Bilingualism : When Monolinguals are smarter than bilinguals

Singapore’s ‘bilingual policy’ cannot be understood simply as a ‘bilingual policy’. Rather, it must be understood within the larger context of historical or cultural replicationism and cultural exclusivity. It is only those whom have been penned into the notion of the naturalness of associating the language of one’s biological or geographical ancestors with their own ‘mother tongue’ whom constantly fail to appreciate this point. As stated in a previous observation, there is nothing natural about the ‘mother tongue’ perspective unless it is only practiced within a relatively unchanging and isolated milieu. For instance, in pre-globalisation China, one could consider Mandarin or other dialects as the ‘mother tongue’ of its inhabitants so that continuity in language can replicate the conditions of the past for the facilitation and expedition of all intercourse. However, ‘mother-tongue’ perspectives become quite unnatural in the face of a relatively globalised milieu where the continuation of such an approach might tend to facilitate cultural exclusivity or supremacy – as has transpired in Singapore. The very act of identifying with ‘one’s own mother tongue’ simultaneously becomes the purveyor of all related elements such as culture. It is within such a milieu that cultural supremacy can rear its singular featured head at the expense of others – as has transpired in Singapore.

If a ‘mother tongue’ policy is to be pursued, one has to be aware of the divisive, exclusionary, supremacist, and underdevelopmental consequences of it, and with time, the subsumption of all difference into the ‘majority’ – as has transpired in Singapore. Hence, precautionary measures have to be taken with the implementation of said policy to eke out maximal gain for all. That can only be through the equal promotion of all in the sight of all. It is only then that maximal respect can be garnered amongst all to the point that one cultural sector might deem another worthy of emulation. Thus, what we will see is all cultures being developed perspectivally within itself, whilst exchanges with cultural equals of other cultures will see people learning integrating with others as much as ‘their own’. In this dialectical dance, we will see the fusion of concentrated sectors – as has not transpired in Singapore. What we will see is growth in appreciation and development of respective cultures, whilst the perspectival gains are exchanged. And with the exchange of these perspectives, these can simultaneously be used to weed out those perspectives in respective cultures that might tend toward exclusivity. In this, all cultures are cleansed of negative aspects that come with relatively and respectively isolated histories. The point here is that all cultures will see maximal development in the face of difference, and in appreciation of difference. Whilst the Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures might have developed to an appreciable degree in a relatively isolated past, their continued development in the face of and equal appreciation of difference subjects their various cultures to further development whilst placing their point of origin in multicultural milieu as opposed to a singular one. That enables all cultures to grow further than they could when they were apart.

It is the abject failure of singaporeans to appreciate this point in all its myriad intricacies and glories that has now led me to consider how English as a ‘mother tongue’, at least, might have been a preferred alternative to the path singapore actually took. Of course, the approach suggested above will still be preferable. However, even if English became the ‘mother tongue’, the gains will still be immense, as opposed to the present, as the culture of the Indians, Malays and Chinese had already seen much development in the past. At this point, English will facilitate the kind of exchange that only comes when equal respect is accorded all by all. In that, English itself will be transformed, not in terms of just containing words from various languages, but in terms of containing those nuances that say more than words itself can communicate. It will, by its integrative function, and all the positive feelings that it engenders, can itself be a binding force that whilst facilitating the acquisition of perspectives begins to mean, without words, the comfort of being amongst one of our own that means all as opposed to just those whom share similar features or a diminutive ‘mother tongue’ attached to organisms that fly a different flag.

When Monolinguals are Smarter

In my personal experience in the 70s and 80s, I found the monolinguals to be far more intelligent that the bilinguals. I’m speaking here of the English-speakers I had the great opportunity to encounter in Church where many Eurasians, Chinese and Indians did badly in Mandarin or Tamil. This tended to disable the cultural exclusivity and ‘penchant for the familiar’ that present day singapore reeks of. In other words, whatever Lee Kuan Yew was doing to bring about unity amongst the Chinese by way of eradicating dialects, the same was happening amongst the western sect. But most importantly, it enabled the exchange of perspectives between them. That generation, has been forwarded as the ‘westernised sect’ of singapore that the government later clamped down upon via a rabid Confucianisation of singapore, which, in my opinion, was undertaken to promote its own longevity as egalitarian multiculturalism, with the vibrant minds it creates, never bode well for any party intending to cement its genes into the constitution of the populace. But the truth about the western sect was that they were not only westernised, but began to be the first and, most unfortunately, last vestige of the beginnings of the creation of a new race that fused all present cultures, and not only that, but the effects of multiculturalism in itself were taking a positive toll on their intellectual and creative acuity. In my lighter moments, I tend to refer to this clan of true singaporeans as the ‘western Chou’, as opposed to the ‘eastern Qin’. Such gains far outweigh any gains that can be acquired via a ‘mother tongue policy’ that basically pours present minds into an old mould as opposed to learning the ability to shape-shift and become malleable in the face of any impending change. In fact, such minds are far more capable, not only in fitting into any changing milieu, but in creating it as they would have the advantage of a host of perspectives at the disposal of far more vibrant and versatile minds. Even children learn from the different shapes that they encounter, and as adults, the most potent methods of continuing one’s development is by way of contending with ‘difference of the most alien kind’, as opposed to what transpired in singapore, and which can be likened to a child hammering a triangular object into a circular slot – and upon succeeding, claims the universe to be triangular, or in singapore’s case, ‘the west is the west, we are we.’

