Monday, 17 August 2009

Singapore: Make Mandarin Compulsory for All Races

Immigration into Singapore has become a hot button issue among 'born and bred' Singaporeans.

Singapore has recently seen an influx of immigrants from the People's Republic of China

As typically happens during recessions, there is a sense that 'foreign talent' is taking away jobs from indigenous Singaporeans. However, the debate is not always restricted to the economic sphere and often slips into the realm of race and ethnicity.

Race and ethnicity are sensitive issues here in Singapore. Government policies are implemented with a focus on increasing the 'common space' and fostering a tolerant and multi-cultural environment.

Citizens can only attend Singaporean schools where the curriculum is tightly controlled. International schools with their own individual courses of study are the preserve of the expatriate population. Government subsidized housing is assigned on the basis of 'race' to ensure that ethnic enclaves are not formed. Public holidays are allocated to the various communities as a result of which all Singaporeans celebrate Christmas, Hari Raya (Eid), Deepavali and Chinese New Year as public holidays. An individual's race is even mentioned on their identity card (and yes my race is Pakistani!).

Singapore's subsidized public housing is managed by the Housing Development Board

Immigration into Singapore takes the form of those who have 'Permanent Resident' (PR) status and those who have become naturalized Singapore citizens. Male children of all citizens must participate in the military for two years (National Service) under the Enlistment Act. While it is optional for male children of PRs, applications for Singapore citizenship from PR kids who did not partake in National Service are not entertained.

Many perceive the recent wave of immigrants, mainly from the People's Republic of China and India, as being 'opportunists' who have a limited commitment to Singapore. Some believe they are only here to take advantage of government subsidies, especially housing grants and baby bonuses. (To address Singapore's problem of an ageing population cash subsidies and tax credits are provided by the government as inducements to citizens to have babies.)

Additionally, it is commonly thought the new immigrants have scant regard for the rules which have slowly transformed 'Singapore Inc.' into a powerful brand. Many have imported social habits and customs (e.g. littering, spitting) which Singaporeans have painstakingly moved away from during the last four decades.

Language is another contentious issue. Singapore has four official languages (Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English) but everyone learns and speaks English (see also 'Singlish'). Many of the fresh Chinese immigrants speak only Mandarin. This irks those Singaporeans who rely on English as the lingua franca of the island.

Signage in Singapore's four official languages is a common sight across the city

I do not wish to pontificate about the pros and cons of immigration as a necessity for maintaining economic growth and, hence, social stability in the island. I will leave that to the country's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who can argue the case much more persuasively than me. (He does have a track record of delivering results which any corporate or political leader can only dream off!)

What I do wish to say is that the issue of integrating Singapore's diverse population is more than just about making certain everyone can speak English.

It is about the ability to speak Mandarin in a Chinese society.

The teaching of Mandarin must be made compulsory for all Singaporeans, irrespective of their race. The academic curriculum should be revised to ensure that Singapore's kids are functionally fluent in three languages: English, Mandarin, and their mother tongue (Malay or Tamil).

Make Mandarin a compulsory subject for the next generation of Singaporeans

Some may suggest that such an action can be deemed to be domineering by the majority race. Or whether Singapore’s already overburdened students can manage another serious subject.

Learning Mandarin is a practical matter and one that should be motivated by self-interest. If I could speak Mandarin my employability and market value will increase tremendously. The nature of jobs and occupations available to me multiply exponentially.

Can a non-Mandarin speaker in Singapore truly integrate into Singaporean society? Despite the role of English as Singapore’s universal language an English speaker (like me) will always face limitations. The idea is not to supplant the supremacy of English but to take integration of all races in Singapore to the next level.

As for schoolchildren and whether they can mentally handle the stress of another major subject, examples from other parts of the world suggest that it is reasonable to assume that three languages can be taught at school.

All Singaporean schoolchildren are presently taught English along with their 'mother' tongue, either Mandarin, Malay or Tamil

It is not unusual for small nations to be multi-lingual. Most residents of the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland speak three languages. To be sure, the national curriculum will need to be adequately adjusted to ensure that space is created for teaching Mandarin. A major change in the curriculum cannot happen overnight and should be preceded by adequate research and debate.

