Sunday, April 25, 2010

From the mouth of a Chinese tutor

You must be sick and tired of hearing me blather on about this Chinese at PSLE issue but something interesting happened over the weekend that I'd like to share.

My kids' Chinese tutor came over for the weekly tuition session and she told me that she'd read the newspaper article on Lesley-Anne in the Straits Times. My first thought was, "uh oh... she's not gonna be happy."

To my utter astonishment, she went on to say that this was a good move by MOE. She says she has seen so many kids struggle with learning Chinese and unable to cope with the standards, which has eroded the love of the subject. To her, Chinese isn't really their 姆语 (mother tongue) as they never grew up with the language or spoke it at home. In fact, it's closer to a 外语 (foreign language)!

I was floored. This is coming from a lady originally from China, whose livelihood depends on teaching kids Chinese (which she has been doing in Singapore for more than 15 years). If even she can see the sense of reducing the weightage of Chinese at PSLE, that makes for a strong case indeed because nobody can accuse her of being biased.

On a particular forum, some of the pro-status quo folks are crying foul, saying that the gahmen is bowing to the wishes of a small minority (rich and influential implied) and parents should just have the foresight to instill a Mandarin-speaking environment at home from young so that their kids grew to be "naturally" adept in Chinese.

First of all, saying English-speaking folks are a minority is laughable. As at 2010, the rate stands at 60% of Singapore households. By no stretch of the imagination can that be considered a minority. Secondly, not everybody can (or want to) transform their households into Chinese-speaking ones for the sole purpose of having their kids perform better in Chinese exams. And what about those who realise this too late? Those who rigidly insist on not giving this group of kids a helping hand are basically saying, "well, your parents didn't do the right thing, so serves you right."

The double standards on this forum thread are blatant but I don't think the posters even noticed. One said the children should just adapt to the system (so why don't they adapt to the revised system?) Many said the gahmen shouldn't cave to parents who complain (umm... sure sounds to me like they want the gahmen to give in to their complaints now).

As the posters continue to feed off each other's frenzy and fan the flames, it has become very ugly the last I checked, degenerating into wild accusations, mailbox spamming and petty name-calling. Isn't that how mass hysteria starts? I'm always appalled by the immaturity of Singapore's online community.

I think some people are losing sight of the fact that MOE is simply announcing a reduction in the weightage of Chinese assessment at PSLE. The way they're foaming at the mouth, you would think that MOE is proposing a complete removal of Chinese from the syllabus. And MOE has already clarified that those who can do well in Chinese will be supported and given opportunities to cultivate their strengths in the subject.

I have lots more to say but I think I've belaboured the topic long enough. I'll climb down from my soapbox now.


Anonymous said...

Those parents whose kids happen to be good in Chinese are kiasu, mah! They don't want to lose out on this 'advantage'. But as a forum writer has pointed out, by the time 'O' levels roll round Chinese would be only 1 of 7 or 10 subjects.

Another thing is, some of those who are fluent in Chinese can be rather 'chauvinistic' about it. It's this very attitude--even in Chinese teachers--that 'any Chinese who's poor in Chinese is inferior & reprehensible' that has turned off entire generations of Chinese who grew up in English-speaking homes.

I'm not saying this because I had been at the receiving end of this kind of supercilious attitude, because I never had to struggle with Chinese. But I see this very attitude even in my own parents--who were Chinese teachers--and I have found it off-putting even though they are my own parents and the attitude was not directed at me. We overheard so much of this kind of attitude at home that now, my older brother refuses to speak to his son in Chinese--even though he was from a SAP school. It's his wife--from an English school--who's attempting to speak to their son in Chinese.

Lilian said...

And that's why I <3 Xu Lao Shi :) She is so rational and always dispenses good advice. And she should know better than parents who only have their own experience with their own children...she has been teaching so many kids in Singapore.

So if I were MOE, I would give Xu Lao Shi's opinion a gazillion times more credence than the views of parents on either side of the fence (yours and mine included).

monlim said...

Anon: Interesting account. This attitude would explain a lot actually - why they're so against the move. If in their minds, our kids are a "disgrace" to the Chinese race, then they don't deserve any concessions to begin with and the govt pandering to these kids would be adding insult to injury.

But this narrow-mindedness is so sad and creates friction between the English and Chinese-speaking. Afterall, more and more English-speaking families are realising the importance of Chinese and sending their kids to SAP schools. The cultural gap should be bridged, not widened.

Lilian: I know! None of us can claim to be truly impartial. Even if we are, people are not inclined to believe us. But this coming from a teacher with nothing to gain from the move, you can bet it's a truly objective view.

Anonymous said...

Once, I also thought that learning Chinese is just nature for Chinese and it shouldn't be difficult. On the other hand, learning English is something tough for me. In my Primary school days, I have no problem with Chinese but I flunked my English. I was given a 2nd chance and fortunately I met a really good teacher and got an "A" in English for my PSLE. Well, that is donkey years ago and most students converse in Mandarin at that time.

Fast forward to present, having two kids and both having problem with Chinese. This is really something I cannot understand initially and I guess no one can understand as well. We tried all sort of ways to get them like Chinese but none works. We don't really like to force them to the extreme and afraid that they will hate Chinese in the end. In fact, we want them to learn at their own pace and enjoy their childhood. We have not send them for any tution.

Then, our elder son got into GEP last year so he changed to a SAP school where he needs to learn HCL. Now he has to struggle even more with Chinese. He has put in a lot of extra effort in learning Chinese but the progress is slow. Nevertheless, I will praise him for his slightest improvement. How much effort I want him to put into Chinese, I really do not know. But one thing for sure, I do not want to kill his interest in other subjects. I started to put myself in his shoes and realized that everyone is just different regardless of race. His brain just work differently from mine.

Reading some of the comments from the pro-status quo camp, I felt very sad for the kids. I am really not sure whether are they protesting the move for themselves or for the welfare of the kids. Root/Culture does not equal to just Chinese language. How many Chinese in Singapore knows their root. Kids need to be all-rounder. Good in all subjects is all-rounder? For goodness sake, spare a thought for the kids.


L said...

Hi Monica,
Jus curious, what's the weightage? Is it equal for all subjects or more on languages? I think you're are right abt "MOE is simply announcing a reduction" and not " removal of Chinese"...I do feel that Maths and Sci are very impt at later part of eduaction. My kids (p3 and 4)are coping fine for all 4 subjects now. I still want my kids to be able to read and write in Chinese but should not neglect the other core subjects such as Maths and Sci.


monlim said...

SY: Thanks for sharing. Yours is a classic case which demonstrates that too much focus on the exams does kill interest in learning the subject, esp for a subject like language where a lot of effort can be put in and yet not yield results. Something needs to be done now or we risk turning off yet another generation of kids from Chinese.

L: Right now, all the 4 subjects share equal weightage, ie 25% each. It makes no sense that Chinese, a 2nd language, is weighted the same as the official language and the other 2 core subjects. As MOE has mentioned, we are the only country in the world which places such high expectations for 2nd language in a national exam at the elementary level of education. It really is an anomaly that needs to be corrected.

Anonymous said...

Thinking deeper, I think there's more than meets the eye. Look at who are the top scorers from 2005 - 2009. Only one of them is a Singaporean Chinese. Obviously, we can see where the MT 'advantage' goes to...


monlim said...

SC: Obviously the PRCs have an advantage, not just due to their fluency in Chinese but also their age. But I honestly don't think that's the reason for the move. The top scorer is just one person, it wouldn't warrant such an important action. I think they want to stem the fall-out of kids who don't get placed into standard-appropriate schools and classes in sec schl and beyond due to Chinese.

Yve said...

Hi Monica,

What's your take on when MOE might implement the changes?

How much lead time do you think ought to be provided to children in the system to at least mentally prepare themselves for the change?

monlim said...

Yve: Wah, your guess is as good as mine, man. I think it depends how drastic the changes are. If it's only a slight downward adjustment in percentage, MOE can probably implement quite quickly. Afterall there's no change in curriculum as yet. I'm doubtful it will be in time for next year's p6 cohort though. Maybe the following year's?

friendly giant said...

Hi, nice to bump into your blog, i must say you are very frank in your words. However, I would like to point out that although 60% of families reflect that they speak english at home, but the truth can be far from it. Most of these families mix both languages. Maybe half or less than half ONLY speak English to the kids.

The reason why there is so much uproar over this matter is a matter of meritocracy. As you mention one group gained at the expense of another group. And normally, those groups traditionally strong in english normally earned more and are in the upper socioeconomic strata. while there are still a substantial groups who speaks mandarin and falls behind the social strata. Hence can you imagine, with the change of weighting, the poorer group would hardly had the chance to go into better schools and move up the rung.

The issue of cutting weighting would deeply impact the motivation level of students taking up the subject. Not many parents were like you who had the resources and willing to spend time on your daughter's MT despite her weakness in her subjects. If MOE really go ahead with the cut, the effect would be disastrous and most parents would simply switch to other subjects given their limited resources and time.

This is a issue that cuts across many different levels and is not merely an educational issue. It ls linked to the social/economic/cultural structure of singapore more than we can imagined.

monlim said...

riendly giant: Thanks for taking the time to comment. I think you're right in that the reason why there are such polarised views is that while this matter is an educational one, people perceive it as social/economic/cultural because it seems to say that one cultural group is less important than another.

