Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on Tuesday admitted that Singapore's insistence on bilingual education has been wrong. The father of current Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee now holds the honorary title of minister mentor and was prime minister from 1959 to 1990, and senior minister from 1990 to 2004.
When Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965, Lee made the country strictly English-speaking for the subsequent 19 years. But with the rise of China as a powerhouse in the global community, Lee hoped to make the country bilingual, having children educated in both English and Chinese since 1984.
"We started the wrong way," Lee told Channel NewsAsia. "We insisted on ting xie (listening), mo xie (dictation) -- madness!" He confessed that he still cannot speak Mandarin perfectly, even after over 40 years of learning it. "Nobody can master two languages at the same level. If (you think) you can, you're deceiving yourself. My daughter is a neurologist, and late in my life she told me language ability and intelligence are two different things," he said. "Successive generations of students paid a heavy price, because of my ignorance, by my insistence on bilingualism."
But he said no matter language skills people have, they will use Mandarin in later life if they learn it early, saying that the education authority and parents in English-speaking households should help make Mandarin attractive to children and encourage them to speak and listen to it as much as possible.