Making the next generation of Singaporeans tri-lingual will increase social cohesion among all races and is an idea whose time has come. Ethnic and religious fault lines will decrease as inter-ethnic communication increases further. A small globally integrated economy like Singapore will reap the added bonus of enhancing the country's existing competitive advantages in trade and the service sector by catering more fully to the ever growing China market.

Our neighbours have got this one right - Malaysians of all races study Malay from their first day at school. Is it finally time for Singapore to learn a trick from its old partner and rival?


  1. 'Making the next generation of Singaporeans tri-lingual will increase social cohesion among all races and is an idea whose time has come. Ethnic and religious fault lines will decrease as inter-ethnic communication increases further.'

    Speaking only from a American perspective, who worked in Singapore for several years, I disagree with the approach of being Tri-Lingual[Gov't mandated], etc.

    Having one language is a unifying approach. It would be in the best interest of that individual to learn as many languages to profit in the free market if they so choose.

    But, Singapore will never be unifying if they can't speak of race relations, Gov't in general, faith, etc.

    Singapore, like America is a Nation of immigrants.

    Imran, do you see yourself as Singaporean? Or Pakistani-Singaporean?

    I would suggest[duh, could be dead wrong] that citizens of Singapore, first see themselves as a race, ie Malay, Chinese, instead of Singaporean.

    I enjoy your perspective and insights.


  2. Hi Miles,

    Thank you very much for your kind words about my blog and for leaving a comment. It is always encouraging and to receive feedback - positive or negative.

    You may be right about the tri-lingual approach but my focus is to get the debate flowing and get people to question ideas which hitherto have remain untouched. I also felt that as a 'minority immigrant' I could say what I did and get a different reaction than (say) if a Chinese Singaporean said the same thing.

    I guess in many ways I am suggesting, like you, that issues pertaining to faith and race should come out into the open and be discussed (albeit in a mature and constructive manner). Singapore society and political culture has sufficiently matured for delicate issues like this to be tackled - a nice change from even 5 or 10 years ago.

    Your question about me gets to the heart of my essence and is a constrant source of friction and conflict within me. Thankfully, Singapore and Pakistan don't compete in any competitive sports!

    I consider myself a Pakistani - Singaporean and there are some reasons for that. I believe that as an inclusive society I can bring some of my ideas and way of thinking into Singapore and allow it to merge and melt into the pot here. No one can divorce themselves from their ancestral home within one lifetime. I think that has to wait for the next generation. At the same time, I doubt whether most Singaporeans (even those who know me well) consider me a Singaporean in the same way as other 'true blue' Singaporeans.

    Call it purgatory or whetever you will but I am located somewhere in the middle!!

    I look forward to hearing from you again ....

  3. hi Imran,

    I like your idea of teaching our citizens to be tri-lingual. However, I was wondering what third language the Chinese majority may have as a choice? Malay? Perhaps, in the past. Tamil? I seriously doubt it, seeing that more Tamil folks are learning chinese anyway or rely on Malay significantly. Regardless, this is not the point I'm making.

    I approve of learning more than one language in terms of becoming a better global citizen as well as increasing the opportunity to better understand the culture which begot the language.

    However, if unity is the objective, the masters in China had the clearest idea of how to do it. Kill all differences. Enforce one language alone. Fortunately, I don't ever see that happening in Singapore (at least in my lifetime), so we'll have to keep on celebrating our differences instead. :)

    btw, I'm Indian and Singaporean. I really can't see myself as Indian-Singaporean because that makes it seem like I'm not actually a Singaporean. That I would support Indians if push came to shove. I think African Americans began this racial referencing in order to indicate their roots without compromising their loyalties. However, I think it's a little redundant because if anyone looked at Usain Bolt, they would know he's black. They may know his nationality too but they'd have to verify that. Similarly, anyone with a presence of mind (which is not everyone, sadly) can see that I'm Indian. However, based on how I speak, they always ask, "Are you Singaporean?" I always chuckle and say, "Of course, lah!"

    Our nationality should never be something that can be compromised. We have to be where we are. Sure, my dad, who emigrated from India, still dreams of going back 'home' to retire because he knows where he came from. I know where I came from too. It's right here.

