Singapore’s Speak Mandarin Campaign clown show moment

Singapore’s Speak Mandarin Campaign clown show moment

by Vernon Chan

A funny thing happened on the launch of the 2017 edition of the Speak Mandarin Campaign. The poster, unveiled at the official launch by a minister on 12 July, promotes the 2017 slogan for the campaign, which should translate as “Listen, speak, read, write”. Except that the third character 渎 isn’t the one for “read” 读. The character 渎 actually means “diss” or “disrespect”.

This is what COVFEFE looks like in Chinese. This is what sheer incompetence looks like in Singapore.

Well-deserved schadenfreude?

Why does Singapore, an ethnic Chinese majority country, need a Speak Mandarin Campaign? How does a Speak Mandarin Campaign goof up this badly? And why is it scrambling so badly, you’d think its legitimacy is imperiled, its reservoir of goodwill depleted?

We have previously noted that the first cabinet in self-governing Singapore was faced with a pressing issue that forced it to revise its vision of a multicultural, multilingual nation.

Who really won the civil war in Singapore?

Pre-merger bilingualism as promoted by the PAP consisted of Malay (the national language then and still today) plus either Tamil, Mandarin, or English, depending solely on one’s medium of education. The ‘second language’ one spoke did not have any bearing on one’s ethnic identity, and was not expected to. That was the original PAP understanding of bilingualism and culture. As opposed to current orthodoxy of bilingualism in Singapore, which links language, culture, and ethnicity in essentialist terms.

What was the pressing issue that forced such a drastic change in the PAP’s vision?

A state-approved slideshow explaining why purges were necessary

The political purge of the Chinese political elite prior to, on the eve of, and continuing after 1959. Such blatant repression is something that one can get away with, but not without consequences. The price the PAP had to pay was simple. The British would only allow a post-colonial Singapore to exist as a democratic state, whether it be part of a federation or an independent entity.

The price Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP had to pay to remain in power in a democratic Singapore was this: it had to pander to and mollify the Chinese electorate. Having promised that Malay would be the lingua franca in Singapore as the price of admission into the Malaysian Federation, Lee now made a stunning volte face: the PAP government selectively appropriated the cultural and social agendas of the defeated Chinese political elite to fashion a “Chinese” identity that was acceptable to the PAP’s nation-building project. Not only that, the civil service began to absorb the Chinese cultural elites, placed them in silos in the ministries of culture and education and the People’s Association, and ‘soft policy’ areas surrendered to this group.

The Speak Mandarin Campaign and the Promote Mandarin Council must be understood as a vehicle for the Nantah lobby and the reactionary, essentialist, and race-based approach to bilingualism promoted by the Chinese cultural elites, one that is condoned by the state.

No love for the Speak Mandarin Campaign

How would a Mandarin promotion council and campaign not endear itself to a ethnic Chinese audience? The history of Singapore’s Speak Mandarin Campaign shows us exactly how and why.

In its inception in 1979, the Speak Mandarin Campaign waged a cultural war on “dialects”, a copy and paste version of China’s policy on “dialects”, in an attempt to mollify and court Singapore’s ethnic Chinese vote. That’s when the majority of the ethnic Chinese population in Singapore spoke dialect at home as their first language.

The Speak Mandarin Campaign persisted, doubling down annually with shrill and unironic slogans like “Mandarin’s in, Dialect’s out”, “Speak Mandarin, your children’s future is in your hands”, “Mandarin is Chinese”, “Mandarin for Chinese Singaporeans”, “Mandarin. Use it or lose it”. When awarded carte blanche over cultural policy, the Chinese cultural elites’ unstated ideological view that an ethnic Chinese who could not speak Mandarin was less deserving of respect or recognition as a Chinese person was brought into daylight.

“Chinese people speak Mandarin”

Such ideology and goals were not only extreme in Singapore; even China’s politburo admits that “dialects carry Chinese culture”, putonghua is not meant to replace or drive out dialects, and that slightly less than half of ethnic Chinese in China are considered literate in Mandarin. To put it bluntly, Singapore’s Chinese language policy, its Chinese cultural elites, and their Speak Mandarin Campaign have no sense of proportion or perspective.

Year after year, standards of Mandarin testing in schools got more demanding and difficult. Year after year, Chinese Singaporeans struggle with bilingualism and increasingly unrealistic testing standards for their second language that affect their university admissions. And year after year, the percentage of Mandarin-speaking Chinese families in Singapore hovers at less than half the population, while dialect-speaking families switch to English as their home language. A stunning win for the Speak Mandarin campaign.

Until that is, this week’s blunder. For there is nothing so ironic and just as an elitist, extremist Sinophone lobby botching up its annual campaign slogan. Not when the Speak Mandarin Campaign is chaired by the same Nantah alumni network and the same Chinese cultural elites that have made a home and fiefdom for themselves in the ministries of education and culture and mainstream press.

Heads will roll, just not ours!

We expect an investigation into this clown show moment. We expect the most illustrious committee, chaired by the Nantah alumni network and Chinese cultural elites in government, to absolve itself of all blame, and to shift it to some outsourced ad agency or production house or intern. We expect this absolution to be Pyrrhic, and tantamount to an admission of a lack of ownership, responsibility, and oversight. We expect the Speak Mandarin Campaign to confirm that it is a Clown Show.

We expect the Speak Mandarin Campaign to once more avoid uncomfortable truths, and questions that demand an honest and competent answer.

If learning Mandarin is to promote a Chinese culture and identity, why insist Mandarin be tested as a purely academic subject at standards comparable to the monophone societies of Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China? If so many Chinese in Singapore and even in China had never been Mandarin speakers in the first place, why is “Mandarin” the conduit to “Chinese” culture?

In multicultural Singapore, where Mandarin is neither the lingua franca nor the language of instruction, how should children be best taught the subject, and what should be a realistic standard of literacy and testing?

This article was first published at

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