White Paper on bilingual education in Chinese-medium schools

Singapore Infopedia


On 8 December 1953, the colonial government in Singapore issued a white paper titled Chinese Schools Bilingual Education and Increased Aid. The white paper proposed the introduction of bilingual education in Chinese schools in exchange for increased financial aid to the schools.1 The scheme was designed to bring Chinese schools into the mainstream of the English-medium education system by taking advantage of the precarious financial position that most Chinese schools were in at the time. To survive, many Chinese-medium schools had to charge fairly high fees, teachers were poorly paid, and working conditions less than ideal.2 Chinese schools getting government grants-in-aid would have to include not only the teaching of English but also have courses such as mathematics and science taught in English.3

In the pre-war and immediate postwar periods, Singapore’s education system consisted of mostly private vernacular schools that taught in Chinese, Tamil and Malay besides the government-run schools and government-aided mission schools that taught in English.4

The white paper triggered a response that would be exploited by communist elements in Singapore up till the reform of Nanyang University in the 1960s. Despite being in serious need of aid, Chinese schools criticised the scheme as an attack on Chinese education. This criticism was particularly potent in the Chinese community where large sections felt strongly about Chinese language and culture.5

Highlights of the white paper
The main highlight of the 1953 white paper was that the government would provide financial aid to Chinese schools if they agreed to redesign their curriculum to include courses that would provide the students with a good knowledge of both English and Chinese – and if they helped the students develop loyalty to Singapore.6

There were also other conditions that schools had to follow in order to be eligible for government aid. Schools were required to submit a draft constitution, a detailed statement of estimated income and expenditure, reports showing the conditions of service for each staff member, and a statement showing the measures the school would undertake to introduce bilingual education.7

The bilingual education scheme was roundly criticised by many Chinese schools even though they needed the financial aid.8 The schools saw the terms set in the scheme as attempts by the colonial government to encroach upon their autonomy.9 However, the bulk of their objections were focused on the requirement to introduce a greater use of the English language in the school’s curriculum before any government aid could be given.10

The schools argued that they were already teaching English as a second language but their main concerns were that any increase in the usage of English in Chinese schools would dilute the importance of the Chinese language, and compromise the linguistic and cultural identity of the Chinese community.11 In addition, the Chinese schools felt that the funds allocated to the scheme were insufficient. The $1.16 million assistance fund was roughly about one percent of the entire 1954 education budget of $26 million.12

The discontent displayed by the Chinese schools was also fuelled by other factors, one of which were the marked changes to the education policy after the release of the 1947 Ten Year Programme.13 Apart from aiming to improve educational opportunities and to provide primary education to all regardless of race, the programme planned to work towards the establishment of a common education system where all schools including vernacular schools would use the same curriculum and textbooks, and have a common language of instruction.14

Discussions over the need for a standardised national education system, coupled with the Registration of Schools Ordinance of 1950 that allowed authorities to shut down schools that were not up to par had raised serious concerns among Chinese schools and community leaders about the identity and relevance of Chinese schools.15

A 17-man delegation comprising members from the Chinese schools and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce was formed in January 1954 to renegotiate the conditions put forth in the white paper.16 Led by Lee Kong Chian, the delegation wanted the colonial government to not only increase the funds set aside for Chinese schools in the scheme but also to allow these schools to access government funds without any conditions.17

Although the delegation convinced the colonial government to raise the assistance fund to a sustainable $12 million, it failed to repeal the conditions attached to the grants-in-aid scheme.18

All-Party Committee on Chinese education
In May 1955, the government responded to the concerns of the Chinese schools. The new Labour Front coalition government led by David Marshall appointed the All-Party Committee on Chinese Education to review the issues posed by Chinese education leaders.19 In its final report released in February 1956, the committee reaffirmed the need for a national education system and a curriculum that all Chinese and vernacular schools in general had to adopt. However, the committee recognised the linguistic and cultural importance of Chinese schools to the Chinese community and suggested that they should continue to exist under the new education system set-up.20

