Singapore Table of Contents

In colonial Singapore, the nearest thing to a common language had been Bazaar Malay, a form of Malay with simplified grammar and a very restricted vocabulary that members of many ethnic groups used to communicate in the marketplace. The government used English, with translators employed when necessary, as in the courts. Among the Chinese a simplified form of Hokkien served as the language of the marketplace. The Chinese schools, which were founded in large numbers in the early years of the twentieth century and associated with the rise of Chinese nationalism, attempted to teach in Mandarin Guoyu, the use of which on such formal occasions as weddings and Chinese national holiday celebrations came to carry some prestige. In the terminology of sociolinguistics, Singapore's language system was multilingual and diglossiac, that is, characterized by two languages or dialects, high and low, or classical and vernacular, each used in different social contexts and carrying differential prestige. Bazaar Malay and market Hokkien were the low languages, employed in the streets and market places, and English and Mandarin were the high languages, used in education, government offices, and public celebrations. In addition, such native tongues as pure Malay, Teochiu, Tamil, or Punjabi were used in the home and in gatherings of members of the same speech group. In a 1972 survey asking which language people understood, Hokkien came first, at 73 percent, followed by Malay, with 57 percent. Malay was the most important language for intergroup communication, with almost all the Indians and 45 percent of the Chinese claiming to understand it. English came second, understood by 47 percent of the total population. A follow-up survey in 1978 showed that 67 percent claimed to understand Malay and 62 percent to comprehend English. As the 1990s approached English was replacing Malay as the common language. It was used not only as the high language but also, in its Singlish variant, as a low language of the streets. Bazaar Malay was declining, and Malay in its full native complexity was increasingly used only by Malays. Even though it was one of the four official languages and the putative "mother tongue" of the Indian community, Tamil was used less often and literacy in Tamil was reported to be declining.

The most ambitious aspect of Singapore's language planning and attempted social engineering was the campaign to replace the Chinese "dialects" with Mandarin, called the "mother tongue." The Speak Mandarin campaign began in 1979 as a PAP project and was subsequently institutionalized in the Mandarin Campaign Secretariat in the Ministry of Communications and Information. The promotion of Mandarin as a common Chinese language dates back to the early years of the century, when it was associated with the rise of Chinese nationalism and the foundation of Chinese schools. Learning Mandarin would, it was argued, permit all Chinese to communicate in their "mother tongue," be useful for doing business with China, and, perhaps most important, promote traditional Chinese values. All ethnic Chinese were required to study Mandarin through secondary school and to pass examinations in it for university admission. Chinese civil servants took a required 162-hour conversational Mandarin course, and the Mandarin Campaign Secretariat coordinated the annual Speak Mandarin campaigns. Mandarin classes were offered by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry and by some native-place and clan associations. All Chinese television broadcasting was in Mandarin, as was most radio broadcasting. Radio programs in Chinese dialects were limited to 9:00 P.M. to midnight on the same station that broadcast Tamil from 5:00 A.M. to 9:00 P.M. In 1989 members of Parliament complained that some residents were tuning in to Cantonese opera broadcast by television stations in neighboring Malaysia. By late 1988, some 87 percent of the Chinese population claimed to be able to speak Mandarin. People did not agree, however, on the appropriate social contexts for use of what was for everyone a school language. As a result, people tended to use English or their native tongue on most everyday occasions. During the late 1980s, the Speak Mandarin campaign attempted to persuade people to use Mandarin when shopping and targeted taxi drivers, bus conductors, and operators of food stalls as workers who were to use Mandarin.

The goals of the Speak Mandarin campaign included improving communication between Chinese speech groups, teaching people to read Chinese, and promoting Confucianism. Some critics argued that children were expected to learn two foreign languages in school (English and Mandarin) and that for some students the result was fluency in neither. The official response was that the problem would be avoided if people would speak Mandarin at home. Some educators questioned whether a sufficient level of Chinese literacy could be achieved with the amount of time the schools devoted to Chinese, a point that was indirectly supported in August 1988 when Brigadier General Lee Hsien Loong, the minister for trade and industry and son of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, urged Chinese newspapers to use simpler language to attract younger readers. Some academics questioned the restriction of Chinese values to Confucianism and recalled that in the 1950s and early 1960s Chinese was the language of radicalism and revolt rather than of loyalty and conservatism. The necessity of learning Mandarin to conserve traditional Chinese culture was not obvious to those Chinese who felt that Chinese culture had been transmitted for centuries through Hokkien, Teochiu, and Cantonese. They pointed out that the colloquial speech of modern Beijing (upon which Mandarin is based) was as distant from the classical Chinese of the Confucian texts as was colloquial Cantonese. Giving up the dialects implied a major transformation of the social structure of the Chinese community, because the associational and commercial structure of Singapore's Chinese-oriented society rested on (and reinforced) dialect distinctions.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress