Chinese S’poreans should focus on learning Mandarin well, says MM Lee

Lee Kuan Yew is the founder and father of modern Singapore. His world view carries considerable weight. I have always like to watch his speech in TV while I was in Singapore. His speeches were never dreary, as they were full of interesting anecdotes. 


Nowadayss he is focussing considerable efforts in getting his countrymen to use Mandarin. His latest effort is in urging Singaporeans to speak Mandarin to their children. According to him, the main reason for promoting Mandarin is to enable Singaporeans to plug in with the 1.3 billion Chinese speaking counterparts in China. This will serve Singapore well as PRC is developing rapidly to become world economic power.


However, there is another equally important and if not, a more important reason that he did not bring up. He does not want the Singaporean Chinese to lose their cultural heritage and become too westernised. Being westernised could mean different things to different people. Basically, it mainly boils down to the emphasis in the promotion of the society versus individual rights issue.


Below is a report made on LKY speech made on 17 March 2009. His speech is also captured in the accompanying clips (3 parts).


SINGAPORE: The trend of Chinese dialects dying out in Singapore is irreversible, said Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who urged Singaporeans to focus more energy on learning Mandarin instead.

Speaking at the 30th anniversary of the Speak Mandarin Campaign on Tuesday, Mr Lee said the key challenge is no longer about Mandarin versus dialects, but about getting more Chinese Singaporeans to speak Mandarin to their children.

Mastering both English and Mandarin is not an easy task for most children, including the minister mentor’s grandchildren. He said among the seven of them, only one prefers to use Mandarin, whereas the rest often answer in English when he asks them questions in Mandarin.

Mr Lee urged parents to help their children master the language at home. "If both (parents) can speak Mandarin, don’t speak to your child in English, or one in English and one in Chinese. Speak to them in Mandarin, leave their English alone – they will master it," he said.

Research has shown that it is difficult for most children to cope with two languages which are as diverse as English and Mandarin.

According to a study done by Cornelius Kubler, an American professor who teaches Mandarin to US foreign service officers, it takes four times as long to train someone to a level where they can function professionally in Mandarin, compared to other languages like French, German and Spanish.

That is why Mr Lee said there is a need to build a strong Mandarin foundation in children.

On learning dialects, the minister mentor said it causes negative interferences with the learning of Mandarin and English because dialects have different vocabulary, phonetics and syntax.

"Today’s Zaobao had a whole series of middle aged and older generation saying we must have dialects. If you’ve got 100 gigabytes here, then you can put it in. But you haven’t got 100 gigabytes…

"And the more you use dialects, the less you will use your Mandarin. Your Mandarin will go down, your English will not go down because you have to use it," Mr Lee said.

He added that if the government had left language habits to evolve undirected, Chinese Singaporeans would be speaking an adulterated Hokkien-Teochew dialect.

Mr Lee also said the value of a language is its usefulness. If one speaks Hokkien or Cantonese, one could only reach some 60 million people in Fujian and Taiwan, or about 100 million in Guangdong and Hong Kong. With Mandarin, one can reach 1.3 billion Chinese from all provinces in China.

Statistics from the Education Ministry showed that the proportion of Chinese families in Singapore who speak dialects at home has dropped significantly in the past 30 years.

It fell below 10 per cent in 1988 and continued on a downward trend. Since 2001, less than 2 per cent of Chinese students in each cohort have come from dialect-speaking homes, demonstrating that the majority of parents prefer their children to focus on learning English and Mandarin well.

"Did you watch the Beijing Olympics Opening? I was there. I was watching the reactions of the foreign leaders and I knew that they knew this is a country that is going to rise," Mr Lee added.

He said Singapore is useful to China because we have access to the English-speaking world and have developed links with them due to our language policy. At the same time, Singaporeans are fluent in Mandarin; hence we can communicate with those in China and help them understand the West.

As part of this year’s Speak Mandarin Campaign, the Promote Mandarin Council will launch a challenge in two weeks to encourage Chinese Singaporeans to embrace Chinese language and culture.

– CNA/so







About kchew

an occasional culturalist
This entry was posted in China view. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s