But I have to clarify one thing. When I say that monolinguals were far smarter than the bilinguals, I am here referring to bilinguals who took their ‘mother tongue’ (traditional bilinguals) and not ‘bilinguals who learnt to speak in another tongue (crosslinguals). Learning two languages can teach you to look at things in two ways. But learning a language which is not one’s mother tongue severely compromises any early tendency to ‘stick with the comfort zone’, ‘go with the familiar’ and be trained into thinking along subjective lines as opposed to objective ones. That does not only aid one in thinking of things in two ways, in going beyond it. So, in addition to the ‘monolinguals are better’, I would say that bilinguals are better if one half of it is another tongue. For brevity, I shall call it ‘crosslinguals’. I doubt if anyone can dispute with this logic, not the ‘founding father’ of singapore, not the entire slew of parties, not any local writer or presidential scholar unless they abide by the notion, ‘that is western science, not ours’. (however, all is not equal amongst traditional bilinguals as those who stuck to ‘their own’ languages just seemed to exhibit or replicate traditional traits and perspectives. The Indians were still far more critical minded because of their historical multicultural base which wasn’t shared by the Chinese. But this led to some sort of fusion amongst the English-speakers which I cannot entirely associate with typically ‘Malay’, ‘Indian’, or ‘Chinese’ traits, but which came across as the best of all worlds.)

However, whether by intention or accident, the monolinguals and crosslinguals who did well in English but not in the other half, were kept out of the helm of the country by way of the criteria used to discern who was good enough for university. Many amongst them comprised the new race of Singaporeans whom were far more the real McCoy than the Chingaporeans/Indoporeans/Maloporeans or Europoreans of today whom, as a totality, are nothing more than ‘Children of the Han’ whom are most adept at playing follow the leader, donning the regulation Bermudas and polo-Ts on weekends, leaving politics in the hands of the politicians, doing the jig in tune with the pied pipers of various ‘opposition’ sects, or/whilst just preoccupying themselves with what then became the national pastime of ‘shopping and eating’. Finance Minister Tharman said, ‘Singapore’s ability to integrate people is the key to its growth’. I’ve no doubt about that, but what might be more apt would be, ‘Singapore’s culling of concentrated difference is the key to make sense of its current growth.’ If this did not take place, Singapore would have achieved far more than it currently has in all respects. And those who argue against that probably believe that vibrant, inquisitive, curious, ever-learning in the face of difference, minds never bode well for the maximal progress of any individual.

Whenever people ask me where I’m from – and even singaporeans have asked me that from time to time – I say, ‘I’m a Singaporean in locality, but not personality’. But in truth, I suppose, I one of the last of the soon-to-be extinct breed of the race of true Singaporeans.




  1. That's an accurate and intuitive understanding of bilingualism in singapore context.

    I still relish my experiences in the 70s and 80s. I grew up playing football with my friends - Eurasians, Malays, Chinese and Indians. Never will I experience such multicultural exchanges that stimulated my mind and soul.

    The language segregation has caused such immense repercussion that not many singaporeans realise the impact to the new generations. Now, the so-called new generation would never experience or understand what that means. They have grown up in an environment that they thought belongs to the Chinese. Singapore has become Chinese-centric.

    We should not forget the history and the advantages multiculturalism brings.

    I am a bermudas and polo-T chinese guy who totally support your views :)


Post a comment

The Inquisitive venture is a collaborative one. Let's collaborate.

Ad hominem is fine so long as it is accompanied with an argument, as opposed to being confused for an argument. In the latter case, deletion will follow.

Popular posts