Languages of Singapore
Life in Singapore
The Singapore Government recognizes four official languages: English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil. These official languages, along with a multitude of other languages, reflect Singapore's multiracial, multicultural and multilingual nature. In 2009, there were more than 20 languages identified as being spoken in Singapore. Singapore's role as a trading settlement in colonial times, and now a prominent cosmopolitan centre of trade and services, has long attracted foreigners from Asia and beyond. The languages they brought with them greatly influenced the languages in Singapore.
In the early years, the lingua franca of the island was Bazaar Malay (Melayu Pasar), a creole of Malay and Chinese, the language of trade in the Malay Archipelago. While it continues to be used among many on the island, especially Singaporean Malays, Malay has now been displaced by English. English became the lingua franca due to the British rule of Singapore, and was made the main language upon Singaporean independence. In early years it served to unite the races which each had their own languages, and remains the primary language of academic education.
Hokkien briefly emerged as a lingua franca among the Chinese, but by the late twentieth century was eclipsed by Mandarin. The government promotes Mandarin among Singaporean Chinese, since it views Mandarin as a bridge between Singapore's diverse non-Mandarin speaking groups, and as a tool for forging a common Chinese cultural identity. China's economic rise in the 21st century has also encouraged a greater use of Mandarin. On the other hand, other non-Mandarin Chinese languages such as Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka, Hainanese and Cantonese have been classified as dialects, although such a classification is disputable by linguistics standards. Government language policies and changes in language attitudes based on such classifications have led to the subsequent decrease in the number of speakers of these languages. Tamil is the predominant Indian language in use, being one of Singapore's four official languages; however, many other dialects are found. Unlike the smaller Malay and Chinese dialects, Indian dialects are able to be used in schools.
Singapore has a policy of bilingualism, where students learn in English but are taught the language of their ethnicity, referred to as their "mother tongue". The mother tongue is seen as a way to preserve unique cultural values in the multicultural society, although their usage is decreasing in the home as English becomes more predominant (see Language attrition). The loss of the dialects has been even more prominent, as many are rarely used on the mass media and generally spoken by the elderly.
- 1 English
- 2 Singlish
- 3 Chinese languages
- 4 Malay languages
- 5 Indian languages
- 6 Eurasian languages
- 7 Bilingualism and multilingualism
- 8 Sociolinguistic issues
- 9 Media and the arts
- 10 Notes
- 11 Further reading
Singapore English is an integral part of the Singaporean identity. It is regarded as the main language in Singapore, and is officially the main language of instruction in all the subjects except for mother tongue lessons in Singapore's education system. It is also the common language of the administration, and is promoted as an important language for international business. Spelling in Singapore follows the British system, due to the country's colonial past. Sherman Tan, the author of "Language ideology in discourses of resistance to dominant hierarchies of linguistic worth: Mandarin Chinese and Chinese ‘dialects’ in Singapore," wrote that English is the country's default lingua franca despite the fact that four languages have official status.
English was introduced to Singapore in 1819 when the British established a port and later a colony on the island. Under the colonial government, English gained prestige as the language of administration, law and business. As government administration increased, infrastructure and commerce developed, and access to education expanded producing a local English-speaking elite, English spread among Singaporeans. The visibility of English was also heightened through heavy usage by successful media outlets of the time.
When Singapore gained self-government in 1959 and independence in 1965, the local government decided to keep English as the main language to maximize economic benefits. Since English was rising as the global language for commerce, technology and science, promoting it would expedite Singapore's development and integration into the global economy.
Furthermore, the use of English as a lingua franca served to bridge the gap between the diverse ethnic groups in Singapore. This importance placed on English was reflected by Singapore schools switching to using only English as the medium of instruction. Between the early 1960s until the late 1970s, students registering for primarily English-medium schools jumped from 50% to 90%, as more parents chose to send their children to English-medium schools. Attendance at Mandarin, Malay and Tamil-medium schools consequently dropped and schools closed down. The Chinese-medium Nanyang University also made the change to using English as the medium of instruction despite meeting resistance, especially from the Chinese community.
