Southeast Asia

Why do Singaporeans speak Mandarin?

Lunar New Year decorations near Bugis

On a family trip to Canada, we stopped by the Montreal Chinatown, where my dad tried to order dinner in Mandarin. The waiter embarrassedly admitted that he couldn’t understand, saying, “Only Cantonese, English, and French sir.” This was not the first time I saw the predominance of non-Mandarin Chinese languages in Chinese communities outside of China. In my childhood, my family also frequented the Brooklyn Chinatown—now larger than its more touristy counterpart in Manhattan—where I vividly remember a man telling us to move our car. Or at least that’s what we could tell from his arm movements.We had no way to really know, because he spoke to us in Cantonese. And in Manila, I had the pleasure of meeting Chinese-Filipinos, who spoke, not Mandarin, but Hokkien Chinese as their native language!

(These languages are often called “dialects” by convention, but linguists classify them officially as “languages.” as they are not mutually intelligible. I have chosen to use the linguistically correct term for this piece.)

Hokkien and Cantonese speakers trace their roots back to what is now Fujian and Guangdong, provinces in Southern China. Although Mandarin became the lingua franca among the officials in China (called “mandarins” by the Jesuits) as early as the 14th century, pronunciation varied drastically, and in 1728, the Emperor had such a difficult time understanding officials from these two regions, that he ordered them to fix their pronunciationMost Chinese-Singaporeans can also trace their roots back to the two regions above, so I was surprised when I encountered good Mandarin. 

Of course, they’re not as fluent as people from Taiwan or China, where Mandarin is the official language of instruction. They also say funny things like 做工 zuogong instead of 工作 gongzuo or 上班 shangban meaning “to go to work” as in Standard Mandarin. But still I was pretty amazed. I would politely ask people for directions in English, not wanting to assume they spoke Mandarin, and they would respond… in good Mandarin. Even the elderly couple who invited me to lunch spoke pretty decent Mandarin. (Among themselves they spoke Teochow dialect of Southern Min Chinese.) How could this be

Yes, knowing another language in the Chinese family helps. But you don’t just “pick up” Mandarin. Even former Singapore PM Lee Kuan Yew admits to struggling with Mandarin. The majority of the Chinese population in Singapore, similar to that of Taiwan, mostly spoke Hokkien Min Chinese, along with a smattering of Teochow Min Chinese, Cantonese, and a few other Chinese languages. And knowing that for better or for worse, Mandarin became the lingua franca of Taiwan because it was forced upon Taiwanese people (just as Japanese had been earlier) through a political system that suppressed other languages, I began to sense that there must similar policies in Singapore…

Enter the Speak Mandarin Campaign

So it turns out that in 1979, PM Lee Kuan Yew launched the “Speak Mandarin Campaign” (SMC or 讲华语运动). This campaign involved policies such as discouraging civil servants from speaking in other Chinese languages (government officers including those in hospitals were not allowed to use dialects except to those over 60 years old) and banning other Chinese languages (and also Singlish) from radio and television. Unfortunately, the Wikipedia page for SMC reads much like a propaganda page, so I had to look elsewhere for insights.

I found a fascinating paper that argues that Lee Kuan Yew’s personal struggles in weeding out political opponents who could inspire the masses with fiery Hokkien speeches, inspired him to stamp out Hokkien along with other dialects. While I do not know enough about Singapore to be a good judge of how accurate this claim, I would not be surprised… Language is power… At any rate, the paper convincingly challenges official narratives of why Mandarin was implemented. 

Official Reasons for SMC

The government had four main reasons to promote Mandarin, listed here (with my commentary and facts from the paper below):

1. Unifying Chinese Singaporeans under one common language.

Under the British, Singapore blossomed into an international port of trade, so it’s difficult to believe that until the SMC came around in the 1970s, Chinese Singaporeans didn’t already have a way of communicating with one another. How could they have traded with one another?? Unsurprisingly, according to the paper, most Chinese Singaporeans did, using a mix of Malay, Hokkien, Tamil, etc. Further, the majority Hokkien population could also understand other Chinese languages. And while he was at it, why didn’t he decide to unite the Indian community under Standard Hindi as well? Indian Singaporeans are free to choose from a variety of Indian languages at school—Tamil, Malayalam, Urdu/Hindi, Punjabi, depending on where they live. And signs around the city are NOT in Hindi, but in Tamil!

2. Other languages were hindering the ability of Chinese Singaporeans to learn Mandarin.

According to the official narrative the government had tried to implement bilingual education in English and Mandarin, but found that students struggled with learning “two foreign languages.” The culprit hampering Singaporeans’ ability to learn Mandarin, they believed, was the other Chinese dialects. This reasoning falls flat on inspection. Children are capable of learning many languages simultaneously. Further, there are countless counterexamples, namely, CHINA, where everyone outside of the capital region speaks their regional language AND Mandarin.

3. Learning Mandarin will give Singaporeans a better appreciation of Chinese culture.

Because reducing the traditional diversity of Chinese languages enables Singaporeans to understand “traditional Chinese culture.” Case in point: eradicating other Chinese languages has hampered the ability of many young Singaporeans to communicate with their grandparents.(Isn’t “family” important to “Traditional Chinese Culture”?) In fact, some young people now are trying to revive these languages to better connect to their roots:If grandchildren can’t communicate with their grandparents, that’s a very sad thing.” They have petitioned the government to allow non-Mandarin Chinese languages on TV and radio and also set up a Youtube channel to teach the languages to others, similar to what some Native Americans have done in the U.S.

4. Mandarin will give Singaporeans a competitive advantage in doing business with China.

True, and Taiwanese people have also been able to reap such benefits, whether in doing business with China or being intermediaries between Japan and China. But this definitely did not have to come at the expense of other languages. Again we just need to look at China.

I think it’s safe to say that the SMC largely succeeded in establishing Mandarin’s supremacy above all other Chinese languages: “Predominantly dialect-speaking households fell from 76 percent of the population in 1980 to 48 percent in 1990, while Mandarin-speaking households rose over the same period from 13 to 30 percent.” (source)

An interesting parallel between Singapore and Taiwan in this respect is that Hokkien is often used among the rebellious, as shown by the song “Limpeh” which within 24 hours shot to #1 on the Singapore iTunes chart. Its English-Hokkien-Mandarin lyrics, which include lines such as, “Don’t think we Singaporeans just obey everything blindly, we don’t say ‘okay’ to everything the government wants, times have changed, we are not the same,” must have appealed to the young Singaporean psyche. (For comparison, a history-inspired rap, also in English, Hokkien, and Mandarin, from Taiwan: “Civil Revolt.”)

Anyways, unfortunately for the SMC, there is another language that “threatens” to take over Singapore, or rather, has already taken over Singapore… English: it is already the dominant “home language” of the majority of all Singaporeans. In response to this, Lee Kuan Yew has urged Chinese-Singaporeans to speak Mandarin at home. And then of course, there is another government-led campaign for English… the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM), and in defiance of that, grassroots campaigns supporting Singlish. And so the language wars wage on!!


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