The committee noted that, while it recognised the significance of the Chinese language, Chinese schools and other vernacular schools should not ignore the importance of learning a common link language on top of a mother tongue. English was identified by the committee as the link language because of its high commercial value both internationally and within Singapore.21

To address the Chinese schools’ unhappiness over the conditional grants-in-aid, the committee suggested that Chinese schools should be offered the same grants-in-aid status as other government-aided schools to allay fears that Chinese schools were being discriminated against compared with other vernacular schools.22

Adopting the committees recommendations
Despite placing Chinese schools on equal terms with other vernacular schools as well as with the government-aided English schools, the Chinese schools still rejected the committee’s recommendations. Instead, the Chinese schools set up the Chinese Education Committee (CEC) to come up with recommendations that would give them more control over their curriculum while gaining access to unconditional government aid.23

However, the CEC’s recommendations were largely ignored by the government, which adopted the all-party committee recommendations to establish a common education system in the white paper on education policy of 1956. The 1956 white paper would later serve as the backdrop for the Education Ordinance of 1957.24 In September 1956, the government announced that the Chinese schools had to decide whether to adopt the new education system in order to get full government aid or face the consequences of no aid at all.25

In the end, most major Chinese schools decided to enter the system, if somewhat resentfully.26 This triggered a number of incidents such as the 1956 Chinese middle school protests which led to riots and the examination strike in 1961. These incidents were attributed to the instigation of pro-communist groups.27 Acceptance of English as a link language in Singapore’s multilingual society became more widespread after 1965 when Singapore became independent and English as a tool for economic survival became obvious to many.28

Lim Tin Seng

1. Singapore, Chinese Schools – Bilingual Education and Increased Aid (Singapore: [s.n.], 1953), 1. (Call no. RCLOS 371.9795105957 SIN)
2. “This Plan to Get Better Citizens Will Cost Singapore Another Million,” Straits Times, 11 December 1953, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Singapore, Bilingual Education and Increased Aid, 6.
4. Saravanan Gopinathan, Towards a National System of Education in Singapore, 1945–1973 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1974), 2–3. (Call no. RSING 379.5957 GOP)
5. Gopinathan, National System of Education, 12.
6. Singapore, Bilingual Education and Increased Aid, 1; Get Better Citizens.”
7. Singapore, Bilingual Education and Increased Aid, 4.
8. “Chinese Leaders to Oppose New Scheme,” Straits Times, 18 December 1953, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Gopinathan, National System of Education, 12.
10. Hong Liu and Sin-Kiong Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition: Business, Politics, and Socio-Economic change, 1945–1965 (New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc, 2004), 129. (Call no. RSING 959.5704 LIU-[HIS])
11. Gopinathan, National System of Education, 12.
12. Gopinathan, National System of Education, 12.
13. Liu and Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition, 125–8.
14. “Schooling for All Is Our Aim, Says Nicoll,” Straits Times, 21 October 1953, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Liu and Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition, 125–8.
16. “Chinese Education: 17 to Meet Govt. Today,” Straits Times, 11 January 1954, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Chinese Education.”
18. “The Chinese Schools May Get $12 Million,” Straits Times, 7 October 1954, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Chew Swee Kee, Report of the All-Party Committee of the Singapore Legislative Assembly on Chinese Education (Singapore: Govt. Printer, 1956), 1. (Call no. RCLOS 371.9795105957 SIN)
20. Chew, Report of the All-Party Committee, 5–7.
21. Chew, Report of the All-Party Committee, 9–11.
22. Chew, Report of the All-Party Committee, 7–11.
23. Liu and Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition, 131–2.
24. Legislative Assembly, Singapore, White Paper on Education Policy (Singapore: [s.n.], 1956), 1. (Call no. RCLOS 370.95951 SIN)
25. “$12 Mil. Take-It-or-Leave-It Offer to Chinese Schools in Singapore,” Straits Times, 2 September 1956, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “Chinese schools: We'll Take Aid,” Straits Times, 7 September 1956, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Liu and Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition, 147–56.
28. Liu and Wong, Singapore Chinese Society in Transition, 163.

The information in this article is valid as of 7 July 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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