SAP Schools and
Language Education


While SAP schools have produced bilingual personalities like Sharon Au or Diana Ser in the past, it seems to me the reasons often cited for their existence - to preserve traditional Chinese values and nurture bilingualism - are hardly relevant anymore.
Yuen Sin
The Straits Times Journalist

特选学校制度与
母语教育


一再探讨特选学校制度的存在价值,只会让我们受困于这道“伪命题”。从现实层面来看,如今把提升华文华语水平的重任全寄托于教育制度的这类特殊设计,只会窄化看问题的角度,错过一些改善大环境的契机。
伟曼
《联合早报》记者

Dear Wai Mun,

I have something to confess: If Singapore is to scrap Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools one day, I will not be among those clamouring for the move to be reversed.

In fact, I might even take a moment or two to do a silent cheer.

Before the accusations start flying, let me first clarify - I am, in fact, a proud alumni of two SAP schools: CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’ and Hwa Chong Institution (HCI). The six years that I have spent in these institutions have been nothing short of memorable.

My secondary school was filled with caring teachers who made the place feel like a second home. Whenever I return to Hwa Chong for alumni events like the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations, the xinyao tunes that we sing never fail to stir up a sense of yearning for carefree days gone by.

But the beef that I have with SAP schools is this:while they have produced bilingual personalities like Sharon Au or Diana Ser in the past, it seems to me the reasons often cited for their existence - to preserve traditional Chinese values and nurture bilingualism - are hardly relevant anymore.

If Singapore is to scrap Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools one day, I will not be among those clamouring for the move to be reversed.

SAP schools support and enhance Mandarin learning, one oft-cited reason goes. But I spoke more Mandarin in my heartland primary school than the six years between 2005 and 2010 that I had spent in the mostly English-speaking environment of the SAP schools I attended.

And while the gruelling process of setting up Chinese-medium schools imbued their students in the earlier years with a sense of humility and determination to succeed, SAP schools have acquired a lot more resources over the years - and now count among Singapore’s elite schools.

Today, they are highly desired by parents and students - more because they are known to be elite schools, rather than for what they offer as Chinese schools.

Do you think SAP schools run the risk of becoming vehicles that perpetuate elitism?
{{data_qns1.q1_yes}} Yes
{{data_qns1.q1_no}} No
Total Votes : {{data_qns1.q1_total_vote}}

When I put down St Nicholas Girls’ as one of my choices after the release of my Primary School Leaving Examination results, I had just wanted to go to a school with a cut-off point that matched my grades.

Most of the students in my secondary school class did the same, and we all later benefitted from a string of incentives that came with taking Higher Chinese, such as bonus points for entry to junior college after the O levels.

This is the blue pinafore that Yuen Sin wore in CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’. The school’s Chinese name, inscribed on the logo sewn on the uniform, is a reminder of its Chinese heritage.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself has alluded to the idea that SAP schools - just like other popular schools - may become vehicles that perpetuate elitism.

At a dinner last year marking the 100th anniversary of the Nanyang family of schools, he made a call for all schools to remain open to children of all backgrounds, noting that the student profile at Nanyang Primary has become “less varied”. Most were admitted based on an association with the school, and with parents who are professionals rather than of working-class backgrounds.

Another downside of SAP schools is the fact that they do not have a multi-racial mix of students, as Mandarin is the only mother tongue that is offered in the schools.

But I spoke more Mandarin in my heartland primary school than the six years between 2005 and 2010 that I had spent in the mostly English-speaking environment of the SAP schools I attended.

To mitigate against this, there are compulsory racial harmony day celebrations and inter-CCA programmes across schools to encourage students to mix with those of other races. Yet, time spent on such programmes is scant, and superficial manifestations of “cultural exchange” could be more damaging.

My secondary school, for example, organised Bollywood dance contests and an inter-class dikir barat competition. They were well-meaning attempts at trying to remind us that other ethnic cultures exist here, but such activities, if not properly handled, could smack of cultural appropriation..

While I had some close friends of other races in primary school, I felt like I later lost out in diversifying my circle of friends due to being in a predominantly Chinese environment.

Do you think the SAP school system is necessary for the continual preservation of Chinese values?
{{data_qns2.q2_yes}} Yes
{{data_qns2.q2_no}} No
Total Votes : {{data_qns2.q2_total_vote}}

Some say that SAP schools also serve to assuage the sense of loss that many felt from the closure of vernacular schools in the seventies. I know of such alumni from my schools and have great respect for their accomplishments, which the SAP environment has no doubt had a hand in shaping.

