Written by: Ernest Tan (19-E6)
Designed by: Jo Yeoul (19-A2)
What do Singaporeans understand by the Singapore Language Policy? Most peers my age would often think about the bilingualism that is a cornerstone of our education systems. Others would also think about our implicitly discouraged but beloved vernacular – Singlish. In this opinion piece, I will examine broadly, the various features of language, and relevant policies in Singapore.
Official ‘Mother Tongue’ languages (MTL) in Singapore include the Chinese, Malay and Tamil languages. The Ministry of Education has also allowed students to take Non-Tamil Indian Languages, French, German, Japanese, Arabic, Burmese or Thai in-lieu of the 3 official MTLs. In Singapore, most students are required to learn both English and one of these languages.
Founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew believed that the English language would be the lingua franca that would bond culturally diverse groups by allowing them to communicate. Mr Lee also espoused that knowing one’s mother tongue was necessary because it strengthened a sense of cultural belonging.
In other words, the bilingual policy was premised on both practical considerations (of strengthening inter-racial ties and engaging in business with other countries) and identity considerations.
In my opinion, the decision to place the emphasis on the English language is justifiable. It was in line with the various survivalist mindsets of that turbulent era – growing Singapore, a country which was, and still is, reliant on the principle of multilateralism and cooperation. With a dearth of natural resources, it was incontrovertible that Singapore had to forge strong diplomatic and business relations with other countries before it could become the bustling metropolis and commercial hub it is today. Singapore is now a top Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) destination globally (Chuang, 2017). I therefore believe that the choice of the English language as the working language was a judicious and appropriate one.
However, we must continue to question that choice, especially with the changing geopolitical realities and climate – one of which includes the rise of China as an increasingly hegemonic world power. The choice of the working language (and hence the status quo) must not remain sacrosanct. The question now is whether (and when, if at all) Singapore should make Chinese language learning mandatory. This is not to say we should eradicate the English language as our working language. They must still coexist for us to reap the advantages associated with biculturalism. This is nevertheless still a hard truth to swallow, as this could of course further dilute our diverse cultural identities. Nonetheless, as we have before, we must strike a cautious balance between our oft-touted pragmatism and heritage in language.
I do, however, acknowledge that this is easier said than done, given the inequity and challenges of learning the Chinese language. For people who do not already have a domestic environment to learn the Chinese language, it will be an uphill task to learn it, compared to people who already have some background in it. But the fact is this is inevitable and we must accept it. Various countries have already seen a surge in popularity in the Chinese language (Shao, 2015), and we must continue to seek growth if we want to remain competitive.
Next, examining the cultural impetus for bilingualism, we are often confronted by stock phrases such as ‘identity’, ‘culture’, ‘returning to one roots’, et cetera. My stance on this is ambivalent. I strongly believe in the Chinese adage, “落叶归根”, meaning ‘fallen leaves return to their roots’ . With a population made up of mostly immigrant lineages, I think that it is imperative for us to understand our heritage, our ancestors and our origins. The Singaporean identity is not homogenous. I’d like to think that we are a kaleidoscope of cultures,‘rojak’ * , as some would call it. To fully appreciate the ‘Singaporean culture’, we must first understand our own, and one of the ways to do so is language, whether it is the Chinese or Tamil languages.
But language must be accompanied by some semblance of cultural cognizance. Someone who can speak their mother tongue language may not be able to fully understand their own culture if they do not know about certain cultural practices. Therefore, there must be a balance between language and cultural learning. We must hence continue to incorporate cultural elements in our language learning, and remind our young of their heritage and roots.
On the flip side, that is not to say we cannot question whether we are even understanding our ‘authentic’ culture. Chinese identity, for example, is an issue of great contention. It has been pointed out that the more indigenous forms of lingua franca were the Chinese dialects (Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, etc.) instead of the Chinese language (Tham, 2019). Also, some Mother Tongue Languages may not even be the ‘Mother Tongue’ of those who learn it. We tend to forget about those who do not fall into the Chinese, Malay, Indian segmentation, and who cannot learn their true ‘Mother Tongue’, simply because it is not offered as a subject. While there is a range of languages that can be offered in lieu of MTL, maybe it is time that we consider reviving certain languages in our education system. Maybe Kristang, who knows. It might be good that we start doing things out of passion, instead of wholly pragmatism.
The Malay Language
And finally, my last point. Our national language – the Malay language. It is my belief that the standard of the Malay language in the local population must be raised. Our proficiency in the Malay language must go beyond ‘makan’ and the lyrics of the national anthem. We must readily embrace our national language as our own, and I suggest that the Ministry of Education lengthen the Basic Malay Language Courses that are taught in primary schools. While they are a good effort to improve Malay standards, I feel that they are often temporary. Perhaps we could extend such a course to secondary schools. As a past student of the Malay (Special Programme) (an O-Level Malay As Third Language Course), I felt that learning Malay was thoroughly enjoyable. By picking up the Malay language, we get to understand the culture of another group through different lenses, and strengthen our national language. And what’s not to love about speaking the language to Malay friends, or even the mak ciks at the Malay stalls in Ghim Moh?
* ‘Rojak’ is a local salad of mixed vegetables and fruits, drizzled with a sweet and sour sauce comprising local prawn paste, sugar and lime. ‘Rojak’ in Malay means “mixed”, but the dish exemplifies the cultural diversity of Singapore, including both Chinese and Malay elements in its ingredients (Tan, n.d.)
Ministry of Education (n.d.). General Information On Studying In Singapore. Retrieved from
Sim, C. (n.d.). Bilingual Policy. Retrieved from http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_2016-09-01_093402.html
Chuang, P.M. (2017). Singapore remains a top FDI destination globally. Retrieved from https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/government-economy/singapore-remains-a-top-fdi-destination-globally
Shao, G. (2015). Chinese as a second language growing in popularity. Retrieved from https://america.cgtn.com/2015/03/03/chinese-as-a-second-language-growing-in-popularity
Tham, S. (2019). In Singapore, Is it So Unforgivable That Chinese People Don’t Speak Mandarin Well? Retrieved from https://www.ricemedia.co/current-affairs-opinion-chinese-people-mother-tongue-mandarin/
Tan, B. (n.d.). Rojak. Retrieved from http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_392_2005-01-06.html