Government rebuts New York Times article on dialects in Singapore

The New York Times (NYT) article said that there has been a softening of Government policy towards the use of Chinese dialects after decades of what the paper described as "linguistic repression". PHOTO: SCREENGRAB/ THE NEW YORK TIMES

SINGAPORE - Singapore's ambassador to the United States has rejected claims in a New York Times (NYT) article that there has been a softening of Government policy towards the use of Chinese dialects after decades of what the paper described as "linguistic repression".

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

In it, author Ian Johnson wrote about the dearth of dialects among the young, and described a three-generation Singaporean family, in which a Hokkien-speaking grandmother and her English-speaking granddaughter struggle to communicate.

This, the article 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 widespread sense of resentment - and now a softening in the government's policy," wrote Mr Johnson, a Beijing-based contributor to the NYT.

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

The NYT did not publish the letter, which Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs made public on Tuesday (Sept 12).

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

He noted 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, who is based in Washington DC.

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 amongst Chinese Singaporeans".

"This remains the Government's policy," wrote Mr Mirpuri.

Mr Johnson had, in his article, said that television and radio had by 1981 been banned from broadcasting almost all dialect shows, including popular music, cutting many off from society. A television series was recently broadcast in Hokkien, he added, for the first time since the late 1970s.

Mr Mirpuri's 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.

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

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.