Scholar lauds bilingual policy - not much of a 'scholar' methinks

“What Lee Kuan Yew did was to attempt to take a polyglot Chinese community made up of Cantonese, Fujian and Hakka among others and, in a bid to weld them into a single community to give them a common mother tongue that basically belonged to all of them - Mandarin. He reinforced the bilingual policy that started some 40 years ago by encouraging the use of Mandarin and the avoidance of dialects within the Chinese community. And he ordered a ban of dialect programs on television and radio in the early 1980s – a move so effective it explains why those under 30 now barely know much of these dialects.

On my part, I wish I had learned Mandarin well and to be as proficient with it as I am in English since it is considered my mother tongue after all.” Asia Sentinal

If a common language was required to bring about unity amongst the Chinese ‘race’ without unity-compromising dialects, then Mandarin becoming a 'dialect' of all Chinese in multicultural singapore would compromise unity amongst the race of Singaporeans wouldn't it? Of course, one could say, that English would then come in to unite all. But if that is to be accepted, then there ought to be no reason why dialects amongst the Chinese should not be allowed to continue, televised or otherwise, without any interference by the government since Mandarin could come in to unite all Chinese just as English was expected to unite all singaporeans.

The ‘scholar’ seems to recognise the value of a common ‘mother tongue’ over a simple ‘common language’. The closer identification and personalisation that comes with the former in the face of all the other events that went along with it in historical times is stronger than the latter which is just a simple facilitator of communication. Hence, ‘mother tongue’ is more potent in bringing about a speedier unity as opposed to a ‘common tongue’. So, given the multiracial/cultural milieu of singapore, I have to ask why a stronger identifier was used amongst the Chinese whilst a simple ‘common language’ was used for all singaporeans of all cultural genres. I dare say the government underestimates the ability of the Chinese to learn in the face of difference and become, through the imposition of an English ‘mother tongue’ by its taking the place of Mandarin, a race of singaporeans. After all, the Chinese weren’t always ‘Chinese’, and nor was ‘Mandarin’ the ‘mother tongue’ of the people till the passage of time and tide? So why could this strategy not have been replicated in Singapore with English then? If the unity-enhancing value of a ‘mother tongue’ is based on common experiences attached to it overtime, then why could not English have been the ‘mother tongue’ of singapore and singaporeans with the passage of time? - and especially if this enables the integration of different perspectives borne of varying cultural experiences which has been scientifically verified to bode well for the intellectual, creative, and perspectival progress of any mind.

I think that singapore could learn quite a lesson from India where one major state, a couple of years ago, actually considered replacing its ‘mother-tongue’ with the Java-programming language. It even came to the point that it was debated in parliament as well. Whilst I thought that was quite ridiculous as it would only facilitate their integration with chips and motherboards, I do appreciate its forward-mindedness and cognizance of integrating with a changing milieu as opposed to simply doing one’s best with the past.

Again, some could say that ‘English’ is a ‘western tongue’ and not ours. To this, I would say, that in the face of difference, a common facilitating language, such as English, would enable the integration of all perspectives for the purpose of creating one singular race. After this, the English ‘mother tongue’ of Singaporeans would be able to could be used to communicate the result of said integration in ways and perspectives that no western English-user would be able to. An affinity to a ‘mother tongue’ is not simply engendered by past experiences but in experiences with difference as well. In using a ‘mother tongue’ that has facilitated our appreciation of difference, and the ensuring perspectival growth, we will not feel ‘western’ in using it, but very much ‘asian’ since it had facilitated our growing appreciation of reality from a host of perspectives that may not be found in the west of today.

However, what seems to have transpired is that with the dilution of difference amongst the Chinese, and given that Confucian culture has historically not embraced difference, as might have been embraced by Indian culture, just as dialect programmes were banned on television and radio to create said unity, this was similarly levelled in the face of other cultures. For instance, the overt celebrations of one culture over others, the promotion of one language and culture over all others, media under representations, favouring one ‘race’ over others in populational composition, and so on. Given this, what was done to the various Chinese dialect communities was thereafter done to all difference in favour of a singular Confucian culture. After evicting the difference within, difference without became the next victim. If people can still appreciate this as progress, it can only come with the diminution of the human mind to the point that it is not able to appreciate more for want of a personality, reduced by a relatively singular experience of things, to appreciate more.

