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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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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