Written by Dorothy I-ru Chen.
Taiwan has always been an immigrate society. Immigrants from mainland China started to settle on the island as early as the 17th century. Starting from the 1990s, Taiwan experienced a new wave of immigration as marriages with women from China, and Southeast Asia (SEA) became increasingly common. Today, these female marriage-based immigrants reached more than half-million with the majority of them from China and SEA countries. Nevertheless, Taiwan remains to be a relatively ethnically homogeneous country. The recent official statistics show that more than 95% of Taiwan’s population is of the Han Chinese ethnicity.
The significant number of cross-country marriages brought the so-called ‘new immigrant children,’ ‘new Taiwanese children’ and ‘new resident children’ to public attention. Today, these children have been accounted for more than 10% of the student population at the compulsory education level. Among them, 43% of their mothers are from China, while the rest are mostly from SEA countries.
Even though a large number of these immigrants are from SEA, most people in Taiwan have a limited understanding of SEA countries. In the 1990s, the ex-President Lee Teng-hui tried to boost trade with the region by introducing the Southbound Policy without much success. However, due to large numbers of new immigrant children, along with the robust economic growth of ASEAN countries, and more than 700,000 SEA migrant workers currently working in Taiwan, the Taiwanese Government initiated the New Southbound Policy (NSP) in 2016. This was to enhance the cooperation between Taiwan and 18 other countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia and Oceania. Not surprisingly, education is one of the critical areas that the NSP addresses.
That being said, many educational initiatives have been implemented prior to 2016. One example is ‘the Torch Program,’ which was initiated by New Taipei City in 2008. With the support of private donations, the program made local primary schools the bases to support new immigrants societal integration. In 2012, the Central Government adopted this approach and launched ‘the National New Immigrants Torch Project’. Thus, schools with more than 10% or 100 new immigrant children were listed as ‘Schools for New Immigrant Children.’ Further, they were entitled to apply for family funds, counselling and visits, mother tongue learning and holding multicultural events.
Another example is the ‘Grandmother’s Bridge Project,’ which was initiated by the NGO in 2011. The project sponsored SEA immigrants to go home with their child and the child’s schoolteacher. Hence, this allowed immigrants and their children to meet maternal relatives and learn more about the culture of their country. Moreover, teachers were able to incorporate such field trips learning into future teaching. This project came to an end in 2016 as it transcended local government stipulation by being integrated into the national educational scheme.
In 2014, the Ministry of Education (MOE) further announced that SEA languages would be included in the new 12-Year Basic Education Curriculum Framework. From 2019, during each week, pupils in primary schools were required to learn either the language of new immigrants (Malay, Khmer, Indonesian, Burmese, Filipino, Thai and Vietnamese), indigenous languages or Chinese dialects. In 2017, a national supporting mechanism was set up to support schools to help transnational students (mainly SEA students) to adjust school life in Taiwan. MOE also plans further to widen higher education access to these students in 2021, even though the current overall tertiary education enrolment rate in Taiwan is already more than 90%.
However, ethnocentrism is often found in a highly homogenous society like Taiwan. There have been stereotypes and bias against new immigrant children over the years. Studies conducted in the early days suggested that these children’s academic achievements were lagging. Moreover, these studies failed to recognise the problem may lie within schools which are not capable of meeting the needs of children from diverse cultural backgrounds. Nevertheless, the insinuation that these children may have a developmental delay was widely spread. Indeed, in 2004, the Vice Minister of Education Chou once publicly ‘advised’ these ‘foreign brides’ (a term commonly used at the time) to get birth control as their children tend to have learning difficulties. This ‘advice’ led to strong protests from immigrant groups; the Vice Minister was forced to issue an apology as a result.
There are also criticisms about the intention of these policies and their feasibility. Remarks are often made by officials and employer such as, “if children of new immigrants can master their mother tongues, they can contribute greatly to expanding Taiwan’s trade with the region.”
The 5 Year Education Plan for New Immigrant Children, which was published in 2015, indicates that the Government perceives the diverse language and cultural background of new immigrant children as a valuable national asset. Moreover, the Plan particularly addresses the need for cultivation of ‘vocational human power’ instead of talent cultivation in a general sense. The need for non-new-immigrant children to understand SEA languages and cultures is rarely mentioned in these policy documents. ‘The White Paper of International Education in School,’ published by the MOE in 2011, also did not address the need to understand SEA countries and languages until the publishing of the second version in 2020.
The feasibility concern is related to the quality of teachers and teaching materials. To solve the problem of teacher shortages, foreign spouses were recruited as Teaching Assistants (TAs). The stipulation, however, was that they should complete 36 hours of training regardless of the level of their academic qualifications and Chinese proficiency. The quality of textbooks is also questioned as most of them were produced within a short time period. The related lack of new immigrant students also makes language course delivery a significant challenge for schools. To make the matter worse, the Government announced “Blueprint for Developing Taiwan into a Bilingual Nation by 2030” in 2018 with the aims of raising the level of English proficiency of citizens and the overall national competitiveness. As a result, many parents argue that more teaching hours should be given to English language lessons instead of those focusing on Southeast Asian languages.
Thus, Lin Li-chan, an immigrant from Cambodia as well as an ex-lawmaker in Taiwan, argued in 2019 that educational policies such as learning SEA languages might make ethnic groups in Taiwan more divided. She urged the government to make it clear that these policies aim to develop mutual understanding between different ethnic groups, and rhetoric such as discrimination should be avoided. She also criticised the implications that these policies are to ‘take care’ of new immigrant children or the disadvantage groups are misleading.
Above all, even though these policies are heavily debated and criticised, considerable achievements have been made. The statistics show how languages courses are increasingly popular for children who are not from new immigrant families. The SEA language courses also make female immigrants more visible in mainstream society when working as TAs in schools and thus empower them. These educational policies are also continuously being revised. Furthermore, to solve the problem of teacher shortages— along with the limited resources in rural areas—students at different locations can learn together through online “Smart School Alliance,” which started in 2017.
What is particularly inspiring is that the vibrant civil society contributes significantly to make these changes happen. Best examples are “the Torch Program” and ‘the Grandmother’s Bridge Project’ funded by individuals first and were upgraded to national schemes later. Many NGOs and immigrant groups are also actively taking part in policy formation and implementation process at both local and national levels.
With the increasing annual budget of NSP, the issue of new immigrant children will continue to be the key policy focus. However, economic development should not be the primary policy imperative when it comes to future talent cultivation. The importance of cross-cultural competence needs to be further addressed in the school curriculum. In a few years, hopefully, more visible changes will be seen in Taiwanese society through the implementation of these policies.
Dorothy I-ru Chen is an associate professor in the Department of International and Comparative Education, National Chi Nan University, Taiwan.
This article is part of a special issue on poverty and inequality.