Singapore losing its bilingual edge, says PM Lee | World

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 40th anniversary celebration of the Speak Mandarin Campaign October 22, 2019. — TODAY pic
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 40th anniversary celebration of the Speak Mandarin Campaign October 22, 2019. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Oct 22 — The Republic is losing its bilingual competitive advantage, as the proportion of Chinese households here speaking English as their main language has risen sharply in the past 20 years, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

Today, 71 per cent of Chinese households speak English as their main language at home, up from 42 per cent two decades ago, he noted in a speech at the 40th anniversary celebration of the Speak Mandarin Campaign today.

The same trend is seen in Malay and Indian households as well, he said.

Data collected by the Ministry of Education showed that 18 per cent of Malay households spoke English as their main language 20 years ago, but now 67 per cent do.

For Indian households, the percentage has increased from 55 per cent to 70 per cent over the same period. 

Speaking in Mandarin, Lee said that Speak Mandarin Campaign “must adapt to this major shift”.

“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,” he said.

To this end, one of the steps that the campaign is taking is to launch a database next month containing Mandarin terms that are uniquely Singaporean.

The project, led by Promote Mandarin Council member Tan Chee Lay, aims to populate the database over the next two years, and will include terms that Singaporeans would have ascribed cultural, historical or sentimental value to.

These terms, such as ba sha (market), or de shi (taxi), are used in Singapore but may not be commonly used in other Mandarin speaking regions.

“With such resources, the Speak Mandarin Campaign hopes to strengthen contextual understanding for the use of Mandarin in different regions, and reinforce a sense of Singaporean Chinese culture and identity,” the campaign organisers said in a statement.

How campaign evolved 

When it first started, the campaign was meant to encourage more Singaporean Chinese to speak more Mandarin and less of other Chinese dialects. And good results were achieved “within a few years”, Lee noted. 

“In those days, communication was a challenge because most Chinese spoke their own dialects and might not understand other dialects,” said Lee.

After the campaign launch, the number of Mandarin speakers increased and Singapore’s Mandarin standards improved.

But in the 1990s, the campaign shifted its focus to English-speaking Singaporean Chinese, to get them to speak more Mandarin.

Besides getting Singaporean Chinese to understand their roots and culture, there were “practical benefits”, as a strong grasp of Mandarin would help Singaporeans do business with China, noted Lee.

The Speak Mandarin Campaign, the Chinese media, Mandarin teachers and the Chinese clan associations have contributed much to help promote the speaking of Mandarin, he added.

He hopes parents will also speak more Mandarin to their young children at home, “so that they can immerse in the language from a young age”.

“In an English-speaking society like ours, it does take effort to create a Mandarin-speaking environment at home Nonetheless, I hope everyone will persevere because it is worth the effort,” he said. — TODAY

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