Chinese unlikely to displace English as S'pore's lingua franca

Office workers in Shenton Way.
Office workers in Shenton Way.PHOTO: ST FILE

Editor-at-Large Han Fook Kwang's postulation that Singapore's lingua franca might change, given the economic and cultural ascendancy of China, is intriguing, but somewhat unlikely ("Will Chinese replace English as facts on the ground change?"; last Sunday).

Firstly, the heightened exchange of goods, services, and labour with any particular country does not automatically guarantee a wholesale adoption of that nation's culture or language. 

Economic activity is almost overwhelmingly motivated by empirical decision-making in the pursuit of profit. Engaging in trade with China, the world's largest market, is a natural extension of this calculus.

Adopting aspects of Chinese culture and language for expediency in doing business is a very different proposition from adopting Chinese practices within the household or in daily routines.

Secondly, the spread of culture - and by extension, language - is determined not merely by overall volume of exposure, but also intrinsic appeal. In this respect, Chinese culture has yet to attain widespread acceptance.

Despite China's rapid development, as Mr Han indicated, many Singaporeans continue to hold stereotyped negative views of China and Chinese citizens.

Many have expressed a deep-seated incompatibility regarding their values, practices and politesse.

Moreover, Chinese goods and media, the vessels of soft power projection, are still perceived as being generally inferior to those from other countries.

Indeed, there has been something of a conscious rejection of the Chinese language among the younger generation.

This is plainly evident from the slate of campaigns that the state has had to run - for example, Hua Yu Cool - to popularise and resurrect the use of the mother tongue.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, any substantial swing from English to Chinese will be stymied by Singapore's established multiracial and multicultural identity.

After independence, English was adopted as the lingua franca in part because it did not privilege any particular ethnicity.

In turn, the adoption of the Chinese language by members of other races has been unenthusiastic, rudimentary at best.

It is, therefore, unlikely that Chinese can gain any more of a foothold than it already has, since we, as a nation, are at least somewhat cognisant that this would exclude or alienate a significant proportion of Singaporeans.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 15, 2016, with the headline 'Chinese unlikely to displace English as S'pore's lingua franca'. Subscribe