Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Post No. 108: Musings About The SAP (And Related Issues)

Recently, on 5/5/2007, coinciding with the supposed 25th anniversary (note: I am confused over how they got this number when the SAP was established in 1979) of the Special Assistance Plan (SAP), the 《联合早报》/“Lianhe Zaobao” published a special feature (“特选中学25年”) on it. Three early graduates of SAP schools were invited to write about their recollections and thoughts about the programme.

As I read the articles written by these 3 guest writers, I began to think about my own experience of being a SAP student for the first 4 years of my teenage life and also the SAP & issues related to it in general.

However, before I share with you all my thoughts about the SAP, allow me to first provide you all with some background information on it and what it is all about.

The SAP was established in 1979 and initially included 9 (note: there are now 10, with Nan Hua Secondary School being the latest addition) secondary schools, which were deemed to be the best performing Chinese medium secondary schools of that time, under it. It was open to the top 8% (note: now, it is the top 10%) of each Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) cohort and, in contrast with students in schools not under it, students studying in SAP schools enjoyed the option of studying both English and Mandarin as their first language. In fact, according to how they designated the subject, it was not just ordinary Chinese/Mandarin that the SAP students were learning, it was “Higher Chinese” they were learning.

The stated aim of the SAP, when it was first established, was “to preserve the unique culture and traditional values taught in the old Chinese schools” (see here, paragraph #3). In other words, it was envisioned that SAP schools would be able to provide and inculcate in their students the traditional Chinese cultural ethos and a greater appreciation & awareness of Chinese culture, language and history. To borrow the words of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, it was hoped that SAP schools would be able to provide their students with the “cultural ballast” to guard against the ill effects of increasing Westernisation.

Of course, as many observers have noted, besides the stated “cultural” aim of the SAP, there are perhaps 2 other “unstated” aims of setting up the SAP.

One such aim was perhaps to placate the Chinese educated ground in Singapore. To this group of people, the preservation of Chinese education remained as a sensitive and emotional issue. Thus, it has been speculated that, following announcements in 1978/9 that English would become the main language of instruction in all local schools and that Nanyang University would be moving from its original premises to share a campus with the University of Singapore (later, in 1980, the 2 universities merged to form the current National University of Singapore), the Government of that time decided that it would be prudent for them to demonstrate that they were not out to exterminate Chinese education in Singapore. And the establishment of the SAP in 1979 was perhaps a sign of their effort to do so, along with the launching of the “Speak Mandarin Campaign” in the late 1970s at around the same time.

Another suggested “unstated” aim of the SAP was that it was to take advantage of China’s rise as an economic power. Well, personally, it is my opinion that this is perhaps possible but rather improbable. This is considering that it was only in late 1978 that China announced that it will be embarking on a phase of economic opening up/liberalisation and modernisation. Also, bearing in mind that China had just gone through a disastrous phase of “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976) and 2 years of political jockeying (1976-1978) after Mao Zedong’s death, the general sentiment about China’s economic future at that time was that, at best, it was something uncertain, if not negative. Thus, unless we wish to credit perfect foresight to the Singaporean Government when they made the announcement in 1979 to establish the SAP, it is rather improbable that they did so in the hope of taking advantage of China’s rise in the future. Of course, this “economic” aim of the SAP could have played a more significant role in the later years.

Moving on, bearing in mind all the above background information about the SAP, I began to wonder, as I read the abovementioned guest-written articles in the 《联合早报》/“Lianhe Zaobao”: how effective has the SAP been? And, well, as far as I can see, judging by my own limited observations, the SAP has perhaps not been all that effective.