The problem is that IMO, the current scoring system doesn't just show who's weaker in CL, it penalises them and inaccurately misrepresents their strengths in the other subjects, as I've detailed in my other posts. Therefore, the system has to change. I agree with you that this would then shift the disadvantage to the Mandarin-speaking group, but the solution then is to CREATE an advantage for those strong in CL, not to keep status quo just because it's the most amiable way forward.

As for the 60% of English-speaking families, there is no reason to believe that this is not a real statistic. By the same token that maybe some of this 60% speak both English and Mandarin at home, this can also be true for the remaining 40%. Whatever it is, English-speaking households are no minority.

It's not my imagination. I've been to SAP schools and have many friends who send their kids there, most of the time, you catch these kids conversing in English or a combination of English and Mandarin. It's a very different environment from 20 years ago, where SAP school kids speak primarily in Mandarin. That's why I firmly believe that English-speaking families too understand the importance of Chinese (ie I'm not the exception) and it's certainly not because the weightage in the PSLE tells them so. There are just too many assumptions and conclusions jumped on that upon deeper thinking, may not necessarily be so. But I understand it's hard to separate keep completely level-headed amidst such as emotionally-charged issue.

花生米 said...

dear mdm lim and all those who had left comments:

a very good afternoon to everyone.

i grew up in a dialect speaking family in the 70s, what some neitizens might describe as "underprivileged" family because a) my mum is illiterate(she gave up her opportunity to study and join the work force at a tender age as she is the eldest in the family and she has too many siblings); b) my dad was given a Chinese-education but dropped out after secondary 3 as his siblings were not willing to support him (his folks passed away when he was still schooling)

okay, what i m trying to say? i grew up in a highly disadvantaged environment. my parents, my relatives did not communicate in English, a few communicate in Mandarin.

I embraced both English and Mandarin but due to the Cina background, I did better in Chinese (taking 1st language all the way to Junior College and eventually graduated with a Honors Degree in Chinese Studies).

I never did well in my English exams, my O Level English Papers, my AO Level General Paper.

I did not and still do not blame the education system for putting me at a disadvantage (becoz not doing well in English papers meant I had limited choices beyond JC).

I love English because I love to read, I read extensively, from fiction to poetry, to philosophy and political analysis that often use "big" words (which are like nothing to English speaking fellow country men)

I wish that during my days, the Minister, the authority, the whoever who could make some crucial decisions, could reassure me that my poor results in English did not deprive me from a good education.

My little worrying mind never ever came up with a "brilliant" idea our Minister and his advisers had come up with recently -yah, reduce the weighting in exams (perhaps for all levels, not just PSLE) so that people like me, the "underprivileged" mandarin speaking kids,who wish to make some contributions to her nation, could survive and could proceed to the next level without worrying too much.

Too bad, I wasn't brilliant enough to write in to MOE when I was 11 or when i was 17 (worrying how could I cope with my GP and if i did fail, how could I pursue a degree in local uni since my parents could never afford to send me abroad like most rich kids from the English speaking family do)

I cannot write with colorful words. I cannot express myself as clearly as what I can in Chinese.

But I will never hate the language.

And, I had just signed up as a private candidate to take my O English and AO P end of the year. Not to challenge anyone, but just want to prove to myself that by putting in sufficient efforts, I can move from a B4 to a A2 and a C6 to a B4..

Good day!

monlim said...

花生米: I applaud you for your determination, it's certainly something to be admired. I think this whole fiasco went out of control because people assumed that the Minister came up with the proposal because a few English elite people complained. I seriously doubt so, this problem of people being bad in Chinese had existed since my time. Like you, I'm born in the 70s. Many might be surprised to know that I actually didn't grow up in an English-speaking family. I spoke Teochew at home exclusively for the first 6 years in my life, in fact, my father decided to send me to a mission school kindergarten because he was afraid I wouldn't be able to master English!

I sense (sorry if I'm wrong) a sort of complex in you that perhaps you were not as "privileged" as some of these English-educated folks and I think many feel the same as you, that's why this whole issue just became so ugly and one of Chinese vs English when really, it should have been just about helping a group of students who struggle with learning Chinese. Not all English-educated folks are privileged just as not all Chinese-educated folks are under-privileged. I guess it's sometimes just easier to villainise a group. Being a chauvinist is just ugly, whether it's Chinese chauvinist or English chauvinist.

Anyway, I heard the gahmen is doing a U-turn now on the decision, so it's moot point. Thank you for taking the time to share your comments!