But my fear is that relegating the mandate of nurturing such a bicultural outlook and uplifting the standards of Chinese here to a handful of schools shuts out those in non-SAP schools who are interested but do not have access to the same resources.

A more egalitarian approach to nurturing Chinese biculturalism would be to conduct a deeper study of what aspects of the SAP system had fostered a genuine interest in Chinese language and culture, and extend such activities and programmes to more schools beyond this limited group of SAP schools.

For example, it will be wonderful if more students could benefit from the Chinese drama co-curricular activities that I had been part of in school.

Yuen Sin remembers how she had spent sleepless nights preparing for Chinese drama performances in school. These were the publicity materials for the productions that she had a part in.

Where language felt stilted and inaccessible in comprehension passages in school, it came to life in the lines of dialogue that we used in plays. And while I was being told to memorise “model phrases” for the essay section of my O level exams, I was free to exercise my creativity when we came up with scripts.

Such activities also need not be done at the expense of shutting out room for interaction with non-Chinese groups. For example, arts programmes can contain inter-cultural elements to foster an understanding of other races in ways that go beyond mere tokenism.

If I were to have kids in the future, I hope that what they learn in school - SAP or not - will be able to ignite their love for the Chinese language, and not diminish it.

Yuen Sin

伟曼:

我得先向你坦白:如果有一天,新加坡取消特选学校,我不会和其他人一起,吵着要政府改变主意。

事实上,我甚至可能会暗自窃喜。

在你要骂我之前,让我先说明——我毕业自两所特选学校:圣尼各拉女校和华侨中学,而且我以自己是校友为荣。我在这两所学校度过的六年时光是终生难忘的。

我的中学有很多无微不至的师长,他们让校园好像我们的第二个家。每次回华中参加校友活动,比如中秋节庆,当我们一同唱起新谣,心里无不充满了怀念,追忆当年那无忧无虑的年少岁月。

但我认为特选学校的问题是:虽然他们培养出像欧菁仙和徐秀盈这样的双语人才,但在我看来,如果说特选学校是为了保留传统华族文化并培养双语能力,那这个理由如今几乎不复存在。

如果有一天,新加坡取消特选学校,我不会和其他人一起,吵着要政府改变主意。

人们常说,特选学校支持并加强华语学习。但我在念邻里小学时说的华语,要比我2005年到2010年那六年中,在基本讲英语的特选学校里说的华语还多。

历经万难才建立起能以华语教学的学校,让早年的特选学校学生心怀谦卑、立志成功,但多年来,特选学校积累了更多资源,如今已成为新加坡的精英学校。

如今,家长和学生对特选学校趋之若鹜,但那更多是因为它们是名校,而非它们作为华语学校所能提供的。

你认为特选学校有可能固化精英主义吗?
{{data_qns1.q1_yes}}
{{data_qns1.q1_no}} 没有
总调查 : {{data_qns1.q1_total_vote}}

当我在小六会考成绩公布后,将圣尼各拉女校作为我的选择之一时,我只是为了选一个截分点和我的成绩相符的学校。

我的多数中学同班同学也都是这么想的,而选修高级华文等一系列鼓励措施也让我们受益,比如在O水准过后升入初级学院时能有加分。

这是袁昕在圣尼各拉女校上学时穿的校服。学校是传统华校,校徽上也有学校的中文名字。

李显龙总理自己也曾暗示,特选学校和其他热门学校一样,可能固化精英主义。

南洋三校庆百年的晚宴上,李总理呼吁所有学校对来自不同背景的孩子保持开放,也提到南洋小学的学生已经“越发欠缺多样性”。很多学生是因为与学校的某种联系而被录取,而他们的家长多为专业人士,而不是普通工薪阶层。

特选学校的另一缺点是没有多种族混合的学生群体,因为学校提供的唯一母语是华语。

但我在念邻里小学时说的华语,要比我2005年到2010年那六年中,在基本讲英语的特选学校里说的华语还多。

为了改善这一问题,有一些强制性的种族和谐日活动和校际课外活动,鼓励学生和其他种族的学生沟通。然而,学生花在这些活动上的时间少得可怜,而流于表面的“文化交流”可能弊大于利。

举个例子,我的中学就曾组织宝莱坞舞蹈和马来歌曲比赛。提醒我们其他种族和文化的存在,这个初衷是好的,但这样的活动若处理不当,则可能有文化挪用之嫌。

虽然我在小学时有不同种族的好朋友,但我觉得自己后来因为身处华人为主的环境而失去了一个多元的朋友圈。

你认为特选学校制度对于保持华人价值观,是有必要的吗?
{{data_qns2.q2_yes}} 有必要
{{data_qns2.q2_no}} 没必要
总调查 : {{data_qns2.q2_total_vote}}

