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     FrontPage Edition: Mon 14 October 2002

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Monday with the Editor: Whither literature in our schools?


Hallo again

Another batch of literature students will be sitting for the subject at O level in early December 2002. This year's batch of candidates is expected to be less than a quarter of the cohort of O-level students here. 

Lately, there has been some interest in the dwindling number of literature students. A working group for the Economic Review Committee has suggested that the subject be made compulsory.

That, I think, will not stop the fall either in the number of students taking literature or the overall grades for the subject. The simple reason is that students nowadays are not sufficiently proficient in the English Language. Making the grades for the English Language is already a hurdle for most students here, and literature is generally regarded as a subject that's more difficult to study.

So, if it's entirely up to the students to choose, I am afraid they will rather drop the subject than risk failing it in the examinations. 

There has been talk that literature as a subject has been on the decline since ranking in schools was introduced in 1992 and the statistics appear to support that point.

I wish to differ. I think ranking in schools merely exacerbated the fall in interest in literature among our students. I suggest that our students' interest in literature started waning when the Speak Mandarin Campaign was introduced in Singapore.

In the seventies, Chinese students spoke dialect at home with their parents, relatives and friends. They watched dialect programmes, in Hokkien and Cantonese, on television. At school, they formed bonds with other students through the English Language. Chinese students spoke to other Chinese students in English, as well as in dialect.

As a result, there was a strong grasp of the English Language among those who went to school in the seventies or earlier. Of course, Indian, Malay and Eurasian students then used English as a medium of communication with their Chinese peers. Even now, this remains the case. 

However, the use of Mandarin slowly but surely permeated all levels of society in the eighties with the introduction of the Speak Mandarin Campaign. The popularity of Mandarin has continued right to this day.  

The evidence is all around us today. Parents and grandparents speak to their children in Mandarin. At school, students chatter away in Mandarin both in the classrooms and within the school grounds. Outside school, our students use Mandarin at stalls, shops, fast-food restaurants, on the bus and any other place you can think of.

So our Chinese students now have a better command of the Chinese Language, albeit at a price - the fall in the standard of spoken and written English in schools and at the workplace.

When I first met my wife, I found she spoke only a smattering of English although she was from the English stream. Mandarin would rattle from her tongue. She was ill at ease with the English Language. In the six years since, she has not only picked up better English from me but also become proficient enough in the language to use it to fire away scoldings at me in rapid succession. I was a student of the seventies and she went to school in the eighties - she's 13 years my junior! 

There's a point in me bringing up that story about my wife and me. It is this - to arrest the decline in interest in literature, I think we must first tackle the falling standard of English among our students. Get them to use English more often both in school and outside. Imbue in them a greater interest in English so that they become proficient enough in the subject such that they will not think twice about using English when they are with their friends or their siblings.

It is only when our students have gained confidence in their use of English that we can embark on the task of getting them interested in literature. If they have no fear of English, then, in all likelihood, they will embrace literature with open arms. 

This is a big about-turn. Can it happen? I certainly hope so, for, in the words of Life! arts correspondent ONG Sor Fern writing in The Straits Times of 7 Oct 2002, "literature is the repository of humankind's collective heart and soul. It deepens our understanding of alien cultures; it allows us to recognise that the fears that unite us are more enduring than the misunderstandings and quarrels that divide us."

Yes! We need doctors, engineers and technocrats to sustain our society. But, we also need these chaps to know they are not in it just for that purpose. They are in it because they belong to a group that goes by the name of humankind with the capacity for love, romance and beauty. Literature is love, romance and beauty - in short - life itself.  

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