Cultural obligation

For years, Singaporeans have been told that they need to be bilingual to take full advantage of a rising China's economic might. Like it or not, Putonghua has been drilled into young heads from an early age, with mixed results.

But in recent weeks, a new word has become all the rage: bicultural, and it is being touted by no less than Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew. It is not enough to be bilingual - that will only get Singaporeans through the front door. Those who want to engage in China's growth must also be bicultural to 'reach deep inside China and work with them'.

In a recent speech, Mr Lee admitted that 40 years of bilingual policy had produced students who appear bilingual, but whose Putonghua is adequate only for 'social, not business purposes'. He has concluded that the average person cannot master two languages, even though they should still strive towards that goal.

The founder of modern Singapore now believes there is a need for schools to nurture 'a few hundred students' from each year who will not only master the language but also the history and culture of China. Coinciding with that speech, the Ministry of Education has indicated that it is working on a 'new Putonghua elite' scheme, as well as the introduction of a voluntary China studies course in junior colleges to cover economic and social issues.

Meanwhile, a review committee studying new approaches to teaching Putonghua is set to issue its recommendations by September.

The relaxation of the bilingual policy has been evident in recent months (as mentioned in this column), and a vast majority of Singaporeans appears to welcome the move, as too many have struggled to get through higher education because of their Putonghua grades.

But can biculturalism be achieved through studies? I am bilingual (French is my mother tongue), but having spent more than 10 years in Britain, and being married to a Briton, there are still nuances in the culture I do not understand (and we are supposed to be from the same European culture).

The reality is that fully grasping a culture requires living, breathing and growing there, being able to relate to the popular culture. This is not something you can learn in a classroom.

To realise Singapore's new vision, authorities would have to send teenagers to school in China. Only then will they probably be able to achieve not only perfect bilingualism, but true biculturalism. But people are not robots, and there is no guarantee that they would then return to Singapore.