kitchen table math, the sequel: Singapore stuff

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Singapore stuff

I checked back with the Singapore report. (pdf file)

Founded as a British trading colony in 1819, Singapore joined Malaysia in 1963 but withdrew two years later and became an independent city-state. Its resident population is about 4.1 million, slightly larger than Los Angeles or Chicago. Singapore is a multiracial, multireligious, multilingual urban society. The largest ethnic group is Chinese (77 percent), followed by Malay (14 percent) and Indian (8 percent). In 1970, Singapore’s per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was about $300. By 2000, its per capita income was about $25,000, one of the highest in the world. Singapore’s economic growth is described “as a modern miracle because it has built its success on only one resource, its people” (MariMari, 2003). Singapore’s emphasis on education is seen as a major reason for its economic success.


Singapore has a highly centralized education system controlled and coordinated by its Ministry of Education. The Ministry has implemented a national curriculum, developed a syllabus that guides instruction in all required subjects in all schools, and instituted uniform high-stakes assessments at the critical end of both primary and secondary school. Singapore’s education system (see Exhibit 2–2) consists of six years of primary education and four or five years of secondary education (Ministry of Education, Singapore, 2003). At the primary level, pupils undertake a fouryear foundation stage in primary grades 1–4, followed by a two-year orientation stage in primary grades 5 and 6. Singapore and the United States have a similar age-grade correspondence in the primary grades; fourth graders are typically nine years old. The emphasis during the foundation stage is on basic literacy and numeracy. Eighty percent of the curriculum time is used for instruction in English, the student’s mother tongue (Chinese, Malay, or Tamil), and mathematics. Science is not taught until primary grade 3.


At the end of primary grade 6, pupils take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), which assesses their abilities for placement in a secondary school program that suits their “learning, pace, abilities, and inclinations” (Ministry of Education, Singapore, 2000a). Pupils are then admitted to the special, express, or normal stream for four years of secondary education. Students in the express and special streams, which have a high-level language curriculum, complete a college preparatory course and take the rigorous Joint Cambridge University (England) and Singapore O level college entrance examination at the end of their fourth year. Students in the normal stream complete a less rigorous curriculum and take the Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education Normal (N-level) examination. Somewhat more than three-quarters of all secondary students take the O-level exam and the remaining students take the N-level exam (Ministry of Education, Singapore, 2003a).

Throughout primary and secondary school, student advancement is tied to performance. A Ministry of Education’s mission statement makes this clear:

Every child must be encouraged to progress through the education system as far as his ability allows. Advancement must always depend on performance and merit to ensure equal opportunity for all. (Ministry of Education, Singapore, 2003b)

Singapore also recognizes that not all children proceed at a rapid academic pace and that some children require special assistance:

Every child should be taught at a pace he can cope with. Each should be stimulated to excel according to his individual aptitudes. The system must be flexible, to cope with pupils who mature mentally, physically, emotionally and socially at different rates. (Ministry of Education, Singapore, 2003b)

In practice, this approach means that Singapore relies on early high-stakes testing, but it also holds teachers responsible for the success of all children and ensures that teachers devote more attention, rather than less, to students with greater academic needs.


ethnic groups in Singapore

Some believe that Singapore is successful because it educates a comparatively homogeneous population that is unlike the multiethnic U.S. population. It is true that Singapore’s student population is not as diverse as the U.S. student population, but to characterize Singapore as homogeneous is misleading. Singapore has three major ethnic groups. About three-fourths of Singapore’s population is Chinese, but almost a quarter is Malay or Indian. Like the United States, Singapore experienced serious ethnic strife in the 1960s. Singapore accommodates its heterogeneous population by practicing principles of multiracialism and meritocracy. It practices true bilingualism in grades 1 through 3 when, although English is the primary language of instruction, children from each major ethnic group also study their home languages. Singapore does remarkably well academically even though many students are receiving instruction primarily in a language other than what they speak at home, something at which the United States has been less successful.

Singapore’s 1999 TIMSS scores confirm that its minority students do well. Singapore broke out the 1999 TIMSS scores for its Malay and Chinese populations (Ministry of Education Singapore, 2000b). Although 96 percent of Chinese students performed better than the international eighth-grade mathematics average, Malaysian Singaporeans also did very well, with 83 percent scoring above the international average. Scores for Singapore’s Indian minority population were not available, but typically, students of Indian background outperform their Malaysian peers by a small margin. By comparison, in the United States, half of black eighth-grade students achieved no better than the bottom quarter of all international test takers (NCES, 2000).

tracking in Singapore

Beginning in grades 5 and 6, Singapore identifies its weaker students on the basis of a general examination of mathematics and language competency. These students receive special assistance and are taught according to a special fifth- and sixth-grade mathematics framework. This special framework mandates that students in the slower track

  • receive approximately 30 percent more mathematics instruction than students in the regular track, and
  • be exposed to the same mathematical content as students in the regular track, although at a slower pace.

The mathematics framework for students needing compensatory assistance adds review material to strengthen students’ understanding of previously taught content. For example, topics on numbers and geometry taught in grade 4 are repeated at a faster pace in grade 5. The introduction of some new concepts such as ratios, rates, and averages, which are normally introduced in grade 5, are delayed until grade 6 for the weaker students (Ministry of Education, 2001a). What is important, however, is that because slower students spend extra time studying mathematics, topics usually taught in grades 5 and 6 do not have to be completely sacrificed to make room for repetition.6

To support the framework for slower students, Singapore has developed a Learning Support Program to help educators identify these students and provide them with extra help (Ministry of Education 2003c). Mathematics Support Teachers (MST), who receive on-the-job supervision and specialized training to ensure that they are professionally competent, deliver compensatory assistance.

In the United States, we expect all students to meet the standards in state frameworks, but the standards do not help teachers address the needs of slower students. In fact, U.S. standards do not acknowledge that students learn at different rates. No Child Left Behind addresses the needs of failing schools, but it does not directly require that failing students receive help. Although some research evidence supports the belief that students benefit when the curriculum is adjusted to match their ability levels (Loveless, 1999), a distinct alternative curriculum would raise concerns in the United States about potential harm to students from ability grouping. Singapore’s approach differs from traditional ability grouping in that Singapore establishes a framework that requires students to master the same content as other students, not a watered-down curriculum as often happens in U.S. ability-grouped classrooms. Singapore also provides extra assistance from an expert teacher.

Singapore in a nutshell

  • 3 ethnic groups complete with ethnic strife in the 60s: Chinese (77 percent), followed by Malay (14 percent) and Indian (8 percent)
  • during grades 1-3 children are taught school subjects in English and also study their native language
  • minority students there do far better than minority students here (96% of Chinese students perform better than 8th grade international average compared to 83% of Malay students)
  • 10 or 11 years of schooling all told, compared to our 13 in K-12
  • 3 tracks in secondary school, which begins at the end of grade 6 (special, express, or normal)
  • slower students in secondary school receive 30% more math instruction from specially trained teachers & learn the same curriculum fast students learn but at a slower pace


from Independent George:

Actually, the language difficulties go far beyond that.

About 80% of the population is ethnically Chinese, but are split between native speakers of Mandarin, Hokkein, and Cantonese. Another 15% are Malay, and the rest are mostly Indian. Furthermore, the Malay population has been historically poorer and less educated than the Chinese population, and the Indians were largely an immigrant laboring class.

Essentially, Singapore is a big, ethnically mixed city with a long, often bloody history of class & ethnic divisions. So, of course, it's completely unfair to make a comparison to, say, New York or Los Angeles.


Independent George said...

Ha! I just made a similar point in the comments to the other post...

Catherine Johnson said...

yup - you inspired me!

IG - do you want to join so you can make posts???

I need your email if so!

Exo said...

Centralized system? Interesting.
One huge advantage over American system (and Soviet, too) - slower students - slower pace. But still - same curriculum. We have special ed here, there was no such thing at all in USSR... Should Us benefit? Looks like yes, but - no. Special Ed is babied... Instead of teaching them curriculum at slower pace, frustrated teachers do watever just to keep them buzy. Funny, we have a Quality Review people at our school now... And I saw my AP changing the number of Spec. Ed. and minority students who took ELA to fit the percentage of passing...

Catherine Johnson said...

Instead of teaching them curriculum at slower pace, frustrated teachers do watever just to keep them buzy.

It's a scandal.

It really is.

We basically just assume slower kids can't learn (much), rather than assuming they can learn but it will take longer.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hence differentiated "instruction"

Which really means differentiated curriculum

Independent George said...

Catherine - I'd love to join; I'll send an email to your verizon address from my gmail account later tonight. I'm afraid I'm really much better at making smart-alecky cracks from the back of the classroom than at saying anything useful.

