S’pore envoy to US rebuts NYT article on govt’s dialect policy
The Republic’s ambassador to the United States has rebutted an article in The New York Times (NYT) that alleged “linguistic repression” in Singapore and claimed there was a “softening of government policy” towards the use of Chinese dialects because of public discontent.
The Aug 26 article by Mr Ian Johnson — headlined In Singapore, Chinese dialects Revive After Decade of Restrictions — was “mistaken” in both assertions, Ambassador Ashok Kumar Mirpuri said in a letter to NYT letters editor Thomas Feyer.
The letter was sent a day after the article was published, however it has not been published. It was made public to local media yesterday by Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The NYT article said there was a language barrier between the young and old here as they can barely communicate with one another. It cited how a grandmother prefers speaking in the Hokkien dialect, while her seven-year-old granddaughter speaks fluent English and a little Mandarin.
“This struggle to communicate within families is one of the painful effects of the Singapore government’s large-scale, decades-long effort at linguistic engineering,” the article said. It further reported that Singapore “effectively banned Chinese dialects, the mother tongues of about three-quarters of its citizens, in favour of Mandarin, China’s official language”, with a series of measures in the late 1970s.
Refuting this, Mr Mirpuri wrote that English was adopted as the working language here as it was the international language of commerce. “Parents, convinced their children had to master English to survive, sent their children to English language schools in droves from the 1960s,” he added.
He added that “notwithstanding this powerful trend, the Singapore Government strived to keep the mother tongues (Chinese, Malay and Tamil) alive, by promoting bilingualism as a fundamental education policy”.
“Chinese Singaporeans had to choose between maintaining multiple dialects and adopting Mandarin. Mr Lee Kuan Yew pushed for Mandarin because of its economic value, the sheer impracticality of teaching multiple, mutually unintelligible dialects, and to establish a common language amongst Chinese Singaporeans,” said Mr Mirpuri, referring to Singapore’s founding Prime Minister. “This remains the Government’s policy.”
The NYT article also reported a sense of resentment towards the decision and its consequences for multigenerational families. Pointing to a recent television series that used the Hokkien dialect, the article said it represented a softening in the Government’s policy. Mr Mirpuri, however, said dialect broadcasts “are not new” and the Republic has always had them for older Chinese Singaporeans.
“Grandparents want to communicate with their grandchildren, but they do not want their grandchildren to learn dialects at the expense of English or Mandarin,” he added. “Most Singaporeans are not linguists with a gift for languages. They know firsthand how difficult it is to master multiple languages.”
Mr Mirpuri added that a young nation like Singapore will continue to develop its own culture and identity. “We encourage young Singaporeans to learn about their communities’ history, culture, heritage and language,” he added. “But we have to recognise that for Chinese Singaporeans the future is in English and Mandarin.”