    Looking forward to your next posting.


  4. Hi Vignesh,

    Thank you for reading the blog and for taking the time to write a comment.

    I am glad you like the idea but you do raise a good question about what language the Chinese should learn - I guess the language of their choice?

    To be honest, I was a little apprehensive when I posted this article as I thought it may offend some people. However, I felt that getting the idea out was important and hoped people will take it in a positive spirit (even if they disagree).

    It is nice of you to share your feelings about being Singaporean. I agree that it is not something that can be compromised upon but maybe it takes one more generation to completely lose the roots? Since I came to Singapore at a relatively older age and still have immediate family in Pakistan the pull for me is still reasonably strong.

    Thanks for the encouragement and look forward to hearing from you again soon.

    Kind regards,


  5. Hi Imran -- I am a Singaporean of mainly Chinese AND Malay ethnicity, or in short an Orang Baba or in English, Peranakan. Tracing my roots from the maternal side of the family, that makes me a [PLEASE NOTE THIS, MR MILES] 6th-GENERATION Singaporean.

    So there is no SUCH THING AS Chinese-Singaporean, Malay-Singaporean, Indian-Singaporean, Eurasian-Singaporean, Arab-Singaporean, Jewish-Singaporean which Mr Miles kindly suggested.

    I am foremost a Singaporean and then a Peranakan. So I would not hesitate to tick any Caucasian guest here in my country, Singaporean-Chinese or Mainland Chinese off for that matter if they insist that I am Chinese. Or in the case of the latter, I have a moral obligation towards the "Fatherland".

    Since when? My forefathers escaped China due to many reasons. So I don't see why I should even be obligated to that country. And DON'T insist that I SHOULD just because... I am a CHINESE.

    Likewise, it is rude and offensive of me to even remotely suggest that Irish-Americans, German-Americans, Italian-Americans to have a moral obligation towards their ancestral lands.

    It is not only technically wrong but highly mischievous for foreign guests to insist that their perspectives are the undeniable TRUTH just because.

    What applies back home -- or where they come from -- does not mean IT SHOULD be applied to or IMPOSED ON other alien cultures they absolute have no inkling of.

    I have had been working with expats for donkey's years. BUT I absolutely cannot claim to be an **Expert** of Australians, Americans, Canadians, Indian Nationals, China Nationals, Japanese, Koreans, Germans, French and etc etc etc. Simply because I NEVER GREW UP in the respective cultures or countries.

    But I digress. I would rather that we stick to the status quo that English remains the *unifying* language of all races. To suggest Mandarin would not only further fan the undercurrents of resentment amongst the ethnic minorities. But also to make certain sections of the ethnic Chinese population bigger headed.

    And in the worse case scenario, in the eyes of our Mainland Chinese friends, further accelerates Singapore's position as a faraway province of the People's Republic of China.

    Imran you are aware of the rising resentment towards some of our China guests. Don't you?

  6. I am sorry for the ungrammatical English, that's the problem with reading off the PC monitor:

    1. Likewise, it is rude and offensive of me to even remotely suggest that Irish-Americans, German-Americans, Italian-Americans SHOULD have a moral obligation towards their ancestral lands.

    2. IMPOSED ON other alien cultures they absoluteLY have no inkling of.

  7. Sorry for this, Imran, with reference to your "maybe it takes one more generation to completely lose the roots? "

    I know of a Singaporean-Pakistani lady who was my ex-University coursemate. And just in case you are wondering, she is Singaporean through and through. Her grandfather settled on this island during or right after the Partition between India and Pakistan.

    And to the suggestion that we are a NATION of IMMIGRANTS. Well, outsiders simply cannot grasp the idea of the National Service that binds us all as ONE PEOPLE?


  8. Hi Ange,

    Thank you for taking the time to read my post and making the effort to respond to it.

    I can tell that I have touched an issue which you feel strongly about - and so you should.

    I am happy that you shared your opinions as in matters such as this, building a social consensus is the only practical way forward. I understand that not everyone will agree with my opinions.

    You raise many good and valid points which are food for thought and further contemplation for all of us.

    However, I will take the liberty of responding to some of your comments.