I must admit that I tend to get a little prickly regarding Singapore. I've no connection to the place whatsoever, but I am part of the Chinese diaspora (born in NYC), and tend to get a bit miffed with a lot of the commentary on Asian education. It might be my imagination, but I always perceived a mildly racist subtext to it ("sure them Japs can make cars & computers, but can they make The OC?"). I actually once nearly engaged in fisticuffs* over the movie, 'Spellbound'.

*if one were to define fisticuffs as 'wrinkling one's face in an expression of exhasperation', but those are but minor details.

Catherine Johnson said...

I am part of the Chinese diaspora (born in NYC), and tend to get a bit miffed with a lot of the commentary on Asian education. It might be my imagination, but I always perceived a mildly racist subtext to it ("sure them Japs can make cars & computers, but can they make The OC?")


Catherine Johnson said...

'wrinkling one's face in an expression of exhasperation

Well, there's wrinkling and there's wrinkling.

I apparently have a look of impatience and irritation that is so unpleasant I've had to walk around with a bag over my head.

Which reminds me.

My friend Deb used to say that the thing she hated most about aging was that little furrow that develops between your eyebrows, the one that gives you a permanent "What do want now?" look on your face.

Tracy W said...

("sure them Japs can make cars & computers, but can they make The OC?").

Certainly no one who has any knowledge of Japanese culture can believe it to lack creativity. See for example "Spirited Away".

Independent George said...

Tracy - and yet, that's precisely what's implied by so many of the constructivists.

Not to mention the fact that building a Toyota involves just a bit of creativity. I mean, we're only talking about trying to force the laws of physics to serve your bidding, right?

Barry Garelick said...

Singapore’s students were not always number 1 in the world in math. Its current math program was designed in 1992. Prior to that, the program used was one developed in 1981 that was focused primarily on content and computation, but not so much on problem solving. The economic situation of Singapore along with Singapore’s performance on an international math and science tests called SISS, given in 1983 led to the development of the new math series. In the SISS exam Singapore came in 16th among the other countries.
Prior to the 70’s, the education system had suffered from overcrowded schools—classes with 60 students were no uncommon and many schools used to run in 2 to 3 shifts. Teachers were not paid well, and there was a serious shortage of qualified math teachers. One key in building the labor workforce—one of the only natural resources Singapore offers—was to build a better education system. The education system was revamped in the 70’s, providing benefits for in-service and pre-service teachers and requiring that all classes be taught in English. Now many teachers are university graduates, and many math teachers in grades 7 through 12 are math majors. The change in the mathematics curriculum, brought about because of performance on SISS, was also a part of this overall change.

And I agree that the "Asian culture" argument has racist components to it. "Of course the Asian's do better; their kids have to do well or they're beaten." That type of thing. It's too easy an excuse/argument. People think that Asian success in math is SOLELY due to more emphasis on
studying, homework, getting good grades, as a function of homelife.
While this is true, that's only part of the picture. You can say the same thing about many US families including mine and those on this list. We care
about the education our kids get. That's why we teach our kids
math ourselves. Or pay for Sylvan, etc.

The difference in the Asian cultures is that "culture" includes more than home life. It includes the government and the policies thereof. Therefore, education is so important, that the govt will ensure that the
educational infrastructure is there to implement what the families desire. Teachers are trained properly, and top teachers are hired. Teachers are expected to know the math they teach.

In the US, families can complain till they turn blue. School boards
turn a deaf ear, and education schools continue to believe that they know what is best. The successes that come from homeschooling and outside tutoring like Sylvan are then appropriated by the education establishment as evidence that their policies are working.

le radical galoisien said...

I'm not sure it's about the centralisation. As an cross-migrant between the US and Singapore, I have come to admire states' rights.

It was the autonomy of a small town in New England in fact, that I am glad of today. Their special education program was exceptional, which had given me such a good impression of special education that your comment alerts me to the fact that it might be a problem in other parts of the US.

I don't know what the Department of Education is doing and I think it's a massive waste of bureaucracy (an entire government department staffed with thousands of people, but people that don't actually teach or do anything constructive). Recent attempts to centralise the US education system (or at least enforce federal government control over it), with No Child Left Behind and so forth, seem abysmal failures.

Besides, Singapore is a city-state. As a city, naturally it's highly centralised. We can for example, gear our education system to whatever the next biggest hype is (in the 1960s it was light industry, in the 1980s it was skills upgrading to compete with the other developing economies, in the 1990s it was IT, and now it's biomedical research), which can be a bad thing sometimes but would be advantageous in the hands of a more liberal government.

