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Swiss hotel desk clerk decreed Lee Kuan Yew to be Chinese

Posted on 27 November 2011

That experience determined his Chinese-ness forevermore.

The following is a truncated, first-person extract from Lee Kuan Yew’s newest book, My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore’s Bilingualism Journey to be launched on Nov. 28, 2011.

The first part is on Lee’s experience that encouraged him to send all his children to Chinese-medium schools from Chapter One.

The second part is on adjustments to teaching Chinese and the policy of bilingualism in the future from Chapter Six.


Lee Kuan Yew's a "born-again Chinese" after his experience as an undergrad in Cambridge and London from 1946 to 1950. Therefore, it shall always be Kuan Yew, not Harry, ok? The missus pictured is Kwa Geok Choo.

I am labelled as a “born-again Chinese”.

My awakening occurred in the late 1940s, during my time in England.

People there saw me as Chinese. Therefore, I am. They didn’t recognised a Singaporean or a Malayan when they saw me.

Once, at a hotel in Lucerne in Switzerland where I holidayed, the desk clerk only recognised me as a Chinese even when I said I was a Malayan.

“What’s that?”, the hotel staff responded. “Never mind, I’ll put you down as a Chinese”.

Since then, I’ve decided I must be Chinese from such experiences.

Not only that.

The little time I spent in London was at a place called Gordon Square. Chinese students from all over the world congregated there. China, Hong Kong, Malaysia or Mauritius- you could tell where they came from based on their actions.

I felt very sad for Chinese students from the West Indies, in particular. They were the most pitiful. They spoke in a singsong West Indian “English” and no Chinese at all.

Looking at them, I felt a sense of loss about not knowing Chinese. I did not want to be like them. I did not want my children to end up like them.

My three children had their first 12 years of education at Chinese-medium schools. They said they did not regret the experience, when I queried them when they grew bigger.

When Hsien Loong was three years old in Nanyang Kindergarten, I went to visit him. The year was 1955.

The Chinese press photographed him there making it known he was being educated in Chinese. I gained credibility when I had to speak on Chinese language issues since then.

Hsien Loong’s younger siblings, Wei Ling and Hsien Yang followed the same route: First to Nanyang Kindergarten, then Nanyang Primary School, and to Catholic High School the boys went and Nanyang Girls’ High School the girl throttled to…

I spoke to my kids in Mandarin until they got to secondary school. I had to speak English with them after that as I had to say more complex things.

Geok Choo, my wife, spoke to the kids in English. From the age of six, they had Malay tuition at home.

To learn Malay, Hsien Loong was made to join the Scouts, where he could interact with Malay children.

Education in three languages was very important with the merger with Malaysia a reality.

It was a chance for the children to expand their social circle.

My grandchildren these days speak mainly English. I speak to them in Mandarin, they reply in Mandarin and then switch to English.

I did not craft our bilingual policy in order to win votes. The bilingual policy was a vote-loser.

Some families have emigrated because their children couldn’t cope.

A good proportion of the Chinese ground were upset that I was lowering standards. These group of people outnumbered the former group.

I regret not introducing the modular approach to teaching Chinese earlier. This method was only introduced in 2004. It would have set appropriate standards and methods of teaching for pupils from different language abilities and backgrounds without setting back the rest of their academic development.

The challenge for Singapore now is how to teach Chinese effectively. I believe parents should start by speaking Mandarin at home, never mind the limited vocabulary. This helps in picking up the language in school later on.

Our education system needs to evolve. If Chinese grows in economic value, our system must be able to accommodate them.

The choice must be exercised by parents and students ultimately. Not the government.

The original article first appeared in The Sunday Times on Nov. 27, 2011.

This post was written by:

- who has written 2685 posts on New Nation.

Wang Pei can be considered a new citizen of Singapore. She has been here all her life, just that her environment's changed beyond recognition.

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