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 was sound and the bilingual policy had 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.
Lee said he fully understood 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. Lee also said that in Hong Kong, for example, people were very good in Cantonese, but not as fluent in Mandarin and even less so in English.
But there is still room for dia-lect in Singapore. There were 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 to explain the Pioneer Generation Package to seniors. — The Straits Times / Asia News Network