Of course, I credit the government for our success, but sometimes the government takes too much credit for the work that is actually ours, that of the citizens, the hard sweat and toil of the people. The government goes, "look! We did such a good job! That is the nature of stable government! You should elect us for the umpteenth consecutive term!" (it has been ruling since 1959 and has even undergone an ideological shift from left-of-center to well into the right). Give credit where credit is due, but I don't think it is well-advised to credit all of it to having a magnificent government where it can control all the strings of education.

In fact, even in the city-state, I think there is not enough local control (e.g. among the sub-towns of 50,000 or so each). Everything is either decided in the national Parliament -- one legislative body for 4.5 million, or the people hired by Parliament, or the party in power by ruling Parliament, which is why I now scoff at the idea that our success is due to merely having a stable government that has been ruling since forever. I am so voting for the Opposition 2011. I hope. See, even here they put the voting age at 21, and if voter registration is before my birthday, I won't be voting for yet another 10 years.

Credit the architects of the system hired by the government. But we would have done the same thing under a different government.

le radical galoisien said...

What is our "secret"? After all this reflection over the years, I realise it is actually pretty hard to pin down, especially rethinking about it as I read this blog.

Perhaps the whole "investment" mindset could be it, since I can't pin our success down to anything concrete. It is a known observation that those developing countries following WWII with natural resources are still poor today because they squandered their funds and some of them are now deeply in debt. Those countries with little natural resources were in such desperate situations that they did not squander their funds and therefore invested in lines of development that served them well. If you dropped out of school, you really couldn't do anything useful, since of course everyone would have wanted a service job that would be in relatively low supply in a newly-independent developing country with little natural resources. Hence, you must do well or else you can't succeed.

It's not an Asian thing. I am not sure if it is a cliche, but watching October Sky reminds me of it. In the US, if you drop out of school you can always go work in a mine or something (depending on your state). Whereas the "Asian Tigers" we recognise today happen to be countries with little natural resources, and Japan has nearly half the population of the US but roughly 1/20 the land mass, and was devastated after WWII.

In the US, the casual attitude of the guidance counselors when creating your schedule bothers me. You have to remind them that you don't want to take a mere college-prep class and that you're capable of Honors/AP, and they seem to toss in study halls with a disturbing triviality, seemingly unaware that they're wasting a slot. When you protest, THEN they seem to wake up by responding, "but you already have X honors/AP classes!" Coming back from Singapore to the US, I knew something was too easy about my school day -- I was having more than enough free periods than was healthy for me. At first I thought, "wow! American education is so easy!" but now I look back, pitying all the slots I wasted for classes I want to take now but have no room for. As a Singaporean, perhaps I was too used to having the system decide my class schedule for me, and this year, I had to override my guidance counselor's every decision.

Some clarifications. First, do not believe all the MOE propaganda. Our system needs reform, especially to reduce or restructure streaming, not increase it, and among several other things for which I support the Opposition. The streaming is not responsible for our oh-so-great mathematics programme. Recently they replaced the EM3 programme (2005/2006), so quoting from a 2001 or 2003 report seems odd. The EM3 stream or the "slower" stream is heavily stigmatised in Singaporean culture, probably enough that EM3 was replaced (I have not been back since though I plan to be, to check if it was a replacement in name only).

What peeves me is that yes, people have different learning paces, but they act like if you do not do maths with excellence, then you are condemned to vocational fields or road-sweeping (classic cultural cliche, even though it's not quite so true, even in Singapore) and stuff like that. Of course, during the 1980s/1990s they tried to restructure the system to compensate for the bias towards the Sciences but not the Humanities, but if you get cast into the EM3 stream or some equivalent, they don't do anything to ensure that you can get an equivalently superior education, just something that would accomodate your slower skills in maths.

I am in part resentful of those streams and programmes which are only eligible for the top 10% or are promoted only for the top 10%, even though I think 80% would be capable and would benefit from the education.

I remember that shortly after I had finished the book which gave me a fresh perspective to mathematics (previously I had thought mathematics a necessary but a dull evil) -- Fermat's Last Theorem, by Simon Singh, during secondary two (grade 8.5 to 9.5 for a US equivalent), I was surprised to find it was a GEP (Gifted Education Programme) book. Perhaps the school librarian had not realised I was not in the GEP, but I was quite disturbed why this book would be promoted to GEP students only, and not say, the rest of the student population like it should. (It gave me a fresh perspective because Singapore secondary education [lower, at least] expounds little on the nature of proofs, or axioms, or that theorem which I have since forgotten the name of that states you can't construct a system based on a set of statements that prove themselves, i.e. you can't have a circular system of proofs.)

le radical galoisien said...

