Mandarin only for free-to-air Chinese programmes

Reader Ang Tze Siang wrote in to askST: "Why does the Singapore Government restrict the broadcasting of Chinese dialects in the mass media?" Media correspondent Boon Chan answered the question.

Mass media content comes under the purview of the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA).

Broadcasters have to ensure that their programmes are in line with the authority's content guidelines, which are stricter for free-to-air media because they are easily accessible by almost everyone.

Under the Free-To-Air Television Programme Code and Free-To-Air Radio Programme Code, it is stated that all Chinese programmes, except operas or other programmes specifically approved, must be in Mandarin.

Dialects in dialogues and songs may be allowed, provided the context justifies usage and is "sparingly used".

Other exceptions include news, current affairs and info-educational programmes where interviews are given by older people or foreigners who are conversant only in dialect. Some dialect terms such as those used for food, for example, char kway teow, may be used in local dramas.

Under the Board of Film Censors' Classification Guidelines, the reason for this is spelt out.

"Films with dialect content are allowed on a case-by-case basis. Chinese films meant for theatrical release should generally be in Mandarin, in line with the Speak Mandarin Campaign."

This was launched in 1979 with the objective of replacing dialects with Mandarin among Chinese Singaporeans. The use of dialects is seen as fundamentally undermining the spread of Mandarin.

In recent years though, there appears to be a loosening of restrictions on the use of dialect on free-to-air television.

The 10-episode Hokkien drama Jiak Ba Buay (Eat Already?) last year was reportedly the first dialect series aired in Singapore since 1979. It was a collaboration between Mediacorp and the Ministry of Communications and Information that was aimed at conveying government policies, such as MediShield Life, to senior citizens who may not be as comfortable in Mandarin. The third season of the show is currently airing on Channel 8 until Oct 27.

Also last year, variety series Happy Can Already! took on topics from SkillsFuture to retirement in songs and skits in a mix of Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew. The second season ended its run in July.

IMDA says, though, that there is no change to the Government's dialect policy for mass media. "Dialect broadcasts are not new; we have always had them for older Chinese Singaporeans."

The authority notes that dialect content remains available on various platforms.

On radio, Mediacorp's Capital 95.8FM offers daily morning news bulletins in dialects such as Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, Hainanese, Foochow and Hakka.

On free-to-air TV, Channel 8 broadcasts dialect operas on Friday mornings as well as MediShield and Pioneer Generation Package interstitials in dialect.

There is also flexibility for okto channel to screen art-house films with dialect content.

In addition, pay-TV operators offer channels with dialect content such as StarHub's TVBJ (Cantonese) and Singtel's Jia Le Channel (Hokkien), and also carry dialect titles on its video-on-demand services.

There are no restrictions on the sale and distribution of dialect videos and music albums, as well as on outdoor and theatrical performances and events.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 09, 2017, with the headline 'Mandarin only for free-to-air Chinese programmes'. Print Edition | Subscribe