有人说,特选学校也是为了安抚很多人因为上世纪70年代关闭母语源流学校而产生的失落感。我知道我的母校就有这样的校友,我也很敬仰他们,而他们的成就也和特选学校的环境不无关系。

但我的担忧是,如果我们把培养双文化认知和提升华文水准的重任交由区区几所学校,这会将那些虽有兴趣却因身在非特选学校而无法获得同样资源的学生拒之门外。

要培养双文化人才,一个更平等的方法是深入研究特选学校的哪些方面确实培养了对华语和华族文化的兴趣,然后将其推广到其他学校。

譬如,我在学校参加过华语戏剧课外活动,如果更多学生能像我一样从中受益,那该有多好啊。

参加华语戏剧活动时,袁昕曾为筹备表演,连续好几晚通宵参加彩排。这些宣传文件都是表演谢幕后留下的,作为纪念。

在学校的阅读理解题目中,一个语言显得那么艰涩难懂,可当我们在戏剧对白中使用这些语言时,它们是那么的生动。虽然我被告知要背下“范文”来应付O水准作文考试,但在创作剧本时,我可以天马行空地发挥创意。

这些活动也无须牺牲和非华族群体交流的空间。比如,艺术活动可以包括跨文化元素,让不同种族间加深理解,而不只是表面文章。

以后,当我有自己的小孩,我希望他们在学校所学到的,无论是不是特选学校,能够点燃他们对华文的热爱,而不是将它熄灭。

袁昕

袁昕:

我最近经常在网上看到一些幸福婚姻守则,其中一句话说:婚姻不是一时选择,爱情若要长久,必须每天选择你身边的伴侣。

读了你写的信,突然发现这句话也可以套用在我语言身份的建立上。至少在工作语言主要为英语的新加坡,每天以华文华语为依归,从事与华文华语高度相关的工作,必须是有意识并且日复一日的选择。

我今年步入30岁,我这一代年轻人经常被视为是国家双语政策下的产物。这或意味我们双语都精通,或在更多人的认知中,代表我们英语华语各“半桶水”,甚至两种语言都不太能掌握。而在这一批人当中,又有一小群人像我一样,逆着时代潮流,坚持尽量以华文为第一语文,不管在日常生活或工作上都吸收着相关的文化养分;有些人说我们是“双语人才”,有时候也称我们为“双文化精英”。

不过,若你问我当初会“恋上”华文华语的原因,我却说不上来。中学念特选学校,升上初级学院后继续选修语文特选课程,现在看来好似一个华文报记者的雏形已现,但当时的动机更多是纯粹,甚至是蒙昧的。

我只记得自己本来就是一个喜欢语文的孩子,因为科学和数学课让我有些害怕,我在语文课上会更尽情表现,像喜爱朗读文章,也参加过一些作文比赛。那时候的我,虽然羡慕文笔优美的人,但因为职业想象力有限,只有过当警察、消防员或医生的念头,似乎从未“以结婚为前提”和华文华语“谈恋爱”,因此学习的时候也没有太多功利的目的。

若你问我当初会“恋上”华文华语的原因,我却说不上来。

在中正中学(总校)的四年,是一场美丽的意外。我的父母从未接受教育,除了确保我们功课准时交,考试尽力,他们不太干涉我们的升学选择,更不用说有做规划。我按照小六会考积分被分配入中正中学,当时的我不了解中正传统华校的历史,也不知道高级华文若考及格,升初院时能有优待分。

中正的美,对我来说,更多是一种无法用言语表达的氛围。年少的我们站在竹林楼前,唱着四字句排比工整的校歌,都只是跟着旋律发出一堆没有意义的声音;不过,庆幸唱歌时呼吸和肌肉的律动都成了一种身体的记忆,待多年后能够体验歌词之美时,校歌还能朗朗上口,可拿来反复咀嚼和欣赏。另外,也还有中正湖畔纷飞的柳絮、红柱绿瓦的校舍,甚至是校服上的铁钮扣,以及景物之外的一切,如校园里讲华语的“舒适圈”和连带形成的那一辈子的友谊。

有传统华校背景的中正中学,校服至今保留铁钮扣的设计。在伟曼的记忆中,下课后换下校服时,她总要花一些时间,将钮扣和校徽摘下,放在一个小盒子里。

因此,如果你问我特选学校或是语文特选课程的存在意义,我想在主观认知内,我无法忽视这些制度或计划意外地对我人生产生的影响,而在我同辈人当中,也仍有一部分的人在这制度下获益,建立了坚强的华语基础,进一步在华文报业或教育界等相关领域,做出贡献。

当然,我也同意你所说的,随着教育政策的转型变迁,有传统华校背景的特选学校,如今可能已变身为单一语言学校。当大家都说着英语时,自然不存在培养“本地华文精英”的语言环境。这样一来,我这一代人在特选学校的经历,是否已失去代表性?

