Chee Hong Tat

Chee Hong Tat’s remarks on dialects attract criticisms again – 6 years on

Chee Hong Tat
Chee Hong Tat

When he wrote that fateful letter to the press in March 2009, the then Principal Private Secretary to the late and former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, Chee Hong Tat, was lambasted for it.

Now, six years on, he is once again chastised by the public after The Online Citizen (TOC) and other sites highlighted his remarks on the learning of dialects in Singapore. (See here.)

Straits Times, Mar 2009
Straits Times, Mar 2009

Mr Chee, who has been unveiled as a PAP candidate for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC in the upcoming elections – had written a letter to the Straits Times Forum page in 2009 to rebut what a Dr Ng Bee Chin – head of the Division of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies at the Nanyang Technological University – had observed,  that young children are not speaking dialects anymore.

Dr Ng noted that languages die off quickly when people don’t use them. She said that it only took one generation for a language to die out.

However, Dr Ng did not advocate that dialects be taught in schools or in the classrooms.

Nonetheless, her comments seem to have touched a raw nerve with Mr Chee, who promptly wrote his response to the press.

“It would be stupid for any Singapore agency or NTU to advocate the learning of dialects, which must be at the expense of English and Mandarin,” he said in his letter.

His remarks soon drew widespread condemnation, with many bloggers at the time taking him to task.

In an article titled “Where’s the diplomacy“, blogger Ian Tan asked:


Blogger “BBQ Chicken Wing” also took offence at the use of the word “stupid” by Mr Chee, and said that it was an insult to Singaporeans’ heritage and history to suggest that learning dialects was “stupid”.


“Groundnotes” felt the same, in an article titled, “Cunning Linguist“:


Little Fish” felt that perhaps there was a “little hubris” in the attitude of Mr Chee in trumpeting the triumph of the government’s bilingualism policy:


For blogger “Nowhere“, Mr Chee’s remarks showed how “some of the bureaucrats… despise the very people they are tasked to serve.”


Even present-day bloggers have taken offence at Mr Chee’s letter of six years ago.

Ms Jeraldine Phneah had campaigned and championed for the return of dialects to television, and said she first got to know of Mr Chee’s “existence when I was running a campaign to reintroduce dialects two years ago.”

“During my campaign, I was not calling for active promotion of dialects but rather a very simple decision – reverse policy of banning dialects on free-to-air television and radio,” she said in a blog post following the report by TOC on Wednesday.

Ms Phneah’s post was titled: “The New PAP Candidate Who I Have The Poorest Impression Of“.

She said that Mr Chee seems to be guilty of three things: possessing a lack of critical thinking; coming across as a fake; and that he doesn’t seem to understand the ground.

Ms Phneah had strong words indeed for the former civil servant.

“Seems to me that Chee is a typical yes man who just follows orders and resonates the point of view of those above him without exercising critical thought,” she said.

She also noted, as TOC reported, that Mr Chee had introduced himself in Hokkien at a PAP press conference on Tuesday.

“Personally, I find this so hypocritical,” Ms Phneah said. “PAP candidates often claim that dialects are no longer widely used in Singapore. Yet, when General Election comes, everyone starts giving dialect speeches. Okay, so if dialects are irrelevant and no longer widely used, why are you trying so hard to connect with this small group of people?”


Ms Phneah then added:

“Back to the topic of Chee, if you think dialects are irrelevant, why speak in it? Suddenly when you are running for elections and need to win old aunties and uncles in an elderly district over, it becomes okay is it?

“I kind of doubt his sincerity in helping the elderly people in this GRC. The policy he supports so fervently – intentional suppression of dialects in our society – has led to the elderly being denied from economic opportunities and resigned to doing hard manual labour; isolated from society and even their own families.”


Mr Chee has not responded to the flood of criticisms back in 2009 and in the last two days.

PAP candidates have often taken to using dialects at press conferences and party rallies during elections, despite the government’s disapproval of dialects.

It has given rise to criticisms of hypocrisy – that it is willing to use dialects when it needed to win votes, but bans its use when it no longer has use for them.