Remarks by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the Opening of the Bilingualism Carnival on 8 April 2023.
Parents, girls and boys,
A very good morning. 大家早上好。Selamat pagi. Vanakkam.
MOS Gan Siow Huang, SPS Rahayu and our Adviser Yeo Wan Ling and I are very happy to join you this morning at One Punggol for the inaugural Bilingualism Carnival.
We thank Ms Teo Lay Lim, Ms Lee Huay Leng, Mr Wong Wei Kong and their staff from the SPH Media Group for creating this carnival.
It’s wonderful to see so many families here enjoying yourselves!
Bilingualism is one of Singapore’s most fundamental policies.
The use of English connects us to each other in our multi-racial society, and to the world.
At the same time, our mother tongue connects us to our values, culture, and heritage.
The wisdom of our cultures is well captured in proverbs and idioms in our mother tongues.
For instance, the well-known Chinese idiom “孔融让梨” teaches the importance of love between siblings.
Our Tamil Indian friends have the phrase “Thanthai Thai Pen”, which emphasises the value of filial piety.
Indeed, as our Malay friends say – “Ke mana tumpah kuah kalau tidak ke nasi” – gravy needs to go with rice, just as children are moulded by the values of their parents.
Language is a key medium for values to be passed on from one generation to the next.
Research has also shown that bilingualism has many cognitive benefits.
Studies show that bilingual children have greater mental agility, and are better able to multi-task and focus on complex tasks.
There are even early findings that show bilingualism may protect against dementia.
To enable our children to fulfil their potential, we continue to support research in the science of learning, including bilingualism.
Just as important, bilingualism equips us with the capacity to share, appreciate and bring together different perspectives.
In Singapore, English serves as the common medium for us to share insights from our respective cultures, while learning from one another. This enables us to open our minds and build empathy.
In a world where we are seeing more fragmentation, it is of great value for our young people to be able to bridge different languages, cultures, and perspectives.
With Asia’s economic growth and growing linkages to the world, Singapore seeks to be a Global-Asia node. Bilingualism will give our people a competitive advantage and open up exciting new opportunities.
But learning two languages is not easy, especially with language habits in our society evolving.
Almost half of residents here now speak English most frequently at home, compared to around one-third in 2010.
When I was Education Minister more than a decade ago, I received a call from the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
Mr Lee said that the latest research showed that starting at a younger age was helpful for building bilingualism. At that time, he was 88 so he was a perfect model of lifelong learning.
He decided to start a new Fund for Bilingualism to strengthen our efforts on this.
I joined him at several fundraising events. Mr Lee himself contributed a substantial sum. I chaired the fund as then-Education Minister.
The Fund has since supported numerous initiatives to support young learners and families, including print, digital resources, as well as events such as performances and talks.
Mr Lee never stopped thinking about how to help our students become bilingually proficient. He called this his “lifelong challenge” and wrote a whole book on this.
Bringing Bilingualism to Life
Indeed, all of us must continue to challenge ourselves, to help our young to reap the benefits of bilingualism, to make bilingualism a part of our lives, and to bring it to life.
For our children to develop a love for their mother tongues, they must use it in a natural, engaging, and fun setting. This is why we have been continually exploring new approaches in our schools, starting in the early years.
Preschools play a critical role. MOE Kindergartens offer all three official mother tongues, and anchor operators have also been increasing the number of preschools offering Malay and Tamil.
I am glad to see many preschoolers here today – we look forward to their performances later!
Beyond preschools, we are making mother tongue lessons in primary and secondary schools more relatable, by tapping on cultural and contemporary elements, and using IT to make lessons more interactive.
Like any subject, aptitude for languages can differ, so we need to vary our approach to suit the learner. This is the student-centric approach that MOE has been taking.
For those who are strong in the languages, the Language Elective Programme enables them to go deeper.
And for those who need more support, the Mother Tongue Support Programme, which is available from P1 to P3, can help them build up their foundations.
From my time as Education Minister, I was always impressed by the dedication of our teachers in cultivating the love of the languages in our students.
A big thank you to all our teachers!
Learning languages also goes beyond the classroom – parents in particular play a key role.
For parents who are able to, I encourage you to speak your mother tongues with your children at home.
There is now a rich pool of helpful materials available, such as小小拇指, Cilik Cerdik, Balar Murasu – these are provided free to more than 30,000 preschoolers each year.
I should share that when I was young, I developed an interest in Mandarin because of the many good children’s publications– and I had to eat less in order to save the little pocket money I had to buy these!
So I especially thank our SPH team of editors and journalists who have put in much effort to produce these materials. I encourage parents to make full use of them to help our children learn their mother tongues.
This Bilingualism Carnival is another great example of how we can bring our languages to life for our young ones.
There are many interesting activities today, including coding, exploring nature, arts and crafts, and learning about Singapore’s culture.
I encourage everyone to participate fully and have fun.
I am also looking forward to the performance of the picture story “What’s inside the Red Box”.
When Mr Lee passed away eight years ago, I wrote an essay about the red box he used to send documents between his home and office. I look forward to the theatrical adaptation later.
For me, the red box is a symbol of his lifelong dedication to making Singapore better, in ways big and small.
Bilingualism was not only Mr Lee’s lifelong challenge, but is one of the key policies that has made Singapore what it is today.
On the 100th anniversary of Mr Lee’s birth, I am glad that we are continuing to take up this challenge, to make further progress. This is an important way for us to remember Mr Lee.
My special thanks to SPH Media for working with the LKY Fund for Bilingualism in putting this Carnival together, and bringing this into the community.
Like Lay Lim said, it is critical to engage readers from a young age.
I am glad to hear that SPH is constantly thinking of innovative ways to do so, including using technology and social media. I wish we had all that when we were younger, so for all our parents here, please make full use of all these resources.
I applaud SPH and your team for this determination!
In closing, I hope that today’s Carnival will spark the joy of learning and using our mother tongues, especially amongst our families and children.
I wish everyone an enjoyable time.
Thank you. 谢谢. Terima Kasih. Nandri.
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