Plugging Mother tongue gap in Singapore

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Mar 16 15:07:38 UTC 2005

Plugging the mother tongue gap

Today, the definition of mother tongue  in the Singapore context  has
become more complex

Wednesday  March 16, 2005

Soh Tiang Keng

The Government's recent call to nurture a core group of non-Malays who can
speak fluent Malay or Bahasa Indonesia is a wake-up call for us to take a
more vigorous approach to broaden the use of the language in Singapore.
With the development of English as the lingua franca here for the past 25
years, the percentage of non-Malays who can speak Malay or Bahasa Melayu
has shrunk considerably. Unlike the era up to the 1970s, when many
Singaporeans could understand and speak Malay, the language situation now
is dramatically different.

The experience of Aceh, where most of our visiting Singapore Government
officials and media did not understand the Bahasa briefings given by
Indonesian military commanders has exposed the "Bahasa gap" in Singapore's
education system and language policy. Hence, something has to be done to
redress this problem. There are compelling reasons why more non-Malay
Singaporeans must speak and understand Bahasa.

First, Singapore is geographically part of the Malay Archipelago and Malay
has been the lingua franca of this region since the seventh century. There
are more than 200 million speakers of Bahasa in this region. And Chinese
Singaporeans should realise they are surrounded not only by
Bahasa-speaking people of Malay stock, but Bahasa-speaking Chinese from
Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei as well. Singapore would appear to be the
odd man out in this region.

Second, we know that Mandarin can be wielded as an economic tool by
Singaporeans to forge closer business links with China. But equally
important, Malay can serve as an effective communications channel to
foster goodwill, understanding and rapport with our neighbours. Third,
Singaporeans must remember that Malay is our national language, and the
language of our national anthem. Hence, it is imperative that we should
speak and understand our national language.

It can be rather embarrassing to note that Singapore is one of the few
countries in the world where many citizens do not understand the meaning
of the words of their national anthem. During his constituency's Chinese
New Year last month, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said the target is to
get 10 to 15 per cent of non-Malays to be fluent in either Malay or Bahasa
Indonesia. This goal is to be met by brighter students learning Bahasa as
a third language.

Recently, Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam revealed his Ministry
is revamping the curriculum and teaching of the Malay language to make it
more "convenient and accessible" to non-Malay students to take it up as a
third language Singapore should take active steps to plug this "Bahasa
gap" which can go a long way in our battle to win the hearts, goodwill and
trust of our neighbours.

With the more widespread use of Bahasa in future, we may, hopefully, see
the Government taking a more flexible approach towards the mother tongue
policy. Perhaps, a Singaporean should be given a wider choice of languages
from which to pick his mother tongue to reflect his parentage and ethnic
background. For example, a student from a Peranakan family may be
permitted to take Malay, instead of Mandarin as his mother tongue language
in school. After all, a Peranakan Chinese is a product of Malay and
Chinese, particularly Hokkien, cultures. Therefore, he would welcome the
option to take either Mandarin or Malay as his mother tongue.

It is a well-known fact that many Peranakan students and even students
from English-educated Chinese homes have been struggling without much
success with Mandarin in schools. This is hardly surprising because the
vast majority of Peranakan students do not speak Chinese at home. Instead,
they speak Malay and English. And technically Malay is their mother tongue
or, in a broader sense, one of their two mother tongues, the other being

Britain's Oxford and America's Merriam-Websters dictionaries both define
mother tongue as "one's native language." Collins and Longman dictionaries
both define the term as the language first learned by a child. Today, with
a greater influx of foreigners and more marriages to foreigners, the
definition of mother tongue in the Singapore context has become more

For example, should the child of a Filipino couple, who have become
citizens here, learn Tagalog their own mother tongue rather than Malay or
Chinese? Such questions do not provide ready, clear-cut answers. But they
deserve careful thought and scrutiny by the Government and educators in
their endeavour to provide a fair and realistic system in the study of
languages in Singapore's multi-racial society.

The writer, a journalist for over three decades, now writes on social
issues and hopes to heighten public awareness about them. If you wish to
comment on the writer's views, email us at news at

  Copyright MediaCorp Press Ltd. All rights reserved.

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list