Nov 22, 2007

The Disadvantages of a Pink NRIC

This article illustrates another curious paradox in Singapore, on how citizens are disadvantaged vis-a-viz foreigners.

ST Nov 22, 2007
Jump in locals enrolling in international schools here
Smaller class sizes, less focus on exams and special needs teachers attract Singaporeans
By Sandra Davie

THERE has been a nearly fivefold increase in the number of Singaporean students in international schools here since 2002.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) said 975 Singaporeans are currently enrolled in some of the 40 international schools here, a big jump from the reported figure of 200 five years ago.

Their parents pay as much as $2,000 a month.

This growing number does not include Singaporeans attending the international arm of three local schools - Anglo-Chinese School (International), Hwa Chong International and St Joseph's Institution (SJI) International.

The attraction of the international schools, which cater mainly to children of expatriates, includes smaller class sizes, the broad-based International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, less emphasis on examinations and wider choice of second-language subjects.

Some parents whose children have special learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, also opt for international schools as they have teachers trained in dealing with special needs children.

However, parents have to seek the MOE's nod to enrol their children in international schools. Approval is given only for exceptional reasons, such as when the child has lived abroad for a long time ...
It is entirely possible for foreigners to enrol in local schools in Singapore - in fact, foreigners now constitute an ever-growing percentage of the student population in our primary schools, secondary schools, junior colleges and universities.

However, Singaporean citizens are not allowed to enroll in international schools in Singapore unless the MOE gives approval. And the MOE gives approval only for "exceptional reasons".

In other words, even if you are very rich and can easily afford the cost of sending your children to an international school in Singapore, you generally won't be allowed to do so.... if you hold a pink NRIC.

Such are the disadvantages of the pink NRIC.
.... the MOE stressed that the Government prefers Singaporeans to attend local schools for the purpose of building a national identity.

'Singaporean children should be educated in an environment that embraces the history and culture of Singapore, in particular, the multi-racial and multi-religious characteristics of Singapore,' said an MOE spokesman, who added that despite the increase, Singaporeans make up only 4 per cent of the total enrolment at international schools.


Ex-NS man said...

"the MOE stressed that the Government prefers Singaporeans to attend local schools for the purpose of building a national identity."

Yes, it is always better to start brainwashing it's citizen from young with it's propaganda, isn't it?

Anyway, I always knew about the disadvantages of a male Pink NRIC holder even before I was enlisted to serve NS. I need to get a permit from our local gov to go overseas. Sounds like communist country to me then.

Robert HO nric S0197974D said...

"Now Lee Kuan Yew is sending his grandson (Lee Hsien Yang's unruly son) to the Singapore American School (SAS) -- something Singaporeans cannot do, as they must attend only Singapore schools."

The above from:

HH said...

If I am very rich, I will send my child to a "real" international school in another country.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Lee Kuan Yew talks about his grandson attending the Singapore American School here:

Ben Low said...

"the MOE stressed that the Government prefers Singaporeans to attend local schools for the purpose of building a national identity."

Who are they to say where the students get their education? Aren't we the ones doing the learning? If my folks could afford it, I'd long be out of this stifling exam-paranoid and grades-driven excuse of an education system.

People - students - are individuals and aren't products on a production line for Singapore. Surely the state isn't justified to overule such a freedom of choice, especally when it contravenes both the students' and his parents' will. The child isn't born of the state, and neither is his mind.

veii said...

This is where the 21st Century realities of Singaporean life come head-to-head with the lingerng but strong presence of 1950s-style nationalism-chauvinism. In those days, you had this idea that the white devils would soon be rid and a new country would be formed with its own strong, popular and well-loved cultural identity. In this conception of the nation, 'national' education, and often national languages etc. had to be given the full support of the state's resources, in order to attain primacy over 'foreign' concepts. Such thinking has long been outmoded in reality but have been given continued sustenance in Singapore.. and Malaysia too.

Anonymous said...

This again is nothing new. It is again another policy pillar of the pap government which is to restrict the Singaporeans so that they are less smart, more ignorant. In this way they will be easier to manipulate and control.

Anonymous said...

Its pretty clear that being a Singapore citizen carries duties which severely disadvantage you, especially if you are a guy (ns, reservist etc).

This is not usually that much of a disadvantage in the domestic market because for most countries you also get some advantages for being a citizen (e.g. a protected job market where employers have to prove they can't find somebody locally before they are allowed to hire foreigners). Here you get squat all. (unless you think the few hundred dollars the government gives you occasionally is a big perk of citizenship)

I'm totally for open labour markets, but then please level the playing field and don't disadvantage your male citizens.

