IN HIS MEMOIRS, Singaporean Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew pinpoints the difficulty of implementing bilingual education by saying that an intelligent quotient of above 110 is necessary to master Chinese and English, and 125 to achieve trilingualism. Mr Lee's observation may shed light on the decade-old debate on the effectiveness of English education in Hong Kong, where Cantonese is the mother tongue of more than 96 per cent of the population, yet the stated policy is to engineer a population which is trilingual in Cantonese, Putonghua and English and literate in Chinese and English. Michael Tien Puk-sun, chairman of the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research, last Saturday opened a new front in the language education debate with his vision that all secondary students should learn in English and Putonghua in the future. Speaking at an English education forum hosted by the British Council and the Hong Kong Economic Journal, Mr Tien set out a long-term goal of adopting the two languages as the medium of instruction starting from Form One. 'I hope many years from now, most primary pupils' proficiency in English and Putonghua will be adequate to learn in the two languages when they enter secondary schools,' he said. Many in the business community support this goal as an enhancement to Hong Kong's competitiveness. The academics who believe Putonghua is a superior language for learning than the more colloquial Cantonese dialect also back this initiative. Mr Tien, also chairman of fashion retail company G2000, reflects the concerns of the business community that English must be mastered to maintain Hong Kong's international standing, while Putonghua is vital as the SAR builds on closer mainland ties. However, he is aware that most teachers and students are not ready for such a switch and the ambition of teaching in Putonghua may not be achievable even by 2010. He hopes his vision can gradually come to fruition as confidence in the languages improves with higher-level education from kindergarten onwards. Secretary for Education and Manpower Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun this week reiterated the Government's priority to promote mother tongue teaching up to Form Four and improve lessons in English and Putonghua as subjects. 'I think Mr Tien is setting out a long-term vision. We need to have a vision to work with, but it doesn't mean we have to achieve it overnight,' Mrs Law said. 'The primary objective now is to improve the teaching of English and Putonghua as subjects, and not talk about medium of instruction.' The deployment of native English teachers in primary schools from next year, the launch of a major reading campaign in schools, and ongoing efforts to move away from textbook-bound learning were key strategies in the bid to raise standards, she said. People who want to see English and Putonghua replace Cantonese in the classroom more quickly may need patience. Mrs Law said research had emphatically shown that for encouraging higher-order thinking, teaching in the mother tongue was the best option. This underpins the Government's medium of instruction policy. Most recently, the Chinese University's Institute of Education Research conducted a trial assessment of 1,000 students from May to July, which found that those who answered questions in Cantonese had higher literacy rates in reading and science. The trial was a pilot test for a global survey to be launched by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development in January next year. Mrs Law said second-language standards among teachers and students had to be acceptable before a switch was possible. The language policy introduced in 1998 requires most schools to teach in Chinese until the end of Form Three, then allows greater freedom of choice from Form Four. This year about half of the Chinese-medium schools have opted to use English for some subjects, especially the sciences. Mrs Law emphasised that English should be used only if proficiency among students and teachers had met a required threshold, with additional tutoring in a bridging course between Forms Three and Four. 'In most of the cases where schools have switched back to the use of English they have been careful in their selection of subjects. They are mainly non-language loaded subjects and subjects which involve international benchmarking or examinations,' she said. But the pressure to use English had resulted in the Education Department intervening to require several schools to revert to Cantonese, because they had not met the necessary conditions, she said. There is also a grey area. Even in schools that have officially remained English medium from Form One, the language skills of teachers and learners may still be inadequate to match the higher-order thinking possible with mother tongue instruction. 'It is a huge balancing act, and there are always trade-offs,' Mrs Law said. While most parents want their children to learn in English, the lack of an English-speaking culture continues to stunt proficiency. Young people can grow up in Hong Kong without speaking a word of the language, even in school, or using it in the community, according to Anthony Tong Kai-hong, deputy director of education. Even English-language television does not help. Mr Tien said: 'Now that Chinese subtitles have been attached to all English movies there is a danger that people just watch silent movies.' He wants television stations to use English subtitles instead. Mr Tien's call for an overhaul of language education was echoed by the forum's audience. One listening businessman dismissed education in Hong Kong as a 'total failure'. 'I'm hiring people every day and the English standard of most applicants, reflected in their letters, is shocking,' he said. While the importance of Putonghua has been widely recognised, the idea of it replacing Cantonese is highly contentious, even four years after the handover. Like it or not, Putonghua is, to most Hong Kong students, another foreign language. Many educators have questioned the feasibility of the Putonghua goal. Education Commission member Tai Hay-lap says a student's effectiveness in learning - and not socio-economic factors - should be the primary consideration in the language debate. 'Cantonese is still the predominant dialect in Hong Kong, and it's not feasible for all serving teachers to switch to Putonghua within a few years,' he said, adding that this would probably take several decades. He proposed introducing a trial scheme to teach Chinese language in Putonghua at some secondary schools. 'It is more prudent to move forward to that ultimate goal if it is proven that there is no detrimental effect on students' learning when Chinese is taught in Putonghua,' said Mr Tai, the principal of Tuen Mun Yan Oi Tong Tin Ka Ping Secondary School. But the pioneers in Putonghua teaching are throwing their weight behind Mr Tien. Vincent Chan Hong-ling, principal of Kiangsu-Chekiang College (Sha Tin), said replacing Cantonese with Putonghua was an irreversible trend in the light of closer economic ties with the mainland. His school has taught Chinese language and history in Putonghua since it was founded in 1978. Its sister schools in Kwai Chung and North Point have also adopted Putonghua in their lessons, alongside English. 'Our experience shows that most students have no difficulty in adapting to learning in Putonghua starting from Form One,' Mr Chan said. 'Their listening and speaking skills are quite good after the first two or three months.' But he stressed that school policy ensured that most teachers were employed from Putonghua-speaking families. People arriving from China may be expanding the Putonghua-speaking pool in Hong Kong. But Cantonese-speaking teachers will predominate unless more mainland teachers can win jobs in the SAR - a sensitive option that no one is willing to explore. Mr Chan, however, feels Mr Tien's vision is possible as long as the Government puts more resources towards training teachers.