By Kumar David –
Singapore at 50: Language the vital key
“A champion of the Chinese language argued (in 1965) that Chinese was used by more than 80 percent of the population and should be the first among the four languages. I gave him a dressing down. Did he want Singapore to be like Sri Lanka, with unending social strife between the Sinhalese and the Tamils because the Sinhalese imposed their language upon the whole country? Did he want Malays and Indians to feel discriminated against? How would Singapore as a whole make a living – would China give us jobs? Who would trade with us apart from Taiwan? Why should multinational corporations invest in Singapore when they could go to Taiwan where it was cheaper? If they did not learn English they would pay a price. The price would be decided by the (world) market”. (My Lifelong Challenge; Singapore’s Bilingual Journey, Lee Kuan Yew, 2012, p.60)
An addendum to this quotation; by 2010, it was found to everyone’s surprise, that 60% of Primary One school admissions were from homes where English had become the home language. Chinese had slipped to second place with Malay and Tamil following. Singapore’s tortuous language journey from the end of the war to the present time is chronicled in Lee Kuan (spelling used in the book) Yew’s compelling recounting The story reveals something profoundly important; It was language policy that underwrote Singapore’s long-range development startegy; entrepreneurship, markets, economic incentives and so on were along-the-way pragmatic specifics. Lee’s authoritarianism and anti-communism too was motivated to a surprising extent by his determination drive through his language policy. The ‘Singapore Success Story’ is underpinned by its ‘solution’ of its language problem; this was the real trick, the rest followed. Excellence of government service, cognisance of globalisation, the city’s business and investment ethos and its inter-racial harmony, all have as their sine qua non an education language-policy that despite blunders and course corrections has succeeded at a price.
Independent Singapore is 50 years old today; following divorce from Malaysia, independence was proclaimed on 9 August 1965 (separation from Britain and the shotgun wedding with Malaya was in 1959); so today is an excellent occasion to square accounts. Lanka has made a catastrophic mess of language in education, administration, international intercourse, and faces abysmal failure in national unification, so let’s see where Singapore got it right and sometimes wrong. A lesson that comes out of this story is that in Lanka only English can serve as link language link between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. The National Integration Ministry’s alternative approach, promoting Sinhala-Tamil bilingualism as the link, is doomed to fail.
Singapore’s experience has convinced me that Sinhalese students cannot and will not gain even modest fluency in Tamil – why should they, what’s in it for them? How can they when it is known that second language class teaching followed by reverting to mother tongue in sports field and canteen and exclusive mother tongue usage at home, yields no sustainable second language competence? Language skill dies if not used often, or unless there are other powerful motivations such as jobs, education, trade and the internet, to keep it fresh. Some Tamils may learn Sinhala (or if like yours faithfully they were immersed from a young age), but the great majority in the Tamil homeland will not bat an eyelid in choosing English over Sinhala. The Eastern Province and the Muslim community appear to contradict this. But no, not at all, both the criterion of continuous social immersion and the material drive from trade and business actually strengthen my case.
English is what Sinhalese and Tamil young people want, the horizons it opens up are the opportunities they crave, and thankfully and in passing, it will serve as the link; not because you din the virtues of national integration into their heads, but because if young people in both communities want to learn English for other reasons, it makes sense to speak it reciprocally instead of staring at each other mutually dumb and deaf!
Lingua Sinhapura then and now
They say that 70 to 80 % of Singaporeans are Chinese but what they don’t tell you is that in the 1950s they couldn’t talk to each other! They spoke about 12 mutually unintelligible dialects – written Chinese is all the same so with a primary education (say 500 characters) one could read shop and road signs. They came from different parts of South China in the early 19-th Century; Hokkien speakers (40%) from Fujian, Cantonese (23%), CheChow (18%) and Hakka (7%) from Guangdong, Hinanese (7%) from Hainan Island and other smaller groups. Mandarin was used only by a tiny Chinese elite, the literati; I guess like French in the European courts of yesteryear, or Newton’s Principia written in Latin (maybe the greatest scientific treatise ever written, but the author felt no compunction to make it intelligible to the great unwashed). Dialect groups lived in clans in enclaves and daily life was governed by clan associations owing lineage to a village in China or an ancestral name. Rich clan members founded dialect schools for their community and that’s where most children went. The Malay and Tamil communities ran their own schools imparting instructions in the vernacular. The colonial government ran two school systems; a prestigious English medium and Chinese medium schools catering to a minority of the Chinese; education was far from widespread.