And the others:

There are more than 3 tracks, although those would probably be the most populous ones. There is the GEP, or should I say there was (it was there before I left Dec 2004), as it has been merged into the Integrated Programme stream, which includes students taking the International Baccalaureate (at ACSI) or other "top schools" at Hwa Chong Institution, Nanyang Girls', etc. which have a through-train programme (skip the O-levels and do the A-levels -- normally people take the O-levels, enroll in JC then take the A-levels after JC).

A rough guess, haven't checked the Singapore Board of Statistics for a while, but the "tracking" system roughly goes like this:

5% -- Normal (Technical) -- you plan to go into the ITE and learn technical trades

20% -- Normal (Academic) [take a five-year secondary course, if you do well in N-levels, you take the O-levels afterwards -- still have a chance of pursuing JC, poly or university)

65% -- Express Stream: the standard.

9% -- Special: the main distinguishing characteristic, aside from the prestige, is that you take "higher mother tongue". More about this irony later. And also you were in the top 10% for your PSLE, etc. etc.

1% -- IP stream

What they call "mother tongue" should be distinguished from "native tongue". Like all academic jingo, the term becomes inevitably divorced from its true meaning. Just like "Normal" stream or "Express". My mother tells me they used the term "Normal" to make the "inferior" students feel better. (I do not hold the view that they are inferior, but one suspects the government holds it.) The other way is that the Normal stream used to be the normal stream, but of course, no one wants to be mediocre, and everyone aimed for the Express Stream. At my school, AP is called "the new Honors" because Honors level has become the default for any average respectable student. Perhaps this is a universal phenomenon. (Interestingly, compare the "Normal Polytechnics" of France, which enjoy the status of being one of the top Grandes Ecoles, and as such you get seemingly self-contradictory names like "Superior Normal School" or something to that effect).

Anyway, the government likes to say that our native language is English, but this is a half-truth. The situation is a tad complex. It's really funny, because English is known as our "first language" but our MTs are known as our "second languages". Then if you take French, German, Japanese, etc. they are known as your "third languages". But then last year the government complained that we didn't have enough native speaker teachers of English (read: they do not have an American/British accent and/or they are not of Caucasian race). It's funny how some bum teacher from England gets preferred over a local who really knows the language because it's perceived that if you are of the same race from which the language originated, you're perceived as being better in teaching it.

The situation is quite complex to clarify in a single comment. But basically, do not take the MOE propaganda at face value. There is more than meets the eye. They are not lying, but they're just trying to push for good PR.

Some of my particular concerns are noted in this blog post of mine, in particular, the hegemony of Mandarin as the mother tongue of Chinese students.

In the past, after independence, English was not most people's native languages. Lee Kuan Yew wanted to promote widespread English fluency so we could have an advantage in business. And so, people's original languages, their "mother tongues", were eventually to be taught as a second priority, a "second language".

For the upper class, standard English eventually became the real native language for them by the time this new generation of schoolchildren (my parents, and people slightly younger than them) emerged into the workforce (in force, shall I say). It is truly their first language. You notice that our government ministers and members of parliament have little traces of Singaporean accents in their speech and are nearly totally hostile to Singlish, because I suspect they don't even know the national dialect.

For the rest of Singapore, most know Singlish to a conversational degree. Most have a Singlish accent, and many (most?) have the ability to code-switch out of this accent when speaking to foreigners however.

It is also important to note that generation as well as class matters. My mother for example, is highly fluent in English, and I suspect she was taught it from very young, but she makes mistakes from time to time (and as she gets older and gets more lazy in her language, pops up more and more), such as omitting required plurals (two milkshake) and dropping some ending consonants, generally when they arrive by number inflection. This occasionally mortifies me here. (it wouldn't in Singapore; many people's senses of standard English are worse.) Thus, it is difficult to say whether English is a true native language for her. She speaks Chinese without error, so I'd say Chinese is her true native language, with English close behind.

For those in the neighbourhood schools, many of them make so many errors in standard English that I think English is an artificial native language for them. Perhaps, their skill level is slightly below my mother's. BUT, they can communicate with very good fluency -- it doesn't mar comprehension, it's just annoying. But note that such straying fluency is typical of even the Singaporean upper middle class -- only that they are in the middle-aged generation. Hence, standards have drastically improved between generations of schooling.