Anonymous said...

My kid just came back with his PSLE results. He did pretty well except for Chinese he scored a B. For that, he will be penalised and cannot qualify for the better schools in Singapore. Now, if only I was rich and could get doctors convinced that he is dyslexic or something and get into a foreign school.....I continue to see him struggling to O levels and beyond, hemmed in by the Chinese language requirement.

Anonymous said...

To the Anonymous posting at November 23, 2007 9:22 AM:
The system doesn't disadvantage only those weak in Chinese. Think of all those lower-income families' children who don't speak English at home. They have the same problem as your son, except that it's English, not Chinese, limiting their opportunities.

Anonymous said...

The History of Singapore has been rewrittened to show how all the glories of its' history 'have been achieved after Independence' from the British.

If only the British did'nt abdicate, we would all probably be living a simple and happy life.

Now, most of us feel our leaders love money, power and foreign talents more than they ever care for us. And therefore the Pink IC(citizenship) becomes a drag.

Anonymous said...

You need to be brain washed since young

Anonymous said...

Anon of 9:22am,
For every child that got a B in Chinese at PSLE, there will be 3 children who got Bs in Math, and another 3 who got Bs in Science, and another 3 who got Cs in English.

This is bore out by statistics (go to another kiasu primary school's website and they will have the stats) -
2006 National % of pupils getting A and A*
Chinese = 81%
Math = 44.1%
Science = 44.3%
English = 44%

Already 80% of pupils are getting A for Chinese? What do you expect the government to do - to let 100% get A? Or is it to drop Chinese from computation of PSLE points? Why not drop Science or Math or English from computation then, using the same logic, since for every 1 of your case, 3 other children cannot qualify for better schools because of their Bs in science, math or english (actually more likely C, since standards of Chinese has been lowered by the govt to suit your type).

But no, you won't argue for that, would you? Chinese is expendable, and unimportant and should be thrown away but not other subjects, right?

May I suggest that people with such idea emigrate to Europe where they won't suffer from "the disadvantages of a pink NRIC". Maybe they will be happier there... that is, until they realise that almost all european nations expect their students to learn 3 languages: English, French, German, for eg!

Mr Wang Says So said...

Anon 1:22am:

You are mistaken. 2nd language is not important or necessary in Singapore, say, for admission to university ... Provided that you do not have a pink NRIC.

1:22pm said...

Mr Wang, I am not mistaken. Firstly, for university admission, everyone, citizen or foreigners, will not have 2nd language results included in the computation of points. That's the latest change that the govt made to cater to the "elites" who have decided that part of elitism means throwing away their "backward" native language (and culture and religion) and replace them with "elite" white men's language, culture and religion.

Secondly, notwithstanding the above, to begin with, while a typical European country may insist that its national schools teach English and French and German and include the results of all 3 (along with math and science and history...) when assessing students for its university admission, AND exclude foreign students who are applying to these same universities from such requirements, I don;t think you would call it "the disadvantages of a EU ic", would you? In fact, universities all over the world give foreign applicants some concession when it comes to language requirement: eg typically one need only have 1 year of jap or french studies before applying to their universities, whereas japs and french locals will have to learn their native language for 18 years and passing it at each level. USA too, require only foreign students to pass TOEFL (Test of english as a foreign language), whereas their own students will have their english langauge and english literature result computed as part of their high school GPA when applying for university admission, and so on.

Thus, it is not about "disadvantages of a pink NRIC", but about whether one regard Chinese/Malay/Tamil as one's native langauge or as a "2nd language". If one regard it as one's native language, one can draw a parallel from the standard practice all over the world.

Your post is not about language. But if we want to talk about langauge, "the disadvantages of a pinnk IC" is that for 60% of Singaporean who cannot get A in **ENGLISH**, they have to end up in "undesirable" schools, whereas PRC students are courted by top schools (and then given free tuition) despite their almost non-existent English ability!

Any social issue commentator worth his salt should grasp the truth that the number of people in sg who suffered in school and workplace as a result of poor command in English, is much much more than the literally very small number who are inconvenienced by their or their parents conscious decision to give up their own native language to adopt a more "elitist" language and culture and religion. in fact, the latter gain much more than suffer. You, for example, would not have been able to become a lawyer and now a successful banker, if not for your good grasp of English. Any minor inconvenience that you suffered from you and your children's weaker command in Chinese, pale in comparision to the benefit you gained.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, if you decide to go on a polytechnic route to university, you can avoid the angst of Chinese at O levels. Think about it.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Anon 3:12 pm:

There seem to be numerous assumptions in your post, and quite a lot of emotional angst too. Some clarifications:

1. I did quite well for Mandarin in school, actually. A for PSLE, A1 for O-level, A2 for AO-level. However, I do not consider it my mother tongue. I'm still more fluent in Hokkien. I think that among my age-group of Chinese Singaporeans, very few actually grew up in a family background where Mandarin was the mother tongue. However, no lack of examples for Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese etc.

