No place for mother tongue exemptions in a meritocracy

The concerns about fairness when a pupil is exempted from mother tongue are justified, especially in a country where we pride ourselves on having a meritocratic education system ("Is grading system for exempted pupils unfair?"; Monday).

Many pupils find mother tongue challenging. This is because of several factors.

A recent study showed that pre-schoolers are speaking more English to their peers ("S'pore kids 'using more English but strong in Chinese'"; July 11).

This means that the foundation in English is likely to be stronger.

Our successful integration policy, which has seen more ethnic diversity in schools, could also be instrumental in pupils using more English.

It is unfortunate that the extreme competition for places has led parents to push for systems that are in their children's favour, rather than for a true meritocratic system.

When pupils come from overseas systems where the mother tongue standards are much higher, they are happy to excel in local examinations.

On the other hand, pupils with a weak mother tongue background, or who may merely dislike it, apply for exemptions. If successful, they gain an advantage over their peers as they dedicate the time saved to mastering other subjects.

This leads to a more uneven playing field overall, which may shelter children and make them unprepared for other challenges when competing internationally.

Our bilingual advantage has made Singapore a successful business hub linking the East and the West.

But it is slowly weakening, as other countries try to promote bilingualism too, and our mother tongue standards flatline and even dip.

It is only when genuine interest is built around mother tongues that pupils will put their best foot forward.

By keeping up with the children's interests, teachers will be able to gain their interest and help them become active learners post-school, rather than learning just to excel in exams.

This will be instrumental for them to thrive in a globalising world.

Lionel Loi Zhi Rui

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2016, with the headline 'No place for mother tongue exemptions in a meritocracy'. Print Edition | Subscribe