SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has addressed concerns that Mandarin standards are slipping, saying that it is not appropriate to compare today's social and linguistic environment with that in the 1950s.
Speaking in Mandarin at a dinner to mark the 75th anniversary of Chung Cheng High School, Mr Lee defended the Government's bilingual policy and presented a different perspective on the issue.
"If we did not introduce the bilingual policy, promote Mandarin and start Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools, Singapore today might be a completely English-speaking society," he said.
Given an environment where English is the lingua franca and working language, it has already not been easy to maintain Singaporeans' Mandarin standards at the level it is today.
He pledged that the Government would continue to work hard and do its best to help Singaporeans achieve their highest potential in their mother tongues.
Besides the utmost support the Government has given to SAP schools, it has also extended resources to all schools to help more students excel in Mandarin, said Mr Lee.
Last year, 30 per cent of Chinese students took Higher Chinese at O-Level, almost double the rate in 2000, he said. Some 100,000 teachers, parents and students take part in programmes by the Committee to Promote Chinese Language Learning every year.
Citing these examples as evidence that the Government's efforts have been effective, Mr Lee laid out the main policy direction, which is "to ensure that all Singaporeans stay rooted in their mother tongue and culture, have good values and do not forget their roots".
Noting that these are values that Chung Cheng High has always taught its students, Mr Lee said the school's history and achievements also underscore the Government's commitment to strengthen the learning of mother tongues in schools.
The SAP schools were set up, for instance, to develop bilingual and bi-cultural students firmly rooted in Chinese traditions and identity, while being integrated into a multi-racial and multi-cultural Singapore, said Mr Lee.
But when these schools were first set up, it was not clear whether they would succeed, he said.
It was a challenge for students to master both Chinese and English as a first language in the environment then. Many parents also wanted their children to study English instead of Chinese as the former was perceived to have more economic value, said Mr Lee.
But the Government put in resources, teachers and students worked hard, and parents gave their support.
"All SAP schools submitted a beautiful report card in the end. You could say they all passed," said Mr Lee.