Netizens react to S’pore govt’s retort to NYT’s article criticising its policy on dialects

It's complicated.

By Tanya Ong | September 14, 2017

On Aug. 26, the New York Times (NYT) published an article titled “In Singapore, Chinese dialects revive after decades of restrictions, which made two controversial claims regarding the Singapore government’s policy on Chinese dialects.

First, it claimed that Singapore underwent “linguistic repression”:

“Starting with a series of measures in the late 1970s, the leaders of this city-state effectively banned Chinese dialects, the mother tongues of about three-quarters of its citizens, in favor of Mandarin, China’s official language.”

This “series of measures in the late 1970s” referred to the Speak Mandarin Campaign (SMC) where Mandarin was designated as the mother tongue for all Singaporean Chinese.

Photo from NAS

Second, the NYT article also claimed that responses to the “linguistic repression” has led to a change in government policy:

“This linguistic repression, and the consequences for multigenerational families, has led to a widespread sense of resentment  — and now a softening in the government’s policy.”

To substantiate the point of the “softening in the government’s policy”, NYT cited the example of a television series (“Jiak Pa Buay) broadcast in Hokkien for the first time in the late 1970s. They also raised the example of the government endorsing a multi-dialect film project by Royston Tan.

Singapore government triggered

In light of these claims, Singapore’s Ambassador to the U.S. Ashok Kumar Mirpuri responded with a letter to the NYT a day after the article was published.

NYT did not publish the response, which led to Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs making the letter public to local media on Sept. 12. 

Mirpuri took issue with NYT‘s claims of linguistic repression and a softening of the Singapore government’s policy, saying that “both assertions are mistaken.”

Claim #1: Linguistic repression

Mirpuri defended the government’s bilingual language policies in the 1970s, explaining that it was a strategic and pragmatic move:

Singaporeans adopted English as the working language because it was the international language of commerce.

…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. This remains the Government’s policy.”

Perhaps one could argue that Singaporeans could also learn dialects on top of their Mother Tongue. However, Mirpuri explained that Singaporeans have difficulties mastering multiple languages:

“Most Singaporeans are not linguists with a gift for languages. They know first-hand how difficult it is to master multiple languages.”

Claim #2: Restrictions eased amid discontent

Secondly, Mirpuri claimed that there was no “softening in the government’s policy”. In fact, the government’s policy has not changed.

Rebutting the examples of the dialect television series and film, Mirpuri explains that dialect broadcasts are not new, saying that “we have always had them for older Chinese Singaporeans.” Indeed, dialect programming time belts exist on both free-to-air TV and radio channels.

More importantly, while the state encourages young Singaporeans to learn about their heritage and language, Mirpuri cautions that this should not be at the expense of the bilingual policy:

“Grandparents want to communicate with their grandchildren, but they do not want their grandchildren to learn dialects at the expense of English or Mandarin.

We encourage young Singaporeans to learn about their communities’ history, culture, heritage and language. But we have to recognise that for Chinese Singaporeans the future is in English and Mandarin.”

Reactions to Mirpuri’s response

This issue on Singapore’s policy on dialects drew mixed reactions from netizens.

Some agreed with the NYT article:

While others sided with the government’s policy:

Is there a place for dialects these days?

Admittedly, most of us are not linguists, unlike this guy who would own all of us in mastering mulitple languages:

Screenshot from NUS Undergrad understands 14 languages

Nevertheless, this incident has also raised questions on the place of dialects in today’s society.

Despite efforts to “revitalise” the use of dialects amongst youths, such as through the “My Father Tongue” campaign, the use of dialects has dwindled over the years.

According to a government survey, fewer people are communicating using mainly Chinese dialects in homes. The numbers have fallen from 18.2% in 2005 to 12.2% in 2015.

Language is inextricably linked to culture, heritage and economics, and for every language policy, there will always be trade-offs.

But is it fair to blame the government’s policy for this phenomenon though?

Perhaps the answer lies in this truism:

Screenshot from Straits Times Facebook


Top photo adapted from NAS and screenshot from New York Times article.

1819 is a labour of love by where we tell stories from Singapore’s history, heritage & culture. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter!

About Tanya Ong

Tanya is a keen bean who strives to put the “art” in “articulate”. She also knows pi to the 35th decimal place for absolutely no reason at all.

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