    1. There is no doubt that English should remain the first and foremost language amongst Singaporeans. I did not wish to suggest that the role of English be supplanted, only to recommend that for the first (say) 6-7 years of schooling some basic Mandarin be taught to all Singaporeans along with English;

    2. Your obligation and loyalty is definitely to Singapore and I don't think anyone will argue otherwise. I do agree that Singaporeans have created an identity which they share and it does not rest on being of a particular race. Having said that, the ethnic issue is part of the Singaporean identity - Ramadan is coming soon and the Muslim community is preparing. Deepavali and Christmas and so on are a part of Singapore's celebrations. Everyone is conscious and sensitive to other's beliefs and it is ingrained in the Singaporean identity.

    3. For me, the Mandarin issue is not linked to the PRC at all. It is more of a practical matter. That is, many here speak Mandarin and for some (like me) not speaking any Chinese puts us at a slight disadvantage (yes, I should make the effort to learn!). I would rather that everyone learn some Mandarin so that no possible 'exclusionary' factors are at play in what is an (indigenous) Chinese majority society. If I had kids I would be happy to have them learn Mandarin at school.

    4. As for me and my Pakistani roots, I say with all sincerity that I have made Singapore my home. I feel very comfortable here. I like the way of life, the freedom and tolerance. As you know home is made up by all the little things - the different cooking smells that waft in through my window, the little boys and girls who sometimes look at me funny in the lifts, the 24 hour beer garden across the road that gets almost rowdy over the weekend, and so on ... but, ....

    5. I moved to Sg in my 30s. Several members of my immediate family still live in Pakistan. While people here were watching NDP parades I was watching Defense of Pakistan Day parades and sang the Pakistani national anthem. It is a reality and, honestly, it is difficult for me to just let it go with the flick of a switch. And I don't think that Singapore is all about forcing me to let any of it go either. It is about bringing a part of me here and throwing it into the cauldron and seeing whether any of rise to the surface or not. If I had kids they would also probably think I am crazy always babbling about some far off strange country. To them, Singapore would be where the belong completely. It is still too fresh for me and I hope you will understand why.

    6. I could not agree with you more about NS - it is a great socialization mechanism and, in fact, I believe (like in Israel) it should be extended to females. (I have written a post about NS which can be found in my '5 Most Read List' on the left side bar.)

    Incidentally, I have just finished drafting a piece on creating a 'Peace Corps' in Sg and it should be posted in the next 1-2 days. It builds on a similar idea as the NS in terms of socialization of youth, but it has other different aspects to it also.

    I appreciate your comments and they certainly add handsomely to the debate. I am sure many other readers will also benefit from reading your views.

    I hope you will continue to visit my blog and that I will hear from you more often in the future.

    Kind regards,


  9. Hi Imran,

    You have a very interesting post here about making a tri-lingual society. And I must say I agree! I'm a Singaporean who just happens to be ethinically Indian. Having gone through the Singapore education system, I learnt how to speak English and Tamil. But I don't feel like learning Tamil has in any way benefitted me. To begin, nowhere in Singapore is Tamil used, except when talking among friends or family. In my case, this doesn't even apply as I'm not a Tamil and my friends are mostly Chinese. Secondly, while announcements are made in the four official languages, the fact that we know English makes the announcements in the other languages quite redundant. It is not as if there would ever be a situation where an announcement is made solely in Tamil.

    For me Tamil is utterly useless (forgive me for this strong phrase). On the other hand, in all my time here, I have found that Mandarin gives me an advantage in almost any situation - from understanding what my friends are saying to finding a job (yes I took ages because 'bilingual' on an application form apparently meant English and Mandarin). Even ordering in restaurants requires Mandarin all coutesy of the PRC employees hired. I took Mandarin lessons for six months, but soon forgot the language due to lack of use. The reason: I didn't look Chinese so people felt uncomfortable talking to me in Mandarin.

    It seems to me that non-Chinese are being discriminated against for not knowing a language which we were not even allowed to learn officially to begin with! The only way to rectify this situation is to make Mandarin a compulsary language. In fact, I would go as far as to say "Drop Malay and Tamil!". But that would go against Singapore's multi-racial standpoint. But I do feel that learning Malay or Tamil should be made optional (i.e. compulsary English and Mandarin languages, optional Malay or Tamil).

