On Feb 23., Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung delivered a speech in English and Chinese during the 40th Anniversary of the Special Assistance Plan (SAP) at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre.

His speech discussed the continued relevance of the SAP schools after forty years. Ong explained how these schools are part of the diverse education landscape in multi-cultural and multi-racial Singapore

His full speech is translated in English. The Mandarin translation is highlighted in blue.


1. The ancient couplet “风声雨声读书声 声声入耳 / 家事国事天下事 事事关心” challenges students to not only strive for academic excellence, but to also commit to building one’s value and character, family values. They must also remain inspired to contribute and serve the nation when the calling arises. Indeed, such Confucian values certainly ring a bell to everyone here.

中国古代有一幅对联:“风声雨声读书声 声声入耳 / 家事国事天下事 事事关心”,希望读书人除了学业好,还要抱有修身、齐家、治国、平天下的雄心壮志。这样带有儒家色彩的教育目标,各位应该不会陌生。

2. Instead of listening to such teachings in school, I only hear the ringing of the school bells. Coincidentally, it reminded me of the Channel 8 “Tuesday Report” series on “When the Bell Rings”. The TV series, through historical events and interviews, brought us back to the changes and adaptions of SAP schools over the years.


3. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the SAP schools, the organising committee has issued a commemorative book as well as a roving exhibition featuring the unique characteristics and contributions of SAP schools. I hereby encourage everyone to visit the exhibits and read the commemorative book.

Through the recollections of teachers and alumnus, I hope you will rekindle your memories while current students can also learn about the school missions and developments.


4. Our pioneers in education had previously faced hardships and challenges. They persevered  to establish schools. Even now, education is never a piece of cake. The change in environment has brought about new challenges in learning our mother tongue, popularising its cultural heritage.

I urged all schools, teachers to continue to give your best. Your relentless effort and spirit will continue to inspire.



5. 2019 marks the 200 years of history for Singapore but we actually delve further and beyond that. In fact 700 years ago, Singapore welcomed visitors from all over the world. Trading allowed us to learn from each other and we are destined to be diversified and tolerance to all the different cultures.


6. Singapore’s entrepot trading allows our forefathers of all races to settle down in search of better lives. With them, they brought along their diverse cultures and heritages which have been inherited by subsequent generations and also have converged into one unique Singapore identity.

新加坡成为自由港后,不同种族的移民先辈,就带着各自的母族文化,在这里落地生根, 寻求更好的生活。各族文化除了得到传承,也在兼容交汇中,发展出本土的特色,焕发出属于新加坡我们自己的风采。

7. With this historical context in mind, our education policy has a very important role to play. It has to be one that is built on mutual respect, trust and acceptance. Only then, we can communicate freely and co-exist. We also need to acknowledge the fact that every child is different, unique and has different talents. Be it in sports, cultural art, humanities, science or languages, we have to create the space they deserve and allow them to blossom.


8. The Ministry of Education (MOE) aims to preserve the fine heritage of Chinese values and cultures by setting up the SAP schools. We believe SAP schools will attract potential students who are particularly interested in the mother tongue. This will then be more effective in nurturing bilingual students for the nation. Over the years, MOE has been rolling out Malay and Tamil as special elective programmes. This initiative encourages more participation from schools and has benefited more students. In essence, schools and MOE will remain committed as long as we are interested in our mother tongue.



9. After 40 years, what are the future directions of SAP schools?


10. In 2017, under the guidance of ex-director-general of education, Ho Peng, all 26 SAP schools worked together and crafted the new strategic blueprint.


11. As times go by, all of us are aware that there is a need for SAP to evolve. The team has decided on the three broad directions:
First, Impart the right values and inherit our heritage as well as to cultivate bilingual talents.
Second, Develop a greater appreciation of our cultural diversity so as to achieve racial harmony, social stability and a sense of belonging.
Third, Global foresights. Understand the regional scene and to prepare oneself for the emergence of Asian countries such as China.


12. Bilingual talents are widely soughed after. Profound understanding of one or more languages and cultures opens up many doors and new opportunities. Our neighbouring countries have realised the advantages that languages bring and they are now encouraging learning of a 2nd or 3rd language.


13. This is the big trend and we have to accomplish this mission via our SAP schools and their language elective programmes. It ensures our heritage and cultures are preserved and being bilingual gave us the advantage over others. Language and culture are important assets that we have to pass down to future generations. Let’s place emphasis on our learning the right values, cultures and traditions. Only then we will have more confidence in facing the future.


14. Allow me to use English to continue.


Origins of SAP schools

15. In the early years of our independence, we established English as the common working language in multi-cultural Singapore. English has also been the global language of commerce and trade. Hence, in the 1970’s and 80’s, parents sent their children to English schools in droves. Enrolment for Chinese medium schools fell, and over time, the Government closed many of them.

