Kelvin Teo / TOCI Writer

So the dust has now settled over Minister Mentor Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s provocative call to chinese Singaporeans to focus on learning mandarin instead of their dialects. From a personal perspective, I didn’t find Mr Lee’s call surprising, given the fact that he has always championed Singapore’s role as the gateway to China. There have been exhaustive discussions on the domestic cultural impact of Mr Lee’s remark but little attention is paid to the political economy beyond the dialects and languages.

Geopolitical shift towards East Asia

As the fallout from the current global credit crisis continues, there has been some talk of America losing its superpower status as it reels from a double whammy – the collapse of its financial system and the overstretching of its military in Iraq and Afghanistan. And naysayers have further rubbed salt into the wound by predicting that the US dollar will lose its world currency status. The writing is already on the wall when OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) countries started dumping the dollars. Iran transacts in Euros with Venezuela following suit. And after the dollars hit its lowest against the yen, the likelihood of the former being knocked off its pedestal seems closer to reality.

There could be a shift in the balance of world power, a transition from one dominant entity to a few powerful entities. The BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations seem the likely candidates. China is poised to overtake America in terms of GDP by 2040. For ASEAN nations, trading volume with China is set to rise with the establishment of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area by 2010. The value of ASEAN-China trade was forecasted to hit $200 billion in 2008.

The Kra Canal Project, which is the planned waterway link between the Indian ocean and the South China sea and cutting across the Isthmus of Kra is in its revival stage. The Chinese will be providing assistance for the project, and it is a move to increase Chinese commercial and military presence within Southeast Asia, particularly in facilitating trade and enhance Chinese energy security. So the geopolitics shift and anticipation of increased trade links with China within the region might make learning mandarin an attractive postposition, no? Perhaps, there is use for learning mandarin after all. However, wouldn’t it seem a little premature to place the learning of our dialects into the backburner?

Mandarin alone offers no comparative advantage

Cantonese speakers amongst us might have a strong case for argument here. Cantonese makes up 15% of the Singaporean chinese population. Cantonese is spoken as a medium of communication in Guangzhou, a major business centre in China. And it will come in useful when interacting with business people from Hong Kong too. However, it is a fallacy to think that being chinese and able to speak mandarin would eventually lead to a comparative advantage. The failure of the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) serves as an important reminder to all of us.

SIP was initially conceived to the epitome of Singapore-style Industrial Township – a showcase of Singapore’s way of managing an industrial set-up. That wasn’t to be, and Singapore transferred a major part of SIP’s ownership back to the Chinese. What happened was that SIP was outgunned and outfoxed by the Suzhou New District, despite the former enjoying advantages ranging from initial political support from the Chinese Communist Party to freedom over planning and land use. The experiment to clone Singapore in China failed. Thus, what the SIP failure has taught us is that common language is no substitute for the appreciation of local political, social and economic culture. While learning the language or dialect involved in trade communications is important, but the key to survival is to be able to adapt to the prevailing business conditions.

Keeping Singaporeans at home

Last but not least, the very notion of home is increasingly diluted in Singapore. The Asia Research Centre of Murdoch University reported in December 2007 that 53% of Singaporean teens would consider emigration to greener pastures. Singapore’s outflow of 26.11 emigrants per 1000 citizens is ranked 2nd highest in the world, after Timor Leste. Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng also publicly acknowledged that Singaporean applications for overseas residency have already exceeded 1000 per month since 2007.

While many have attributed the emigration trend to better economic opportunities abroad, there are other push factors in Singapore that contributed to it. The growing disconnect between Singaporeans and their social environment, the OB markers keeping Singaporeans from taking ownership of their own identity in Singapore are among the push factors. Dialects play an important role in not only building a strong sense of identity towards one’s community, but also encourage Singaporeans to take pride of our own cultural diversity. If we cannot be proud of our own cultures, why would we even hold allegiance to this country by staking our individual economic futures here?


About the writer: Kelvin Teo works in the healthcare sector. He also writes for the independent NUS daily The Kentridge Common.


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