Singapore, which marked its 51st National Day on Tuesday, has evolved remarkably in its stance towards multilingualism over the five decades since independence.
Early policies, initiated by Lee Kuan Yew, took a hard line: supporting “standard”, official languages and suppressing all others. From 1979, the annual Speak Mandarin Campaign promoted the use of Singapore’s official Chinese language and discouraged all other Chinese varieties. This led to a significant shift in Chinese households from mother tongues such as Hokkien and Teochew, to Mandarin. Similarly, from 2000, the Speak Good English Movement discouraged the burgeoning use of Singapore English.
Fast-forward to 2015 and a more compromising, inclusive attitude prevails. The lead-up to Singapore’s 50th National Day, and Lee’s death earlier that year, prompted a rise in sentimentality and attention to heritage – including a sea change in official attitudes towards non-official languages.
The “pioneer generation” – Singaporeans who, aged 16 at the time of independence, would have contributed to early post-independence growth – were feted, and with them their languages. In support of a medical subsidies initiative for the pioneer generation, the Ministry of Communications and Information produced explanatory videos in Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew. And the National Day Parade featured not just floats showcasing Singaporean food and songs, but also props depicting Singapore English – particles lah and leh, and phrases such as “blur like sotong” (meaning “extremely confused”; sotongis Malay for “squid”). Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – Lee Kuan Yew’s son – commented on his Facebook page: “These props were crowd favourites at the National Day Parade. I’m glad that at 50, we are less ‘blur like sotong’ and more confident and comfortable with everything that makes us Singaporean.”
Lee was recently hosted at a White House state dinner, where United States President Barack Obama raised the toast: “Onward Singapore. Majulah Singapura. Onward America. Cheers. Yum seng.”
The last phrase – the Cantonese toast, “drink to success” – is well known to those in Singapore and Hong Kong, though less familiar elsewhere.
That world leaders embrace language varieties in their discourse, however token, signals recognition and respect for multilingualism and diversity.
In an age where many politicians preach exclusion, such regard should not be undervalued. Let’s drink to that. Cheers! Yum seng!