Monday, 7 July 2014

'Room for dialect, but stick with Mandarin': PM Lee

PM says maintaining good standards in English and Mandarin calls for some trade-off
By Andrea Ong, The Sunday Times, 6 Jul 2014

With more Singaporeans comfortable speaking Mandarin today, some in the Chinese community feel the country can afford to ease up on the use of dialect.

But Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong used the launch of this year's Speak Mandarin campaign yesterday to remind them that it would not be practical to do so.

Recalling why the language policy was set many years ago, he said: "In Singapore, we decided not to promote the use of dialects in order to emphasise bilingualism. This trade-off has allowed us to maintain good standards in English and Mandarin."

In a Mandarin speech that dwelled largely on this issue, he said Singapore's language policy is sound and the bilingual policy has made considerable progress.

There is still room for dialects, but it is not pragmatic for these to be used more widely and mastered alongside English and Mandarin. Changing this could affect Singaporeans' English standards and future opportunities, their ability in Mandarin and its long-term standing here. "This is a huge price to pay," he said.

Calls to ease up on the use of dialects have risen in recent years. It was a topic of debate after the Rediffusion radio station closed in 2012, was raised during Our Singapore Conversation and has been the subject of online petitions.

Mr Lee said he fully understands the desire for the young to learn dialects and for dialects to be preserved, but sought to explain the difficult trade-offs the Government faced in deciding to emphasise bilingualism while sacrificing dialect.

When the first Speak Mandarin Campaign was launched 35 years ago, it was hard to spread important information among the Chinese community. They spoke different dialects and sometimes had trouble understanding one another, he said.

The Government decided on English as the common language for all races and Mandarin to unite the Chinese community. It did so after careful observation and finding it was very difficult for most to master English, Mandarin and dialects. Mr Lee also said that in Hong Kong, for example, people are very good in Cantonese, but not as fluent in Mandarin and even less so in English.

But there is still room for dialect in Singapore. There are dialect news reports on the radio and clan associations run dialect classes, he added.

The Government is also prepared to use dialects in special circumstances, such as in video clips in Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese to explain the Pioneer Generation Package to seniors. It may use dialects to promote other important policies, but cannot do so for every policy given the limited resources.

Mr Lee also launched a book commemorating 35 years of the campaign. He said the campaign has been successful, with most young Chinese Singaporeans able to speak and understand Mandarin, and also appreciate the importance of Chinese.

They have a strong desire to learn the language to connect with their roots and culture, as well as to take advantage of opportunities due to the rise of China.

He also called for more support for children to master the two languages to help them plug into the global stage yet stay anchored to their culture. And he urged parents to speak Mandarin to their children at home and in their daily lives, and for learning Mandarin to be fun and to make use of technology.

Promote Mandarin Council chairman Seow Choke Meng said this year's campaign will create opportunities for those who may find it intimidating speaking Mandarin, or who do not have the chance to speak it, to immerse themselves in the language.

Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng, who has previously called for rules on dialect use to be relaxed, acknowledged that it is not possible for dialect to be fully revived, but said he still hopes for more space for dialect to be embraced as part of Singapore's heritage and culture. "Don't drive it to total extinction," he said.

Bilingual emphasis allowed S'pore to maintain good standards in English and Mandarin: PM Lee
By Tan Qiuyi, Channel NewsAsia, 5 Jul 2014

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said Singapore's language policy remains sound, and it is "not pragmatic" to give Chinese dialects wider use, or to expect young Singaporeans to master them on top of English and Mandarin.

Mr Lee said this on Saturday at the launch of the Speak Mandarin Campaign, now in its 35th year.

After more than 30 years of the Speak Mandarin Campaign, most young Singaporean Chinese can speak some Mandarin.

With the language now established, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who delivered his speech in Mandarin, said some feel it is time to allow dialects to be used more widely.

"But this is not a pragmatic approach. I fully understand the wish for young Singapreans to be able to learn dialects, the wish to protect dialects as a valuable cultural heritage. I can understand this thinking and the fervour," Mr Lee said.

Expecting young people to master English, Mandarin, and dialects all at the same time is a tremendous challenge for most, and could affect Singaporeans' proficiency in English and Mandarin, and in turn, their future opportunities.

This a huge price to pay, Mr Lee added.

He said: "In Singapore, we gave up dialects, but it's because we emphasised bilingual education. This has allowed us to maintain a good standard of English.

"The standard of Mandarin is not bad. This was the trade-off, after weighing the pros and cons, and the sacrifice to dialects was something we were forced to make."

Still, there is room for dialects in Singapore, and the government is prepared to use them "under special circumstances", Mr Lee said.

Earlier this year, authorities produced video clips about the Pioneer Generation Package in Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese -- dialects spoken by many elderly Singaporeans.

Producing the video clips was no mean feat, with each one taking up time and resources, Mr Lee said, so the government will not be able to do this for every single policy.

Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew launched the Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979, a time when Mandarin was almost a foreign language for most Chinese people here, who spoke different dialects.

