Mr Chee, who was the Principal Private Secretary to the late and former Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, was responding to criticisms from the public for a letter he had written to the press in 2009.
In that letter, Mr Chee had said, “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.”
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.”
Mr Chee’s letter was defending the government’s bilingual policy.
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.”
However, in what is a u-turn in his position – after criticisms of his letter surfaced again this week – Mr Chee told the media on Friday, “The idea of learning dialects, I think as a private initiative, you want to learn it from friends, you want to learn it from clan associations, I think that’s fine.”
“I think the issue of dialects is one where it is very much about being able to communicate with your elders, being able to understand what your roots are,” he said.
“The idea of learning dialects, I think as a private initiative, you want to learn it from friends, you want to learn it from clan associations, I think that’s fine.”
Nonetheless, Mr Chee stood his ground when it came to the national policy.
“The national policy of focusing on English and the mother tongue, I think is still the correct policy, because most of the students will still have to focus on these two languages. But for people who are more talented, they have the interest, they have a passion to want to learn more about dialects, whether it is to develop their cultural understanding or to communicate with senior citizens, I think that’s not a bad initiative.
“I wouldn’t, as I said, advocate it as a policy for our schools. So at the MOE, schools level, the focus should still be on English and Mother Tongue, because that would be what the majority of our students would require.”
It is unclear why Mr Chee would presume that Singaporeans were calling for dialects to be taught in schools. There have not been any such calls.
Neither did Dr ng make any suggestions for this in her 2009 speech – she was merely observing that dialects in Singapore were facing the same fate as some languages around the world.