I've often wondered if Mandarin could have been enforced amongst the 'Chinese' without the exclusive self-absorption that transpired thereafter - these are facts as evidenced in the media, common perceptions, being oblivious to obvious instances of bigotry, etc. What ought to have been done is that English should have been forwarded as the 'mother tongue' of all singaporeans, whilst their respective attributed languages be a 'dialect' of choice by the members of any race. It is 'cross-lingualism' - where races learn each other's languages when difference between them is the greatest - that can serve to unite all singaporeans whilst this is further reinforced at the 'mother tongue' (English) level. In this, we will be able to see cultural fusion as opposed to dilution or exclusivity. I say that it has to take place when difference is the greatest because it is only then that difference are not diluted enough - such as the Indians becoming more Confucian for instance - that various races are able to impart their concentrated perspectives to each other for the purpose of fusion.

Additionally, to ensure that there is enough respect of other cultures by all, all cultures have to be equally lauded and celebrated so as to prevent cultures and races, other than the 'preferred' ones, from oscillating between non-persona(non-existent) and persona non-grata(not welcome). When there is enough mutual respect, people will naturally consider different perspectives, not only in the face of different cultures, but in the face of any contradiction. That, in the singapore of today, is highly conspicuous by its absence. I suppose in the promotion of 1, both traditionalism and an aversion to contradiction is simultaneously strengthened, and which goes a long way in explaining the present singaporean distaste for contradiction of any sort, or being extremely unresponsive to new ideas and perspectives unless it is imposed via prominence or imposition.




  1. What you mention makes a great deal of sense, dear Clear Minded Ed.
    This Mandarin crap started forty years ago was to the disadvantage of minority Singaporeans. Who were set back from getting ahead in their careers and social life with the majority race. I wondered than, why could English not be emphasised in importance to unite the Majority race with the minority races? After in school all races studied in English, it is used in Parliament debates, in the courts, etc. Now why must there be a 'lightning bolt policy' set in as an obstruction to the advancement of the minority races and the English educated Chinese? What was the true purpose I wondered? The older generation in the 60's and 70's were mostly multi lingual. The Chinese, besides knowing English were also fluent in Malay and several Chinese dialects and some also Tamil. The Malays and Indians then were also multi lingual, speaking English, Malay Tamil and several Chinese dialects. The Chinese and Indians could communicate with ease to our immediate Malay neighbouring countries. Including in Tagalog to the Philippines, due to close similar words used in the Malay language. Derived from the early Sanskrit language.
    There were no barriers in communication and suspicion amongst the races than, we were all at ease. It's proof how our minority race politicians swept to power communicating with the masses in English, Malay, Chinese dialects and Tamil. Now i am aghast as to why Mandarin is not a compulsory subject to the Minority races in our schools, with it's importance emphasised today.

  2. Those days Singapore was quite similar to Switzerland where language was concerned. In the 60's and 70's most Individual Singaporeans could speak at least three languages. The Swiss till today speak five languages - English, German, French, Italian and Rumantsch. Who live harmoniously, although the four races are concentrated in four different areas of Switzerland. Today in Singapore an individual speaks the most only two languages. How sad!

    Price of bilingualism

    I REFER to the current discussion arising from the report on Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's acknowledgement that his policy on bilingualism started on the wrong footing ('MM Lee wants learning of Chinese to be fun' last Wednesday).

    I am comforted that finally someone at this high level of government has come to see my point of view, which I have voiced for a long time.

    I wrote to The Straits Times about 20 years ago when my son was nine, appealing for official help and describing his traumatic experience: he suffered in school because of his poor Chinese, he was picked on by the Chinese teacher, he lost his self-esteem and hated school.

    I remember the criticism heaped on me from several quarters, although a few columnists offered a more sympathetic and even-handed view of my son's dilemma.

