[lg policy] Language policy in Singapore

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Dec 7 16:29:55 UTC 2011

* Disclaimer: This is not a bashing thread. Rather, this is a thread
which I hope to have the views of language learners in determining
what should have done better in the implementation of language
policies. For a small economy like Singapore, the success of language
policy can determine the survival of the country. Former Prime
Minister of Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, had taken some language
policies that enable Singapore to survive at the expense of the
language abilities of his people. The following introduces his newest
book which explains and defends the decision taken.
Recently, former Prime Minister of Singapore Mr Lee Kuan Yew has wrote
a book titled ” My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore's Bilingual Journey”
to explain the language policies he have taken in the early years of
Singapore’s independence. The book highlighted several controversy
decisions such as:
My Lifelong Challenge is the story of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's 50-year
struggle to transform Singapore from a polyglot former British colony
into a united nation where everyone, while knowing English, knows at
least one other language, his own mother tongue. The founding prime
minister of Singapore tells why he did away with vernacular schools in
spite of violent political resistance, why he closed Nanyang
University, why he later started Special Assistance Plan schools, and
why he continues to urge all ethnic Chinese Singaporeans today to
learn the Chinese language.
The reader learns not only about the many policy adjustments but also
the challenges Mr Lee encountered – from Chinese language chauvinists
who wanted Chinese to be the pre-eminent language in Singapore, from
Malay and Tamil community groups fearing that Chinese were given too
much emphasis, from parents of all races wanting an easier time for
their school-going children, and even from his own Cabinet colleagues
questioning his assumptions about language.

The problems mentioned above are not only found in Singapore; these
problems are also found in many countries where different groups of
people are artificially placed together in a country, such as most
African nations. It is worth to discuss the success, the failure , the
benefits and the costs for implementing language policies which try to
balance the different ethic groups and beneficial for the wellbeing of
the country at the same time.
In addition, there are some articles I found which speak about the
development of languages in Singapore. Here is an extract about the
Tamil language in Singapore:
‘The Singapore educational system supports a well-developed and
comprehensive bilingual education program for its three major
linguistic communities on an egalitarian basis, so Tamil is a sort of
“test-case” for how well a small language community can survive in a
multilingual society where larger groups [Chinese and Malay] are doing
well. But Tamil is acknowledged by many to be facing a number of
crises; Tamil as a home language is not being maintained by the
better-educated, and Indian education in Singapore is also not living
up to the expectations many people have for it. Educated people who
love Tamil are upset that Tamil is becoming thought of as a “coolie
language” and regret this very much. Since Tamil is a language
characterized by extreme diglossia, there is the additional
pedagogical problem of trying to maintain a language with two
variants, but with a strong cultural bias on the part of the
educational establishment for maintaining the literary dialect to the
detriment of the spoken one

Here is an extract from the Wikipedia, which tells about the practical
implementation in schools, as well as the problem the children are
facing under these policies:
Education policies Singapore has a bilingual education policy. All
students in government schools are educated in English as their first
language. Students in Primary and Secondary schools also learn a
second language called their 'Mother Tongue' by the Ministry of
Education, where they are either taught Mandarin Chinese, Malay or
Tamil . English is the language of instruction in all government
schools with time provided for mother tongue lessons on a weekly
basis. Mother tongue is also used in moral education classes in
primary school. While 'mother tongue' generally refers to the first
language (L1) overseas, it is used by the Ministry of Education to
denote the "ethnic language" or the second language (L2) in Singapore.
The impact of the bilingual policy differs from students of one racial
group to another. For the Chinese, when the policy was first
implemented, many students found themselves struggling with two
foreign languages: English and Mandarin. Even though dialects then
were widely spoken at home, Chinese dialects were excluded from the
classroom as it was felt that they would be an "impediment to learning
Chinese". Today, although Mandarin Chinese is more widely spoken, many
students still struggle with learning it. To ease their difficulties,
several revisions have been made to the education system. These
include the now-defunct EM3 stream and Chinese B, both in which
Mandarin is taught at a lower than mainstream level. The
Malay-speaking community also faced similar problems when the
bilingual policy was implemented. Today, the lack of support in school
has led to the decline of dialects. Malay is the lingua franca among
the Javanese, Boyanese, other Indonesian groups and some Arabs. It is
Malay, and not dialects, which are valued as the means for
transmitting familial and religious values. ‘Madrasahs’ or religious
schools, mosques and religious classes all employ Malay. However,
Malay in turn is facing competition from English. For the Indians, the
situation is different. Options for non-Vernacular Languages like
Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati and Urdu are available . The
Ministry of Education (MOE) in Singapore defines 'Mother Tongue' not
by the home language or the first language learned by the student but
by his/her father's ethnicity. For example, a child born to a
Hokkien-speaking Chinese father and Tamil- speaking Indian mother
would automatically be assigned to take Mandarin Chinese as the Mother
Tongue language. In 2007, the Ministry of Education announced that it
would encourage many schools to offer conversational Malay or Chinese
to those who are not taking either language as their mother tongue.
The Ministry of Education will be providing the schools with the
resources needed for this programme.[41] In 2008, there were 488
schools offering this programme.[42] Singapore's 'bilingualism' policy
of teaching and learning English and mother tongue in primary and
secondary schools is rationalized as the 'cultural ballast' to
safeguard Asian cultural identities and values against Western

With the big picture about the issues, the challenges, the problems
and the side effects of the current language policy in Singapore well
understood, how would you as language learners, would improve the
policy? If you were Prof Arguelles, how would you advice Prime
Minister Lee to achieve bilingualism in the population, without the
nasty side effects or back firing ?
For those of you who want to read more: here are the links:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L anguages_of_Singapore
BMarket/Story/A1Story2011112 0-311621.html
http://ccat.sas.upenn.ed u/~haroldfs/public/implement.html
al%20book%20summary.pdf[/UR L]

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