Striking A Balance: The Management of Language in Singapore

By Chow Chai Khim


In Singapore, bilingualism is not just about proficiency in any two languages. Officially, it refers to “English-knowing” bilingualism, where the two languages are English and the individual’s designated “mother tongue” based on their father’s ethnicity, regardless of the languages spoken in early childhood. Singapore recognises four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. However, this discussion focuses primarily on the relationship between the two major languages, English and Mandarin, and the ongoing need to balance the concerns of various language communities.

This study comprises eight chapters. Chapter 1 introduces the study’s scope, providing an overview of language and language policy in Singapore, along with historical, geographical, and sociolinguistic context. It also clarifies specific terms used in the Singaporean context, such as Mandarin, Dialects/languages, Mother tongue, Bilingualism, and English/Chinese educated. Chapter 2 delves into the definitions of language planning and effective bilingualism, followed by an overview of bilingual education in Singapore. Chapter 3 explores language and education issues within the Chinese-speaking community from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, highlighting the Speak Mandarin Campaign initiated by Lee Kuan Yew in 1979.

Chapter 4 traces the rise of English as the de facto national language, used in government, legislation, administration, and the judiciary since colonial times. English gained prominence as the language of international trade and technology, eventually becoming the main language for inter-ethnic communication. Recognising the growing popularity of Singlish and concerns about declining English standards, the Singapore government launched the Speak Good English Movement in 2000 to promote grammatically correct English usage among Singaporeans.

Chapter 5 covers education and language policies from 1945 to 1965. Chapter 6 discusses how post-independence Singapore viewed language as a resource for national cohesion. Chapter 7 addresses Chinese language issues in the 1990s. Finally, Chapter 8 concludes that language management in Singapore significantly transformed linguistic patterns, including the shift from dialects to Mandarin among the ethnic Chinese.

This book draws on primary sources like local newspapers (e.g., The Straits Times and the Lianhe Zaobao), government publications, parliamentary debates, ministerial speeches, and interviews. Secondary sources include scholarly publications on language planning, bilingualism, and Singapore-focused research.

Overall, Singapore’s language management has effectively achieved the major objectives set by Lee Kuan Yew and his government. This book serves as a valuable resource for researchers and readers interested in Singapore’s bilingual language policy, providing historical facts and documents, including appendices such as a transcript of a parliamentary debate in 1999 on Chinese language in schools and a speech by Lee Hsien Loong at the launch of the Speak Good English Movement in 2001.

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