    My son believed there was no way out of his misery and that was when I told him we could emigrate.

    We left Singapore and settled in another country, Australia. Here, my son was immediately spotted by his teacher to be talented. His English was flawless. He could speed-read with 100 per cent comprehension and retention.

    Today, his skill enables him to do well at work, as he can read a complex 100-page document in a few minutes, with no need to scroll back to refresh his memory.

    My second son also did well in Australia. When his IQ was tested, he scored 176. At age nine, when he was in Year 5 (Primary 4), a government-funded test revealed that his mental capacity was that of Year 9 (Secondary 2), so he was fast-tracked in a talent school.

    By contrast, in 1989, when I asked Singapore's Ministry of Education to enrol my second son when he was five, I was turned down because the system did not allow exceptions.

    I have pondered in the past few days whether we would have stayed in Singapore if the bilingual policy in the early 1990s had been less harsh. My answer would probably be yes.

    There was no compelling reason for us to leave other than my older son's predicament. But there is no point in rewinding the clock. The new country has nurtured my sons well, and I am grateful.

    I am pleased MM Lee has signalled that the bilingual policy will be toned down to suit different abilities.

    Pauline Tan (Mrs)
    Brisbane, Australia

  4. I absolutely love your contribution 'Anonymous'. You echo the feelings of quite a few of my Indian friends who have since migrated from singapore.

    To be honest, i too once had a slightly racialised view of things as i saw little amiss with this effort to associate biological race with cultural 'heritage'. However, like yourself, i was blessed with the experience of relatively greater multiculturalism in the 70s and 80s as i saw the close fusion between the Eurasians, Chinese, and Indians in church. They were, as a whole extremely witty, generated solutions to novel problems quickly, loved lively conversations about anything and anything new, amongst others. Thus, back then, i didn't really have a conception of race as i saw and relished in the formation of a multicultural race called 'Singaporean'. Thus, i never got used to, and never will, succumb to any monocultural ethos.

    However, i sincerely beg to differ when it comes to making mandarin compulsory at school now. If that happens, it will mean assimilation, as opposed to integration. In the longer run, and across s.e.Asia, the non-chinese will for a long time be perceived as inferior cultures that required assimilation for progress. As India is not belligerent about its multicultural ethos, it will not serve as a counterweight to such an event.

    If you look at the history of China, you will find that what happened there has taken place in singapore. Putting it plainly, 'dilution cum assimilation'. In other words, cultural development has taken place only amongst the sector identified by the government as 'chinese' - i view the chinese potentially as 'chinese lookalikes' and not 'chinese' per se as i view all of us as being able to be more than ancestors who hailed from relatively isolated states.

    With the promotion of Mandarin and 'chinese' culture (which i view as the promotion of post-Qin culture and not chinese culture per se), and without an equal promotion of others, what happened was the sense of self-efficacy amongst others was just about demolished and their developmental trajectory henceforth fused with post-Qin development. And with the officially stated policy of maintaining 'chinese' dominance population-wise, everyone, in effect, became 'children of the Han'. That is how China was formed as the initial 'china' was only a fraction of the China of today.

    So, at this point, if mandarin was made compulsory, rather than integration, we will see complete assimilation. I'd rather have a fusion of concentrated division so that all can dialectically mature to be more than their respective cultures will allow them to imagine.

    What is sad about singapore is not only, as you stated, that singaporeans can only speak two languages, but that singaporeans cannot speak each other's languages. I'm alright with bilingualism if it is synonymous with cross-lingualism. I myself took Mandarin as a second language and my siblings took Malay. In that, we learnt to appreciate the value of living out of the box as opposed to valuing ourselves via ignorance and depreciation of difference.

    Thank you very much for your thoughts. It certainly has enriched the content of this article.