16. For many members of the Chinese community, this was a deeply personal and emotional loss. I witnessed this first-hand because my mother was a Chinese teacher.

17. Recognising this and the value of preserving the ethos of Chinese medium schools, the Government established SAP schools in 1979. SAP schools were to uphold the traditional Chinese school cultural environment, and promote the learning of Chinese language and culture.

The historical context of SAP schools

18. We need to view SAP schools and chart their future from this historical context. 2019 is our bicentennial year, and it puts many Singaporeans in a reflective mood. If we pause and look around the country, we will be amazed at how far we have come as a society.

19. We celebrate the festivals of all ethnic groups; observe the major religious holidays of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians. Our city is festooned with churches, temples, mosques and even synagogues, sometimes situated next to each other. We have four official languages. People of all races live within each HDB precinct.

20. Education in Singapore reflects this multiplicity too. Our bilingual policy ensures that while Singaporeans use English as a common working language, we will continue to learn our respective Mother Tongues. Government schools, clan-based and church-based Government-Aided schools, SAP schools, Madrasahs, all co-exist in this education landscape.

21. The Umar Pulavar Language Centre – the first Tamil high school in Southeast Asia – specialises in the teaching of Tamil language and literature. EMAS (Elective Malay Language Programme for Secondary School) helps develop students with a deep interest in the Malay language and culture. The Bicultural Studies Programme encourages students to learn more about Chinese culture and contemporary society by offering Higher Chinese and China Studies and provides enrichment and overseas immersion programmes.

22. We also promote the learning of a third language from another race, at a conversational level. Today, about 25,000 students are enrolled in this conversational language programme.

23. At the same time, we see a common Singaporean identity gradually developing – in the language we use, the food we eat, the shared experiences over 53 years, and the common ethos we display as a people. That is why we don’t describe Singapore as a melting pot, but a tapestry, because there is synergy and co-existence between the individual parts and the whole, between the identity of every ethnic community and the Singapore identity.

24. This is the case because we did not choose the path of ideological extremes – insisting that everyone is Singaporean and nothing else, or allowing every community to fully assert their cultural identities, leaving no common space for a Singaporean identity to grow in our young nation.

25. Here, every community that makes up our society can practise their culture, language and religion. At the same time, each community takes a step back and exercises restraint, to ensure a healthy common space for Singaporeans of all backgrounds to mingle and integrate.

26. This wise balance, and deeply ingrained attitude, has been holding Singapore society together. We need to understand that SAP schools are a result of this balancing act.

Relevance for the future

27. It’s been 40 years since we set up SAP schools, and the environment we live in has evolved further.

First, the use of English is even more common today. The percentage of families which communicate using Mother Tongue is falling, although bilingual, bi-literate families are growing.

Second, many young Singaporeans are less conscious of their ethnic identity, and feel more proud to be Singaporeans.

Third, there are many other non-school based, specialised programmes to promote Mother Tongue learning, such as the Bicultural Studies Programme, and the Language Elective Programmes for Chinese, Malay and Tamil.

28. These developments have led some to question the relevance of SAP schools. Some SAP school students lament the lack of opportunities to make friends with students from other communities. But should we therefore make a drastic change to the SAP school system? Let’s consider other factors at play.

First, Asia is now the fastest growing region in the world. China has become our largest trading partner, and continues to develop; Indonesia and Malaysia are our immediate hinterland and offer tremendous opportunities; India is the fastest growing developing country in the world.

Second, countries all around us are stepping up the learning of multiple languages. Today, it is common to meet PRC Chinese, Japanese or Koreans who speak fluent English, as it is common to meet Europeans, Americans or Australians who speak some Chinese. Bilingualism has been a unique advantage Singaporeans have, but other countries are catching up, even surpassing us.

Third, our nation-building journey is far from over. A nation’s identity takes centuries to develop and mature, and it has to draw from the cultural richness of individual communities. The balancing act I talked about earlier, continues to be very relevant to a young nation like Singapore.

29. Given the larger trends, the learning of language and culture has become more important than ever. The right thing to do is to preserve the programmes and institutions that promote the learning of our Mother Tongues, and improve them where we can. We should be very careful not to undo any of these efforts, as that would be bucking the strategic trend at a time when it matters most.

30. Indeed, our programmes should seek to endow students with a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of our region, cultural heritage and languages. That is what will give us a distinct and lasting identity, competiveness, capability and confidence as a people.

31. Take for example the Chinese, Malay and Tamil Language Elective Programmes at the post-secondary level. Schools such as Nanyang Junior College have run them well and made it its distinctive offering. We should review the programmes with a view to enhancing and improving them, across all our Mother Tongues.

32. At the Institutes of Higher Learning, we are enhancing the opportunities for more student exchanges and overseas internship programmes, especially to ASEAN countries, China and India. This goes beyond learning languages and cultures, to immersing students in them.

