PM refuses to yield on the Speak Mandarin (Forgo Dialects) policy

(This post by Jentrified Citizen first appeared on his blog on 20 July 2014. It is reproduced with permission.)

By Jentrified Citizen

Blustery rebuttal letter from Prime Minister Lee’s Office published in ST on July 11. All fury and little substance.

Two days after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong launched the 35th anniversary celebration of the Speak Mandarin Campaign in early July, Lianhe Zaobao published a commentary that rained on his parade. Zaobao, which is staunchly pro-Govt, had uncharacteristically criticised the Speak Mandarin campaign saying the campaign and the bilingual policy had exacted a very high price from the people as it had turned the use of Mandarin and dialects into “a zero-sum game” with dialects being the victim.

The Government’s policy had also created a divide between the dialect-speaking pioneer generation and their mainly English-speaking grandchildren, leading to a loss of traditional Chinese values and sense of identity and the hastening the Westernisation of society, said the Zaobao editorial which also pointed out the falling standards of the Chinese language here.

The Prime Minister’s Office sent a strong letter rebutting Zaobao’s editorial without conceding that its policy had hurt dialects and communication with the elderly and standards of Chinese language. PMO even audaciously claimed that without that draconian policy there would be a generation of Singaporeans who cannot understand, speak or write the language. And it stubbornly, defiantly even, insisted that its policy remains relevant today as most people cannot master English, Mandarin and dialects at the same time!

These claims, in my opinion as an older generation Chinese, is untrue, without basis and a gross exaggeration by the PMO to defend its Speak Mandarin-Forgo Dialects campaign at all costs. One wonders if the insular official view that it is nigh impossible to master Chinese language and dialects is coloured by the anglicised Lee Kuan Yew’s own experience as he did not learn to speak Mandarin in earnest until a late age in his 30s after he was shamed during an election in 1955 by an opposition candidate for not being able to speak Chinese even though he was Chinese.

The PMO’s die-die-must-defend attitude smacks of deliberate ignorance and a refusal to acknowledge reality and the citizens’ needs. Firstly, the Mother Tongue for the Chinese refers historically to our dialects and not to Mandarin. Removing dialects from the Chinese is akin to removing our cultural roots and heritage. We also have scientific studies that prove that children have an innate ability to learn more than one language at the same time when young and experience has shown that knowing dialects can aid in the learning of Mandarin. More importantly we have living proof.

Our older generation from age 40s onwards know that the PMO’s argument against dialects is fallacious and hollow as many of the older educated Chinese here grew up able to speak English, Mandarin and dialects and even some Malay unlike majority of the younger Singaporean Chinese who only know English and Mandarin. Adding to the irony , it appears that the well-educated older generation tend to speak and write better English and Chinese compared to many of the younger generation in their 20s and 30s who have problems grasping the basics of grammar, syntax, tenses and accurate pronunciation and enunciation.

In its rebuttal letter, the PMO also trotted out a frayed argument when it said its “pragmatic policy” (speak mandarin – forgo dialects) has worked well compared to Hongkong’s experience with three languages (English, Mandarin and Cantonese). Was it even right for the PMO to compare our country with Hongkong which is predominantly Chinese and whose people have been speaking Cantonese as the lingua franca for centuries? It is a language which the HK people are proud of and it is what gives them a strong sense of identity. Moreover, many HK people are able to speak Mandarin and English pretty well these days.

The PMO should have compared Singapore with Malaysia instead of Hongkong. Malaysia, like Singapore is multi-racial and multi-cultural. For the record, Malaysian Chinese are able to speak English, Mandarin, dialects and Malay without the insurmountable difficulties touted by our government.

Like Malaysians, older Singaporean Chinese had comfortably used a combination of languages to communicate with our friends and family long before the bilingual policy was introduced in 1979. When growing up, as with other older gen Singaporeans, I spoke English/Mandarin/various dialects/Malay/Singlish with my friends, English and dialect with my father, Mandarin and dialect with my mum and dialects with my older relatives.

So are we better or worse off with the Speak Mandarin campaign which has sacrificed all dialects in a callous and disrespect manner?

Today, many of our young Singaporeans are unable to speak any dialect except perhaps for some common jargon like Shiok and cuss words like KNN. Thankfully, we still have Singlish which incorporates the use of some dialect words or else dialects may really become obsolete in Singapore’s not-too-distant future. It would be a great loss to us if dialects were to disappear from our society. We would lose a valuable part of our Chinese and Singaporean culture and history if so. Those stories told to us by our grandparents in dialects, childhood songs sung in dialects, those colourful words that added vibrancy and nuances to our conversations (especially feisty in heated arguments)…all never to be heard again on our island. A truly depressing possibility.

It is tragic that dialects were politicised and neutralised when the PAP came into power. It is regrettable that till today, PM Lee is stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the flaws in the Speak Mandarin-Forgo Dialects policy and the very real need to make more space for dialects to flourish. One wonders why? Are they afraid a review will amount to an admission of error on the Government’s part or that it might undermine their power base somehow? What exactly are they afraid of?

We live in a different era now and have reached a point where English is the lingua franca in our country and Mandarin is also spoken by most if not all local Chinese. Allowing dialects to be aired on local media and encouraging the young to learn some dialects isn’t going to threaten our society nor the learning of Mandarin. Learning to speak dialects doesn’t mean we will stop speaking Mandarin just as reading a book about two male penguins hatching an egg isn’t going to turn us gay.

Ironically, we hear a great deal of dialects being used by the PAP candidates and their entourage when they campaign for votes during the General Elections and when they go on house to house visits to sell their party. The PAP-Government knows full well the power of dialects in communication, especially with the older generation, so why do they continue to deprive younger Singaporeans of this ability?

It frustrates many of us that our dogmatic government appears frozen in an outdated paradigm and is unable to evolve to meet changing societal needs. If only it has the heart and honesty to soul search and to review its policies for the betterment of the people. A leader who is unable to humble himself to learn from past mistakes to make changes will only hold back and even stymie the growth of the nation and the citizens. We do not want that to happen to our country.


Some background notes: Many of our younger generation are unaware that the PAP-government under former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had taken a deliberate and oppressive approach to minimise the presence and use of dialects while promoting the use of Mandarin. All dialects, including dual-sound options- were banned from TV and radio programmes. This not only deprived many elderly from enjoying their daily dose of entertainment in dialects, it also removed the opportunity for Singaporeans to learn dialects via the local media. There were also several official campaign slogans over the years exhorting citizens to “Speak More Mandarin, Speak Less Dialects” (1979), to believe that “Mandarin’s In, Dialect’s Out” (1983), “Start With Mandarin, Not Dialect” (1986) and that we are “Better with more Mandarin, less dialect” (1988), and for us to adopt “More Mandarin, Less Dialect. Make It A Way Of Life” (1989).


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