Bilingualism is close to Sim’s heart

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 24 Apr 2011

FIELDING questions in impeccable English and Mandarin at her introduction, Sim Ann's linguistic prowess belied her monolingual childhood.

The eldest child of two Nanyang University (Nantah) graduates grew up in an “exclusively Chinese” environment.

At five, she was reading the Chinese newspapers with ease. When she enrolled in an English-speaking kindergarten, she could hardly understand what her teachers were saying.

So distressed was she that she would bite her nails to the extent that they bled.

“My parents did try to teach me some English at home, but it was not the language that they were most comfortable with,” the 36-year-old said.

Then came what she calls her “quantum leap” in English.

When she was 10, her father, then a physics lecturer at the National University of Singapore, had the chance to go to Boston, in the United States, for his sabbatical year. He took the family along and enrolled Sim in a local school.

Immersed in an entirely English-speaking environment, she improved by leaps and bounds.

She went on to win the Prime Minister's Book Prize (for outstanding bilingual students) thrice, and was runner-up in 1994 for the Angus Ross Prize, given to the best A-levels English Literature script outside the United Kingdom.

As the most effectively bilingual of the People's Action Party's (PAP) new slate of candidates for the coming general election, Sim does not shy away from bilingual issues.

“Bilingualism is close to my heart,” she declared.

“Singapore is uniquely gifted with the opportunities for our people to be fluent in more than one language. I think it is important for us to keep up that competitive advantage.”

Sim was awarded the President's Scholarship in 1994, and studied at Oxford University and Stanford University.

She returned to Singapore in 1998 to embark on a 12-year civil service career that took her to several ministries (Health, Home Affairs and Trade and Industry) and agencies (International Enterprise Singapore and National Population Secretariat, or NPS).

But her 17-month stint at the NPS, where she was director until last December, may provide ammunition to the opposition parties. It was there that she helped to implement immigration policies and wrote letters to newspaper forums defending the policies.

Pressed to state her stand on the recent influx of foreigners, she said foreigners played a useful economic role, although the pace of intake had to be regulated something the Government had done, she pointed out.

Asked whether the inflow could have been tightened earlier, she said that “would have been to the detriment of the economy, which would ultimately also hurt the interest of our people”.

The mother of two young children said entering politics was a difficult decision because she knew, from her nine years of volunteering at the grassroots in Bukit Timah, where she is likely to be fielded, how little time MPs had for their families.

Notwithstanding that, she came forward. “I knew I would be able to contribute to the building of a better home for all Singaporeans. That, to me, is very meaningful. And so, after a long discussion with my family, they agreed to support me wholeheartedly.” The Straits Times

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