2. I do not really see it that many Chinese Singaporeans in general "gave up" Mandarin for English. I think it is more accurate to say that many Chinese Singaporeans "gave up" their mother tongue (dialect) for Mandarin. Of course, I'm sure you remember how the government contributed to the systematic destruction of such a large part of our local Chinese culture, banning dialects from the mass media, insisting on Mandarin only etc.

3. I do think that Mandarin is a very important language to learn, more so now than ever before, because of the rise of China as a economic powerhouse. Nevertheless I think that Singapore's rigid insistence on a bilingual policy (although relaxed considerably over the past five years) has severely disadvantaged many Singaporeans. This is because not many people can actually be competent in two languages, but by forcing them to try, we end up with a large number of Singaporeans who are competent in neither. I believe that it is an excellent thing to be bilingual, but if you cannot, that it is better to be really competent in at least one language (whether english or mandarin) than to be lousy in two languages - alas, the sad fate of many Singaporeans.

4. At university level, I think it is important to ascertain whether the candidate has the pre-requisite background for the course he is applying for. For example, if you wish to study engineering at a French university and the course is taught in French, you SHOULD have the requisite background in science and maths, AND know enough French to understand the course. If however you wish to study engineering at NUS where the course is taught in English, I do not see why it should matter what grade you scored for Mandarin (or Malay, or Tamil).

5. As for my own children, why, yes, I do hope that they will be fluent in Mandarin. And even assuming that I could send them to an international school, I would still want them to learn Mandarin (as I said, it is very important in view of China). All that said and done, I think that some international schools do offer important advantages over local schools (as mentioned in the ST article) and it is a pity that pink NRIC holders are denied the opportunity to access those advantages (and no, I do not consider National Education an important subject for young Singaporeans - reading Yawning Bread's blog would be more educational for them).

Anonymous said...

One country, two systems.
Hang on. That's unified China/Hong Kong.

Anonymous said...

Is there a list of all the benefits, privileges, obligations and restrictions conferred on citizens? Seriously.

Anonymous said...

1. Bringing up the out-of-topic "dialect vs Mandarin" issue whenever a discussion on "Chinese versus English" occurs, is called setting up a straw man argument - trying to misrepresent or divert a discussion on the latter issue to become the former (irrelevant) issue.

2. Splitting "Chinese" into "mandarin" and "dialect" is called divide and conquer - to turn the Chinese against one other (the Mandarin supporter against the hokkien "clan" and so on), so that now the 10+ dialect groups can debate among themselves, rather than debate the real issue of "Chinese (mandarin and hokokien and teochew and...) vs English".

But, I will bite the bait (somewhat) and indulge you (a bit) :

>I did quite well for Mandarin in school, actually. A for PSLE, A1 for O-level, A2 for AO-level.

No, you did not do quite well in Mandarin; You did quite well in Chinese - Chinese grammar, Chinese composition, Chinese characters. All taught using a particular pronunciation called Mandarin. If the lessons had been taught in Hokkien, you would still have been writing in the same Chinese characters, writing the same composition, and using somewhat similar grammar, and you would still have done quite well in the subject - Chinese, that is.

Btw, since you mention grades, I should indulge too :) Actually, I did quite well in English. A for PSLE, B3 for O-level, A2 for GP. Didn't suffer from the govt's english-fail-means-no-JC-for-you policy (just as you didn't suffer from any of the govt's policy). So, any of my "emotional aghast" you are sensing came from my concern for fellow citizens who did suffer from the govt's policy (just as your blog is about your "emotional aghast" for suffering fellow citizens)

>However, I do not consider it my mother tongue. I'm still more fluent in Hokkien.

Well, if to you, mother tongue = verbal only, yeah, Hokkien is your mother tongue. To me, I prefer to use the term "native language". And a language is more than verbal. It's about writing and reading. And since all chinese dialects share the same chinese character and hence are read and written more or less in the same way, I would consider your native language as Chinese, not Hokkien. Unless you insist a native language should be classified only based on verbal skill?

