Bilingualism helps Singapore build bridges in a fragmented world: Chan Chun Sing

Education Minister Chan Chun Sing delivering a speech at the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism 10th anniversary commemorative event on Nov 24, 2021.
Education Minister Chan Chun Sing delivering a speech at the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism 10th anniversary commemorative event on Nov 24, 2021.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Bilingualism has been a strength for Singapore as it has helped its citizens distinguish themselves as bridge builders in a world that threatens to fragment because of ideology, culture and different governance systems, said Education Minister Chan Chun Sing on Wednesday (Nov 24).

He added that efforts to anchor the Republic's national identity on bilingualism is more pertinent and salient than ever.

Bilingualism can help prevent Singapore from being unwittingly drawn into cultural contests happening in other parts of the world or being influenced by external forces, he said.

Mr Chan was speaking at the 10th anniversary commemorative event of the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism at Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre.

The fund, which he chairs, has committed $27 million over the past 10 years to support close to 200 projects and partnered over 120 stakeholders.

This includes a call for entries from creative talents, freelances, publishers, educators and organisations last year to create digital resources on the fund's YouTube channel.

These videos can help parents guide their young ones in learning their mother tongue at home.

The fund has also supported a bilingual TV programme, periodicals, a mobile app and children's picture books.

Mr Chan said the fund will continue to support the development of age-appropriate resources contextualised to Singapore, and welcomes collaboration with more diverse partners, content generators and channels to reach the wider community.

He also said monolingualism would not have taken Singapore this far, and neither would it take the nation as far as it could go in the future.

He added: "Arguably, it is the harder path taken, in comparison to those taken by many other societies. Neither monolingualism nor multilingualism without a common language will serve us well. But we believe our bilingualism path is well worth the effort."

In a pre-recorded message, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that Singapore started out as a multiracial and multilingual nation, and English was chosen as the working language of commerce and administration.

He said: "But we wanted to preserve the mother tongue languages to strengthen our cultural roots, which is core to our Singaporean identity."

At the event, Ms Rahayu Mahzam, Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Communications and Information and chair of the Bulan Bahasa committee, spoke at a round-table discussion about bilingualism and its future in Singapore.

The other panellists were Mr Arun Mahizhnan, special research adviser at the Institute of Policy Studies and director of the Centre for Singapore Tamil Culture, and Mr Kuek Yu-Chuang, vice-president of international business at Chinese streaming service iQiyi.

(From left) Mr Kuek Yu-Chuang, Ms Rahayu Mahzam, Associate Professor Tan Chee Lay and Mr Arun Mahizhnan during a round-table discussion at the event, on Nov 24, 2021. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Mr Kuek spoke on the need to make the language come alive for the next generation so that mother tongue is seen not just as an exam subject, but also something they can have fun with.

For example, a mother tongue-related TikTok challenge could make it more engaging to the younger demographic, he said.

Mr Mahizhnan shared about how the deliberate use of mother tongue by his whole family ensured that they kept in touch with their culture and helped him to become bilingual.

Ms Rahayu suggested having a tiered approach for people who have different levels of ability and levels of appreciation for bilingualism.

"We need to have more curated and targeted efforts. So for those who like pop culture music, we should tailor some of those interesting bits for you," she said.