For the mid-level school age children and up, English fluency is better to the extent that there is not much difference between my mid-level primary school (Fairfield) and a top secondary school like ACSI. (Yay for good PSLE results! I went in by appeal too.) All rules of grammar are nearly always followed, save for the occasional oversight which is not rampant. It is definitely their native language.

But to complicate matters, we have Singlish, a creole-pidgin with an English base, full of Chinese-style pro-drop, pro-particle grammar, and rich in Malay and Indian vocabulary.

Nearly all of the population can converse in the creole, save perhaps the people at the very top -- the government. It is arguably the second native tongue and the real unofficial first language besides standard English. Because there is a spectrum between standard English and Singlish, the line can be rather blurry, and this complicates matters of "nativity".

For me, Singlish is arguably my real native language. I can speak like an ang mor (white person) only because at the age of five, I moved to New England. Then I moved back to Singapore at the age of 10. Then I moved back here again at the age of 14. I forgot Chinese, so in Singapore when I went back, I had to replace my second language with a third language (French), something which also made me ineligible for the Special Stream (you have to have a true "higher mother tongue"). If not for the trip to the US, I'd probably be speaking Singlish as my native language with 95% fluency in standard English. It's funny, because of my migrations, I am natively fluent in Singlish grammar, but not in vocabulary. (But I can converse, and the spectrum doesn't make this very apparent at first, since borrowing from advanced English "cheem" words is always convenient.)

Furthermore, it seems that for my parents' generation, Singlish is more like a pidgin for them -- it is really like an interface between their native languages and English. So you hear adults using Singlish, then a long Hokkien proverb, which my generation would be less inclined to use (we would borrow true loanwords, rather than lapsing totally into dialects, etc.) For us, Singlish is a true creole and has a true grammar. I don't think my parents view Singlish the same way -- for them it is truly "broken English" -- for us, it is not.

Ach, this has become way off topic, but I just don't want people to get the wrong impression of our culture or our education system. Things are more complex than the MOE woiuld have you believe.

Lastly, not everyone speaks their MT at home, so you can't call the MT (the Singaporean sense of the word) the "home language". For example, 20% speak English at home, 35-40% Mandarin, 20% some Chinese dialect, and the others divided among Indian and Malay languages in roughly equal proportion. Some people who take Chinese as an MT don't even begin speaking Chinese until they hit Primary One, or perhaps kindergarten. Hence, they become reasonably fluent in it by PSLE age, but people who have spoken both English and their MT since birth are naturally even more fluent, hence they take "higher mother tongue". Sometimes, people speak both their "MT" and English from birth, but they can't maintain the same rate for their MT as English, and when streaming occurs, their MT is way behind their English knowledge. Because the population can often both struggle with their MT or English, depending on their circumstances, there is the joke (or sometimes not a joke) that Singaporeans don't have a true native language, or are fluent in neither their MT or (standard) English, but Singlish. Hence, those with "higher MT" tend to be people who are natively bilingual (and hence I suppose why it is a characteristic of the Special stream) and are considerably rarer (but still quite common) than people who have one true native language but become reasonably fluent in a second (or a third!)

And lastly lastly, you have the Indians who are marginalised because even though the language of their ancestors (or the language they do actually speak at home) is some other language, they are forced to learn Tamil, because it is the majority language for Indians, but majorities can be repressive. I have the impression the government doesn't want to cater to those (who number many upon many -- I have known many such classmates) who speak non-Dravidian Indian languages (i.e. the IE family) such as Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, etc.

Some households speak a dialect at home, but you can't learn a dialect as your MT. This is because even if your native language is Hokkien (a Chinese dialect), you must learn Mandarin as an MT. Then on top of that, you must learn English. So sometimes you have to learn two language subjects which you aren't even native in! And then some do take up English or Mandarin as their true native language (independent of government labels), but they are forced to abandon their TRUE MT. How many stories are there of children cut off from their grandparents because the government has now pursued a language policy which alienates them from their ancestors?

You Westerners are so lucky. My circumstances are slightly different (my maternal grandmother speaks Mandarin, just that during my first stay in the US I forgot it), but many Singaporean students do not know what it is like to be able to speak to their grandparents without using their parents as a proxy. (And soon, they will die.) I want to hear some grandfather stories -- I don't know what that's like. :-(

Of course, a linguistics axiom is that parents will always be able to talk with their children, no matter what language policies a government pursues. But not necessarily their grandchildren.