[lg policy] Language Policy and Indian Languages in Singapore

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Nov 29 14:47:53 UTC 2011

Language Policy and Indian Languages in Singapore
Posted by: isasssr | November 28, 2011

Sinderpal Singh Sinderpal
Research Fellow, ISAS

In a letter to the Straits Times in early November this year, a reader
lamented the fact that on the day of Diwali/Deepavali, the local
television channel, Vasantham, which is the dedicated local ‘Indian’
channel, did not broadcast any movies in either Hindi or Punjabi, with
Tamil virtually dominating this channel on that specific day.  There
was a related flurry of excitement on the internet as well with many
netizens pointing out that Vasantham used to broadcast one or two
Hindi language movies on Diwali/Deepavali in years gone by and that
somehow there had been a conscious decision made this year by the
channel to exclude non-Tamil language Indian movies. The fact that
Vasantham is a publicly funded channel was not lost on these netizens,
several of whom called for Singapore’s Media Development Authority to
explain this decision.

This issue of Tamil vs non-Tamil language broadcasts runs deeper than
just mere jostling for language space on publicly funded TV channels.
At independence, Singapore chose to have four official languages –
Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and English – that persist till today. Malay,
in addition, is the national language of Singapore.  There was a sense
that clearly delineated ethnic groups needed to be paired with an
‘ethnic’ language (Malay for the Malay community, Mandarin for the
Chinese population and Tamil for the Indian minority), with English
acting as the overarching commercial and legal ‘working’ language of
Singapore.  While the choice of Malay was quite obvious, the choice of
Mandarin for the Chinese community was bitterly contested initially
(some would say till very recently as well!). Ethnic Chinese who had
been speaking (and continue to speak) in their various Chinese
dialects saw the imposition of Mandarin as an assault on their
regional/clan identities. The choice of Tamil for the Indian community
was as, if not more, controversial. However given the fact that those
of Tamil origin formed, at that time, a significant majority group
within the Indian community, Tamil as the representative Indian
language came to be , in some cases, begrudgingly, accepted by the
non-Tamil Indian population in Singapore.

In the last two decades or so, however, two important things have
happened that once again has rekindled the debate about the place of
Tamil vs non-Tamil languages among the Indian population in Singapore.

The first was the Ministry of Education’s decision in 1989 to allow
non-Tamil Indian students to have the option to take a non-Tamil
Indian language as their official Mother Tongue language. There were
five language options offered – Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Punjabi and
Urdu. Although Tamil remained as the sole Indian official language, it
had lost its place as the only Indian Mother Tongue language available
for those enrolled in Singapore National Education system.

The second has been the significant demographic change within the
Indian community in Singapore. In the latest census of Singapore’s
population carried out in 2010, just below 50% of the Indian
population was literate in the Tamil language, with just a bit more
than a third of the Indian population speaking Tamil at home. This
demographic change is largely attributed to the increased numbers of
new citizens and permanent residents who have migrated to Singapore in
the last 5—7 years and who largely are non-Tamil speakers. Thus an
uneasy coalition is beginning to develop in the attempt to gain
greater public space for non-Tamil Indian languages between the
non-Tamil Indian community of the ‘old’ diaspora and the non-Tamil
speaking Indians who have recently arrived as the ‘new’ diaspora.

For the moment, despite some open public pressure, there are no signs
that Tamil will lose its first among equals position amongst other
Indian languages. However, the time for an open and honest debate
amongst the Indian community and between the state and them cannot be
avoided for too long. Language policy, like other forms of public
policy, needs to adapt to changing circumstances for it to be
legitimate and effective. In the case of Indian languages and language
policy in Singapore, the time is now.

We welcome all comments and feedback at isasblog at nus.edu.sg.


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