Discussing a Little Red Dot: The Paradoxes of Language Policy in Singapore

SAANJH GUPTA

In Singapore, a tightrope stretches taut between the words “cultured” and “clinical” on a dictionary page. On 14th April 2017, as part of the grassroots-organised Singapore Poetry Writing Month, hundreds of writers created poems written in Singlish (Singaporean English), inspired by this tension and posted them on the government-run “Speak Good English Movement” Facebook page. The poems appeared to undermine the campaign’s insistence that Standard or “proper” English is key to communal harmony and international repute. More broadly, this conflict is central to the linguistic construction of Singapore’s national identity, and the nation-state’s drive to create a unified national identity nonetheless grounded in ethnic and cultural diversity. 

Modern Singapore’s history necessarily includes its relationship with Empire and, by extension, the English language. Historically part of the British Empire, Singapore became a Japanese-occupied territory in 1942, attaining self-government in 1959. The adoption of Malay, not English, as the new state’s national language was a pragmatic move towards recognising ethnic majorities and symbolically renouncing the consequences of imperialism beyond national structure and status. 

During its integration within the Federation of Malaysia from 1963 to 1965, Singaporean linguistic policies reflected political shifts. Article 153A of the 1965 constitution outlined English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese and Tamil as the independent republic’s national languages. The inclusion of three more ethnically-affiliated national languages was an extension of the multicultural pragmatism previously seen in 1959. Even so, the return to English stands out. Although it appears to contrast with the very notion of independence, it simultaneously facilitated the same through its status as a comparatively neutral lingua franca, particularly resonant in the light of racial riots between Malay and Chinese communities in the previous year. 

This duality dominates government language policy, although its efficacy remains unclear. The study of a second language was made compulsory for primary and secondary school students in 1960 and 1966 respectively. The policy was redefined 

as the study of a mother-tongue chosen from one of the constitutionally-defined national languages of Malay, Chinese and Tamil. These developments took place against the conversion of vernacular schools to English-taught institutions by 1987, although this was partly due to declining enrolment rather than any specific policy. Each ethnic mother tongue was therefore subsumed under a national-linguistic whole. 

The idea of creating a collectively bilingual, cosmopolitan populace through education soon fragmented. A 1978 report by the Ministry of Education (MOE) conceded flaws in the bilingual education system. It outlined high second-language examination failure rates, and the potentially problematic use of Mandarin Chinese for native speakers of other Chinese varieties, effectively making them study two new languages rather than one and erasing intra-ethnic diversity. While the 1990s move towards providing Hindi, Bengali and other Indian varieties to supplement Tamil, demonstrates the resolution of a similar problem, the same has not been implemented for Chinese varieties. 

This may, at least in part, be attributed to background demographic trends. In 2015, English was the most common language spoken at home in Singapore. In the 1980s, there was a move amongst minority-language Chinese families towards speaking Mandarin, and later English, at home. In contrast, the economic migration of non-Tamil speaking Indians to Singapore seems to have increased, possibly influencing the bilingual policy’s shift to providing non-Tamil Indian language varieties as well. Linguistic policy may therefore be reflective of the decrease in diversity among one population, and its increase in another.

Yet such an interpretation seems speculative, particularly when considering language policy outside of bilingual education. What lay underneath the 1979 launch of the Speak Mandarin Campaign (SMC) – in direct response to the MOE report – was the principle that the use of multiple Chinese dialects encouraged the fragmentation of the Singaporean Chinese community. The Campaign required front-office government workers to speak Mandarin to Chinese customers under the age of sixty, oral examinations for Chinese taxi drivers seeking to renew licenses, and publicity materials urging youth to use Mandarin in public places. This resulted in a 36% decrease in the number of dialect-speaking Chinese households between 1980 and 1990, along with a 17% increase in Mandarin-speaking households. The rhetoric of eliminating competing “dialects”, defined as linguistic varieties specific to regions or social groups, directly corresponded to the rhetoric of eliminating social rifts. This was because of the perceived status of dialects as more regionally localised than Mandarin Chinese as a language.

The Speak Good English Movement (SGEM) tackles a different opponent, namely “bad” English, which Singlish allegedly exemplifies. Launched two decades later by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong on 29 April 2000, the Movement calls for the use of Standard English to represent Singapore positively on an international level. Such a principle is distinct from the reduced prevalence of linguistic Anglo-reliance in Singapore’s South-East Asian neighbours. More importantly, such support assumed the SMC had succeeded, both in its use of SMC-style prescriptivism and as a move towards a pan-national, rather than ethnic identity.

Nonetheless, it would be reductive to claim that subordinating Chinese dialects to Mandarin parallels partially subordinating Mandarin, Malay and Tamil to English, because the former represented an effort to erase social identity and diversity. Consequently, one cannot directly compare the Speak Mandarin Campaign to the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM), despite both being instances of state support for certain linguistic varieties over others. 

In some ways, the SGEM synthesises two strands of Singaporean language planning: the maintenance of linguistic pluralism, and the overt preference afforded to certain varieties. Singlish, lexically and syntactically influenced by both Malay and Hokkien, among other varieties, is a cultural as well as geographical convergence. From one perspective, it represents an ideal form of intercultural interaction, in which mother-tongues interact with each other and their national language, creating a shared cultural experience that is more personal than neutral. From another, it represents a crude, provincial pastiche of English that characterises Singapore as a small, mimicking state among many, prone to both evolution and cultural collapse – thus mandating paternalistic regulation in a possible demonstration of state authority. 

From below, the variety’s local literary usage, such as in poet Joshua Ip’s 2012 anthology, Sonnets from the Singlish, is testament to its development outside of, and in opposition to, state policy. From this perspective, Singlish is distinctive rather than derivative, repurposing a language of monolithic authority into one of mutable multiculturalism and challenging the literal authority which resists its legitimisation. The SGEM’s official website does acknowledge Singlish’s role as a cultural marker and generational icon. In doing so, it situates Singlish outside of state management and does not actively contain its social spread. 

Language planning in Singapore is as multifarious as its population. In considering government-led initiatives of bilingual education and prescriptive state campaigns, two paradoxes emerge. Firstly, there is the paradox of maintaining both linguistic diversity and sociocultural stability. Secondly, the conflict between inward- and outward-looking linguistic expressions of national identity, neither of which the state or civil society actively undermine, remains to be negotiated. Regardless, a striking commonality resolves each: that is, the linguistic source of national identity lies in pragmatism over pluralism, a principle which undergirds Singaporean policy beyond language alone.