy.

'In order to speak to these two readerships, the author decided that while the content should be similar, the approach would be slightly different.'

Mr Hu headed the editorial committee that worked closely with Mr Lee on the book.

The book has received favourable reviews from foreign and local luminaries alike.

Former senior minister of state for community development Ch'ng Jit Koon said: 'To this day, some people do not approve of the bilingual policy... This book describes fully, accurately and clearly the background to these policies, helping us to understand why he did what he did. Whether the bilingual policy is right or wrong, history will be the judge...'

The book goes on sale from 5pm next Monday (28 Nov) at major bookstores. Both Chinese and English editions of the book are priced at $39.90.

Each book comes with a DVD of extracts from relevant speeches made by Mr Lee, in English, Mandarin, Hokkien and Malay, over the past 50 years.

Extracts from the book

'I HAD long been struck by the difference between English-educated and Chinese-educated students in colonial Singapore.

'The English-educated could be certain of finding jobs after graduating, and generally led lives that were more comfortable than the Chinese-educated. But compared to the Chinese-educated, there was something missing. I realised that it was self-confidence.'

On the contrast between the two groups, which he found hard to forget

'When Singapore celebrated its 21st National Day on 9 August 1986... it was the first time emcees of the event used English to lead the audience, where before they had to use three languages - Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. The crowds responded likewise in English...

'They still retained their mother tongues... but a common knowledge of English enabled them to share together the joys of the occasion. I was a proud man that day.'

On the moment when he felt that the bilingual policy had finally borne fruit

'Nanyang University was the first Chinese-language university to be set up in Southeast Asia. Its objective was to provide tertiary education for students from Chinese schools in Southeast Asia. But from the start, it was doomed to fail. The tide of history was against it.'

On Singapore's only Chinese-medium university, Nanyang University, which lasted from 1956 to 1979

'Hokkien was soon indispensable to me... I made it a point to speak in Hokkien during every National Day Rally because that was the language that got me the most receptive audience.

'But there came a point - in the mid-1970s - when the Education Ministry pointed out to me that I was not setting a good example by using Hokkien when schools were trying to teach Mandarin. So I decided to stop... My last speech in Hokkien was in 1979.'

On the usefulness of Hokkien to his early political career. It was widely spoken until he launched the Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979

'To me the crux of the issue was not how easy or difficult the Chinese language syllabus is, but how it was taught. I wanted the Education Ministry to be more open to the idea of using English in the teaching of Chinese. The very notion was anathema to an entire generation of Chinese language teachers...'

On his involvement in the Education Ministry's Chinese-language reviews in the last decade

'Singapore's Muslim majority neighbours had long harboured the suspicion that I was a China-appeasing Trojan horse in Southeast Asia. My brother Suan Yew has visited our family's ancestral village, but I have decided that I will not go, even though I am no longer Prime Minister.'

On being asked in recent years if he would ever visit his family's ancestral village in Dabu in China's Guangdong province

Lee Kuan Yew did his undergraduate law studies in Cambridge and London from 1946 to 1950. In Chapter One of the book, he recounts how the experience led him to send his three children to Chinese-medium schools.

'Though I did not spend much time in London, I frequented a place in the city's Gordon Square called the China Institute... (It) was built by the British and financed from the indemnity China had to pay for the damage to British lives and property in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900...

'I often went there and would see Chinese students from all corners of the world. From their actions you could tell where they were from - China, Hong Kong, Malaysia or Mauritius, for example. The most pitiful were the Chinese students from the West Indies. They spoke in singsong West Indian 'English' and absolutely no Chinese.

'I felt very sad for them. I vowed that I would not be like them. That was when I began to feel a sense of loss about not knowing Chinese, and decided not to repeat this state of affairs with my own children.

'Some people have called me a 'born-again Chinese'. If this is the case, my rebirth must have taken place in the late 1940s, during my time in England. People there saw me as a Chinese, and so I became a Chinese. They did not see me as a Singaporean or a Malayan.

'I once took a holiday in Switzerland. Arriving at a hotel in Lucerne, the desk clerk asked me: 'Chinese?' I said: 'No, Malayan.' His response was, 'What's that?' I said, 'Well, I come from Singapore, it's part of Malaya.' He said: 'Never mind, I'll put you down as Chinese.' I decided I must be Chinese from such experiences...

'...All (my) three children - Hsien Loong, Wei Ling and Hsien Yang - had their first 12 years of education in Chinese-medium schools. When they grew up, I often asked them, 'Do you regret my sending you to Chinese schools?' They said, 'Of course not.'

'In 1955, I visited Nanyang Kindergarten. Hsien Loong, then three and a half years old, thought I was there to pick him up. He grabbed his bag to get ready to go home with me. Alas, I was not there to pick him up but to observe the functioning of the kindergarten.

