Forum: Important for Singaporeans to know some basic Malay

I agree with Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's call for Singaporeans to have a better understanding of neighbouring countries (DPM: Do more to get S'poreans to know our neighbours better, Jan 12).

Many would have observed that young Singaporeans are often clueless or not interested in the political, economic, cultural or social aspects of our immediate neighbouring countries.

Educational trips are often fully taken up if they are to places such as South Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong or Europe.

As Singapore is sited in the midst of other Asean countries, it is beneficial for Singaporeans to be able to speak and understand some Asean languages.

Although English is the common working language of Asean, we could forge a closer relationship with our immediate neighbouring countries if we have a good command of the language used in this particular part of the world.

It is especially important for Singaporeans to know some basic Malay.

As DPM Heng said last September: "A good command of the Malay language can open many doors for us and unlock many opportunities in Singapore and South-east Asia."

Because of personal relationships cultivated between the leaders conversing in the same lingua franca, difficult bilateral issues may be easier settled.

Founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew used to have "four-eyes" private talks with Indonesia's then President Suharto to resolve difficult issues. No translator was present, trust was forged and issues settled.

It is a pity that many young non-Malay Singaporeans cannot converse in simple Malay.

Most prefer to learn foreign languages such as Korean or Japanese when given a choice to do a third language over languages such as Malay, Thai or Tagalog. I believe this is quite unwise.

Whether socially, politically or economically, it is beneficial if we are fluent in a language spoken by our immediate neighbours.

There is a vast opportunity just a doorstep away. We must be ready to seize it by encouraging more Singaporeans to learn the language, even at a basic level, used in this part of the world.

Foo Sing Kheng