There has been a steep increase in the use of the English language over the years. Singapore is currently the most proficient English-speaking country in Asia. Education Minister Ng Eng Hen noted in December 2009 the increasing trend of Singaporeans with English as their home language. For children who started primary school in 2009, 60% of Chinese and Indian pupils as well as 35% of Malay pupils predominantly speak English at home. Overall, this means that 56% of Singaporean families with children in Primary school predominantly use English. English is the native language of 32% of Singaporeans, but has the largest number of speakers if second language speakers are included.
Singlish, an English based creole language language with its own consistent rules and phonology, is also widely used on the island. However, usage of this language is discouraged by the local government, who favour Standard English.
Chinese is the most commonly spoken home language, spoken by 51% of the population. The table below shows the change in distribution of Mandarin and other Chinese dialects, as well as English, as home languages in the resident Chinese population of Singapore in 1990 and 2000.
|Language Most Frequently Spoken at Home Among Chinese Resident Population Aged 5 and Over|
|Home language||1990||2000||1990 (%)||2000 (%)||2010 (%)|
Mandarin Chinese is generally spoken as the lingua franca among the Chinese community in Singapore. Known simply as Chinese, it is the designated mother tongue or 'ethnic language' of Chinese Singaporeans, at the expense of the other Chinese languages. It was introduced to Singapore during the time that it was a British colony in the 1920s, when Chinese schools in Singapore using Mandarin as the teaching language began to grow in number.
The government heavily promoted Mandarin Chinese in 1979 with the Speak Mandarin Campaign. Then-Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew stated that Mandarin Chinese was chosen so as to unify the Chinese community with a single language. It is rising in prominence in Singapore, with politicians such as Lee theorizing that it might overtake English, despite relatively strong evidence to the contrary. Beginning in the 1990s, with a perception of increased possibilities in commerce and trade with Mainland China, the Singaporean government promoted Mandarin as a language that has a high economic advantage and value. Today, Mandarin Chinese is generally seen as a way to maintain a link to Chinese culture.
Sherman Tan, author of "Language ideology in discourses of resistance to dominant hierarchies of linguistic worth: Mandarin Chinese and Chinese ‘dialects’ in Singapore," wrote that "Due to the sheer demographic dominance of the ethnic Chinese group, Mandarin Chinese is also in all domains more visible and prevalent than the other ‘ethnic’ languages, while nonetheless remaining secondary to the lingua franca English."
Other Chinese languages
Other Chinese languages, sometimes inaccurately referred to as Chinese dialects, also have a presence in Singapore. Amongst them, Hokkien used to be an unofficial language of business until as recent as the 1980s. It is also used as a lingua franca among not just the Chinese Singaporeans, but is widely learnt by Malays and Indians to communicate with the Chinese majority. As of 2012 the four main dialect languages are Hokkien (41.1%), Teochew (21.0%), Cantonese (15.4%), Hakka (7.9%) and Hainanese (6.7%), while the Fuzhou dialect (Hokchia, Hokchew), Pu-Xian Min (HengHua), and Shanghainese languages have smaller speaker bases.
Singapore used traditional Chinese characters until 1969, when the Ministry of Education promulgated the Table of Simplified Characters (simplified Chinese: 简体字表; traditional Chinese: 簡體字表; pinyin: jiăntǐzì biǎo), which differed from the Chinese Character Simplification Scheme of the People's Republic of China. In 1976, Singapore fully adopted the simplified Chinese characters of the People's Republic of China and the following year, the second attempt to simplify the characters was stopped, thus ending the long period of confusion associated with simplification. Although simplified characters are currently used in official documents, the government does not ban the use of traditional characters. Hence traditional characters are still used in signs, advertisements and Chinese calligraphy, while books in both character sets are available in Singapore.
Bahasa Melayu, the standardised form of the Malay language, is one of the official languages of Singapore and is written in a Latin script known as Rumi. Malay is also the ceremonial national language and used in the Singapore national anthem, in citations for Singapore orders and decorations and in military footdrill commands. Malay is the main home language of 13% of Singaporeans, mainly the indigenous Malay minority, who mostly speak the Johore-Riau dialect.
A pidginised variety of Malay, Bahasa Melayu Pasar (Bazaar Malay), used to be the lingua franca spoken by all races before independence. Baba Malay, a variety of Malay Creole influenced by Hokkien and Bazaar Malay, is still spoken today by around 10,000 Peranakans in Singapore. Other Austronesian languages, such as Javanese, Buginese, Minangkabau, Batak, Sundanese, Boyanese and Banjarese, are spoken in Singapore, but their use has declined over the years.
In 2010, 9.2% of Singaporeans were Indians, of whom about 64% were Tamils from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. In 2005, about 38.8% of Singapore's Indian population spoke Tamil frequently at home. This was a drop from 2000, when 45.3% of the Singapore Indian population spoke Tamil at home. Tamil is one of the four official languages and is taught in schools as a mother tongue, but there are schools which do not provide Tamil classes due to low percentage of Tamil students in that particular school. Students from such schools attend classes at the Umar Pulavar Tamil Language Centre (UPTLC) which offers Tamil (TL), Basic Tamil (BTL), Tamil Literature (TLL) and Higher Tamil (HTL) outside curriculum time to pupils of secondary schools which do not have a Tamil Language Programme.
UPTLC was once known as the St. George's Tamil Primary School which was closed down in 1975 and later began to function fully as a Tamil Language Centre. Other Indian languages spoken include Malayalam, Telugu, Punjabi, Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. There is a Hindi Society which is the biggest Hindi-language institution in Singapore. Classes are held at seven Hindi Centres and fifty-four schools participating in a Parallel Hindi Programme (PHP). They cover the entire spectrum of formal general Hindi education in Singapore, from kindergarten to pre-university.
Kristang is a creole spoken by Portuguese Eurasians in Singapore and Malaysia. It developed when Portuguese colonizers incorporated borrowings from Malay, Chinese, Indian and Arab languages. When the British took over Singapore, Kristang declined as the Portuguese Eurasians learned English instead. Today, it is largely spoken by the elderly.
Bilingualism and multilingualism
The majority of Singaporeans are bilingual in English and one of the other three official languages. For instance, most Chinese Singaporeans can speak English and Mandarin Chinese. Some, especially the older generation, can speak Malay and additional Chinese languages such as Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, and/or Hainanese.
Singapore has a bilingual education policy. All students in government schools are educated in English as their first language. Students in Primary and Secondary schools also learn a second language called their 'Mother Tongue' by the Ministry of Education, where they are either taught Mandarin Chinese, Malay, or Tamil. English is the language of instruction in all government schools with time provided for mother tongue lessons on a weekly basis. Mother tongue is also used in moral education classes in primary school. While 'mother tongue' generally refers to the first language (L1) overseas, it is used by the Ministry of Education to denote the "ethnic language" or the second language (L2) in Singapore.
The impact of the bilingual policy differs from students of one racial group to another. For the Chinese, when the policy was first implemented, many students found themselves struggling with two foreign languages: English and Mandarin. Even though dialects then were widely spoken at home, Chinese dialects were excluded from the classroom as it was felt that they would be an "impediment to learning Chinese". Today, although Mandarin Chinese is more widely spoken, many students still struggle with learning it. To ease their difficulties, several revisions have been made to the education system. These include the now-defunct EM3 stream and Chinese B, both in which Mandarin is taught at a lower than mainstream level.
The Malay-speaking community also faced similar problems when the bilingual policy was implemented. Today, the lack of support in school has led to the decline of dialects. Malay is the lingua franca among the Javanese, Boyanese, other Indonesian groups and some Arabs. It is Malay, and not dialects, which is valued as a mean for transmitting familial and religious values. ‘Madrasahs’ or religious schools, mosques and religious classes all employ Malay. However, Malay in turn is facing competition from English.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) in Singapore defines 'Mother Tongue' not by the home language or the first language learned by the student but by his/her father's ethnicity. For example, a child born to a Hokkien-speaking Chinese father and Tamil-speaking Indian mother would automatically be assigned to take Mandarin Chinese as the Mother Tongue language.