    Making Mandarin a compulsary subject does not go against the multi-racial policy. It merely acknowledges the racial mix in Singapore (70% Chinese), and acknowledges that the other 30% should not be disadvantaged because of this racial mix.

  10. Hi Meera,

    Thanks for the kind words and taking the time to comment on my article.

    I think you should have written the piece instead of me as you have made your points so eloquently and your personal experiences are a testament to your words.

    There is absoultely nothing more that I can even try to add to your comments!

    I hope that you will keep visiting the site and I look forward to hearing from you again in the future.

    Kind regards,


  11. Making Mandarin a compulsory for all is a dangerous move, considering our multi-racial background. Already Chinese Singaporeans are the majority here, and enjoy more benefits (at least they don't go through as much discrimination) than the minority races there. Making Mandarin compulsory thus may drive a wider divide.

    But it is also correct that as China continues growing, learning the language is important. So instead of making it compulsory, it can probably be made optional.

  12. Hi Jezebella,

    Thank you for reading my blog and taking the time to post a comment.

    I disagree with you on this matter. I believe that it is to precisely to level the playing field between the majority Chinese speakers and the minority non-Chinese speakers that it is important to have everyone learn Mandarin. Over time, it will remove reasons for any sort of a 'glass ceiling' acting to hold back members of minorities from achieving in society.

    Still, given the ground reality I will be happy even if Mandarin is made optional at schools. It will be a step in the right direction.

    I hope you will continue to visit my site and I look forward to seeing more comments from you in the future.

    Kind regards,


  13. Mandarin is not the mother tongue for the vast majority of Chinese-Singaporeans. Their ancestors came from southern China and so their ancestral mother tongues would be Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese etc. I was forced to learn Mandarin at school as my IC states 'Chinese' but nobody in my family speaks Mandarin, nor has anybody in my family going back to day one ever spoken Mandarin. So Mandarin became the first foreign language that I ever learnt. It's still my worst foreign language. The way we were taught in school was more about ideology and brain-washing rather than acquiring competence in the language. But like you, I agree that knowing Mandarin is useful and would one day like to learn it properly in a neutral environment.

    I think the Speak Mandarin Campaign has been disastrous for the country as a whole. It has resulted in people being competent in neither English nor Mandarin. It has also erected shameful linguistic barriers between communities. It's also meant that most Chinese-Singaporeans no longer know any Malay, which is after all, our official national language. In my parents' generation, everybody could communicate with each other in pasar Malay and I think it is such a shame that this is no longer the case. On a related issue, it is incredibly annoying that PRCs in the service industry refuse to speak anything other than Mandarin. Traditionally, hawkers in Singapore understand your order if you use the right words in any of the local languages/dialects. But PRCs pretend not to understand, or perhaps really don't understand, if you order in anything other than Mandarin. I think this is kinda arrogant - if I was in a service industry job in China, I would learn the relevant local terms.

    Finally I should like to point out that there is no impediment to non-Chinese Singaporeans learning Mandarin as a 2nd language in schools. It was only Chinese-Singaporeans who were forced to take Mandarin as their 'mother tongue' (sic).

  14. Hello T,

    Thank you for reading my blog and taking the time to post a comment.

    Your insights are quite revealing and I only have one point to add. Yes, there is no impediment to learning Mandarin as a second language but I wish to see 3 languages being taught in the schools here - not all to the same proficiency but at least some functional literacy.

    I am sure you can understand the problems I sometimes face at food courts these days!

    I look forward to hearing from you again in the future.

    Kind regards,


  15. i'm a 17 year old foreign student living in singapore and after reading this article i decided i must reply.
    i'm half indian and half filipino.

    All i've got to say is. Why learn a foreign language when 3/4 of the new Generation Singaporeans can't even speak/understand basic conversational Malay,This after all is the country's National Language. Honestly how can singapore even call its national language malay?
    Students sing the National Anthem in school every day of every year, yet 80% of them do not know the meaning or the proper pronounciation.

