Singapore’s language disconnect

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By Michael Y.P. Ang

Question: Which country once allowed a foreign corporation to set up shop on its soil and prohibit local staff from speaking its national and two other official languages?

Answer: Singapore.

The foreign company was American book and music retailer Borders, whose Singapore staff were permitted to converse only in English in 2002.

To be entirely anglophone or not to be?

Speaking at a secondary school’s anniversary dinner last Thursday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that Singapore might have become a completely anglophone country if not for the government’s bilingual policy.

Herein lies the disconnect. If being a strictly anglophone society is not ideal for Singaporeans, why was a foreign corporation allowed to enforce an English-only policy, forbidding its Singaporean staff from conversing in other official languages?

It was understood that the policy was a response to customers’ requests, raising the question: Were those customers Singaporeans or English-speaking foreigners? Whoever they were, it was a sign of cracks within the multilingual and multiracial fabric of our society. Apparently, some people were intolerant of unfamiliar languages.

For all its talk of building a multiracial society, why does the government tolerate the incoveniences suffered by Singaporean minorities whenever they face a customer service agent with inadequate language skills? Such agents are usually China nationals allowed by the government to work in Singapore despite not being conversant in our lingua franca.

Restriction of dialects unjustified

At the recent launch of this year’s Speak Mandarin Campaign, PM Lee defended the government’s 35-year-old policy that restricts the use of dialects, emphasising the difficulty for most people to master English, Mandarin and dialects at the same time. But who needs to “master” all of them?

To support his view that greater exposure to dialects will weaken one’s command of English and Mandarin, PM Lee pointed out Hongkongers’ excellent command of Cantonese, and that “they are not as fluent in Mandarin and less so in English”. However, simply alluding to this fact does not paint the whole picture.

Cantonese is Hongkongers’ true mother tongue and the language of instruction in schools. It is only natural that Hongkongers are most proficient in Cantonese, not as fluent in their second language (Mandarin) and even less so in their third language (English).

Aren’t most Singaporeans more proficient in their language of instruction in schools (English) than they are in their second language (Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil)? Furthermore, there is no evidence to show that limited exposure to dialects helps to improve one’s command of English and Mandarin in any major way.

The difference between Hongkongers and Chinese Singaporeans is that the former have at least a certain command of a third language (English), but almost all Chinese Singaporeans under 35 are unable to speak a third language – their ancestral language.

Mandarin NOT the mother tongue of many

The Ministry of Education doesn’t claim that Tamil is the mother tongue of all Indian Singaporeans. That’s because it is not. The mother tongue of some Indian Singaporeans could be Gujarati, Bengali, Punjabi, or another language.

But why does the MOE claim that Mandarin is the mother tongue of Chinese Singaporeans? Note that Mandarin is based on a Beijing dialect.

What we normally refer to as dialects are, linguistically speaking, separate languages. They are mutually unintelligible. Mandarin is merely one of many Sinitic languages, a language family to which Hokkien and Teochew (Southern Min languages), Foochow (Eastern Min), Cantonese (Yue language), and Hakka also belong.

Any of these five south-eastern Chinese languages is the true mother tongue of a significant portion of Chinese Singaporeans.

We should also remember that English is the mother tongue of some Chinese Singaporeans. One’s mother tongue is not determined by ethnicity.

It is clear that the Speak Mandarin Campaign has been a failure. After 35 years of campaigning, many Chinese Singaporeans still cannot read and write Chinese fluently, or speak Mandarin without borrowing English words to express themselves.

Unfortunately, the government refuses to admit that failure and continues using public resources to promote a northern Chinese dialect as Chinese Singaporeans’ mother tongue.