In 2007, the Ministry of Education announced that it would encourage many schools to offer conversational Malay or Chinese to those who are not taking either language as their mother tongue. The Ministry of Education will be providing the schools with the resources needed for this programme. In 2008, there were 488 schools offering this programme.
Singapore's 'bilingualism' policy of teaching and learning English and mother tongue in primary and secondary schools is rationalized as the 'cultural ballast' to safeguard Asian cultural identities and values against Western influence.
Challenges in the teaching of mother tongue
The teaching of mother tongue (especially Mandarin Chinese) in schools has encountered challenges due to more Singaporeans speaking and using English at home. The declining standards and command of Chinese language amongst younger generations of Chinese Singaporeans continue to be of concern to the older generations of Chinese Singaporeans, as they perceive it to be an erosion of Chinese culture and heritage. This concern has led to the government establishing the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language (SCCL) on November 2009. The SCCL's stated purpose is to enhance the effectiveness of teaching Chinese as a second language in a bilingual environment and to meet the learning needs of students from non-Mandarin speaking homes.
The propagation of Chinese language and culture amongst Chinese Singaporeans continues to be a challenge despite government support to promote Mandarin Chinese through the Speak Mandarin Campaign because Mandarin faces stiff competition from the strong presence of English.
Foreign population in Singapore
The huge population of non-English speaking foreigners in Singapore offers new challenges. 36% of the population in Singapore are foreigners and foreigners make up 50% of the service sector. It is very common to encounter service staff who are not fluent in English, especially as many, such as those from China, can survive in daily life without the use of English. This poses a problem to English-speaking Singaporeans who are not as fluent in a second language. The Straits Times reported that from July 2010, foreigners working in the hotel, food and beverage and retail service sectors would have to pass an English test before they are able to get their work permits. Employers with foreign employees in these sectors will pay $90 less in levies if their employees pass the English test.
Language play an important role in Singapore politics. Up to today, it is still important for politicians in Singapore to be able to speak fluent English and mother tongue (and even dialects) in order to reach out to the multilingual community in Singapore.
It was common for politicians to broadcast their speech in Malay, English, Singaporean Hokkien, Singaporean Mandarin and other Chinese dialects before 1980s. For instance, during the 1960s, Lee Kuan Yew learned and spoke Hokkien commonly in his political or rally speech, as it was vital for him to secure votes in elections from the Hokkien-speaking community. Lim Chin Siong was charismatic in the use of Hokkien and was able to secure opposition votes. Facing competition and difficulty in securing votes from the Chinese-educated, Lee Kuan Yew had to learn Mandarin, in order to win the votes from the Mandarin-speaking community.
Although dialects have dwindled, Chinese dialects continued, as of the 2011 parliamentary election, to be used in election rallies. For instance, Low Thia Khiang spoke fluent Teochew in Teochew-dominated Hougang election rallies. It has been common for politicians to broadcast in major languages such as English, Mandarin and Malay.
Mixed cultural response
Some Singaporeans had perceived Singlish as a native product of Singapore symbolizing a "Singaporean identity". As such, they took pride in speaking Singlish, even though it is considered to be an English creole. The Singapore government, on the other hand, discouraged the use of Singlish and encourage Singaporean to speak proper standard English. This has created a mixed cultural response and behaviour of people with the use of different variants of English. On one hand, proper English is associated with better education, while on the other hand, Singlish is associated with Singaporean identity.
The same thing occurs in Singaporean Mandarin, where on one hand, standard Mandarin are being taught, whereas on the other hand, Singdarin tends to be spoken more often by the general populace.
Some Singaporeans had argued that linguistically, Singapore was even more multilingual in the 1950s compared to today. Dialect preservationists had criticized Singapore's bilingual policy for causing the language decline of Chinese dialects in Singapore. Some Singaporeans had criticized that the bilingual education of Singapore was not successful in making sure the Singaporeans are good in both English and the mother tongue.
