The Chinese Singaporean identity - SAP schools: Time for rethink?

SAP schools: Time for rethink?

They are millennials who grew up under Singapore's bilingual education system and graduated from Special Assistance Plan schools. How has their language background influenced their outlook? In the first collaboration of its kind, two reporters - one from The Straits Times and the other from Lianhe Zaobao - explore how the Chinese Singaporean identity has evolved in an exchange of views written in their preferred languages. The series, which examines issues such as the rise of China, will conclude with an Insight Special on Sunday.

The clock tower of Hwa Chong Institution, a school that operates under the Special Assistance Plan. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Relook their role in light of how they have changed

Dear Wai Mun,

I have something to confess: If Singapore were to one day scrap Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools - first launched 39 years ago - I would not be among those clamouring for the move to be reversed.

In fact, I might even take a moment or two to do a silent cheer.

Before the accusations start flying, let me first clarify - I am, in fact, a proud alumna of two SAP schools: CHIJ St Nicholas Girls' and Hwa Chong Institution. The six years that I spent in these institutions have been nothing short of memorable.

My secondary school was filled with caring teachers who made the place feel like a second home. Whenever I return to Hwa Chong for alumni events like the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations, the xinyao tunes that we sing never fail to stir up a sense of yearning for carefree days gone by.

But the beef that I have with SAP schools is this: While they have produced bilingual personalities like Sharon Au or Diana Ser in the past, it seems to me the reasons often cited for their existence - to preserve traditional Chinese values and nurture bilingualism - are hardly relevant anymore.

SAP schools support and enhance Chinese language learning, one oft-cited reason goes. But I spoke more Mandarin in my heartland primary school than the six years between 2005 and 2010 that I spent in the mostly English-speaking environment of the SAP schools I attended.


And while the gruelling process of setting up Chinese-medium schools imbued their students in the earlier years with a sense of humility and determination to succeed, SAP schools have acquired a lot more resources over the years - and now count among Singapore's elite schools.

Today, they are highly desired by parents and students - more because they are known to be elite schools, rather than for what they offer as Chinese schools.

When I put down St Nicholas Girls' as one of my choices after the release of my Primary School Leaving Examination results, I had just wanted to go to a school with a cut-off point that matched my grades.

Most of the students in my secondary school class did the same, and we all later benefited from a string of incentives that came with taking Higher Chinese, such as bonus points for entry to junior college after the O levels.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself has alluded to the idea that SAP schools - just like other popular schools - may become vehicles that perpetuate elitism.

At a dinner last year marking the 100th anniversary of the Nanyang family of schools, he made a call for all schools to remain open to children of all backgrounds, noting that the pupil profile at Nanyang Primary has become "less varied". Most were admitted based on an association with the school, and had parents who are professionals rather than of working-class backgrounds.

Another downside of SAP schools is the fact that they do not have a multiracial mix of students, as Chinese is the only mother tongue that is offered in the schools.

To mitigate this, there are compulsory Racial Harmony Day celebrations and inter-CCA (co-curricular activity) programmes across schools to encourage students to mix with those of other races. Yet, time spent on such programmes is scant, and superficial manifestations of "cultural exchange" could be more damaging.

My secondary school, for example, organised Bollywood dance competitions and an inter-class dikir barat contest. They were well-meaning attempts at reminding us that other ethnic cultures exist here, but such activities, if not properly handled, could smack of cultural appropriation.

While I had some close friends of other races in primary school, I felt like I later lost out in diversifying my circle of friends due to being in a predominantly Chinese environment.

Some say that SAP schools also serve to assuage the sense of loss that many felt from the closure of vernacular schools in the Seventies. I also know of bicultural alumni from my schools and have great respect for their accomplishments, which the SAP environment has no doubt had a hand in shaping.

But my fear is that restricting the mandate of nurturing such a bicultural outlook and uplifting the standards of Chinese here to a handful of schools shuts out those in non-SAP schools who are interested but do not have access to the same resources.

A more egalitarian approach to nurturing Chinese biculturalism would be to conduct a deeper study of what aspects of the SAP system had fostered a genuine interest in Chinese language and culture, and extend such activities and programmes to more schools beyond this limited group of SAP schools.

For example, it would be wonderful if more students could benefit from the Chinese drama CCA that I had been part of in school.

Where language felt stilted and inaccessible in comprehension passages in school, it came to life in the lines of dialogue that we used in plays. And while I was being told to memorise "model phrases" for the essay section of my O-level exams, I was free to exercise my creativity when we came up with scripts.

Such activities also need not be done at the expense of room for interaction with non-Chinese groups. For example, arts programmes can contain inter-cultural elements to foster an understanding of other races in ways that go beyond mere tokenism.

If I were to have kids in the future, I hope that what they learn in school - SAP or not - will be able to ignite their love for the Chinese language, and not diminish it.

Yuen Sin

Ng Wai Mun from Lianhe Zaobao (left) and Yuen Sin from The Straits Times. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

New cultural possibilities yet to be explored

Dear Yuen Sin,

I agree with you that with the changes in education policy over the years, Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools, with Chinese being the only mother tongue on offer, may lack a multiracial mix.

And true, in Singapore, where the main working language is English, naturally there is no language environment for cultivating "local Chinese elites".

However, from a practical point of view, placing the heavy task of raising the level of the Chinese language on the special design of the education system today will only narrow the perspective of the issue and cause us to miss some opportunities in improving the environment.

Although the problem of an over-homogeneous environment at elite schools may exist, using the SAP schools as a scapegoat will not solve it.

To improve the language environment, we must understand why society is using less Mandarin, and then create more possibilities.

Indeed, there is now a group of middle-generation and, even, young parents who do not discriminate against, or look down upon, the Chinese language.

In fact, they are worried that their Mandarin is not good enough, and that they are unable to immerse their children in an environment more favourable to speaking the language.

Nominated Member of Parliament Kuik Shiao-Yin often shares on her Facebook page how she tries to help her daughter learn Chinese. Recently, she wrote out, by hand, lyrics of Chinese songs and joked that her writing looked alien but, during the process, she felt the opening up of the "neural pathways" of the forgotten language she had used in school.

A pilot survey of local young parents last December found that although young parents recognised the importance of learning Chinese, they were uncertain about their ability to sustain a bilingual learning environment for their children in the long term.

The findings led to much discussion among Lianhe Zaobao readers, but many still focused on the "helplessness" of the parents, lamenting that society has turned monolingual.

We must acknowledge this willingness to embrace the language - whether this is parents making the effort to ensure their children learn the language well or English-speaking youngsters starting to learn business Chinese as they venture out to China.

We should explore more channels beyond the existing education system so that these people will have another chance at improving their command of the language, which is in line with the purpose of lifelong learning.

As for SAP schools, though their role in the overall promotion of Chinese teaching may have diminished gradually from a policy point of view, there is definitely value in retaining them.

Looking back, it may seem the SAP school I attended was simply nurturing the embryonic self that is now me at 30, a Mandarin-speaking reporter for a Chinese-language newspaper. And yes, I know I go against the trend in my insistence on using Mandarin as my first language.

However, my four years at Chung Cheng High School (Main) were a happy accident.

I was posted to Chung Cheng based on my Primary School Leaving Examination score. I had no understanding of its history as a traditional Chinese school and never even knew that passing Higher Chinese would qualify me for point deduction when going to a junior college.

One of my regrets is that I came to have a deeper understanding of the history of local Chinese schools only after joining the Chinese media.

SAP schools are steeped in history and culture, and this is a distinctive feature that they should be proud of.

To me, the beauty of my time at Chung Cheng had more to do with less quantifiable things.

True, the school song consisted of lines of four Chinese characters arranged neatly. We were merely producing a string of meaningless sounds. However, the breath and rhythms of the singing became a part of my memory. Many years later, I am still able to feel the beauty of the lyrics.

Other memories: the willows at Chung Cheng Lake, the red pillars and green tiles of the school buildings, even the metal buttons on the uniforms - as well as the "comfort zone" of speaking Mandarin on campus and the lifelong friendships that were made.

So if you ask me about the significance of SAP schools, I cannot ignore their unintended impact on my life.

And among my peers, there are some who have benefited from this system, established a strong foundation in Chinese and further contributed to related fields such as the Chinese-language newspaper industry or the education sector.

Respecting and protecting the history of Chinese language learning is much more than cherishing the memory of an era that will never return.

A documentary last year at A Design Film Festival Singapore shows a forward-looking approach. The film was about how youngsters in Hong Kong and Taiwan integrated Chinese characters into aesthetics and design, and got involved in research and creative work on Chinese typography.

People from my generation are often seen as a product of the country's bilingual policy - either effectively bilingual or, in many people's eyes, only half-proficient in both English and Mandarin. To counter that latter viewpoint, it is important to look beyond the merely utilitarian.

When placed in the hands of young people such as those in the documentary, valuing the Chinese language takes on a new lease of life. The possibilities are many.

Ng Wai Mun (Translated by Lim Ruey Yan)


Click here to read these columns in Chinese on Lianhe Zaobao.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2018, with the headline SAP schools: Time for rethink?. Subscribe