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Dr Yaacob, do you understand why your remark was misunderstood?

Lisa Li

On 20 April 2011, Singapore's Minister for Muslim Affairs Mr Yaacob Ibrahim was quoted saying "it may be timely for us to teach Malay as a foreign language rather than as a mother tongue." (ST, 20 Apr 2011). Understandably, many took offense at what they perceived to be an insult to native speakers of Malay and non-Malay Singaporeans alike.

In response, MENDAKI has now stated that Mr Yaacob's comment was taken out of context, and he meant "methods used in teaching foreign languages", specifically for "[Malay] children who do not use Malay as a primary language at home"[1]. (CNA, 24 Apr 2011)

English-Speaking Malay Households?

I was curious about Mr Yaacob's suggested "methods used in teaching foreign languages" specifically for "[Malay] children who do not use Malay as a primary language at home", because this is not a common problem I encounter in my work in a literacy programme. In fact, many of the Malay children I have met prefer using Malay as their primary language.

My personal experience was confirmed by the Census of Population 2010 (Table 49), which states that for the resident population aged 5 years and over, the Malays are by far the most likely to use their mother tongue as a primary language, compared to the other two main races in Singapore.

For 2010, it was found that a hefty majority of 82.7% of Malays use Malay as a primary language at home, while only 17% of Malays prefer English. In comparison, 67%% of Chinese use Mandarin or Chinese dialects as a primary language, with 32.6%% preferring English, while for Indians, 36.7% use Tamil, 41.6% use English, and 10.6% use Malay as their primary language[2].

Since such a comparatively large proportion of the Malay population speak Malay at home as a primary language, it is not surprising that so many of us did not immediately identify with the English-speaking trend Mr Yaacob was referring to, and reacted with horror at the suggestion to "teach Malay as a foreign language rather than as a mother tongue".

Foreign Language Teaching Methods?

Since then, Mr Yaacob's remark has been clarified. But what are the "methods used in teaching foreign languages" that he could be referring to?

There are many different methods that foreign language teachers have used over the years, including the grammar translation method, the natural method (which refrains from using the learner's native language), communicative language teaching (using interaction), language immersion, using flashcards, the Silent Way (in which the teacher is usually silent, leaving room for the learners to talk and explore the foreign language), blended learning (using the learners' native language occasionally to explain difficult words) and many more.

While these are useful teaching methods, many similar methods and other creative pedagogical tools have already been used in Singapore to improve students' fluency in language.

In fact, the Ministry of Education has long recognised the growing trend of students speaking English as a primary language at home, and has introduced creative teaching methods to better engage their students.

Local Teaching Methods in Singapore

In 2005, then-Minister for Education Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam launched a new initiative, SEED-CL[3], to phase in new approaches to Chinese Language (CL) teaching and learning. This focused on experimentation in teaching techniques at the initial stage, for example, placing less emphasis on script writing and more emphasis on character recognition. (Click here[4] for more creative teaching methods from SEED-CL.)

Interestingly, these changes were made after MOE (Ministry of Education) and NIE (National Institute of Education) professionals undertook a study trip[5] to China and Hong Kong to observe China's new approaches in teaching, and to see how far we could apply them in Singapore. Rather than look to "methods used in teaching foreign languages", MOE looked to CL experts from China to improve CL teaching in Singapore.

In February 2008, MOE again acknowledged that there were "shifts in the home-language background of students" of Chinese students, and announced further enhancements to programmes in Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools, such as the teaching of non-examination subjects such as Art, Music, Physical Education and Social Studies in Chinese, the increase in immersion programmes to China, and a new ‘O’ level subject, Media Studies in Chinese, for two secondary schools[6].

Since MOE is able to improve Singapore's CL teaching for a range of learners (from those more comfortable in English to those highly proficient in Chinese) based on advice from CL experts in China, we can definitely also learn from our neighbouring countries how they teach Bahasa Melayu to their local Malays for example, without having to resort to methods used for teaching foreign languages.

The Malay Language Centre of Singapore[7], which was opened in July 2010, is well placed to do just that, especially with MOE's promise in March 2011 of up to $3.6 million[8] to support efforts by the Malay Language Learning Promotion Committee over the next 5 years. With such support, I am sure that MOE definitely has no intention of downgrading Malay.

Still, Dr Yaacob's remarks cast some temporary doubt over this matter, and his clarification merely emphasized the fact that he saw nothing wrong in his use of the phrase "foreign language rather than mother tongue" with reference to Malay Language teaching -- even if he really meant "methods for teaching foreign languages".

Dr Yaacob said he is "disappointed by the negative reactions to his remarks on teaching the Malay language", and described the criticism as coming from "certain elements that continue to stoke the language issue for whatever gains and motives that they might have in mind."[9]

Dr Yaacob, many of us, Malays and non-Malays alike, were shocked by your initial remarks. We spoke up in outrage because we care for our collective language and culture. Now, by dismissing these valid concerns as coming from "elements" who sow discord for unspecified "gains and motives", you only insult us further.


[1] http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1124580/1/.html

[2] http://www.singstat.gov.sg/pubn/popn/c2010sr1/t47-57.pdf

[3] http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/speeches/2005/sp20050409.htm

[4] http://www3.moe.edu.sg/corporate/contactonline/2005/Issue23/big_pic/treasure.htm

[5] http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/speeches/2005/sp20050409.htm

[6] http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/press/2008/02/enhanced-programmes-by-special.php

[7] http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1072558/1/.html

[8] http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/press/2011/03/additional-funding-to-promote-teaching-and-use-of-malay-language.php

[9] http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1124580/1/.html