Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks on Saturday at the launch of the Speak Mandarin Campaign, now in its 35th year.

Bilingual emphasis allowed S'pore to maintain good standards in English and Mandarin: PM Lee

SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said Singapore's language policy remains sound, and it is "not pragmatic" to give Chinese dialects wider use, or to expect young Singaporeans to master them on top of English and Mandarin.

Mr Lee said this on Saturday at the launch of the Speak Mandarin Campaign, now in its 35th year.

After more than 30 years of the Speak Mandarin Campaign, most young Singaporean Chinese can speak some Mandarin.

With the language now established, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who delivered his speech in Mandarin, said some feel it is time to allow dialects to be used more widely.

"But this is not a pragmatic approach. I fully understand the wish for young Singapreans to be able to learn dialects, the wish to protect dialects as a valuable cultural heritage. I can understand this thinking and the fervour," Mr Lee said.

Expecting young people to master English, Mandarin, and dialects all at the same time is a tremendous challenge for most, and could affect Singaporeans' proficiency in English and Mandarin, and in turn, their future opportunities.

This a huge price to pay, Mr Lee added.

He said: "In Singapore, we gave up dialects, but it's because we emphasised bilingual education. This has allowed us to maintain a good standard of English.

"The standard of Mandarin is not bad. This was the trade-off, after weighing the pros and cons, and the sacrifice to dialects was something we were forced to make."

Still, there is room for dialects in Singapore, and the government is prepared to use them "under special circumstances", Mr Lee said.

Earlier this year, authorities produced video clips about the Pioneer Generation Package in Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese -- dialects spoken by many elderly Singaporeans.

Producing the video clips was no mean feat, with each one taking up time and resources, Mr Lee said, so the government will not be able to do this for every single policy.

Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew launched the Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979, a time when Mandarin was almost a foreign language for most Chinese people here, who spoke different dialects.

Mandarin was chosen as the common language so that the different groups could come together.

Thirty-five years on, the work is far from over, said chairman of Speak Mandarin Campaign Seow Choke Meng.

He said: "We have already overcome the first step of speaking less dialect, so the next step of course... is to speak much better Mandarin, purer Mandarin, without adulterations of Malay, English words, or some other (dialect when)... the vocabulary is not good enough."

Campaign leaders said they will need to keep Singaporeans talking, because "It Gets Better with Use" -- that's the campaign slogan for the year. 

- CNA/fa/al