Higher Chinese And Its Implications

(This post by Monica Lim first appeared on her blog on 17 January 2014. It is reproduced with permission. Note: Lesley-Anne is her daughter.)

As an IP student, Lesley-Anne didn't have to sit for the GCE 'O' levels, as she had a through-train pass to Junior College (JC) (as long as she met the minimum requirements in her school exams). However, she did sit for one paper last November - the 'O' level Higher Chinese exam.

The results were released last Monday and... happiness! Lesley-Anne scored a B3 which we're absolutely thrilled about. This means that she won't have to take up Chinese as a subject in JC. One less subject to worry about, one less exam. That's always good news!

Those who have followed my blog from way back when Lesley-Anne was in primary school (gosh, that seems like a million years ago!) will know that Chinese was always a subject that she struggled with. We don't speak Mandarin at home and she had a pretty lackadaisical childhood, free from all kinds of enrichment programmes. Her kindergarten didn't even have a Chinese teacher for six months and it was only before she entered p1, that I realised just how appalling Lesley-Anne's Chinese standard was. That's when I engaged a Chinese tutor for her and even then, it wasn't very intensive.

So she plodded along and it was TOUGH. She had to attend remedial classes. She had Chinese tuition. She was called up for prep tests because she performed below the cohort's average. Her compositions were probably 'Dick and Jane' compared to some of her classmates' Shakespearean sonnets.

Thing is, we as parents weren't too anxious because we could see how much effort she put in. And that's why we're so delighted that she managed a B3 - she earned it through sheer dogged hard work. Sweat and tears.

This part of Lesley-Anne's journey is now over but I was pondering the polarising topic of Chinese in Singapore schools. There's the pro camp and the anti camp. And then there are those who are so terrified of it that they will find all ways to avoid it, especially at PSLE. Yes, I'm talking about the group that are exempt from Chinese. As far as I know, there are a couple of ways to be exempt from Chinese - 1) the child is away from Singapore for a minimum number of years 2) the child has been medically diagnosed as having a disability in languages (usually dyslexia).

I want to stress that most of these cases are absolutely legitimate. I'm not suggesting that anyone is faking a disability to get out of Chinese, especially since the condition has to be certified by professional psychologists anyway. But I find it amusing to hear anecdotal accounts of how in certain schools *ahemmissionschools*, by p5, there is suddenly a sizeable number of kids being sent to the psychologist because their parents are convinced they have a learning disability in Chinese. Or how some parents, on hearing that they're being posted back to Singapore from an overseas stint, will ask for their posting to be delayed/extended so that their child can hit the minimum period to be exempt from Chinese.

All these accounts demonstrate just how much the PSLE and Chinese are dreaded. To me, the situation is made worse by how MOE has chosen to remain very vague about the issue. When a child is exempt from Chinese, how is his t-score calculated? Here's MOE's reply to a question on their website:

Q: Would pupils who are exempted from offering Mother Tongue Language at PSLE be at a disadvantage as compared to those who offer the subject at PSLE?

A: No. These pupils’ PSLE aggregate scores would be adjusted so that they are neither disadvantaged nor advantaged.

Translation: Nyeh nyeh ni nyeh nyeh! We're not telling!

It's truly a non-answer because it is not humanly possible to make sure that every student is not disadvantaged or advantaged. So parents start guessing and their guess is that, when you're exempt from Chinese, your fourth grade is an average of the grades of your other three subjects. If this is true, then if your child is bad in Chinese, this is a HUGE advantage. Not only does he get to count only the other three subjects which he's likely to be better in, he has one fewer subject to study.

There's no way of knowing if this is true but again anecdotally, looking at cases from my kids' classes who had been exempt from Chinese, it seems to bear out. These kids have generally gotten higher t-scores in comparison to other kids in class with a similar standard of English/Math/Science.

If this is true, then my personal opinion is it's not really fair lah. To prevent any over-zealous parents from exploiting this loophole, MOE should do something like say, all those exempted from Chinese will be given a Chinese grade equivalent to the AVERAGE of the cohort. Or something like that. Then these parents will really have to consider if it's worthwhile trying to get that exemption.

What I don't get though, is why Mother Tongue continues to be given special treatment. No, Chinese Nazis! I'm not saying Chinese is not important! Of course learning Chinese is important. But consider this: at PSLE, those who ace Higher Chinese are given two extra points for SAP schools. Which I accept as fair cos it's only two points and only for Chinese schools. But then comes 'O' levels and those who pass Higher Mother Tongue (HMT) are given two extra points for admission to JC.

I'm sure everyone will agree with me that two points for JC admission is a WORLD of difference from two points at PSLE. Cut off point to the top JCs is in single digits. Two points can be as much as 33.3% of your L1R5 score! The message is this: HMT is not just important, it is the MOST important subject. Why not special recognition for English? Or Maths? Or Science? To me, this is baffling.

You can't sell me the argument that it's to encourage kids to take HMT because in JC, if you haven't taken HMT, it's compulsory to continue MT lessons at H1 level. Which is somewhat like HMT at 'O' levels. And the HMT kids would already have the advantage of not having to go for any more MT lessons in JC, freeing up their time for other subjects.

To me, this is an instance of how some education policies have not evolved with time. Maybe in the old days, two points didn't make much of a difference, and not that many kids take HMT. But in today's very kiasu and very competitive landscape where people chiong down to the last decimal point, it becomes yet another area for kids, parents and teachers to strategise, so as to get the better of the system.

I know the Chinese subject is a hot potato. Let's see if anyone in MOE is brave enough to raise the issue.



Writing is my profession and my passion. I run a professional writing outfit, where I do all my corporate writing. Blogging takes care of the miscellaneous excess thoughts. I'm a mother of two completely polar opposite children. Maybe God figures the challenge would do me good. Or perhaps He just likes to have a good laugh. Whatever it is, I'm enjoying the roller coaster ride.