Make mandarin compulsory for all

Imran Ahmed

Immigration into Singapore has become a hot button issue among ‘born and bred’ Singaporeans.

As typically happens during recessions, there is a sense that ‘foreign talent’ is taking away jobs from indigenous Singaporeans. However, the debate is not always restricted to the economic sphere and often slips into the realm of race and ethnicity.

Race and ethnicity are sensitive issues here in Singapore. Government policies are implemented with a focus on increasing the ‘common space’ and fostering a tolerant and multi-cultural environment.

Citizens can only attend Singaporean schools where the curriculum is tightly controlled. International schools with their own individual courses of study are the preserve of the expatriate population. (See here)Government subsidized housing is assigned on the basis of ‘race’ to ensure that ethnic enclaves are not formed. Public holidays are allocated to the various communities as a result of which all Singaporeans celebrate Christmas, Hari Raya (Eid), Deepavali and Chinese New Year as public holidays. An individual’s race is even mentioned in his identity card (and yes my race is Pakistani!).

Foreigners who decide to make  Singapore their home take the form of those who have ‘Permanent Resident‘ (PR) status and those who are  naturalized Singapore citizens. Male children of all citizens must participate in the military for two years (National Service) under the Enlistment Act. While it is optional for male children of PRs, applications for Singapore citizenship from PR kids who did not partake in National Service are not entertained.

Many perceive the recent wave of immigrants, mainly from the People’s Republic of China and India, as being ‘opportunists’ who have a limited commitment to Singapore. Some believe they are only here to take advantage of government subsidies, especially housing grants and baby bonuses. (To address Singapore’s problem of an ageing population cash subsidies and tax credits are provided by the government as inducements to citizens to have babies.)

Additionally, it is commonly thought the new immigrants have scant regard for the rules which have slowly transformed ‘Singapore Inc.’ into a powerful brand. Many have imported social habits and customs (e.g. littering, spitting) which Singaporeans have painstakingly moved away from during the last four decades.

Language is another contentious issue. Singapore has four official languages (Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English) but everyone learns and speaks English (see also ‘Singlish‘). Many of the fresh Chinese immigrants speak only Mandarin . This irks those Singaporeans who rely on English as the lingua franca of the island as many do not speak Mandarin. I do not wish to pontificate about the pros and cons of immigration as a necessity for maintaining economic growth and, hence, social stability in the island. I will leave that to the country’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who can argue the case much more persuasively than me. (He does have a track record of delivering results which any corporate or political leader can only dream off!)

What I do wish to say is that the issue of integrating Singapore’s diverse population is more than just about making certain everyone can speak English.

It is about the ability to speak Mandarin in a Chinese society.

The teaching of Mandarin must be made compulsory for all Singaporeans, irrespective of their race.

The academic curriculum should be revised to ensure that Singapore’s kids are functionally fluent in three languages: English, Mandarin, and their mother tongue (Malay or Tamil).

Some may suggest that such an action can be deemed to be domineering by the majority race. Or whether Singapore’s already overburdened students can manage another serious subject.

Learning Mandarin is a practical matter and one that should be motivated by self-interest. If I could speak Mandarin my employability and market value will increase tremendously. The nature of jobs and occupations available to me multiply exponentially. These jobs may range from manufacturing concerns that have production facilities in China to entities trying to break into the Chinese market for goods and services.

Can a non-Mandarin speaker in Singapore truly integrate into Singaporean society? Despite the role of English as Singapore’s universal language an English speaker (like me) will always face limitations. The idea is not to supplant the supremacy of English but to take integration of all races in Singapore to the next level.

As for schoolchildren and whether they can mentally handle the stress of another major subject, examples from other parts of the world suggest that it is reasonable to assume that three languages can be taught at school.

It is not unusual for small nations to be multi-lingual. Most residents of the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland speak three languages. To be sure, the national curriculum will need to be adequately adjusted to ensure that space is created for teaching Mandarin. A major change in the curriculum cannot happen overnight and should be preceded by adequate research and debate.

Making the next generation of Singaporeans tri-lingual will increase social cohesion among all races and is an idea whose time has come. Ethnic and religious fault lines will decrease as inter-ethnic communication increases further. A small globally integrated economy like Singapore will reap the added bonus of enhancing the country’s existing competitive advantages in trade and the service sector by catering more fully to the ever growing China market.

Our neighbours have got this one right – Malaysians of all races study Malay from their first day at school. Is it finally time for Singapore to learn a trick from its old partner and rival?


Imran blogs here too:


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