[lg policy] Singapore: The language holding Malays, Tamils and Chinese together

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sat Jan 29 15:50:20 UTC 2011

The language holding Malays, Tamils and Chinese together

by Ted Torrent, Asianomics

THOUGH it is not uncommon to find a small country with more than one
official language, Singapore is still an unusual case. Among four
official languages, Malay is the symbolic national language, English
the working language, and Mandarin the language representing the
island’s ethnic Chinese, even though it is not the "mother tongue" for
most. Clear?

Singaporeans & Malaysians Once Upon A Time

Add Tamil as the fourth official language, a range of Chinese
languages and ‘Singlish’, the distinctive creole that blends elements
of official languages along with a number of other tongues, and you
have the recipe for a tasty linguistic soup. All the more interesting
for existing in a country of fewer than 5m people once derided by a
Taiwanese deputy foreign minister as "only as big as a piece of snot".

As with many things Singaporean, language is an area that has been
subject to tight government control. At the recent launch of his
latest book, "Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going", Lee Kuan Yew,
Singapore’s first prime minister and now "minister mentor", outlined
how English, then a minority language, came to be the city-state’s
working tongue:

    We decided to opt for English as a common language and it was the
only decision which could have held Singapore together. If we had
Chinese as a common language, national language, we would have split
this country wide apart, and we would be foolish to have Malay or

Mr Lee argues that placing language policy at the centre of
nation-building—demanding that English was to be learnt by all
students, along with their “mother tongue”—was, and remains, central
to the Singapore’s survival. In the bland modernity of today’s
Singapore, it is easy to forget that its independence was preceded by
violent race riots, and that the choice of a neutral language as a
common tongue was needed for a new state with pronounced divisions and
few natural advantages other than its location.

NAS Pensacola 2010.

... And Malaysians under son of Iskandar Kutty's two decades of racist
and corrupt rule.

But a corollary of this thrust for unity and economic benefit was that
the government targeted Singlish and Chinese languages, like Hokkien
and Teochow. These were considered to interfere with learning Mandarin
and Standard English, and their use in the media was consequently
heavily restricted. As a result, while Singlish, Hokkien and others
may continue to be used in informal or family settings, or in the
popular podcasts by mrbrown—and may even be used by officials or in
government campaigns—their usage has fallen. One in five Chinese
Singaporeans now speak non-Mandarin Chinese at home, compared with
almost 80% 30 years ago. With English and Mandarin shaping up as the
dominant tongues of the 21st-century, Singapore’s language policy may
be proven right, but could still cost it one of the richest parts of
its identity

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