'The Chinese press later carried a photograph of him in the kindergarten, making it widely known that he was being educated in Chinese. This gave me credibility when I spoke on Chinese language issues.

'Hsien Loong's younger siblings, Wei Ling and Hsien Yang, followed in his footsteps, going to Nanyang Kindergarten and later to Nanyang Primary School. After primary school, (the boys) went to the Catholic High School, while Wei Ling continued in Nanyang Girls' High School...

'I used to speak to them in Mandarin until they got to secondary school, when what I had to say to them became more complex and I had to switch to English.

'Their mother spoke to them in English. They also had British voluntary service officers read to them novels and poems once a week. So their English was fluent with no dialect or Mandarin accent. From the age of six, they also received tuition in Malay at home.

'In 1962, while visiting Nanyang Primary, Choo said to reporters, 'In order to let our children learn good Malay, the National Language, I let my oldest son join the Scouts, so he has the opportunity to interact with Malay children.

' 'My husband and I think this way: If you only know one language, you can only have a limited social circle and have no chance to expand it. You cannot understand the lives of fellow citizens of other races. With merger with Malaysia becoming a reality, education in the three languages is very important. We put our children into Chinese schools to first learn their mother tongue, then we let them learn the National Language, and finally, English.' '

In Chapter Six of the book, Mr Lee discusses the adjustments to Mother Tongue teaching over the last three decades, particularly for the Chinese language. He also gives his view of the future of the bilingual policy.

'(United Overseas Bank chairman) Wee Cho Yaw once lamented to me that when he addressed his grandchildren in Mandarin, they replied in English. Yet their fathers, Cho Yaw's sons, were Chinese-educated.

'I knew what he meant and how he felt. My grandchildren attended the same Chinese kindergarten and primary school as my children - Nanyang Kindergarten and Nanyang Primary School. But they speak English at home and with their schoolmates and friends. When I press them to speak in Mandarin, they give me short answers in Mandarin and then switch to English....

'I have been asked if I crafted our bilingual policy in order to win votes. That supposition is totally wrong. Many aspects of our bilingual policy have been vote-losers, surely.

'On one hand, some families have emigrated because their children could not cope with the demands of learning Chinese. On the other, large swathes of the Chinese ground have been upset by what they saw as a lowering of Chinese language standards. The latter group greatly outnumber the former.

'What I regret is not being able to introduce the modular approach to teaching Chinese (introduced in 2004) earlier. It would have set appropriate standards and methods of teaching for pupils from different language abilities and backgrounds, without setting back the rest of their academic development.

'Parts of the Chinese-speaking ground will continue to hold the attitude that those who are ethnic Chinese can and should learn the language the traditional way, but I do not agree. Language learning is not a function of ethnicity but of the person's aptitude and the exposure from his environment...

'The challenge is how to teach Chinese effectively as a second language to an increasingly English- speaking population. I believe the best way is to get parents to speak in Mandarin to their children at home, never mind if their vocabulary is limited. Once the sounds and sentence structure of Chinese are familiar to a child from young, he will have an easier time learning the language in school.

'The bottom line is that our education system must evolve and adjust as the situation changes. No policy is cast in stone.

'If the Chinese language grows in economic value and parents and students want to learn more Chinese, our system must accommodate them. The choice, however, must be exercised by parents and students, and not by the government.'

MY LIFELONG Challenge: Singapore's Bilingualism Journey has been read with keen interest and received positive reviews from many local and foreign personages, including the following:

Mr Wee Cho Yaw, chairman of the United Overseas Bank Group, who was Nanyang University Council chairman when Nantah was merged with the University of Singapore: 'To many people of my generation Nantah is more than a university. It represented the aspirations and idealism of the South-east Asian Chinese. The Nantah 'spirit' of self-reliance and strength in unity cut across social classes and national borders. In the closing line of the Nantah chapter, Mr Lee Kuan Yew advised that the spirit which inspired it (the university) deserves to be treasured and embraced by future generations of Singaporeans. I totally agree.'

Mr Chua Thian Poh, chairman of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry: 'This is a good book that deserves to be read by every Singaporean, particularly parents who are still undecided over how to create a positive second-language learning environment for their children.'

Ms Stefanie Sun, Mandopop singer who had to brush up on her Mandarin to break into the Taiwan pop music market: 'As the world gets 'smaller', our red dot fights for its mark on the global community. If you ever wondered how we got this far or what makes Singaporeans tick, this book explains a lot through the eyes of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.'

Professor Eddie Kuo Chen-Yu, Emeritus Professor, Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University: 'Mr Lee's... recounting of his family background and his life experiences in learning several languages makes this book a fascinating read.'

