S’pore en­voy to US re­buts NYT ar­ti­cle on govt’s di­alect pol­icy

Today - - SINGAPORE | NEWS - AMANDA LEE amanda.lee@me­di­a­corp.com.sg

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.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Singapore

© PressReader. All rights reserved.