Speak Mandarin Campaign has to evolve with Singapore society, guard against losing bilingual edge, say PM Lee

Singapore could be losing its bilingual competitive edge as more Singaporeans use English as their main language, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday (22 October) at the Speak Mandarin Campaign event.

Mr Lee noted that many Chinese Singaporeans of the younger generation can speak and understand Mandarin but don’t necessarily speak it fluently. As such, he says the Speak Mandarin Campaign has to adapt to this major shift.

The new slogan for the campaign: Speak Mandarin? Yes, I can”.

Noting that people around the worlds are picking up Mandarin, Mr Lee emphasised that people understand that in order to work, build relationships and grab opportunities in China, mastering Mandarin is a must.

“We have to put in more effort to encourage the use of Mandarin in our daily lives, and find ways to keep the language alive and preserve the uniqueness of our Mandarin,” said Mr Lee, adding that the promotion of Mandarin is a “never-ending project” as Singapore society continues to evolve.

In his speech, Mr Lee cited data from the Ministry of Education that shows 71% of Chinese households with Primary 1 children use mainly English at home now, compared to 42% ten years ago. The data shows a similar trend for minorities as well with 67% of Malay families and 70% of Indian families conversing mainly in English compared to 18% and 55% respectively, a decade ago.

He added, “Many bilingual parents shared with me that if a conscious effort is not made, it is easy to default to English… Nevertheless, I hope everyone will persevere because it is worth the effort.”

Mr Lee emphasised that while the government will continue to help encourage the use of Mandarin at home, families should also do their part in immersing young children in the language as children are better able to easily acquire a new language.

Turning to the campaign itself, Mr Lee highlighted how the annual affair and its many creative activities have helped promote the use of Mandarin in Singapore, now with children even learning to code in Mandarin.

Not leaving out the uniqueness of Mandarin in Singapore, Mr Lee said a database of Singapore Mandarin terms will be launched in November as part of the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the Speak Mandarin Campaign. Some uniquely Singaporean Mandarin terms include “ba sha” derived from the Malay word for market “pasar” and “pai tuo” which comes from the Cantonese phrase “pak tor” which means ‘going on a date’.

Singapore’s history with Mandarin and bilingualism

Singapore has had a long history with promoting bilingualism, since before independence and separation from the Federation of Malaya, in fact.

The Chinese community in Singapore before independence saw Hokkien as the lingua franca used by most business leaders, Chinese associations and even non-Chinese Singaporean in offices, markets and army camps. Mandarin, on the other hand, was mostly spoken by the better-educated immigrants who were part of the Chinese intelligentsia, as noted by a 2017 study on language shift within
Singapore’s Chinese community

Even though Hokkien was the prevailing language used by most of the local Chinese community, Mandarin was declared as the official language on the basis that it was the standard in China and did was no associated with politics as dialects are.

Mandarin was also declared the official mother tongue for ethnic Chinese in Singapore even though it wasn’t a dominant language for most. So children had to learn two languages in school – Mandarin and English – while also speaking a third language of their native dialect at home.

In 1972, Mr Lee Kuan Yew talked about how Mandarin was rooted in culture, identity and values while English was associated with science and technology, economic development, and meritocracy.

He said:

“Please note that when I speak of bilingualism, I do not mean just the facility of speaking two languages. It is more basic than that, first [through our mother tongue languages], we understand ourselves, what we are, where we came from, what life is or should be about, and what we want to do. Then the facility of the English language gives us access to the science and technology of the West. It also provides a convenient common ground on which the Chinese, Indians, Ceylonese, Malays, Eurasians, everybody competes in a neutral medium.”

Later in 2012, then Minister of Education Heng Swee Keat reiterated a similar point. He said:

“There are many important reasons why we want to support Singaporeans in becoming effectively bilingual. Learning English allows us to access the perspectives and heritage of the English-speaking world, and connects us with the world of science, technology and global commerce… Learning Mandarin and our other mother tongue languages anchor us to our Asian culture and values, gives us a complementary perspective and increasingly, connects us to the economic powerhouses of Asia.”

The problem was that an education review in 1979 found that the language policy was producing unsatisfactory results, and identified the use of dialects like Hokkien and Cantonese at home as the main reason for the slow pick up of Mandarin.

So while Mandarin was being taught in schools, it needed to also take centre stage at home.

To make that happen, the government implemented the annual Speak Mandarin Campaign which was implemented via the Chinese Singaporeans Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI). This approach of using the SCCCI, according to the research, was a way for the government to secure a formidable “grassroots” advocate for Mandarin, given that SCCCI was a strong presence in the Hokkien-dominated business world.

Further to that, the study notes that while LKY emphasised that it would not be possible to legislate language in private spaces, he did say “I could influence the environment – by making sure that at prime time over the radio and on TV, in schools, in army camps and at government counters, people hear and speak Mandarin. Through social pressure, I hoped to get Mandarin spoken in the shops, in the buses, in the cinemas and the hawker centres”

On that note, government departments were required to use only Mandarin while government-sponsored language lessons were rolled out on radio, television, and newspapers. There was also a government ban on all dialect programs, movies and commercials and a requirement for people to “pass” their Mandarin oral proficiency in order to secure employment or promotion in government sectors and taxi companies.

Not only that, the values of the Chinese community were also associated with the use of the language as a way to further encourage to use of Mandarin at home. For example, it was insisted that a child’s academic success was contingent on their mastery of Mandarin, with LKY warning that “To speak dialect with your child is to ruin his future”.

The economic and social capital of dialects were constantly and consistently reduced. LKY had said, “Dialects have no economic value in Singapore. Their culture value is also very low”.

Advocating for dialects

However even as the government continues to aggressively campaign for the bilingualism and Mandarin in particular, there has been pushback as people try to create a space of dialects in Singapore society for the sake of senior citizens. The advocacy of Mandarin has meant that there is now a significant communication gap between senior who speak dialects and the younger generation who speak Mandarin.

The research cited top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow who said in a speech at the National University
of Singapore in 2004:

“There may be compelling reasons for stopping Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese programmes over the airwaves. One reason given was that we wanted our children of Chinese descent to concentrate only on learning Mandarin, and not have their young minds confused with the various dialects spoken at home. Whether this hypothesis is true or not, we do not know for sure. But we do know that those grandparents who spoke only dialects and not Mandarin were deprived of one of their few sources of news and entertainment. As less and less Chinese dialect was spoken at home, the communication gap between the young and old has widened. The transmission of cultural values from generation to generation has diminished.”

Other efforts to promote dialect include the compilation of an anthology of Singaporean Chinese dialect nursery rhymes in 2014, and the introduction of dialect-based modules in schools such as the “Pop Song Culture” module at Dunman High School which includes dialect pop songs. Community centres are now also offering dialect classes on top of just Mandarin lessons.

The research notes that the common ideas around these activities are centred around the desire to preserve these dialects and to develop a sense of cultural rootedness, to “continue the legacy”.

Crucially, the research points out that these activities do not challenge the national language policy. Instead, they operate within the broader quadrilingual policy of the nation.

Note (24/10/2109): The article has been edited for clarity and to focus on more recent developments on the subject.