SINGAPORE - 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".
This article was first published on July 5, 2014.
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