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Chee Soon Juan
For 40 years, Singaporeans were forced to practice something that was contrary to human nature and nobody said anything about it. I am, of course, referring to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s recent confession that his bilingual policy was wrong.
To be sure the surprise is not that Mr Lee was wrong, for the Minister Mentor has been spectacularly wrong on many occasions – the most embarrassing being his prediction that Singapore was entering a “golden period” just months before the economy crashed (see here).
What is surprising is that it has taken all this time for the Government to realise this error when there was clear evidence, both scientifically and politically, to demonstrate the inanity of Mr Lee’s policy.
I had written in a book that I co-authored with my wife, Dr Huang Chihmei, that the English language is processed very differently by the brain compared to Chinese.
I pointed out that while English is based on the alphabet and read phonetically, the Chinese language consists of characters which are recognised pictorially. These languages are learnt through different neural systems, involving different regions of the brain.
(The book, entitled Effective Parenting for the Asian Family, was published in 1995 but its publisher Heinemann Asia inexplicably cut short its shelf-life and got rid of the remaining copies.)
I had also pointed out in letters to the Ministry of Education that was published in the Straits Times Forum in 1993 as well as in my book Dare To Change that such brain functions are still developing in students.
Streaming children according to their language ability when these neural systems have yet to mature is thus not a smart thing to do.
Nearly 20 years later, Mr Lee Kuan Yew cites his daughter’s neurological knowledge and finally admits that things have gone wrong.
Two major concerns arise: First, how many lives have been negatively and unalterably affected by this policy? Many parents left Singapore because they feared that their children could not cope in school under this bilingual policy.
How many people had their educational advancement curtailed because they were not able to master both languages? In economic terms, how much talent have we missed out or lost through the brain drain?
Second why, through all these years, didn’t any of the ministers point out to Mr Lee that he was wrong? For decades all the ministers seemed to be in perfect agreement.
Were there no ministers, ministers of state, permanent secretaries, etc at the Ministry of Education who detected the faulty policy?
This is the tragedy of Singapore. Mr Lee’s personal experiences and ramblings often become diktat, and pass for policy-making processes. And when policy is made, no one dares to question it.
Are ministers paid so highly and intimidated so thoroughly that no one thinks of saying anything to Mr Lee when policies don’t work? Is groupthink so prevalent within the cabinet?
Tragic as it is, the bilingual policy is not the most egregious as far as PAP policies are concerned. Of much greater consequence is Mr Lee’s Stop-At-Two Policy and the Graduate Mothers Scheme. These were borne out of a mixture of the MM’s hopelessly poor grasp of what constituted hereditary intelligence and his bigotry.
Women, especially those at the lower end of the economic and educational scales, were enticed and/or theatened into having their reproductive organs violated in order to stop them from procreating during the years when the Government was hellbent on keeping families small.
This helped to retard the national birthrate to the present extent that we, as a people, cannot replace ourselves.
Now Mr Lee insists that we need to import foreigners enmasse to make up for the shortfall, never mind the social and economic consequences. Again no debate, no discussion.
Again, all the ministers seem to be perfectly in sync with their Mentor. Either that or everyone’s just waiting for Mr Lee’s next confession.