Trisha Reloaded

Dedicated to Trisha, as always. Dedicated also to L, my source of inspiration, and the reason why I choose to see the bright side of teaching.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Of race and your "mother" tongue

For some strange reasons, my comments on Yawning Bread's post did not (could not) appear so I'll add my own two-cents to Piper's request for clarification on our mother-tongue (MT) policy in Singapore.

Here is the unique and, in my opinion, very bizarre situation in Singapore.

Your mother tongue is mandated by the state. And MOE will tell you what MT language you should study in school. Which is very straightforward and easy if you are born of parents of the same race.

But once you are the child of a mixed marriage, then your MT is determined by your father's race. So strictly speaking, we should call it our father tongue, since the mother's race is not even factored into the consideration.

A child whose father is a Chinese and his mother Malay, for example, would have to take Chinese as his MT, regardless of what language he is raised in at home. Should he wish to study Malay as his MT, he would need to get an Exemption from MOE. Now the word 'exemption', to me, is an ugly word, implying one is seeking for some special, uncommon treatment, with even a hint at one's intention to bend the rules for one's own selfish purpose. Anyway, so this child from a mixed marriage needs an exemption from studying Chinese, and then needs further approval from the MOE to study a different MT.

When he sits for his O level MT exam, he needs to show that he has the Exemption letter from MOE, to sit not for the Chinese paper, but the Malay one. Which is one huge hassle to the teacher who has to make sure the student, who has applied for the Exemption before he entered Pri 1, still has the letter 10 years later. If he has lost the Exemption letter, then he needs to produce other documentary evidence to show that he has been cleared by MOE to study Malay (such as being allowed to take his Malay PSLE paper).

Why do we make such a big issue over one's MT? And why is MT tied to the race of the father? Why can't we have more freedom over which second language we wish to study? If we really wish to achieve racial harmony in Singapore, surely we should avoid pigeonholing people into racial categories, dictating what people's MT is based on dubious criterion like one's father's race and making it so troublesome for people to study a second language that is not tied to his race?

We are a nation obsessed with the issue of race. And ironically, we want to ensure that in spite of this unhealthy fixation with race, we can practise racial harmony. No wonder my students are cynical about celebrating Racial Harmony Day.


At 5:53 AM, Blogger A.Ball.of.Yarn said...

wrt to the irony of racial harmony against the backdrop of the choice of MT language taught in school - that's an interesting way to look at it.:)

which also strikes me now as to how a friend i had in JC (who happens to be errm...visibly dark-skinned and Indian) ended up studying for Chinese as a second language.

At 7:03 AM, Blogger The Ego One said...

On a slightly different note.. the preoccupation on race can be seen in *gasp a RH event when I was told as an NE Coordinator to send 4 representatives, and be mindful of the CIMO.
Yes we sometimes try too hard, and sometimes we do get a bit deluded and even delusional when we speak of "one people, one nation, one singapore". :P

At 7:24 AM, Blogger Tym said...

Actually, I studied my mother's tongue rather than my father's, but perhaps they were slightly less strict when I entered the school system.

the ego one > See my own example of racially harmonious idiocy here.

At 6:45 PM, Anonymous Piper said...

Thanks for the clarification. I thought that was the case now, but when I was in school, like Tym, I studied my mother's tongue.

It's so myopic really.

At 5:18 AM, Anonymous gecko said...

I hold the belief that an inclusive government will, through the ministry, relook the Mother Tongue policy for mixed marriage students. I am still optimistic that the ministry will refine the policy to resolve this issue.

At 7:09 AM, Anonymous Yawning Bread said...

Kelvin told me your comments failed to appear on Yawning Bread. I just checked, and the comments queue is empty, so maybe there was a technical glitch.

At 6:12 PM, Anonymous Piper said...

The problem, I personally feel as a child from a mixed marriage, is that the government does not acknowledge our existence. We are forced into the CMIO categories based on our father's race, made to take a mother tongue, again based on our father's race. It is like the other half of us is conveniently dismissed.

At 4:15 PM, Blogger trisha said...

Agree with you! I am not as optimistic as Gecko, that the mother tongue policy will be refined for mixed marriage, or even same race marriage.

Perhaps my daily encounter with MOE's policy has made me quite disillusioned.

Tym: Your article is quite enlightening (and highly amusing too).

Reminds me of a particular school that has RHD celebrations with another school so that their students could be exposed to those of another race. As if the annual ritual is going to turn people into racially harmonious citizens? I heard from a reliable source that the students were even given quota to meet -- like you must have x number of friends from another race. The teachers have to interview the students to see if they meet the quota. I thought it's a joke when I first heard it. But it's not.

At 11:18 AM, Blogger John Riemann Soong said...

Yes, that is the issue. Four convenient classifications, and the government mitigates all the minorities, assumes that there is no interracial mixing, sidelines all the non-Tamil Indian languages...also often seems to ignore the presence of Caucasians who were born Singaporean and raised Singaporean as any of us, but they endure immense discrimination and presumption.

The government likes to call itself multiracial and multilingual, but the truth is they don't appreciate true diversity and cultural diffusion whatsoever.


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