A fascinating exchange in Zaobao between ST reporter Yuen Sin and Zaobao reporter Ng Wai Mun on the Chinese Singaporean (or Singaporean Chinese?) identity (Feb. 13) – also published by ST in three parts, each focusing on the Special Assistance Plan or SAP schools (Feb. 13), the evolution of their respective identities (Feb. 14), and the issues arising from being the majority race (Feb. 15) – was first built upon their language backgrounds and their experiences as students in SAP schools. But their subsequent pathways have resulted in divergent views on what it means to be a Chinese Singaporean, and by extension too on the broader structures or ideologies which constitute their respective identities.
The policy issues surfaced, such as the legacy of the SAP schools and the effect of a growing class divide as well as the behaviour of Chinese Singaporeans in a multiracial country, deserve further scrutiny. Yet the introspection of the two reporters got me thinking: How often do we reflect upon our experiences through the education system, to think about its influences and the extent to which they may translate into feedback to improve the system? Because unlike the reporters – with my half-baked Mandarin and scant understanding of Chinese culture – I am not sure if I have much to show for despite spending 12 years as a SAP student: Three each in Poi Ching Primary School and Pei Chun Public School, and six more in Hwa Chong Institution.
What, in other words, is the value of an SAP education today? And how do the experiences vary? Even before a broader discourse on changes to SAP schools – whether they should be abolished, or they should cater to mother tongues of Bahasa Melayu and Tamil – do we know enough about the effectiveness of an SAP education, especially from the perspective of students? For the overwhelming assumption seems to be that an SAP education, with the focus on bilingualism and cultural immersion, necessarily confers lifelong benefits.
With the aim to develop bilingual students who were “inculcated with traditional Chinese values“, SAP schools were started in 1979 as a result of “concerns over the Chinese language and the available opportunities for the Chinese majority to protect their cultural heritage“. But how do bilingual aspirations and the inculcation of traditional Chinese values translate into practice? The most obvious manifestation in Hwa Chong was both the high number of weekly periods for Chinese language lessons (which was on par with the number of English language lessons) and preparations for the Higher Chinese subject at the GCE “O” Level examinations. In retrospect, the subject felt like a convenient extension of the higher mother tongue language for the PSLE in Pei Chun.
Beyond these academic expectations and advantages – with one to three bonus points for the PSLE score, two bonus points for the GCE “O” Level scores – Miss Yuen and Miss Ng spoke fondly of their SAP school days. Even though she said she spoke “more Mandarin in [her] heartland primary school than the six years [she] spent in the mostly English-speaking environment of the SAP schools [she] attended”, ST’s Miss Yuen reminisced about events like the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations, the xinyao tunes [a genre of Chinese songs unique to Singapore], and the Chinese drama CCA she was a part of. Zaobao’s Miss Ng, along this tangent, attributed her positive memories to the “less quantifiable things” in Chung Cheng High School (Main): The Chinese school song, the design of the school campus and uniform, as well as the “comfort zone” of speaking Mandarin on campus.
Through my 12 years in SAP schools, on the other hand, I am not sure if I hold similar memories as dearly. To be more precise, while the schools set me up academically and to contribute to the community, blessing me with friendships along the way, I am not sure if these benefits are necessarily uniquely “Chinese” or “Chinese Singaporean”. Two questions emerge too: First, are schools the best sites for enculturation or the learning of a culture; and second, how is “Chineseness” understood or defined? Within predominantly English-speaking environments, therefore, the said Chinese activities in my schools felt like mere accoutrements: Poetry recitation at Pei Chun, the Mandarin school or conduct songs, the Chinese school mottos and values, and the lessons in music, weiqi, Chinese calligraphy, and arts and crafts in the first two years at Hwa Chong, which I suppose approximated to the historical four arts of the Chinese scholar (琴棋书画).
I am / was the quintessential Singaporean “banana” (香蕉人) – someone with Chinese features, but who is more familiar with the languages and cultures of the West (皮黄肉白) – despite growing up in a Chinese-speaking household. Part of this may be attributed to the anxiety of my Chinese-educated parents who were disadvantaged at the workplace, which prompted them to send me to English enrichment lessons from a young age. Part of this may also be the lack of general appreciation for Chinese traditions and culture, coupled by a pragmatic recognition that mastery of the Chinese language is not central to my work or community projects today. Thus far. In fact, besides speaking a broken variant of Mandarin at home and when I did my National Service, the language has not featured actively in my life since I took my GCE “O” Level Higher Chinese examinations in 2007, almost 11 years ago.
I never felt shortchanged in Poi Ching, Pei Chun, or Hwa Chong. But I am not sure if I felt more “Chinese”, after 12 years.
Which speaks to an interesting difference, furthermore, between what is generally and reductively assumed of the SAP system, and what the experience is actually like, for students of SAP schools. During internship or work stints being from Hwa Chong meant that one was assumed to be bilingual, and therefore able to do translation tasks or to converse with Chinese-speaking clients.
Dichotomies like this – of whether you are bilingual or not – mask the many levels of proficiencies, and by extension, the many levels of identities associated with being Chinese Singaporean. And Miss Yuen and Miss Ng alluded to many of these dichotomies too: If policymaking on bilingualism should be guided by utilitarianism or not, if we identify more with (contemporary) China or the West, or if we listen to “American pop songs in place of local xinyao tunes”. For me, the notion of being rooted in Singapore means I am comfortable with my barely-functional level of Mandarin for basic day-to-day conversations, and decisions to deepen my mastery of the language and its culture will likely be made pragmatically.
It is hard to identify a particular reason why I did not benefit as much from the SAP experience as others, though part of it could have been not seeking out the programmes which fostered bilingualism or biculturalism (and instead, enrolling into the humanities programmes). In this vein, I think the greatest beneficiaries of the SAP system in Hwa Chong, for instance, were participants – “who have [or had] the interest and capacity to engage China’s culture and contemporary society” – of the bicultural studies programme (BSP). Many of these friends have gone on to further their studies in China or even work or start ventures in the country. I agree with Miss Yuen’s proposal that a more egalitarian approach would be to extend opportunities such as the BSP “to more schools beyond this limited group of SAP schools”, which already enjoy substantially more resources.
If so, are SAP schools and the SAP label still necessary?
Because how tenable is the SAP system, if we do not understand its effects, first on students who go through it, and then on the wider society? And to what extent do Chinese Singaporeans – especially of the younger generation – identify with a SAP system which is reaching its fourth decade of existence? Bear in mind, moreover, of the growing number of inter-ethnic marriages in Singapore, and the persistent and growing concern of elitism and the class divide in SAP schools (do we know, for example, how the socio-economic or demographic distributions of SAP school students have changed since 1979?), which will collectively complicate not only the types of students but also the identity of a Chinese Singaporean. These are long-overdue conversations which ought to start.