不过,我却也认为,一再探讨特选学校制度的存在价值,只会让我们受困于这道“伪命题”。从现实层面来看,如今把提升华文华语水平的重任全寄托于教育制度的这类特殊设计,只会窄化看问题的角度,错过一些改善大环境的契机。名校教育环境过于单一,可能导致小圈子形成的问题即便存在,让特选学校成为代罪羔羊也无法一劳永逸地解决问题。要力挽狂澜,改善语文环境,就必须更透彻地从根本理解社会为何越来越少用华文华语,然后创造更多可能性,而非只心想着把特定的政策或制度当成代罪羔羊或者圣牛,谈论如何宰杀

名校教育环境过于单一,可能导致小圈子形成的问题即便存在,让特选学校成为代罪羔羊也无法一劳永逸地解决问题。

例如,我就察觉到,如今有一群中生代甚至是年轻家长,对华文华语并不排斥或鄙视。他们最担忧自己华语水平不够好,无法让孩子浸濡在一个对讲华语比较有利的环境。

官委议员郭晓韵就经常在面簿个人页面上,分享自己如何为帮助女儿学好华语,透过流行音乐重新接触这个她已近遗忘的语言。最近她手抄中文歌词,还笑说尽管写出来的字看起来非常陌生,但在过程中自己似乎可以感觉到,当年在学校使用华文的“神经通路”慢慢被打开了。

去年12月一项针对本地年轻家长进行的实验性调查发现,年轻家长尽管认同学习华文的重要,态度积极,但对于为孩子营造双语学习环境的决心却容易动摇,觉得有心无力。这项调查结果在早报读者群中引发热烈讨论,但印象中许多人仍然把侧重点放在家长的“无力”上,无奈于社会的单语化,让华语等母语处在弱势地位。

你会担心下一代都不讲华语吗?
{{data_qns3.q3_yes}}
{{data_qns3.q3_no}} 不会
总调查 : {{data_qns3.q3_total_vote}}

我却觉得“有心”弥足珍贵。不论是担心孩子华语不好而尝试做些努力或弥补的家长,或是只讲英语,但为到中国发展而开始学商务华语的年轻人,他们的“回心转意”必须被正视。我们应在现有教育体制之外,开拓更多管道,让这些人有重新学好华语的机会,而这也符合终身学习的宗旨。

至于特选学校,尽管从政策的角度来看,它的存在与否对华文教学整体提升的作用可能已逐渐式微,但把这些学校摆在历史的洪流中来看,却肯定有保留的价值。

令我感到比较遗憾的是,自己是加入华文媒体之后,才逐渐对本地华校史有更深一层的认识。从进入中正中学到毕业,我都对学校历史不熟悉,中正之名从何而来不太有概念,创校校长庄竹林的名字,当时只不过解释了摆放在大礼堂外的一尊铜像。如今,我纳闷为何学校没有更着重地介绍本地历史,尤其是校史,让我们对眼前景物的情感连结,多一层厚度。在这方面,特选学校似乎必须重新思考定位,让其悠久历史成为特色而非包袱。

当年在中正湖畔的青春留影,照片下角是伟曼。

尊重和保护历史,绝对不仅为缅怀一个再也无法复返的年代。就如在去年的“新加坡设计电影节”上,一部讲述港台青年如何将中文字融合生活美学与设计,投入中文字型研究与创作的纪录片,让我深深感受到有历史的东西交到年轻人手中,就有焕发新生命的可能性。

谁说只有从记忆中,才能找到对本地华文华语未来的想象?

伟曼

Dear Yuen Sin,

I agree with you that with the changes in education policy over the years, Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools, with Chinese being the only mother tongue on offer, may lack a multiracial mix.

And true, in Singapore, where the main working language is English, naturally there is no language environment for cultivating "local Chinese elites".

