DPM Heng Swee Keat at the Mother Tongue Languages Symposium 2021

DPM Heng Swee Keat | 28 August 2021

Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the Mother Tongue Languages Symposium 2021 on 28 August 2021.


Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Education

Minister Maliki Osman, MOS Sun Xue Ling, and Mr Vikram Nair

Permanent Secretary Lai Chung Han, Director-General of Education Wong Siew Hoong

Ladies and Gentlemen

Good morning to all of you. 大家早上好。Selamat pagi. Vanakkam.

It is my pleasure to join all of you today at the Mother Tongue Languages Symposium.


Over the five decades since Singapore’s independence, bilingualism has been a cornerstone of our education system. Bilingualism started out as a way for us to unite a society that is racially and linguistically diverse. We adopted English as our common working language, gradually bridging the language barrier between different communities. English, widely used around the world for commerce, also enabled us to plug into the global economy. At the same time, retaining our mother tongues helped us to connect to older generations and our cultural roots.

Over the years, the value of bilingualism has increased many folds, allowing us to ride on new developments, sometimes in unexpected ways. The first wave was when we sought to grow an external wing to ride on Asia’s growth. Our mother tongue languages gave us a better appreciation of the region, creating new opportunities for our people. The second wave was globalisation. Bilingualism and our multi-cultural setting provided good foundations for our people to thrive in internationally diverse teams that are increasingly the norm. The third wave comes as we now put greater focus on human potential, to bring the best out of each individual. Early studies have shown that bilingualism is associated with greater mental agility and creative ability, and may even protect against dementia.

But even as the value of bilingualism has increased many folds, how we learn the language must also evolve. While most people used to speak their mother tongue languages as their dominant language at home, this has changed over time. Census 2020 shows that almost half of our residents now speak English most frequently at home, up from one-third in 2010. In 2011, when I was Education Minister, I received a call from Mr Lee Kuan Yew. As one of his lifelong challenges, he wanted to find ways to help our students be bilingually proficient. Having reviewed the latest research, he thought we should cultivate bilingualism from early childhood. This led him to start the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism in 2011. It was also around this time that MOE was embarking on a different approach to the learning of the mother tongue languages, with a greater focus on oral interaction skills. NIE has also been conducting ongoing research on effective strategies to promote Mother Tongue Language learning. The Mother Tongue Languages Symposium was one of the efforts to catalyse change, with the inaugural Symposium held in 2012. SMS Sim Ann was part of my team then, and was instrumental in the drive to make our mother tongues living languages in our daily lives.

Mother Tongues As Living Languages

This is also the theme of this year’s Symposium – “Our Mother Tongues as Living Languages”. How can we achieve this?

I believe that the key is to start young, and make learning fun for our children. We can do this in different ways - let me suggest a few.

First, we can use songs, games, and other interactive materials. I am glad that this is a key focus of the Symposium, with features like the “Online Quest”, an interactive game for children to test the learning of their mother tongue languages. There are also sharing sessions on how to provide an interactive learning experience for our young children. Beyond the Symposium, I am glad that our teachers have been creative in leveraging technology to overcome the constraints posed by the pandemic. For example, teachers have used the Student Learning Space, an online learning portal, to create interactive lessons for their students, or even games that allow them to learn the language online.

Second, we can encourage the habit of learning from a young age. There is a rich pool of resources out there that parents can tap on. For example, the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism has been supporting numerous initiatives to help our young learners, including print and electronic books, and periodicals. Reading does not have to be boring. 联合早报, Berita Harian and Tamil Murasu, all have periodicals - 小小拇指, Cilik Cerdik and Balar Murasu, - to help children engage with their mother tongue languages through interesting short stories, vibrant illustrations, and interactive activities.

Third, we can make our mother tongue languages come alive in the community. I commend the Mother Tongue Language Learning and Promotion Committees, which have organised many interesting events to promote this. The Committee to Promote Chinese Language Learning, chaired by MOS Sun Xueling, has been organising the Pre-School Chinese Language Storytelling Aids Competition annually. In March, the Committee also published a compilation of finalists’ works from past competitions, which was well received by teachers and parents. To promote the use of the Malay language beyond the classroom, the Malay Language Learning and Promotion Committee, chaired by Minister Maliki, organises the Fiesta Bahasa biennially. This year, it took a hybrid approach with both physical and virtual elements, featuring various learning booths, virtual tours and a 3-D Escape Room Game. “Let’s Connect with Tamil!” was organised by the Tamil Language Learning and Promotion Committee, chaired by Mr Vikram Nair. This was an event targeted at Primary 4 and 5 students and their parents, where they participated in language and cultural activities together, in a Tamil language environment.

While we should start young, we should also treat the learning of languages as a lifelong journey, with diverse pathways to success. Not everyone will start off with the same aptitude for languages. We have created diverse pathways – students who have the aptitude can take the subject at a higher level; those who need extra support are provided with additional help, and can take the subject at a foundational level. I am glad that our teaching practices have also shifted – teachers are adopting more engaging and interactive pedagogies, varied to cater to the evolving needs of our students. We have also introduced the Mother Tongue Support Programme, to provide more opportunities for students to build up their foundations in a fun and engaging way. This year, P3 students in all primary schools will be able to benefit from this, and it will be expanded to P4 next year. Beyond the schooling years, as long as you have an interest, you can still pick up new languages, or improve the mastery of languages that you already know. I have met many Singaporeans who have ventured overseas, who have told me how the foundations that they had in schools, have helped them greatly. They have now immersed themselves in a new environment and pick up the language at an even higher level.

Indispensible Roles of Teachers

Ultimately, it takes a village to raise a child - our parents, community partners, and teachers all play an indispensable role.

In particular, I would like to highlight the contributions of our teachers today. An encouraging and innovative teacher can make all the difference. I am happy that that we are recognising our preschool teachers today, through the Outstanding Preschool MTL Teacher Awards. This year, 6 teachers will receive the Outstanding Award and 4 teachers will receive the Merit Award. They have all demonstrated creative and innovative approaches in their teaching of the mother tongue languages. My heartiest congratulations! I hope that we can all learn from them, and continue to innovate.

10th Anniversary of MTLS 

Over the last 10 years, this Symposium has grown by leaps and bounds. From the very beginning, the event attracted keen interest, with 12,000 visiting the inaugural Symposium. This grew to 22,000 visitors in 2019! Last year, the Symposium was held online for the first time due to COVID-19. It attracted almost 37,000 visitors, not just from Singapore but also from different parts of the world. This year, we can have a hybrid event, which enables some face-to-face interactions and widens the outreach of this Symposium digitally.

As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of this Symposium, we recognise that its success would not have been possible without the strong support from the co-organisers and partners. I understand that some of them have supported the Symposium since the very beginning! I would like to take this opportunity to extend my heartfelt appreciation to everyone for your contributions.


In his book on Singapore’s Bilingualism Journey, Mr Lee Kuan Yew stated that this journey was his ‘lifelong challenge’. One of the eight principles that he had crystallised is that ‘language policy is a never-ending journey’ and ‘it must evolve as society progresses in order to remain relevant’. I am very encouraged that our educators and parents remain so enthusiastic about exploring fresh and innovative ways for our children to learn two, if not more, languages. Our search for better ways to help our young learn better never ends. Each time we can do this better, we will give our young an even better foundation for their lifelong journey of learning and exploration.

I wish you a fruitful and exciting learning experience as we mark this 10th anniversary of our Mother Tongue Languages Symposium.

Thank you. 谢谢。Terima kasih. Nandri.