Media and the arts
The Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) restricts the use of Chinese dialects in the media. The rationale is that Chinese Singaporeans are already burdened with learning English and Mandarin, and a greater presence of Chinese dialects in the media will only add to their mental load. However, to cater to older Singaporeans who speak only dialects, videos, VCDs, DVDs, paid subscription radio services and pay TV channels are exempt from MICA's restrictions. Two free-to-air channels, okto and Channel 8, are also allowed to show dialect operas and arthouse movies with some dialect content respectively. More local films are also made containing, or in dialect. There are no restrictions on entries for film festivals.
Dialects are not as controlled in traditional arts. As such, they have managed to survive, and even flourish in these areas. In Singapore, types of Chinese opera include Hokkien, Teochew, Hainanese and Cantonese. In the past, this diversity encouraged the translation of scripts for popular stories between dialects. After the implementation of the bilingual policy and Speak Mandarin Campaign, Mandarin subtitles were introduced to help the audience understand. Today, as usage of English rises, some opera troupes not only provide English subtitles but translate the whole opera into English. For these English-Chinese operas, subtitles may be provided in either Mandarin, dialect or both. In this way, Chinese opera reaches out to as wide an audience as possible despite being dialect-specific.
Chinese clan associations also play a role in maintaining dialects. In the past, they provided support to migrant Chinese, based on the province they came from. Today, they provide a place for people who speak the same dialect to gather and interact. For example, the Hokkien Huay Kuan holds classes for performing arts, calligraphy, Chinese language and Hokkien dialect. They also organize the biennial Hokkien Festival which aims to promote Hokkien customs and culture. Efforts such as these could help Chinese dialects resist erosion.
The Eurasian Association also holds Kristang classes for anyone interested regardless of age. In this way, it hopes to preserve what it feels is a unique part of the Eurasian heritage.
Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce
The Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce used to allocate council members to represent different Chinese dialects. Seats were allocated based on the relative size of each group. For example, the Hokkien bang which was the biggest, had the most seats. However, this practice was abolished in 2010.
Treatment of Indian languages
Indian languages besides Tamil are treated differently from the non-Mandarin Chinese languages and other Malay dialects. Even though only Tamil has official status, there have been no attempts to discourage the use or spread of the Indian languages. With the recent influx of Indian immigrants who speak other Indian languages, the students who come from these families can now offer Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi or Urdu. as their mother tongue at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and the GCE O, N and A level examinations. Movies in these languages are shown in local theatres, and Hindi movies are quite popular with Indian expatriates of various ethnicities. Moreover, there are timeslots in the local Indian TV channel MediaCorp Vasantham.
Dialect preservation issues
Non-Mandarin Chinese languages (classified as dialects by the Singapore government) have been in steep decline since the independence of Singapore in 1965. This is in part due to the Speak Mandarin Campaign that was launched in 1979. As part of the campaign, all dialect programmes on TV and radio were stopped. Speeches in Hokkien by the prime minister were discontinued to prevent giving conflicting signals to the people. By the late 1980s, Mandarin managed to some extent, to replace dialects as the preferred languages for communication in public places such as restaurants and public transport.
The preservation of dialects in Singapore has been of increasing concern amongst the Chinese community in Singapore since the 2000s. This has arisen largely due to a steep decline in their use of as a home language. Most Chinese Singaporeans under the age of 40 have a working knowledge of both English and Mandarin but not any of the other Chinese languages spoken in Singapore. However, the vast majority of older Chinese Singaporeans can only speak in the other Chinese languages and have little or no proficiency in Mandarin Chinese. Because of this a language barrier is formed between them and their grandparents. Chinese culture and dialect preservationists in Singapore worry that the declining use of dialects might lead to the eventual death of dialects in Singapore.
'Stupid' to advocate the learning of dialects
In March 2009, a newspaper article was published in Singapore broadsheet daily The Straits Times on a Language and Diversity Symposium organised by the Division of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies at Nanyang Technological University. Dr Ng Bee Chin, Acting Head of the Division, was quoted in the article as saying, "Although Singaporeans are still multilingual, 40 years ago, we were even more multilingual. Young children are not speaking some of these languages at all any more. All it takes is one generation for a language to die." 