>I think that among my age-group of Chinese Singaporeans, very few actually grew up in a family background where Mandarin was the mother tongue. However, no lack of examples for Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese etc.

See what I mean? Turning a topic about "English vs Chinese" to become "Mandarin vs Hokkien, Teochew...". What's the relevance of your observation, other than to draw me into an otherwise out of topic discussion abt the merit of mandarin vs dialect? It's about English vs Chinese, not abt one dialect vs another!

>I do not really see it that many Chinese Singaporeans in general "gave up" Mandarin for English.

Your observation does not tally with census data. Currently 50% of pri 1 cohort comes from english speaking family, up from X% (I think less than 10%) during our time. It is precisely because so many parents have "given up" Chinese (which includes Mandarin + Hokkien +...) for English that the govt had to redo the entire primary school chinese syllabus because, as some minister put it, they have to cave in to the political pressure from such parents.

Of course, I'm sure you remember how the government contributed to the systematic destruction of such a large part of our local Chinese culture, banning dialects from the mass media, insisting on Mandarin only etc.

A good bait, but I shall not bite :)

Suffice to say, most Chinese-educated elite understand the importance of a united Chinese language - be it mandarin or cantonese or whatever - that every chinese person can use to communicate with each other. It's mostly the English-educated elite who prefer a divided weak Chinese group split into clans who cannot understand each other (much like India where there are 100+ languages), and who pretend to champion one dialect in order to bash Mandarin, as if they are deeply rooted in some dialect culture when in reality, they don't really care a shit about dialect since they eat and talk and and sleep and dream in English!

>If however you wish to study engineering at NUS where the course is taught in English, I do not see why it should matter what grade you scored for Mandarin (or Malay, or Tamil).

It matters for the same reason why French universities' Engineering department consider local French students' high school grades in English and German (and History and Geography)

When you applied to the law faculty, they look at your result in Math, and Physics. Why? Shouldn't they just ignore these subjects since they are irrelevant to the study of law? And since math and physics result did count in your law application, why shouldn't languages (English and German and French, in the case of many european countries) count in your application too?

As for my own children, why, yes, I do hope that they will be fluent in Mandarin. (as I said, it is very important in view of China).

Actually, I have children too. Two, in fact, just like you :) They will be fluent in Mandarin, without my hoping for it - it's their mother tongue. I do hope they will love their own mother tongue regardless of whether the country where this mother tongue is most spoken, is on the rise or on the fall!

On the other hand, I do hope they will do well in their non-native langauge, English, since it is very important in view of America's world dominance. However, if America were to fall from power, and German take over, I would not hesitate to tell them to give up English and take up German instead, just as I am sure you would similarly advise your kids with regard to the Chinese language, if something were to happen to China :)

>I think that Singapore's rigid insistence on a bilingual policy.. has severely disadvantaged many Singaporeans.

Yes. And I am telling you that statistics show that those who has been "severely disadvantaged" are those who are weak in English, where passing rate at o-level was below 50% during our time, which means 50% of people cannot go poly or jc and are now facing structural unemployment with their o-levels qualification. Hence, a good social issue commentator should concentrate on that rather than focus on those who are weak in Chinese - 80++% get grade A in Chinese at O-level, versus 50% getting D,E,F in English at O-level for the past 30 yrs. Just think about that! What is not clear about where the focus should be?

This is because not many people can actually be competent in two languages... I believe that it is an excellent thing to be bilingual, but if you cannot

With such negative thoughs drilled into the mind of teachers and students, this is what happens.

we must remeber this.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Well, we digress further and further from the main topic, but anyway, very quickly:

1. I think that it was (and is) important for S'pore to emphasise English. Simply because it was (and is) the most widely used language in the world of international business and commerce.

2. Those Singaporeans who acquired competency in English acquired the advantages of being able to penetrate into that world of international business and commerce. Those Singaporeans who failed to acquire that competency failed to acquire those advantages, that is all. You could say that the second group is disadvantaged vis-a-viz the first group. Similarly you could say that people who are poor in maths and science are disadvantaged in the engineering-related industries vis-a-viz people who are strong in maths and science.

3. Compared to the international schools issue I raised in my main post, it is all rather moot ... because the shift to English of '1st language' status in the education system happened 30+ years ago and is no longer a contemporary issue.

