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English: A Microstate’s “Deterministic" Choice

九月 23, 2011 By: 栢齊 Category: 環球視野

(source: Inner Senses 栢齊的異度空間)

Over the years there have been persistent debates over teaching languages in schools among overseas Chinese communities.  Singapore is no doubt the most typical example in this regard.  In his bestseller Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going published in 2011, the former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew talked about the possibility of bilingualism, opining that it is convincingly achievable.  If this is the case, it will mark a major shift in the country’s language policy, in which English is accorded primacy over other languages that has impacted significantly on all aspects of the country’s development.  A friend of mine, who is a Singaporean, remarked that the existing policy “has already bred a whole generation of ‘banana Chinese…’.”  While his statement would be a bit too critical, it reflects that after decades controversy over the policy has still not come to an end.  As an outsider with limited knowledge of the country, I am not in the best position to comment on the language policy of Singapore.  Here I try to trace its origin from the context of international relations and briefly discuss its implications.

The decision of making English the principal language of Singapore, from my point of view, is rooted in the country’s historical background particularly in the wake of its independence in mid 1960s.  At that time Singapore was expelled from the Malaysian federation following series of conflicts and mutual suspicion.  Meanwhile, Mainland China was supporting communist movements in Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries.  As a newly born republic with ethnic Chinese forming the majority, it would not be surprising to see Singapore being suspected as a potential subversive base of Chinese Communists.  Besides, the leftist political parties in Singapore led by Chinese-speaking elites and sympathetic towards Mainland China were influential then.  To promote English as the master language in education could effectively cut off their links with the educated youth as a potential source of support for them.  Hence, the Singaporean government could show to the entire world that it is neither collaborator nor vassal of Chinese Communists in the region.

One also should not overlook the fact that about a quarter of Singaporean population are Malays, Indians and other minorities. Granting Chinese principal language status would marginalize these ethnic groups and thus bring about their resistance and even intervention by their motherland, namely Malaysia and India, both of which have strong nationalist sentiments.  To adopt the fourth language (English) common to all would be a prudent option for the sake of political stability and social cohesiveness.

As an island and city-state with virtually no natural resource, how to develop the economy to feed its people has always been the topmost concern.  Export-oriented industry seems to be the most feasible and only way out.  During 1960s-1970s, the US and other English-speaking countries were amongst the world’s major importers of manufacture products.  From development point of view, English education could help train sufficient manpower capable of doing business with those countries.  In cultural sense, the English-speaking community on the island would find themselves adapting to mainstream Western atmosphere (communication, lifestyle, pop culture, social values, etc) without much difficulty.  In terms of external relations, moreover, it could be easier for the English-educated state leadership to gain confidence of and foster relationships with the West especially the US, hence obtaining the latter’s diplomatic and military support to counterbalance the influence of neighbouring countries.

If we take into account the aforesaid, the situation will be clear: the adoption of English as the principal language in Singapore cannot simply be explained as senses of English-speaking elitism and cultural superiority.  It is contributed by a combination of internal cum external factors and, in essence, a reflection of pragmatism, the ruling ideology of Lee and his followers.  Critics suggest that such policy is achieved at the expense of the languages and cultures of both majority and minority ethnic groups, and has increasingly been subject to challenge under the rapidly changing international environment particularly the rise of China, India and ASEAN neighbours.  These might be part of the reasons for Lee’s recent call for policy review.  Nonetheless, no matter the policy would ultimately give way to bilingualism, the choice of English (or arguably, Singlish) has to certain extent contributed to the emergence of a Singaporean nation, which transcends ethnic identities and incorporates elements of different peoples co-residing on the soil of Temasek for centuries.  It has cultivated a whole new generation of Singaporeans who have been departing from traditional values and are more proactive than their parents and ancestors in safeguarding their own rights and expressing their will on the country’s future.  Inevitably, a pluralistic society is being emerged as shown in recent political development on the island.  While it would become more difficult, if not impossible, for all citizens to always be “In a Heartbeat” (the title of the theme song of Singapore National Day Parade 2011) as the state leaders so appeal, the following is undeniable: Singapore is no longer a Malay island, a British colony or a Chinese state, but one sovereign state, one master language and most of all, one Singaporean nation.

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