PMO responds to Zaobao editorial on Chinese language

The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has responded to an editorial in Lianhe Zaobao that called for more space for dialects and for the social standing of the Chinese language to be raised.

In the reply published in the Chinese daily yesterday, the PMO said the reasons for launching the Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979 remain relevant today as most people would not be able to master English, Mandarin and dialect at the same time.

The PMO also defended the bilingual policy, saying it is not to blame for falling Chinese standards and that without the policy, there would be a generation of Singaporeans who cannot understand, speak or write the language.

The Zaobao editorial was published on Monday, two days after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong launched the 35th anniversary celebrations of the Speak Mandarin Campaign. The editorial highlighted the price exacted by the campaign and the bilingual policy. The urgency with which the campaign had been rolled out had turned the use of Mandarin and dialects into a "zero-sum game", it said.

It created a divide between the dialect-speaking pioneer generation and their mainly English- speaking grandchildren, leading to the loss of traditional Chinese values and hastening the Westernisation of society, it said.

In the letter, which was signed by the Prime Minister's press secretary Chang Li Lin, the PMO said this view was extreme, not objective and "does not do justice to the Government".

The editorial omitted to mention that similar shifts in values and attitudes are taking place even in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, the PMO said. Singapore upheld Mandarin to strengthen the younger generation's knowledge of their mother tongue and culture rather than to weaken their sense of belonging as the editorial argued, it added.

As for dialects, they have not been expunged but the young should focus on English and Mandarin. Hong Kong's experience with three languages shows Singapore's pragmatic approach is necessary and has worked, the PMO said. And without the bilingual policy, today there would be a generation of Singaporeans who cannot understand Chinese, speak Mandarin, or even read Chinese newspapers and entertainment news, it said.

The PMO also rebutted the argument that the language issue had largely lost its political hue as Singaporeans have internalised the importance of inter-racial, inter-religious harmony and that English is the lingua franca.

Ms Chang said this was a misperception. Singapore cannot be complacent about the need to treat race, language and religious issues with care, she said, citing the furore over the use of Mandarin in MRT station announcements and a New Year's Eve countdown. As the majority ethnic group, Chinese Singaporeans have a responsibility to remember Singapore is multi-racial. "We must never make non-Chinese Singaporeans feel marginalised in their own country."

ANDREA ONG