I say this because, for one, it is my opinion that, generally speaking, when deciding to go for the SAP schools, students and their parents usually do not base their decision on the consideration that these schools are “Chinese” schools. Instead, it is more probable that they based their decision on the consideration that these schools tend to be those which perform better academically. I have checked with several of my secondary schoolmates (lest you all have forgotten and/or still unaware of it, I studied in a SAP secondary school) and they answered me that the reason why they chose to enter our mutual alma mater was not that it was a SAP school (in other words, a school in which, supposedly, Chinese traditional values & culture are instilled in students), though it may have played a small part, but because it was a school with a good reputation (both in terms of academic performance and student discipline) and/or that their elder relatives were alumni of the school. In fact as admitted by one of the guest writers for the abovementioned special news feature on the SAP by 《联合早报》/“Lianhe Zaobao”, he/she and his/her contemporaries, being only 12 years of age back then, had not the slightest idea what the SAP was about when they applies for it. Hence, in view of that students in SAP schools generally tend to be not in them because of a genuine interest in traditional Chinese values, culture and history, it seems to me that the SAP is perhaps off to a less than auspicious start in terms of student intake (though their students are the top 10% of their PSLE cohort).

In addition, though there may been significant changes to the syllabus after I left it, thinking back to my days in my alma mater, it came to my realisation that, besides subjects such as Higher Chinese, Chinese Literature and Civics & Moral Education, all the other subjects I have taken all had English as their medium of instruction. Also, besides having sayings by certain Chinese sages of old plastered on walls around the campus and celebrating traditional Chinese festivals such as Chinese New Year and Mid Autumn Festival with greater extravagance, I do not really recall how my alma mater had perhaps imbued in me and my fellow schoolmates a greater appreciation and awareness of Chinese values, culture, history & language. Of course, this could have been done in such a subtle way that we all did not notice it (sort of like the story of the frog in the slowly boiling water) but I must say that I personally do not feel any more in tune with Chinese culture than those of my friends whom were not from SAP schools.

Furthermore, if my memory does not serve me wrong, while my fellow schoolmates and I did listened to a fair bit of Chinese pop songs, we too listened to Western pop music (as far as I can remember, boybands, such as N’sync, were still in vogue at that time), watched Hollywood movies & English TV shows and enjoyed hanging out at fast food joints an shopping malls, just like any other ordinary Singaporean teenager who was not studying in a SAP school. My point with saying all this? Well, I guess what I wanted to point out is that though we were studying in a SAP school which supposedly was to provide us with the “cultural ballast” to guard against the ill effects of Westernisation, I suppose that my fellow schoolmates and I were no more less “Westernised” in our habits, thinking and behaviour than those not in SAP schools.

And even if 4 years in a SAP school did instil in SAP students a greater appreciation and awareness of the Chinese culture, history, values and language, we need also consider this question: what happens after these students graduate from the SAP schools? Well, based on my limited observations, while there may be programmes, such as the Chinese Language Elective Programme, Chinese Language and Higher Chinese at “A”-level at the pre-university level and similar modules at university level, to accommodate those students who wish to continue pursuing their passion & interest in the Chinese culture, history & language, it can be seen that most SAP students, after spending 4 years in a “Chinese” schooling environment, find themselves back in a schooling environment which is English-oriented. And, unless they make extra effort outside of school to maintain their level of competency in the Chinese language, most of these students will most likely slowly, but inevitably, experience a drop in their level of competency in the Chinese language due to lack of use & practice. I for one would readily confess, with perhaps a tinge of sadness, that after graduating from secondary school, my level of competency in the Chinese language has gone down. There are Chinese characters which I once knew how to pronounce & write that I no longer can remember that well and while I used to dabble in writing amateur Chinese poems & short stories, it’s been a very long while since I last did so (of course, it has also been a long while since I wrote any amateur English poems & short stories). Now, I just hope that my level of competency in the Chinese language would not be eroded further. Hence, without the presence of a supportive environment after they leave their respective SAP schools, the effect of the SAP on SAP students would most likely be somewhat negated.

In addition, though I myself have not yet step into the working world, reading the articles written by the guest writers in the abovementioned news feature on the SAP, it seems to me that the SAP does not really provide graduates of the SAP with much of an extra competitive edge in the working world.

