SINGAPORE: Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools continue to have a place in the education system, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung on Saturday (Feb 23), despite questions about the relevance of such schools in multi-cultural, multi-racial Singapore.
SAP schools were established in 1979 against the backdrop of falling enrolment in Chinese-medium schools. The aim was to preserve the best of these schools, to promote the learning of Chinese language and culture.
There are 26 SAP schools – 15 primary and 11 secondary schools.
Speaking at an event to mark 40 years of SAP schools, Mr Ong acknowledged that some SAP school students have lamented the lack of opportunities to interact with students from other racial communities.
This, however, should not have to lead to a “drastic change” to the SAP system, he said.
With Asia being the fastest growing region in the world and China being Singapore’s largest trading partner, Mr Ong said the learning of language and culture has become “more important than ever”.
Even though bilingualism has been a “unique advantage” here, people in other countries are catching up and even surpassing Singaporeans, he added, noting that it is increasing common to meet Europeans and Americans who are fluent in Mandarin.
“The right thing to do is to preserve the programmes and institutions that promote the learning of our Mother Tongues, and improve them where we can,” said Mr Ong in a speech at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre.
“We should be very careful not to undo any of these efforts as that would be bucking the strategic trend at a time when it matters the most.”
On a national level, Mr Ong said Singapore’s identity draws from the cultures of different communities.
“Our nation-building journey is far from over. A nation’s identity takes centuries to develop and mature, and it has to draw from the cultural richness of individual communities,” he said.
Over the years, some have criticised the SAP programme for creating greater ethnic segregation by reinforcing Chinese culture in a multiracial society.
Addressing this issue, Mr Ong acknowledged that a key area for improvement is to expand and deepen opportunities for SAP students to make friends from other communities.
“There is definitely room to do better,” he said.
“Because the objective is not just getting students to interact occasionally with students of other races, but having the experiences of growing up together with friends from all ethnic backgrounds, developing mutual trust, understanding our multi-cultural society and appreciating the adjustments we have to make in order to maintain our social cohesion and racial harmony.”
At the same time, it has become increasingly challenging to run an SAP school, said the minister, because more students come from English speaking families and English has become the more commonly spoken language in schools.
“Given Singapore’s language environment today, it will be an uphill task to make all our students effectively bilingual and bicultural,” he noted.
“But with SAP schools, we will have a good chance to develop a core group in every cohort, with an intuitive understanding of Chinese culture, history and thinking, and with standards of Chinese close to those in China, Taiwan or Hong Kong.”