Envoy to US rebuts NYTimes report on dialects in S'pore

DIALECTS NOT THE FUTURE: "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." - AMBASSADOR ASHOK KU
DIALECTS NOT THE FUTURE: "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." - AMBASSADOR ASHOK KUMAR MIRPURI, in his letter to the New York Times.

Report claims govt policy on dialect use has softened after years of 'linguistic repression'

Singapore's envoy to the United States has rejected claims in a New York Times (NYTimes) report that said government policy towards the use of Chinese dialects has softened after decades of what the paper described as "linguistic repression".

The report, "In Singapore, Chinese dialects revive after decades of restrictions", was published on Aug 26.

The author, Mr Ian Johnson, wrote about the dearth of dialects among the young here, and cited a three-generation Singaporean family where the Hokkien-speaking grandmother and her English-speaking granddaughter struggle to communicate.

This, the report noted, is a consequence of "the Singapore Government's large-scale, decades-long effort at linguistic engineering" as it moved to effectively ban Chinese dialects in favour of Mandarin.

"This linguistic repression, and the consequences for multi-generational families, has led to a widespread sense of resentment - and now a softening in the government's policy," wrote Mr Johnson, who is a Beijing-based contributor to the NYTimes.

Ambassador Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, in a letter to the NYTimes on Aug 27, said these assertions of "linguistic repression" in Singapore, and a "softening of government policy" towards dialects as a result of public discontent, are mistaken.

The NYTimes has not published the letter, which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released yesterday.

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

He added that parents, "convinced their children had to master English to survive", sent their children to English-language schools in droves from the 1960s.

"Notwithstanding this powerful trend, the Singapore Government strived to keep the mother tongues (Chinese, Malay and Tamil) alive, by promoting bilingualism as a fundamental education policy," said Mr Mirpuri.

Chinese Singaporeans had to choose between maintaining multiple dialects and adopting Mandarin, he added.

Founding prime minister 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 among Chinese Singaporeans". Mr Mirpuri said: "This remains the Government's policy."

Mr Johnson, in his report, said TV and radio, by 1981, were banned from broadcasting almost all dialect shows, including popular music, that resulted in cutting off many people from society. However, a TV series in the Hokkien dialect was broadcast recently, for the first time since the late 1970s, he added.

Mr Mirpuri, in his letter, said dialect broadcasts are not new, and have always been around for older Chinese Singaporeans.

And while grandparents want to communicate with their grandchildren, they do not want their grandchildren to learn dialects at the expense of English or Mandarin, he added.

"Most Singaporeans are not linguists with a gift for languages. They know first-hand how difficult it is to master multiple languages," wrote Mr Mirpuri.

A young nation like Singapore will continue to develop its own culture and identity, he added.

"We encourage young Singaporeans to learn about their communities' history, culture, heritage and language," he said in the letter.

"But we have to recognise that for Chinese Singaporeans, the future is in English and Mandarin."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2017, with the headline 'Envoy to US rebuts NYTimes report on dialects in S'pore'. Print Edition | Subscribe