Singapore’s former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has proposed a S$100 million bilingualism fund to enhance the teaching of mother tongue languages to pre-schoolers. Speaking at the launch of his new book, “My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore’s Bilingual Journey”, Mr Lee said the money will be used to expose pre-schoolers to both English and their mother tongue in the first few years of their life. The fund, to be named the Lee Kuan Yew Bilingualism Fund, may also be expanded later to cover pre-nursery pupils.
Calling it his “lifelong challenge”, Mr Lee spoke about the struggles he faced – both personally and politically – to transform Singapore into a bilingual nation. He reveals in his book why he did away with vernacular schools despite violent political resistance, why he closed Nanyang University, and why he later started Special Assistance Plan schools. Recalling a sit-in by pro-communist activists in 1956 after the arrest of student leaders and closure of Chinese High School and Chung Cheng High School, Mr Lee said he had high regard for the discipline and seriousness of purpose in life displayed by Chinese school students compared to English school students. Mr Lee said: “After watching this drama of the sit-in at Chinese High School, I passed by the University of Singapore’s student hostels on Dunearn Road, just around the corner from Chinese High. “The contrast was stark. I could see the students – the English-educated students – enjoying themselves. They were laughing and blowing whistles, regarding the clash between the Chinese students and the police as a big joke. “I thought to myself that if Singapore students all turned out like those in the university hostel, Singapore would fail.” But Singapore is now facing another changing tide. Mr Lee noted that Singaporeans are rapidly becoming English-speaking. In 1980, one in ten primary one students came from predominantly English-speaking homes. This proportion grew to nearly six in ten in 2010.
And he’s concerned that fluency in the mother tongue, especially Chinese, will decrease as a result of the growing dominance of the English language. That is why he has proposed a bilingualism fund targeted at pre-schoolers. Mr Lee said: “Several studies have shown that the best time for a child to learn another language is in the first few years of life, where it is the most absorptive period of the mind for learning languages. This begins to tail off progressively until the age of 10 or 12. “However difficult it is to learn the mother tongue, especially Chinese and English, if children start early enough from kindergarten one or even nursery, by Primary Six, they will be bilingual, with a strong foundation in the mother tongue for life. After Primary Six, at age 12, they can concentrate on their master language, which is English in Singapore.” The Lee Kuan Yew Bilingualism Fund will supplement efforts by the Education Ministry. The government will match the fund dollar-for-dollar, up to a cap of S$50 million. Speaking to the media at the book launch, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said the ministry is currently reviewing guidelines on teaching mother tongue languages in pre-schools, which are expected to be released next year.