SINGAPORE - 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.
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