However, from a practical point of view, placing the heavy task of raising the level of the Chinese language on the special design of the education system today will only narrow the perspective of the issue and cause us to miss some opportunities in improving the environment.

Although the problem of an over-homogeneous environment at elite schools may exist, using the SAP schools as a scapegoat will not solve it.

Placing the heavy task of raising the level of the Chinese language on the special design of the education system today will only narrow the perspective of the issue and cause us to miss some opportunities in improving the environment.

To improve the language environment, we must understand why society is using less Mandarin, and then create more possibilities.

Indeed, there is now a group of middle-generation and, even, young parents who do not discriminate against, or look down upon, the Chinese language.

In fact, they are worried that their Mandarin is not good enough, and that they are unable to immerse their children in an environment more favourable to speaking the language.

Nominated Member of Parliament Kuik Shiao-Yin often shares on her Facebook page how she tries to help her daughter learn Chinese. Recently, she wrote out, by hand, lyrics of Chinese songs and joked that her writing looked alien but, during the process, she felt the opening up of the "neural pathways" of the forgotten language she had used in school.

A pilot survey of local young parents last December found that although young parents recognised the importance of learning Chinese, they were uncertain about their ability to sustain a bilingual learning environment for their children in the long term.

The findings led to much discussion among Lianhe Zaobao readers, but many still focused on the "helplessness" of the parents, lamenting that society has turned monolingual.

Are you worried that younger generation of Chinese Singaporeans might lose touch with the Chinese language?
{{data_qns3.q3_yes}} Yes
{{data_qns3.q3_no}} No
Total Votes : {{data_qns3.q3_total_vote}}

We must acknowledge this willingness to embrace the language - whether this is parents making the effort to ensure their children learn the language well or English-speaking youngsters starting to learn business Chinese as they venture out to China.

We should explore more channels beyond the existing education system so that these people will have another chance at improving their command of the language, which is in line with the purpose of lifelong learning.

As for SAP schools, though their role in the overall promotion of Chinese teaching may have diminished gradually from a policy point of view, there is definitely value in retaining them.

Looking back, it may seem the SAP school I attended was simply nurturing the embryonic self that is now me at 30, a Mandarin-speaking reporter for a Chinese-language newspaper. And yes, I know I go against the trend in my insistence on using Mandarin as my first language.

However, my four years at Chung Cheng High School (Main) were a happy accident.

I was posted to Chung Cheng based on my Primary School Leaving Examination score. I had no understanding of its history as a traditional Chinese school and never even knew that passing Higher Chinese would qualify me for point deduction when going to a junior college.

One of my regrets is that I came to have a deeper understanding of the history of local Chinese schools only after joining the Chinese media.

A youthful Wai Mun (bottom in photo) in an old photo taken beside the Chung Cheng lake.

SAP schools are steeped in history and culture, and this is a distinctive feature that they should be proud of.

To me, the beauty of my time at Chung Cheng had more to do with less quantifiable things.

True, the school song consisted of lines of four Chinese characters arranged neatly. We were merely producing a string of meaningless sounds. However, the breath and rhythms of the singing became a part of my memory. Many years later, I am still able to feel the beauty of the lyrics.

Other memories: the willows at Chung Cheng Lake, the red pillars and green tiles of the school buildings, even the metal buttons on the uniforms - as well as the "comfort zone" of speaking Mandarin on campus and the lifelong friendships that were made.

So if you ask me about the significance of SAP schools, I cannot ignore their unintended impact on my life.

These are the old metallic buttons on the Chung Cheng High School uniform. Wai Mun still has vivid memories of how she would take them off one by one after school, and keep them neatly in a box.

And among my peers, there are some who have benefited from this system, established a strong foundation in Chinese and further contributed to related fields such as the Chinese-language newspaper industry or the education sector.

Respecting and protecting the history of Chinese language learning is much more than cherishing the memory of an era that will never return.

A documentary last year at A Design Film Festival Singapore shows a forward-looking approach. The film was about how youngsters in Hong Kong and Taiwan integrated Chinese characters into aesthetics and design, and got involved in research and creative work on Chinese typography.

Respecting and protecting the history of Chinese language learning is much more than cherishing the memory of an era that will never return.

People from my generation are often seen as a product of the country's bilingual policy - either effectively bilingual or, in many people's eyes, only half-proficient in both English and Mandarin. To counter that latter viewpoint, it is important to look beyond the merely utilitarian.

When placed in the hands of young people such as those in the documentary, valuing the Chinese language takes on a new lease of life. The possibilities are many.

Wai Mun
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