  5. i do think english can be, and now is, an asian language.

    but if the education policies had focused solely on english, with little or no inclusion of the mother tongues, it is probable that we would still have a population of rootless citizens... when you read literature by authors from other post-colonial societies eg caribbean and african countries, the people there who can speak the colonialists' language (usually english) but not their so-called true MTs, and they often have some sort of identity crisis. look at african writers who have renounced english (eg ngugi wa thiong'o and his book 'decolonizing the mind'). not sure if you get what i mean, but it's a really complex situation, personally i am for keeping our MTs.

    also, if you think about it, both english and chinese are equally foreign to most chinese s'poreans who were probably of southern chinese descent.

    lastly, if one wants a common language to unite all singaporeans, to insist that language must be english because it is the most important language globally today - well look at the other asian tigers - s korea, japan and hk, those are not english-speaking nations and yet they enjoyed economic success.

    it's just a really complex situation. and it's really hard to find the answers.

  6. There is tendency to credit LKY with some grand vision in this respect.

    I must confess I find this far fetched since I don't see in his personality, makeup or ambition such a noble aspiration. He is to me nothing more and nothing less than a self-centred, self-serving driven, schming man who want things only his way, the way he sees it. And he had stoop to any and every means in his powers to achieve it with scant regard for the consequence to others and the collateral damages he inflicted on others. Others are treated as mere digits, experimental guinea pigs, for him to do as he pleases.

    His entire agenda is political with himself at the top.

  7. Dear jun

    Economic success today???
    Has MT rooted our citizens??? They have ended up self centered, materialistic and racist.

  8. enlightenment for the inquisitive.....

  9. You should read this as well Miss Jun !

  10. Hi,

    Although the parent in the article "Make mother tongue less critical in PSLE"is selfish, he has brought out a point:"Chinese has no bearing on whether he has the aptitude to become a surgeon or accountant or any other key professional." As a parent myself, I can understand that he is worried for his son's future. In fact, the main culprit is the one who has uprooted the whole Chinese language and culture (½«ÖлªÓïÎĺÍÎÄ»¯Á¬¸ù°ÎÆð)

    The culprit once tried to put the blame on the Nantah (ÄÏÑó´óѧ) that the Nantah graduates (ÄÏÑó´óѧ±ÏÒµÉú) could not get a good job.However from what I know, the Nantah graduates did not buy his story! Now he is trying to push the blame on the Chinese teachers, it seems that the public are still debating! Whether or not Singapore still want a Chinese background, let the Singaporeans decide for themselves! Anyway, what difference does it make when Singaporeans decide not to study Chinese? My heart is sinking! has brought out a point:"Chinese has no bearing on whether he has the aptitude to become a surgeon or accountant or any other key professional." As a parent myself, I can understand that he is worried for his son's future. In fact, the main culprit is the one who has uprooted the whole Chinese language and culture (½«ÖлªÓïÎĺÍÎÄ»¯Á¬¸ù°ÎÆð)

    The culprit once tried to put the blame on the Nantah (ÄÏÑó´óѧ) that the Nantah graduates (ÄÏÑó´óѧ±ÏÒµÉú) could not get a good job.However from what I know, the Nantah graduates did not buy his story! Now he is trying to push the blame on the Chinese teachers, it seems that the public are still debating! Whether or not Singapore still want a Chinese background, let the Singaporeans decide for themselves! Anyway, what difference does it make when Singaporeans decide not to study Chinese? My heart is sinking!

    Posted by: mingsuny at Thu Nov 26 09:42:33 SGT 2009


  12. Hello J,

    "but if the education policies had focused solely on english, with little or no inclusion of the mother tongues, it is probable that we would still have a population of rootless citizens.."

    Well, that depends on the definition of 'rootless'. The way things are, the chinese in singapore have their 'roots' in China as opposed to singapore given that said 'roots' has failed to soak up singapore's multicultural milieu of the past.

    You're right about 'English' being quite the 'asian language' given that it facilitates cross-cultural breeding. But that sort of contradicts your statement on 'rootless'ness as English as the 'mother-tongue' of singaporeans this would plant the 'roots' of singaporeans in all its hinterlands whilst producing a singaporean brand of culture that is an egalitarian fusion of the best of all cultures.

    The idea of 'rootedness' can either be backward looking where people attempt to replicate the past, or fuse with the present. The latter, in this context, leads to perspectival growth, whilst the former engenders perspectival replication.


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