花生米 said...

hey monica, i applaud your dad's decision!

if i could turn back the clock, and if i could have the freedom to make my own choices, i would urge my dad to send me to mission school! I had so many opportunities to converse in Mandarin and to read Chinese books (big books in complex chinese "inherited" from siblings, etc),so I didn't need the extra exposure and swim in the pool of mother tongue.

unfortunately,my dad did not have the foresight like your dad. He was then (and still) very pro-China, anything about China was good.. and he holds that "a child who is given a chinese education is a filial child" (what kind of logic is this? My english speaking friends are so filial. one of them make it a point to spend weekends with his folks despite buying his own apartment and shifted out)

I am speaking from very personal experience. perhaps "underprivileged" is an overstatement...

it shouldn't be the Chinese camp versus the English camp..

anyway,yes, at this moment, the Ministry had decided to make an U-turn... good news? bad news? depends...

good to interact with you and agree to disagree. I hate consensus for the sake of consensus... which is most of the time, a very "uniquely" singapore feature...

i am currently having a good time giving free chinese tuition to an English speaking buddy. It is win-win situation,I used English to teach Chinese and in the process, my pronunciation has improved, and my vocabulary grows too : )

monlim said...

花生米: I know what you mean! Isn't it great that both of us can have a rational and friendly conversation without it turning into a me vs you fight? Just as you have English-ed friends, I have Chinese-ed friends and we don't always agree but we don't have to view each other as rival camps. I still think it was possible to come up with a situation where both sides benefited but the gahmen chickened out. Too bad :(

PS I don't know why you're worried about your English, it seems pretty good to me :)

花生米 said...

my english can only be considered as good when i can write like my journalists' friends from Straits Times...

i wish i had encountered english teachers who went all out like chinese teachers today, to nurture interest and to help kids build up confidence... the strange/weird thing is that my teachers never told me and peers "salmon", "almond" are silent "L" and "often" and "soften" are silent "T" while "question" is sounds like "cheng", not "sion" like most of my peers (including english speaking peers) pronounced.... m very lucky to meet a good IPA teacher even though it happened only very recently... many teachers are not really qualified (languages teachers esp).. so we just have to figure out our way and survive....

monlim said...

花生米: I agree that the standard of SG language teachers, esp those in schools, fall short. I never understood the concept that in primary school, you don't have to studied or majored in English to be an English teacher! So many primary level English teachers are teaching bad English and grammar to our kids, it's not funny. I'm sure many people are not aware of the correct pronunciation of those words you pointed out.

花生米 said...

and chinese teachers too! for the sake of "attracting" more people, including mid-term professionals to join the education sector, too much emphasis on the salary and remuneration and "attracted" the "wrong" "talents" - i was aghast (yes, kinda of horrified )to learn that the Ministry actually accepted candidates who last sat for Chinese papers in Secondary and it was not even Chinese 1st language! Also,the senior teachers, with due respect, yes they are more knowledgeable, but base on what I had gathered from brief relief teaching experience, aiyoh, my goodness, their pronunciation do need some polishing. And, mentality, most of them "hate" people like me who is more than happy to use English to teach Chinese. as long as we can engage the students and stimulate interests, why not try innovative methods. resisting changes would put students off...

monlim said...

花生米: Agree with you 100%. We need to change the mindset of language teachers to instil a love of language in students, not just stick rigidly to old methods that will dampen interest.

bethybobs said...

As an outsider I probably don't have as much right to an opinion on Singaporean education but I just wanted to make one small suggestion. Couldn't you have a choice about the rating you want.... what I mean is before you take the tests those who believe themselves stronger in English could opt for a little less weighting in Chinese and those who want their Chinese to count more could opt for the 25% weighting.... just an idea.

Anonymous said...

Resend as I used the wrong email account. My hotmail account is obsolete. My email is


I came across your blog when I was searching for recommendations for a Chinese tutor. I would like to engage a good Chinese tutor who can coach my son to do better for his Chinese creative writing. The remarks from his school teacher on his Chinese creative are disheartening, upset! :((

My kid learns the Chinese language and 词语 in the textbook diligently but when it comes to creative writing, we are clueless on how and what to teach him. We are 词穷, and we are baffled with usage of 成语。

I will be very grateful if you can connect me with Xu Lao Shi, despite i know that her schedule is tight. My email address is

Thank you so much in advance!

monlim said...

Dawn: Could you get in touch with me via the Of Kids and Education Facebook page email?

Anonymous said...


I read about xu laoshi from your blog and wonder are you able to connect me with her?

I have tried all ways to help my child in Chinese but to no avail.Hope you can help.

Thank you.My email is


monlim said...

San: We changed our Chinese tutor many years ago. No longer in touch with Xu lao shi.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your reply and all the best.


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