    Furthermore if you're trying to support the reason for learning mandarin on China's economic growth.Then what about India? Why not learn Tamil too. They're both fast rising major potential economy powerhouses. [I hope i got that right]. Tamil after all is not a useless language, as what Meera said.

    It is already troubling as it is to study a 2nd Language, what more good is a 3rd Language going to be for us?

    At the moment it is compulsory for all Singaporean Students to pick up a 2nd language. I say, to make singaporeans more "Singaporean" and less *Race* - Singaporean. Make it optional to pick up the 2nd language and not compulsory.
    I am very sure there are many students out there who'd rather prefer not having an extra language.

  16. Hi Ray,

    I am glad you came across my article and thank you for taking the time to respond.

    Malay, as you know, is the National language only due to legacy reasons and is (for all practical purposes) an anachronism. As far as I am concerned, English is the lingua franca in the city-state and should remain so in the future.

    My argument for making Mandarin compulsory is based on the need to encourage greater integration among Singaporeans - and reduce the 'race based' nature of politics. It is because everything is seen through the prism of race in Singapore that language becomes such a touchy issue. It should not be.

    The learning of 3 languages is achievable if the syllabus is properly structured. A primary language (English), a secondary language (Manadarin) up to a certain age and a third Mother tongue (again up to a specific age unless the students / parents wish to continue further). I base my proposal on smaller countries in Europe where being taught 3 or more languages is not uncommon.

    The idea is not to create Mandarin scholars from among the minorities.

    The objective is to ensure that the minorities in Singapore are not at a disadvantage due to their (lack of Mandarin) language skills. All Singaporeans should be functionally fluent in Mandarin - even if only orally.

    I believe we share a common objective which is to make a more cohesive Singapore where race is a less visible factor. Language is a great common denominator among people and it should be further explored as an integration tool.

    I appreciate your time and hope you will keep visiting and adding to the debate as you bring a unique and valuable perspective to the subjects.

    Kind regards,


  17. Hi Imran,

    Very interesting reading your blog. I have somethings that I would like to share about my family roots and languages that we use.
    I am the fifth Indian decendance form my mathernal side. My mother speaks malay, hokkien and english. She told me all those people around her age group speaks malay wherether their are Chinese, Malay or Indian. They did not study malay but still they can converse in malay. So way can't all of us converse English and make English the only language to use now as one quater of the population are not the original singaporean. Singapore is like America. Our fore fathers are form other countries. Looks like privilages are give to one majority race and it will stay this way for a long time.

  18. Hi Sundri,

    Thank you for visiting my blog. I am glad you found the articles interesting and took the time to write and share something about your own family.

    You have a unique background which underscores Singapore's geography diversity. It is a nation which has brought together and welded many cultures and ethnicities.

    Just to clarify, I am not suggesting that Mandarin replace English as the common working language for all Singaporeans. In fact, in another post I have argued for the need to ensure that foreigners be tested for their knowledge of English language before given the privilege of becoming Permanant Residents or citizens. However, I do believe that all Singaporeans will benefit from 'functional fluency' in the Mandarin language.

    It is not unusual for national educational systems to teach three languages to students from an early age. One language can be dropped after, say, six years of schooling.

    I hope you will keep visiting my blog and participate in the community and debates.

    Kind regards,


  19. Hi Imran

    I missed out one more thing that you replied to Ray. It about Mandarin being integration among Singaporeans. I think Mandarin was brought to intergrate all chinese people.Its quite sad that this generation chinese don't even speaks Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese etc.

  20. Hi Sundri,

    Thanks for the clarification.

    I guess the priorities of the younger generation have changed and, unfortunately,learning the Chinese dialects is not at the top of their list.

    I look forward to your comments again soon.

    Kind regards,


  21. Hi everyone,

    I used to know this Indian man who can speak so many dialects and mandarin that even the chinese dare not speak to him for fear of losing face!

    my grandparents, uncles, father can speak fluent malay. the funny thing is when they go to the markets, they speak malay to the indian grocer who is equally adept as well.

  22. Hi Jeff,

    Great to hear from you again. I believe your comment underscores the importance in communicating and understanding - unfortunately, not everyone is as adept at languages as your family or your Indian friend! Certainly not me ... lol.

    I look forward to hearing from you again in the future.

    Kind regards,