4. On admission to NUS Law Fac, surprise, it is quite possible to get admitted with not-very-good grades in Maths, Physics, Chemistry etc. And it is also quite possible not to be admitted even if you have straight A's in Math, Physics, Chemistry etc. Quite a lot of emphasis is placed on the Law Fac's self-devised selection criteria, which include a 3-hour written test (to test writing ability and logical reasoning) and an interview (to test verbal ability and logical reasoning). However, if you had a bad GP grade, you wouldn't even be shortlisted for any of the above, even if you had straight A's for your Math, Physics etc. So this to me is an example of the university screening candidates on criteria relevant to the actual course for which they were applying

5. About your children - well, it's nice to know that their mother tongue is Mandarin. When I was a kid, my mother couldn't speak Mandarin, she is Cantonese; and my father couldn't speak Mandarin either, he is Hokkien. So my mother tongue is definitely not Mandarin. However, my parents have now acquired the ability to spak Mandarin through years of watching TCS drama serials (I mean - the years after Chinese dialects were banned from TV).

6. Competency in two languages - well, there is a lot of research nowadays about which parts of the brains are used to learn language; and the research shows that the parts used change over time. As one grows older, one is no longer able to acquire language using those original, natural parts of the brain that a child uses to acquire language. In other words, if you are not exposed to the sounds of a certain language during your childhood, then past a certain age (around five years old), it does become neurologically much more difficult to learn it ater. Of course there should be no such difficulty for the "mother tongue" - i.e the language your MOTHER actually spoke to you with, when you were a baby and a toddler. Unfortunately, the fact that your mother spoke Hakka to you when you were a baby doesn't mean that you'll grow up naturally understanding Teochew, Mandarin or Cantonese.

7. Naturally, more possibilities open up to people who tinker with mindhacking or other sorts of mental tools / techniques, (NLP, Buzan, Bono, Doman, Eriksonian hypnosis etc). And naturally, there are the rare people who are unusually gifted in languages (or maths, or art, or sport, or music). Such people don't represent the general population though - far from it.

Sg expat in Belgium said...

> This is because not many people can actually be competent in two languages...

The Belgians would beg to differ on that. But then again, most of them are actually competent in three languages, so many you're right.

wa bo tak chek la. said...

Personally, I am rather glad that I had the opportunity to learn two languages at an early age. I'm sure Mr. Wang would agree - learning a language as an adult is probably much more difficult for the average person. Furthermore, adult learners will not only find achieving fluency in the language more difficult, they will also experience a far greater challenge in perfecting their pronunciation.

While it is true that an educated populace benefits the country, the actual benefits and advantages of education are felt much more strongly by the individual. Indeed, your level of education will probably greatly affect your career prospects and income.

That said, the choice of education should be a personal decision, since it affects the individual the most.

The issue here is therefore not about whether we should emphasize English or Chinese, but over the government's perceived need to place unnecessary obstacles that limit each Singaporean's ease of choosing their own education.

Fox said...

About multilingualism in Europe in general: It is actually a lot easier to learn English and German or French and Spanish because these languages are related to one another and have a lot in common in terms of grammar and vocabulary, with all of them being Indo-European languages. The difficulty is probably comparable to learning Cantonese and Mandarin which are distinct (according to linguists) but closely related languages.

On the other hand, English and Mandarin are not even remotely related and worlds apart in grammar, lexis, phonology, etc. Mastering both languages is a lot harder.

Taken from

In addition there is no clear definition of what "one language" means. The Scandinavian languages are so similar that a large part of the native speakers understand all of them without much trouble. This means that a speaker of Danish, Norwegian or Swedish can easily get his count up to 3 languages. On the other hand, the differences between variants of Chinese, like Cantonese and Mandarin, are so big that hard studies are needed for a speaker of one of them to learn even to understand a different one correctly. A person who has learned to speak five Chinese "dialects" perfectly has achieved something impressive, but his "count" would still be only one "language". Another example could be that a person who learnt five different languages like French, Spanish, Romanian, Italian and Portuguese, all belonging to the closely related Romance languages, has accomplished something much less astonishing than a person who learnt Hebrew, Standard Mandarin, Finnish, Navajo and Hawaiian, of which none is remotely related to another.

Anonymous said...

Regarding mastering two languages. It is absolutely possible and not just in exceptional cases of genius. It is rare though as the second language often starts to replace and not add to the first language. Look at Singlish an example of Pigeon English.

Also often what you see in bilingual people is that both languages deteriorate to the lowest common denominator. Nuance is gone, irony, and other linguistic devices are foreign concepts.

Ms. Tan the English Teacher said...

It's spelt as "Pidgin English", not "Pigeon English".

Anonymous said...

You are correct Ms Tan the English teacher. I was going more by definition though as shown here paying especial attention to the first phrase of that definition.
But yes. Pigdin it is. I stand corrected, if only more often then I may learn something.