Mandarin was chosen as the common language so that the different groups could come together.

Thirty-five years on, the work is far from over, said chairman of Speak Mandarin Campaign Seow Choke Meng.

He said: "We have already overcome the first step of speaking less dialect, so the next step of course... is to speak much better Mandarin, purer Mandarin, without adulterations of Malay, English words, or some other (dialect when)... the vocabulary is not good enough."

Campaign leaders said they will need to keep Singaporeans talking, because "It Gets Better with Use" -- that's the campaign slogan for the year. 

PM upbeat about Singapore achieving Mandarin goal
S'pore has put in 'tremendous effort' but there is room for improvement
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 5 Jul 2014

EVEN though Chinese language standards may have slipped, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is optimistic that Singapore can achieve about 95 per cent of its desired outcome in mastering the language.

He gave this assessment of the state of the Chinese language here, in an interview where he was asked about worries of Chinese standards falling and society becoming monolingual.

Mr Lee said he understands such concerns, which are often voiced by leaders of the community who are Chinese-educated and find today's standards very different from the early years.

"This is undeniable. But will we be facing the end of the world because our Mandarin standards are falling? I don't think so," said Mr Lee, who attended Chinese schools as a boy.

"Within the limits of what we can do, we can achieve roughly 95 per cent of the desired outcome," he said.

There is room for improvement but Singapore has already put in "tremendous effort".

The interview by Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao is published in a book commemorating the 35th anniversary of the Speak Mandarin Campaign, which Mr Lee will launch today.

The Prime Minister also stressed that while the Government wants to do more to promote Mandarin, "we must also know our limitations".

As a multiracial society, Singapore cannot become a place where Mandarin is the main language, he said. "We have to maintain the social environment in which English is the working language."

However, he acknowledged that there is a "tension" between the goals of keeping English as the lingua franca while encouraging people to speak Mandarin. "We want to maintain a common space where everybody uses English and feels comfortable," he said. "At the same time, every race wants to preserve its own tradition, culture and use of its own language."

The way to strike a balance is to find suitable platforms to use mother tongues appropriately, he added.

On the other hand, there are trade-offs to being bilingual. Mr Lee said the capability of someone learning only one language will be stronger than someone who learns multiple languages.

"We must be bilingual and our standard in the two languages cannot be 100 per cent," he said.

Singaporeans will never speak as fluently and as fast as Mandarin speakers in China and Taiwan, or be as fast as the British and Americans in speaking English.

But there are benefits to bilingualism too, he added, like having a richer view and understanding of the world.

Asked about calls by some Singaporeans for the Government to preserve dialects, Mr Lee said he understands the sentiments.

"But to be honest, it is not possible to go back to how things were, nor should we do so," he said.

Today, Singaporeans can speak Mandarin because of the effort put into the Speak Mandarin Campaign, which the Government launched in 1979, he said.

Looking back 35 years, Mr Lee said its original objective - to encourage Chinese Singaporeans to speak more Mandarin and less dialect - has largely been achieved.

The aim now is to encourage people to practise Mandarin as much as possible in an English-speaking environment.

"We still need to do more in this respect."

The campaign's aim will not change in the short term, but will require new narratives and approaches to keep it fresh, he said.

Mr Lee, who reads Zaobao daily but lamented the lack of time and fewer opportunities to read Chinese books, urged Singaporeans to keep the language alive.

Besides being able to use Mandarin on formal occasions, he said, "we must also be able to read articles and Weibo (the Chinese microblogging site) or sing pop songs in Chinese".

PM Lee on....


I feel that if people want to sing dialect songs or operas, this is possible. They can learn dialect as a third language. But if we were to use dialects in a prevalent manner, say at a hawker centre, which dialect should we use to speak to the stallholders? Do we speak Hainanese when buying Hainanese chicken rice, or speak Teochew when buying Teochew porridge, or Hokkien when buying Hokkien mee? This is a rather romantic view of things. It is not quite possible to do that in real life... Speaking more Mandarin and less dialect is the right thing to do.


We need to have some people in the political leadership who are good in Mandarin. But to expect every leader to be fluently bilingual, this expectation is too high and may not be attainable... So when it comes to the next slate of political leaders, I think it would be quite good already if we can maintain the current situation.


There is definitely an edge. Chinese culture still has strong roots in our society. If you want to understand the mindset of Singaporeans, you must be able to understand their language and views - this is a precious asset... If you want people to identify with you, to accept you, then they must feel that you are just like them.


In official meetings, we will of course still use English. We are Singapore, not China or Taiwan. We want to avoid any misunderstanding that we are part of China. We are not Chinese citizens. We are Singaporeans and there are non-Chinese in our team. During meetings, other leaders may use Mandarin; I will sometimes listen and reply directly in English... But when interacting over a meal, we are able to discuss world affairs with our counterparts directly in Mandarin. The other side will feel comfortable, relaxed and willing to share their real thoughts. Interpretation would not only slow down the process, but will also make the interaction stiff.

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