leekuanyew

Bilingualism: From hard slog to rewarding career

Up till her Secondary One year, Ms Wong Lee Jeng's school was a public Chinese-language institution. Then, overnight, all the textbooks - except those in the Chinese language - were changed into English.

This was in 1981, at the former Seh Chuan High School. It was the transitional period when the Education Ministry was developing national schools with English as the language of instruction.

It was the brainchild of then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, an advocate of bilingualism which was introduced in the late 1970s. The thinking behind it was that English would connect Singaporeans to the world and give all races an equal chance while knowing their mother tongue would keep them in touch with their culture.

Ms Wong, now 47, struggled at first, not knowing that the move would pave the way for her career.

She went on to become a Mandarin radio DJ and television presenter, and is now a translator and trainer as well as bilingual host at public events.

She hosted the ground-breaking ceremony of the China Cultural Centre in 2010 in Queen Street, officiated by then Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Mr Xi Jinping, now China's President.

She did the same at the opening of the Confucius Institute at Nanyang Technological University in 2006. It was attended by Mr Lee, then Minister Mentor.

Ms Wong says: "In my first two years in the school, our teachers were still teaching us in Mandarin though our textbooks, especially those for science and mathematics, were in English."

The complete switch from Chinese to English took place when she was in Secondary Three.

All vernacular language schools, including Seh Chuan, which was renamed Shuqun Secondary in 1986 when it moved from Upper Bukit Timah to Jurong Street 21, became full-fledged national schools by 1987.

They taught English at first language level, mother tongue languages at second language level.

The exceptions were nine former Chinese-medium schools, which became Special Assistance Plan or SAP schools in 1978.

Ms Wong, who later completed her A levels at the former Raffles Junior College, recalls taking the change at Seh Chuan in her stride, but some classmates "dropped out of school after failing to show up for their O-level examinations".

It was also hard on the teaching staff: Chinese-educated science teachers found themselves having to teach complex chemistry theories in English.

Luckily for Ms Wong, her principal engaged an American, Mr Alan Smith, a staff member at the US embassy, to give students English enrichment lessons.

"He introduced us to English literature, too, like the works of H.G. Wells which I became very interested in, and helped improve my English further," she says.

Although a science student, she began her career as a Chinese copy writer at an advertising firm after her A levels in 1987.

Her parents were construction workers and Ms Wong, the fourth of six children, had to start work and help support the family.

She went on to become a full-time DJ, radio producer and Chinese-English translator. In 2006, she and her musician husband Tan Tong Jen, 46, formed a media services company, Six Degrees Connection. They have two daughters, aged 14 and 11.

She declares: "I am enjoying my work as event host, translator and writer now, thanks to my good grasp of the two languages."

wengkam@sph.com.sg