Yes, being SAP graduates, most of them are effectively bilingual. However, as argued by one of the guest writers (“SAP School? SAD School?”, 黄循通): “… 在我们社会里, 拥有双语背景并不会自动为你带来直接的好处, 至少在职场上, 上司绝不会因为你看得懂重要的中文文件、 分析中文市场, 就会给你比单语背景的同事更高的薪酬。 反而, 只要你英文程度比不上单语背景的同事, 就算你中文比谁都强, 你的饭碗还是会摇摆不定的, 不是吗?” (translation: “In our society, having a bilingual background would not automatically grant one any direct benefits. At least in the working world, one’s superiors would not provide one with a higher salary level than one’s monolingual colleagues just because one is able to comprehend important Chinese documents and/or analyse the Chinese market. Instead, on the other hand, if one’s level of competency in the English language is not as good as one’s monolingual colleagues, even if one’s Chinese is the best, one’s career would still be on the line, isn’t that so?”)

Yes, being SAP graduates, they are able to converse somewhat fluently in Mandarin and this could perhaps help them when doing business in China, which is emerging as an economic giant, and/or with clients from China. Yet, having been to China recently, it is my observation that there are subtle differences in how Mandarin is used locally and in China. For example, in Singapore, taxis and bicycles are called “德士” & “脚踏车” but are called “出租车” and “自行车” respectively in China. Also, there are also cultural & societal differences between China and Singapore. One example of this would be how while “小姐” is a common term of address for young women in Singapore, it is a rather derogatory term for women in China, considering that it is more often used to address women who are working as bar hostesses and/or sex workers. Thus, in my opinion, while a certain level of competency in Mandarin is perhaps necessary for one to do business in China, it is neither sufficient nor enough, as there are many other issues which must be handled.

Of course, as perhaps a tacit admission that SAP bilingualism is not enough, the Singaporean Government has recently decided in 2004-2005 that they will establish a bicultural studies programme in certain selected schools (which, if I’m not wrong, are all SAP schools and includes my alma mater). Also, congruent with this move, a new subject called “China Studies”/ “中国通识”is being introduced at pre-university/JC level. According to 《联合早报》/“Lianhe Zaobao” (“新课程中国通识开跑,学生站在同一起跑点”, 13/5/2007), the latter, which can be studied in either Mandarin or English, is a subject which would allow students taking it to comprehensively examine the many aspects of China, ranging from politics and economics to diplomacy and culture. Well, considering that both of these programmes are still in their early years, it remains to be seen whether they will be successful in achieving their aims.

On that note, I must say that it slightly annoys me that whereas the officially stated aim of the SAP was “to preserve the unique culture and traditional values taught in the old Chinese schools”, it is fairly evident that the recently introduced bicultural studies programme and “China Studies” is aimed at taking advantage of China’s rise as an economic giant. As stated in the Ministry of Education’s press release on the former, the rationale behind it was this: “To engage China as it grows in importance, Singapore needs a core group of students who are not only highly competent in Chinese , but also have a strong understanding of China’s history, culture and contemporary developments. Singapore needs to nurture a bicultural orientation amongst these students so that they can understand and engage China as well as relate to the West”. I do not know about you all but this “economic” motivation behind the Government’s recent efforts to promote the study of Chinese history, language and culture puts me off quite a bit. I mean, call me idealistic but shouldn’t people be wanting to study Chinese history, culture & language because of their passion & interest for it and not as a means to an end of being able to do business and/or interact with a rising China? So if next time, Russia is on the rise again, would Singaporeans then be encouraged by the Government to learn more about Russia, its history, culture & language and will a subject called “Russian Studies” be introduced? And if somehow China goes on the decline, would then the focus be shifted away from the recently introduced bicultural studies programme and “China Studies”?

Okay, that’s all I have to say for now. Hopefully, what I have written above have not bored you all to sleep but have perhaps provoked some thought in you all, perhaps especially for those who were and/or are SAP students.

1 comment:

Julia said...

For one thing, many of the Government's policies are linked to economic gains. If not for the profitability of casinos, will the IRs be built? They've been banned because we're conservative "East Asians", but whatever happened to these "East Asian" values now? Perhaps all it matters is that we are economically strong?

But the SAP programme might not have been in vain. A personal experience, maybe brainwashing from the principal, but it did help me elevate my level of Chinese to almost the same level as my English. Ok, both are maybe not as good, but people tell me my standards are ok. haha, so yup, i do appreciate getting to know deeper Chinese words, even tho' i may not be able to recall and write them now, there's always the dictionary and the Chinese hanyu pinyin software that help.

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