At independence Singapore inherited this mishmash of schools run by interest groups whose dialects were unintelligible to each other and a population living in polyglot enclaves and ghettoes. The first decision, for obvious reasons that I do not need to repeat, was to ram through English in the ‘bilingual period’ of about 20 years (1965 to late 1987). English was made a compulsory second language at a moderately high standard in all vernacular medium schools while Chinese, Malay or Tamil was a compulsory second language, at moderately high standards again, in English medium schools. This worked for a while but broke down because of a rising demand for English medium schools which the government favoured though vernacular schools were not denied resources. The last Malay, Tamil and Chinese medium schools closed by 1986 due to lack of demand. Then in 1987 a watershed was crossed; after a considerable period of preparation English became the medium of instruction throughout the Singaporean school system with emphasis was also kept on second language competence; that is bilingualism became the standard.
Bilingualism itself was the next casualty, especially in the Chinese community for two reasons, one political the other pedagogic. Opposition to English was led by Chinese nationalists, leftists, scholars and graduates of Nanyang University (Nantah) – the first Chinese language university in South East Asia, set up in 1956. (Nantah was merged with National University of Singapore in 1980). Singapore’s leftists were in the forefront of the campaign to protect the Chinese language, to uphold traditional Chinese values and to halt surrender to alien powers. The 1960s and 1970s was the high water mark of Maoism and its influence on the Asian left; in Lanka recall Shan’s Peking-Line CP and the embryo stages of the JVP. The gloves came off for an almighty fight; Lee Kuan Yew, his Peoples Action Party and the state on one side, Chinese nationalists and leftists on the other. In these years Lee emerged as a ruthless authoritarian with little respect for the niceties of democracy. Nationalists and leftists were hounded. Lee is in no way apologetic: “it had to be done” he declares, no crocodile tears. Authoritarianism in Singapore started with conflicts on language policy.
The pedagogic reason to discard bilingualism was that the demand for high competence in two languages was too much; students failed in droves, parents complained bitterly about overload. Lee is frank and conceited enough by power, to call it “My big mistake”. The government abandoned this style of bilingualism demanding high standards in the second (vernacular) language also and steered to a policy where second language competence at a lower level was accepted. Students who intended to specialise in language or literature in Chinese, Malay or Tamil were of course another matter, though specialist tutoring in the latter two was meagre.
Now a new crisis is looming; Singapore’s Chinese are loosing their identity in a headlong rush to English. Complaints, especially from the older generation proliferated; Lee, a devotee of tradition, Chinese values, respect for elders and obedience, knew that culture cannot be imbibed except by emersion in an environment; he sent his three children to Chinese medium primary and secondary schools unlike Lanka’s fake 1956 politicos. Bilingual education faced another challenge when the authorities made a rude discovery; learning Mandarin in class and reverting to dialect in social life and emersion in dialect soaked families caused a sharp decline in Mandarin standards; dialect was choking out Mandarin. Something had to be done urgently; Mandarin had to be salvaged. As early as 1977 the Speak Mandarin Campaign cajoling and imploring parents to drop dialects and adopt Mandarin as the home language had started. Its success is still uncertain.
What has come to the rescue was the rise of China as an economic power. Singaporeans of bilingual competence in English and Mandarin were at a premium and pragmatic students responded to the niche market. High flyers like Janet Ang (CEO, Lenovo), (Kenneth Chan, CEO, McDonalds, China) and pop-stars Tanya Chua, Stefanie Sun and JJ Lin, all bilingual Singaporeans who have broken into the 1.3 billion Chinese market, captured the attention of young Singaporeans. Waves of Chinese officials, sometimes 400 strong, started visiting Singapore on study tours or enrolled on Masters Programmes after Deng’s celebrated 1992 trip. It is still too early to deliver a verdict on the safekeeping of Mandarin in Singaporean education; it depends on China’s economic expansion and its need for Singaporean bilinguals. If this need declines, Singapore will become an English speaking and educated society with Chinese, Malay and Tamil lurking in corners.
This account shows that the pre-1950s language backgrounds were different in Lanka and Singapore. It is also clear that policy over there was driven by pragmatism; here blind racism, starting with SWRD and his bigots, and continuing to the Rajapaksa government. Maybe we can rescue ethnic reconciliation if we make a start by defeating Rajapaksa on 17 August in the Sinhalese areas, but I am pessimistic about salvaging English for our youth. So much devastation has occurred; a vacuum of teachers, English dumbness in the middle ranks of government and even the private sector. In shops, supermarkets, bazaars – you name it; Colombo is a city where streetwise-English has withered. As for students, even university students, it is a wasteland. What I am driving at is that the minimal social environment needed for a second language to survive has been vacated. It will take a generation, if the government is serious, which it is not, to undo the devastation that narrow nationalism has inflicted.