IN MANY ways, the bilingualism debate raised in Parliament and the media last week was remarkably courageous. Instead of pussyfooting around a touchy cultural issue, the discussion acknowledged, in a timely and clear- eyed manner, the need for dramatic reform in the way that Chinese and the mother tongue languages are taught today.
Significantly, the proposed changes to the Chinese curriculum step away from prescriptive measures, in effect allowing the market to decide the trend of mother tongue education for the next generation of Singaporeans.
Proposed changes will place an unprecedented level of choice, and attendant responsibility, in the hands of parents. They will be able to choose the best mix of language teaching for their children, based on their own assessments of cultural, eco- nomic and family priorities.
Then again, it implies that society will have to live with the consequences of their choices, for better or worse, should there be a shift in the relative value of languages down the road. The implicit trust in families to do the right thing for themselves is a refreshing step forward.
The recognition that a language and its attendant cultural values cannot be artificially force-fed to a generation is deeply empowering. It frees the language to realise social value, economic worth and cultural dignity on its own terms.
That there is much value to be gleaned from the mother tongue languages in the 21st century is evident - from the rise of China and India as economic powers to the burgeoning influence of Asia in fashion, cuisine, music and film.
With 92 per cent of English-speaking Chinese households indicating that learning the mother tongue is important, it is unlikely that demand for language learning will decline to levels of dangerous neglect. Indeed, with the pro- mise of more flexible, relevant and innovative teaching methods to come, it is possible that the public will expect mother tongue standards to rise significantly - in terms of both practical fluency and average examination grades.
Parents may now be entitled to expect their children to be freshly enthused by contemporary mother tongue studies, not saddled with a staid curriculum and rote learning. If the new curriculum works, it will do away at last with the incongruity and inefficiency of cohort after cohort of students having to undergo private tuition just to scrape through their mother-tongue exams.
With changes to the bilingual education system in the works, it is time also to review the Speak Mandarin campaign, now in its 25th year.
Launched in 1979, its initial mission was to get Chinese Singaporeans to use Mandarin rather than their native dialects. As the influence of dialects fell away over time, the campaign was realigned in the 1990s to get English-educated Chinese Singaporeans to master speaking Mandarin. A rising China is the most commonly used rationale in the campaign's advertisements.
Indeed, why bring ethnicity into the picture? If economic realities truly demand it, everyone with an interest and ability, not just Chinese Singaporeans, should and would want to pick up the language - at least, enough to do business with.
One of the best non-native Mandarin speakers I know is an American who settled in Taipei years ago as an adult. Although he started out teaching English to local businessmen, he found he had to pick up the language just to get by. Today, he is making headway into China with his educational publishing business.
His primary edge over competitors: The ability to relate his English-language material to the local Chinese context, and vice-versa.
Educational policy is already leaning towards this more inclusive stance. Since September this year, students have been allowed to study a non-native mother tongue as a third language.
Some, such as bilingual doctoral candidate Gui Wei Hsin, now at Brown University, would now like to see a more general 'Speak Another Language' campaign displace the Speak Mandarin campaign.
Resources, opportunities and encouragement would then be given to all wanting to learn another of our official languages, regardless of ethnicity.
Proponents see it as one way of diffusing the perceived dominance of Chinese over other mother tongues in public discourse. But there could be more in it for us, if we reposition ourselves as a unique and vibrant language hub instead.
The opportunity to learn the major Asian tongues is very much in demand globally, as is the hunger in Asian countries to pick up English. It is a market in which Singapore could have a natural edge, given our highly regarded education standards and natively multilingual credentials.
For instance, Singapore would be a great place for non-native speakers - particularly speakers of English - to begin learning Chinese. We have the infrastructure and sympathetic teachers; we know where the pitfalls are and how to overcome them.
The same could apply for all our mother tongues - each of which is a major language in its own right, enjoying a significant economic sphere of influence in the wider region.
If educational reforms indeed succeed in making the learning of our major Asian languages a vital, accessible and rewarding process, we could have a promising new industry on our hands.
And if we see that even foreigners are flocking to learn about our languages and cultures, might we not value them more ourselves?