Dr Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state, who is an old friend of Mr Lee's: 'Lee Kuan Yew's memoir of his journey toward recognition of the value of state-supported bilingualism for his polyglot nation is a fascinating chapter in the life and lessons of one of the most innovative and successful leaders of our time. Candid and illuminating, it has valuable insights for many countries struggling to absorb an unprecedented flood of new immigrants.'

Mr Dominic Barton, global managing director of McKinsey & Company: 'This book comes at an important time for Singapore, which continues to rigorously examine its language policies as it sets a course for its next stage of development. It also comes at an important time for the rest of the world - as other countries confront their own choices as they overhaul their educational systems to take advantage of a globally connected world.'

Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, Thailand: 'Now that I am studying Chinese, he sometimes prefers to talk to me in Chinese... 

'By encouraging Singaporeans to be educated in English, he has made Singapore global. By introducing Mandarin to Singaporean life, he has opened up opportunities to the new century in which Chinese will be the dominant language. I sincerely wish for the success of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's... splendid exposition.'


Growing up multilingual
Languages are revived for use when needed, and values imbibed still guide my behaviour
By Lee Wei Ling, The Sunday Times, 20 Nov 2011

I grew up in a bilingual environment. My parents spoke to me in English and my black-and-white Cantonese maids spoke to me in Cantonese. I entered Nanyang Kindergarten just before I turned three years old and being able to understand and speak Cantonese, I very quickly picked up Mandarin.

About this time, my father started to speak to my brothers and me in Mandarin to practise his own Mandarin, while my mother continued to speak to us in English. By the time I started Primary 1 at Nanyang Primary School, just before I turned seven, I was equally fluent in English and Mandarin, and maintained my Cantonese.

In addition, I spoke a smattering of Malay as all my grandparents were Peranakan, and spoke to me in a mixture of English and Malay.

From Primary 1, I had tuition in Malay and Chinese. Because my mother spoke good English and bought me many English story books to read, my English was way better than my classmates' at Nanyang. After a double promotion from Primary 1 to Primary 3, I could still keep up with Chinese and English in school with no special effort.

But I noticed that I had some difficulty spelling in English which did not occur in reading or writing in Chinese. This difficulty in English spelling has persisted till now, though I graduated at the top of my class in medical school and subsequently acquired two postgraduate degrees - all of which involved reading and writing in English.

It was not until I was doing my postgraduate training in paediatric neurology at Harvard University that I realised my difficulty in spelling was a manifestation of my dyslexia.

Throughout my nine years at Nanyang, I was equally competent in both Chinese and English, except for spelling errors in the latter. I was also fluent in spoken and written Malay.

I took both English and Malay as second languages in my Secondary 4 examinations, with Chinese as my first language. I obtained distinctions in all three subjects.

I used to contribute articles to the Chinese newspapers and was even paid a small sum of money for the articles.

During my time at Nanyang Girls' High School, I studied Chinese classics. I had to memorise and reproduce famous essays and poems word for word in writing. More than half my time studying was spent on this activity.

But I learnt to appreciate Chinese literature, and without realising it, also internalised the moral values of duty, diligence, determination, honour, integrity, loyalty to country and disdain for ostentation.

The present curriculum even for students doing Higher Chinese is very different. I do not think the students of today have the time or inclination to study what may appear to them obscure and unnecessary.

Yet, I do not regret the hours I laboured over Chinese classics. I carry to this day the values they imparted to me, and they continue to guide my behaviour in life, 38 years after I completed my Chinese education.

The students of today have too many other subjects to learn, not to mention distractions like computer games. I have always felt that for the average student, studying a difficult second language like Chinese is an unnecessary burden in this day and age, when success in school and in careers depends mainly on a good command of English. Still, I think something is lost in not studying the Chinese classics.

For my pre-university education, I decided to change to a school where the primary language of instruction was English. I was planning to be a doctor, and all my textbooks in medical school would be in English. Up to Secondary 4, I used English textbooks for science subjects, my teachers taught the science subjects in Mandarin, and I was allowed to answer my exam questions in either English or Chinese.

From Pre-U 1 onwards until my third year at medical school, I rarely used Malay or Mandarin. Only when I began seeing patients in the third year of medical school did I use Mandarin, Cantonese and Malay again - but only orally so as to speak to my patients.

I still have no difficulty understanding when spoken to in Mandarin or Cantonese, but when I need to speak in complex sentences or on non-medical topics in these two languages, I find myself searching for the appropriate words.

But when I visit China or Taiwan, and am immersed in a Mandarin-speaking environment, I find that within one to two weeks, I can speak Mandarin fluently again, and even find myself dreaming in Mandarin again.

So for most of my adult life, my dominant language has been the language I use at work and with friends, and that is English. But though my spoken Chinese has deteriorated with disuse, it can be easily revived when necessary.

The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.

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