Mr Chee was writing in his capacity as then Principal Private Secretary to the late former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.
Mr Chee was revealed on Wednesday as one of the People’s Action Party (PAP) candidates for the Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC in the upcoming general election.
His last appointment was Second Permanent Secretary for Trade and Industry.
In his 2009 letter, Mr Chee was responding to comments made by the then acting head of Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Division of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies, Dr Ng Bee Chin, who reportedly said at a language seminar:
“Although Singaporeans are still multilingual, 40 years ago, we were even more multilingual. Young children are not speaking some of these languages at all any more.
“All it takes is one generation for a language to die.”
In his letter, Mr Chee defended the government’s language policy.
“We have achieved progress with our bilingual education in the past few decades,” Mr Chee said. “Many Singaporeans are now fluent in both English and Mandarin.”
He said the government “emphasised the learning of Mandarin, to make it the mother tongue for all Chinese Singaporeans, regardless of their dialect groups.”
“This is the common language of the 1.3 billion people in China,” Mr Chee said. “To engage China, overseas Chinese and foreigners are learning Mandarin and not the dialects of the different Chinese provinces.”
He said that “Singapore’s experience over 50 years of implementing the bilingual education policy has shown that most people find it extremely difficult to cope with two languages when they are as diverse as English and Mandarin.”
“This is why we have discouraged the use of dialects,” he explained. “It interferes with the learning of Mandarin and English. Singaporeans have to master English. It is our common working language and the language which connects us with the world.”
Mr Chee’s letter prompted more response from the public, many of whom wrote to dispute his claims.
Read this: “A response to MM Lee’s private secretary on dialects“.
Ironically, at the press conference on Wednesday where he was introduced as a PAP candidate, Mr Chee spoke in the Hokkien dialect, along with English and Chinese.
“There is a Hokkien saying: you must be committed to what you do,” Mr Chee said in Hokkien. “This is what I believe. I hope to have the opportunity to serve everyone.”