This prompted a reply from Mr Chee Hong Tat, the Principal Private Secretary of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. In a letter to the editor in the Straits Times Forum, he underlined the importance of English and Mandarin over dialects and how using dialects "interferes with the learning of Mandarin and English'; a statement that Mr Lee Kuan Yew later corroborated in a speech at the 30th anniversary of the Speak Mandarin Campaign. Referring to the progress of Singapore's bilingual education policy over the decades, Mr Chee Hong Tat also commented that "it would be stupid for any Singapore agency or NTU to advocate the learning of dialects, which must be at the expense of English and Mandarin." 
Dialects in local films
In the recent years, Singaporean film makers have been incorporating dialects into their films. In the movie Singapore Ga Ga a tissue seller sings a Hokkien song and Perth features a Singaporean taxi driver using Hokkien and Cantonese. Local directors have commented that dialects are vital as there are some expressions which just cannot be put across in Mandarin Chinese, and that dialects are an important part of Singapore that adds a sense of realness that locals will enjoy.
The local movie 881 revived the popularity of getai after it was released. Getai, mainly conducted in Hokkien and Teochew became more popular with the younger generations since the release of the movie. On the impact of the release of the movie 881, Professor Chua Beng Huat, Head of the Department of Sociology in the National University of Singapore (NUS), commented in the Straits Times that "''putting Hokkien on the silver screen gives Hokkien a kind of rebellious effect. It's like the return of the repressed."
The album sales of 881 movie soundtrack was the first local film soundtrack to hit platinum in Singapore.
Renewed interest in learning dialects
Since 2000, the Singapore government appears to have relaxed its stance towards dialects. In 2002, clan associations such as Hainanese Association of Singapore (Kheng Chiu Hwee Kuan) and Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan started classes to teach dialects. This was in response to an increased desire among Singaporeans to reconnect with their Chinese heritage and culture through learning dialects. In 2007, a group of 140 students from Paya Lebar Methodist Girls' Primary School learnt Hokkien and Cantonese as an effort to communicate better with the elderly. The elderly themselves taught the students the languages. The programme was organised in the hope of bridging the generational gap that was formed due to the suppression of these dialects in Singapore.
Likewise, third-year students from Dunman High can now take a module called "Pop Song Culture". This module lets them learn about pop culture in different dialect groups through dialect pop songs from the 70s and 80s. Besides this, students can also take an elective on different flavours and food cultures from various dialect groups.
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- Forss, Pearl (2009-03-17). "Chinese S'poreans should focus on learning Mandarin well, says MM Lee". Channel News Asia (reprint). Retrieved 2014-02-01.
- "Foolish to advocate the learning of dialects". The Straits Times (Singapore). 2009-03-09. Retrieved 2010-10-12.
- Biston, Jovanda (2007-08-31). "S'pore film on getai brings Hokkien to life". Asiaone (Singapore). Retrieved 2014-02-01.
- "Eric Ng on 881 Soundtrack 2". Sinema.Sg. 2007-10-20. Retrieved 2010-11-18.
- Phyllis Ghim-Lian Chew (2009). "An Ethnographic Survey of Language Use, Attitudes and Beliefs of Singaporean Daoist Youths" (PDF). Asian Research Institute, Nanyang Technological University. (Archive)
- "Dialects draw more new learners". The Straits Times. 2009-04-09. Retrieved 2010-11-17.
- Yeo, Jessica (2007-05-06). "Students learn dialect to communicate with elderly". ChannelNewAsia (Singapore). Retrieved 2010-11-11.
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|Library resources about
Languages of Singapore
- Wendy D. Bokhorst-Heng and Imelda Santos Caleona. "The language attitudes of bilingual youth in multilingual Singapore." Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. Volume 30, Issue 3, 2009. p. 235-251. DOI: 10.1080/01434630802510121. Available at Taylor & Francis.
- Tan, Sherman (2012), "Language ideology in discourses of resistance to dominant hierarchies of linguistic worth: Mandarin Chinese and Chinese ‘dialects’ in Singapore." The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 23: 340–356. doi: 10.1111/taja.12004 (abstract)