[lg policy] dialects in Singapore

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Sep 21 11:58:01 EDT 2017

Chinese Dialects in Singapore: The Government Responds

SEPT. 20, 2017
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To the Editor:

“In Singapore, Chinese Dialects Revive After Decades of Restrictions” (news
article, Aug. 27) alleged “linguistic repression” in Singapore and spoke of
“a softening in the government’s policy” toward the use of Chinese dialects
as a result of public discontent.

Singaporeans adopted English as the working language because it was the
international language of commerce. Parents, convinced that their children
had to master English to survive, sent their children to English-language
schools in droves from the 1960s.

Notwithstanding this powerful trend, the Singapore government strived to
keep the mother tongues (Chinese, Malay and Tamil) alive, by promoting
bilingualism as a fundamental education policy.

Chinese Singaporeans had to choose between maintaining multiple dialects
and adopting Mandarin. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding leader, pushed
for Mandarin because of its economic value, the sheer impracticality of
teaching multiple, mutually unintelligible dialects, and the desire to
establish a common language among Chinese Singaporeans. This remains the
government’s policy.

Dialect broadcasts are not new; we have always had them for older Chinese
Singaporeans. Grandparents want to communicate with their grandchildren,
but they do not want their grandchildren to learn dialects at the expense
of English or Mandarin. Most Singaporeans are not linguists with a gift for
languages. They know firsthand how difficult it is to master multiple

A young nation like Singapore will continue to develop its own culture and
identity. We encourage young Singaporeans to learn about their communities’
history, culture, heritage and language. But we have to recognize that for
Chinese Singaporeans the future is in English and Mandarin.


The writer is Singapore’s ambassador to the United States.

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