33. Likewise, we should preserve SAP schools, which are uniquely positioned to immerse students in an environment rich in Chinese culture and language. But it is increasingly challenging to run a SAP school, because more students are coming from English speaking families and English has become the commonly spoken language of the school.

34. When I met the SAP school principals last week, they told me they were making a renewed effort to make Chinese a living language in school. For example, assemblies are conducted in Chinese on certain days of the week. Principals and teachers will address the students in Chinese, and students have to make speeches and reports in Chinese.

35. Such a whole-of-school, immersive approach is still the best way to learn any language and culture. We have to do it whole-heartedly, in an educationally-sound way. The immersive approach is the reason many parents from English speaking families send their children to SAP schools, to improve their Chinese.

36. Given Singapore’s language environment today, it will be an uphill task to make all our students effectively bilingual and bicultural. But with SAP schools, we will have a good chance to develop a core group in every cohort, with an intuitive understanding of Chinese culture, history and thinking, and with standards of Chinese close to those in China, Taiwan or Hong Kong.

Making friends from all backgrounds

37. The key area where SAP schools need to improve in the coming years, is to expand and deepen opportunities for students to make friends from other communities. We must never take for granted the societal harmony we enjoy, and must sow the seeds of mutual understanding from young. In my dialogue with SAP school principals, they appreciated and supported this, and indeed identified this as one of the major tasks for SAP schools.

38. Today, SAP schools have good initiatives to promote inter-cultural learning. For example, Hong Wen School (a SAP school), Alexandra Primary and Radin Mas Primary jointly conduct art programmes and celebrate Racial Harmony Day together. Nanyang Girls works with Madrasah Aljunied to jointly organise activities during festive seasons and national events.

39. Most of the SAP schools are also running conversational Malay programmes. Some are doing very well. Poi Ching School, for example, enrolls about 1,000 students every year in the programme. Chung Cheng High has doubled its programme intake from 350 to 700 a year, over the past three years.

40. There is definitely room to do better. Because the objective is not just getting students to interact occasionally with students of other races, but having the experience of growing up with friends from all ethnic backgrounds, developing mutual trust, understanding our multi-cultural society, and appreciating the adjustments that we sometimes have to make to maintain our social harmony and social cohesion.

41. The SAP schools will need to make a special effort to give their students this broader perspective. And we can already see that happening. Schools located in Boon Lay, including River Valley High, work together to involve students in social services in the community as an on-going and regular effort. A few SAP schools are also combining with other schools for their Cohort Outdoor Learning camps. So, after spending a few days learning together, they get to know each other very well.

42. Senior Parliamentary Secretary Faishal Ibrahim attended the Fiesta Bahasa event a couple of years ago. The participants were from Hwa Chong, as well as Malay students from various schools. He saw the students interacting and engaging well with each other. A few of the Hwa Chong students were interviewed on Berita@Suria, and they spoke fluent and good Malay. A few Malay literati told Faishal that they were impressed with the ability and confidence of the Hwa Chong students in the Malay language. These students displayed the determination, to know their own language and culture deeply, while making a great effort to also understand multi-cultural Singapore.

The way ahead

43. In 2017, the principals of all SAP schools, under the leadership of former Director General of Education Ms Ho Peng, got together to chart the way forward for SAP schools. They concluded that SAP schools remain relevant, and will need to focus on the following in the coming years. First, preserveg their culture and ethos; second, contribute towards a multi-cultural Singapore; and third, broaden their horizons and prepare students for a changing world and region.

44. MOE supports their recommendations. Our domestic and external circumstances are changing. More than ever, we need to make wise decisions, to make sure that the Singapore spirit continues to flourish and grow, our people have the life skills to excel in this environment, and we stay cohesive and united as a society.

45. It is critical that we succeed in the three objectives set out by the leaders of the SAP schools. We can do more and better on all three fronts, in substantive, meaningful and effective ways. The objectives are not inherently contradictory. The challenge is to find practical ways of achieving them. I am confident that SAP schools will succeed, and will make an immense contribution in this forward march of Singapore.

46. I will now conclude my speech in Mandarin.

总结 Conclusion

47. We have many seniors with us today and of them some are ex-principals or teachers. They have inherited the chinese schools values and have built up the SAP schools with this unique heritage. They have dedicated all their life in the SAP school building and I thank them from the bottom of my heart.


48. I am an SAP alumnus. I graduated from Maris Stella High School, which has deeply influenced my character, values and perception. Of course, times has changed and students now behave differently, affecting their attitude towards Chinese culture and tradition. Cultural and heritage inheritance is a daunting task. Yet we must and we will pass this on.


49. I started my speech with a couplet and I would also like to end off with one.


四十年 沐雨栉风 特选 传薪火
千秋业 劈波斩浪 兼程 再启航

40 years of the SAP inheritance.

May it continue to evolve, overcome, so that it will last for many generations.

50. Let’s not be fearful of the storm ahead and let’s work hard together.  Thank you.