Singapore Ambassador to US rebuts NYT article on Chinese dialects

Singapore Ambassador to US rebuts NYT article on Chinese dialects

Ashok Kumar Mirpuri
Singapore's Ambassador to the United States Ashok Kumar Mirpuri. (Photo: MFA)

SINGAPORE: Singapore's Ambassador to the United States Ashok Kumar Mirpuri has taken issue with a New York Times (NYT) article on the Government's policy on the use of Chinese dialects in Singapore. 

The article, titled "In Singapore, Chinese dialects revive after decades of restrictions", was published on Aug 26.

In it, author Ian Johnson wrote that "linguistic repression" by the Singapore Government has led to a "widespread sense of resentment", prompting "a softening" in the policy on dialects. 

"Both assertions are mistaken," said Mr Mirpuri in a letter addressed to the editor of the New York Times on Aug 27.

The ambassador pointed out that amid the Government's push to promote bilingualism as a fundamental education policy, "Chinese Singaporeans had to choose between maintaining multiple dialects and adopting Mandarin."

"Mr Lee Kuan Yew pushed for Mandarin because of its economic value, the sheer impracticality of teaching multiple, mutually unintelligible dialects, and to establish a common language amongst Chinese Singaporeans," Mr Mirpuri wrote. "This remains the Government’s policy."

The New York Times article, in giving examples of the Singapore Government's "softening" of policy, cited a recent drama series that was broadcast in Hokkien "for the first time since the late 1970s". 

The author added: "And in May, the government endorsed a new multidialect film project, with the minister of education making a personal appearance at the film’s release, unthinkable just a few years ago."

In response, Mr Mirpuri said that such dialect broadcasts are not new. 

"We have always had them for older Chinese Singaporeans. Grandparents want to communicate with their grandchildren, but they do not want their grandchildren to learn dialects at the expense of English or Mandarin," he wrote in his letter to the editor.

"We encourage young Singaporeans to learn about their communities’ history, culture, heritage and language. But we have to recognise that for Chinese Singaporeans the future is in English and Mandarin."

The New York Times has not published Mr Mupuri's letter. It is reproduced here, in full:

Dear Mr Feyer,

Your article, ‘In Singapore, Chinese dialects revive after decades of restrictions (NYT, 26 Aug), alleged ‘linguistic repression’ in Singapore and spoke of a ‘softening of Government policy’ towards the use of Chinese dialects as a result of public discontent. Both assertions are mistaken.

Singaporeans adopted English as the working language because it was the international language of commerce. Parents, convinced their children had to master English to survive, sent their children to English language schools in droves from the 1960s.

Notwithstanding this powerful trend, the Singapore Government strived to keep the mother tongues (Chinese, Malay and Tamil) alive, by promoting bilingualism as a fundamental education policy.

Chinese Singaporeans had to choose between maintaining multiple dialects and adopting Mandarin. Mr Lee Kuan Yew pushed for Mandarin because of its economic value, the sheer impracticality of teaching multiple, mutually unintelligible dialects, and to establish a common language amongst Chinese Singaporeans. This remains the Government’s policy.

Dialect broadcasts are not new; we have always had them for older Chinese Singaporeans. Grandparents want to communicate with their grandchildren, but they do not want their grandchildren to learn dialects at the expense of English or Mandarin. Most Singaporeans are not linguists with a gift for languages. They know first-hand how difficult it is to master multiple languages.

A young nation like Singapore will continue to develop its own culture and identity. We encourage young Singaporeans to learn about their communities’ history, culture, heritage and language. But we have to recognise that for Chinese Singaporeans the future is in English and Mandarin.

Source: CNA/nc

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