[Image Source: MOE]
Almost a yearly affair, the existence of Special Assistance Programme (SAP) schools has been questioned, again and again, only to be justified yet again and again. Last year was no different, with the then-Minister of Education having to speak out and re-affirm the goodness and virtues of SAP schools. He spoke of the strategic and economic purpose of the SAP school education, where one would be able to align themselves with rising global powers such as China, while also preserving their cultural identity and cherished values. Unfortunately, looking past these statements would only reveal how this system had entrenched elitism and had even gone further to racialize it. We would have to trace its origins to understand its purpose and then unpack the privileges gifted to the SAP schools, which brings us to the central question: does their continued existence pose more harm than good?
How did SAP begin?
The decline in student registration in the Chinese vernacular schools alarmed Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Prime Minister of Singapore, who was of the opinion that Chinese-stream schools had to be preserved. Interestingly, the objective then had little to do with any convenient strategic alignment with the global powers, but more of the belief of the inherent goodness of ‘traditional Chinese values’. These values were heralded and prized to be of utmost importance to be imparted to the Chinese Singaporean youth. Some of these values were reported to be “courtesy, discipline, respect for authority, social responsibility and awareness of one’s cultural roots”. Another key objective of the SAP education was to promote effective bilingualism too.
Lest anyone forget, there too existed Malay and Tamil vernacular schools. Alas, they have faded into oblivion.
The assumptions here are that this specific set of values is exclusive to the Chinese, and also that the only set of values worth preserving is those belonging to the Chinese. One may argue for the efficacy of SAP schools inculcating bilingualism… but for who exactly? Hence, the SAP assumes an almost sino-centric position that prizes the Chinese culture in Singapore, and not only does it merely push for a deeper appreciation of their culture, this program goes on to further perpetuate elitism too.
Consolidating the elites in SAP
From the start, the aim was to attract top students to the schools registered under SAP. Such incentives would include the concession of two points to SAP school students for their pre-university applications from the year 1981. As a result, the requirement for students to be admitted to the SAP secondary schools would be that they had to be in the top 30% of the PSLE cohort. This ensured the consistent continuity of SAP schools being ranked highly amongst their counterparts.
The outreach of SAP grew with the introduction of the primary schools to be enrolled under the program, known as the “seed schools”. This would also be carried out with the intention of nurturing “traditional Chinese values” which was conveyed through special curricular language learning and values education in these schools. The repeated emphasis on traditional Chinese values persists and only draws attention to the fact that there is a lack of such similar emphasis on “traditional moral values” attributed to other ethnicities in Singapore.
The elitism rooted in SAP schools is by no means an accident. While the above incentives have been purposeful in attracting the top students in Singapore, the schools themselves have disproportionate funding directed by the government.
The aforementioned primary schools were provided special assistance by the Ministry of Education (MOE) in order to be staffed by good bilingual teachers while also having their facilities upgraded. Another example of such exclusive funding would be the establishment of the Bicultural Studies Programme (BSP) which conducts expensive immersion trips to China, and also a task force started in 2007 to implement flagship languages aimed to further enrich Chinese language learning and values in SAP schools. Thus, the continued elitism existing in SAP is not curbed, but rather encouraged institutionally.
A steadily growing insular community
One does not have to look deep to realise the social impact of SAP schools on our multi-racial society in Singapore. The condition of needing to learn Mandarin as your mother tongue in SAP schools ensures the homogeneity of the student populace. It gets worse when you realise the very real possibility of a student going through 12 years of school education in an SAP school, having little to no exposure to other counterparts of different ethnicities. This concern has also been acknowledged by then-Minister of Education, Mr Ong. However, his assurance that programs such as cultural exchange programs amongst schools and multi-cultural workshops will assuage this concern seems superficial at best. These programmes only offer a brief glimpse into a culture of the “other”, one that seems separate from them. It is indeed a shame considering they get deprived of the reality of Singapore’s beautiful and vibrant diversity of people.
It is undeniable that the SAP will be guilty of the widening social divide, and the academic gap between the race of the majority and the rest, which will only continue. One may argue that lowering the barriers to entry to SAP schools will solve the problem, such as allowing students from other races to be able to learn Chinese, or introducing other mother tongues into the curriculum. However, we have to ponder the purpose of such schools in Singapore. Why is the Chinese culture in Singapore taking the center stage when the government very proudly proclaims Singapore as a multi-racial and multi-cultural society? Are some cultures just more equal than others? Maybe it is less radical to abolish SAP schools than to continue forcing a growing divide between Singaporeans today.