30 January 2018

Breaking Down the Mosaic: Multilingualism and its Place in Contemporary Singapore

“Will we ever become completely homogeneous, a melange of languages and cultures? No.”- Lee Kuan Yew

Stepping off the plane from Sydney, one of the first things I observed about Singapore was its multilingualism. Whether noting signs written in multiple dialects, or the unfamiliar sound of announcements repeated in different ways, the diversity of language was clear. However, as part of the University of Sydney’s 2017 Singapore Immersion Program, I soon came to realise that these “surface level” differences were actually the result of intense political planning. My perspectives about language in the country were shaped by three key cultural activities; An incredible tour about Lee Kuan Yew, language classes taught by the experts at the National University of Singapore and finally, our trip to the HDB flats that allowed me to gain first hand insight into the language of the everyday citizen. Supported by the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan and alongside my fellow business school students and our mentor Dr Jeaney Yip, I learnt the value of observation and the true modern relevance of language.

To briefly recap, my studies at NUS taught me about Singapore’s four national languages; English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. Each had been selected for a unique reason, representing a different group of Singaporean citizens. Interestingly, English has been the country’s dominant language since it’s separation from Malaysia in 1965. This language is not native, but rather was selected to drive trade, law and business in Singapore. In addition (in the wise words of Lee Kuan Yew) if Singapore chose to instead elevate one of the three native languages over another “the country would fall apart”. Reflecting on this system, I found it incredibly interesting that the diversity of race and language does not serve to turn the country into a melting pot of culture (as Australians are fond of saying). It rather allows many vastly different people to fit together while still retaining a distinct sense of heritage. A mosaic perhaps, rather than a melting pot.

For me, the biggest takeaway after my first week in Singapore was how language has power. Take for instance, how it shapes policy regarding both education and housing. Although English is the formal language of instruction in Singapore, students are also required to learn a second language based on their “mother tongue”. As a result, today 73.2% of people are literate in at least two languages with may speaking more. Coming from a country where English dominates, I feel that the government is to be applauded for its attempt to recognise individual languages (even those of racial minorities) instead of forcing homogenisation. Language and culture also strongly influence housing policy, as each HDB complex must fulfil specific quotas based on ethnicity. Theoretically, this distribution is meant to stop people from clustering, encouraging racial and cultural interaction. In this way, language and culture shape two key aspects of Singaporean policy.

However, reflecting on these positive experiences, I couldn’t help but feel I was missing a piece of the puzzle. It was only after visiting a HDB flat and talking with a native Singaporean and her elderly mother that I began to realise how language presented barriers too. Firstly, it creates a dilemma for Singapore’s elderly residents who were not taught to speak English. My HDB interviewee described how her mother was terrified to go to hospital in case she received a doctor who did not speak her native dialect. As the number of foreign doctors working in Singapore public hospitals and polyclinics (more than 1 in 4 at last count) increases societies’ disadvantaged may find the increasing prevalence of English to be a greater issue. This also presents a problem for businesses wishing to advertise or interact with this elderly demographic. A second problem was also brought to my attention during my classes at NUS. Although the Chinese population make up more than 74% of Singapore’s citizens, many of these individuals have unique dialects distinct from Mandarin. Students attending school who are forced to learn a “mother tongue” are not given the opportunity to learn other popular dialects like Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese. In explaining his decisions regarding education and language, Mr. Lee encouraged the use of Mandarin as a means of “uniting the different dialect groups”. He felt that drawing together the Chinese population under a common language would prevent English from eradicating the local culture.

Despite Mr Lee’s assertions, it was easy for me to observe how English is still growing in significance in Singapore. In fact, my research suggests that his push towards Mandarin may not have been enough. A 2015 survey of the population has shown that, for the first time the majority of Singaporean residents aged 5 and older now use English most often at home (36.9%) as opposed to the 34.9% who speak Mandarin. I asked myself, what does this mean for the future of language in Singapore? To me there was a clear answer. As in many parts of the world, in Singapore you can see how globalisation is influencing local identity. The next generation of individuals are eschewing traditional conceptions of race, and are more likely to call themselves “Singaporean” rather than citing the ethnicity of their ancestors. Even observing the use of “Singlish” throughout the week highlighted how hybridising language allows people to reshape their own identity and make connections no matter the ‘mother tongue’. Where to from here? It’s hard to say. But you can bet that Singapore’s multilingualism has not finished evolving.

Mikaela Colgan 
Bachelor of Commerce (Liberal Studies)

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