In Singapore, Chinese languages other than Mandarin (pejoratively referred to as ‘dialects’ in official Singapore parlance) are banned on television under Part 12.4 of the Media Development Authority’s Free-to-Air Television Programme Code which states that
“All Chinese programmes except operas or other programmes specifically approved by the Authority must be in Mandarin.”
Over the years, this policy has resulted several consequences: A declining interest and competency in Mandarin among young Chinese Singaporeans; erosion of the Singaporean Chinese identity and even the isolation of the pioneer generation.
As such, we’ve called for the Media Development Authority to lift the ban on dialects on local television.
The main reason for marginalization of dialects was based on Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s belief that the learning of dialects would interfere with one’s mastery of Mandarin, English and even “multiplication tables or formulas in mathematics, physics or chemistry” .
With this assumption, Lee resolved to “to get all young people- students and recent graduates to give up dialects in five years” and establish Mandarin as a language of choice in public places within 10 years through the initiation of the Speak Mandarin Campaign (SMC) in 1979.
This eventually culminated in a full-scale ban of all dialect programmes by 1981 under the Media Development Authority (MDA)’s Free-to-Air Television Programme Code.
Here are our arguments on why this ban which be lifted.
1) The ban on dialects diminishes one’s interest and competency in Mandarin
Lee Kuan Yew’s most prevalent argument that dialects would complicate proper learning and mastery of English, Mandarin and even Mathematics.
The Media Development Authority have also echoed these sentiments stating that “The problem of falling Chinese standards among young Chinese Singaporeans will be exacerbated if the profile of dialects in the media were raised, as the addition of another competing language will unwittingly decrease Mandarin usage further, or encourage sub-standard Mandarin, mixed with dialect.”
However, according to former Senior Minister of State in PMO, Lee Khoon Choy, Lee Kuan Yew’s misconception is due to his personal experiences in picking up Mandarin and Hokkien which was primarily because he started late in his 30s instead of during his childhood due to his Baba family heritage.
He argues that if Lee Kuan Yew had learnt the language in his childhood, he would not have found the process so tedious and subsequently formulated policies based on this misconception.
Furthermore, Linguistic research, which were largely ignored during the formulation of this policy, have also falsified Lee Kuan Yew’s position.
There is no scientific evidence that learning more than two languages leads to delays or disorders in language acquisition or that giving up one language automatically has a beneficial effect on the other. Many children throughout the world grow up with more than two languages from infancy without showing any signs of language delays or disorders (Houwer, 1999). In fact, neurologists have proven that young children are remarkably good at learning multiple languages simultaneously and can even develop native-sounding accents in each tongue. In adulthood, all reinforced languages can even hold their own in the brain without interfering with the others.
Contrary to impeding one’s learning of Mandarin, having a dialect foundation at home when one is young would actually be beneficial to the learning of Mandarin as both dialects and Mandarin belong to the same language family.
According to Newman, a proficient Hokkien speaker, drawing on analogies between the two languages, would be able to predict the Mandarin tonal pronunciation of a given word 90 percent of the time.
This includes popular Singaporean singer, Kit Chan who argued that the declining Chinese standards among young Chinese Singaporeans is because Mandarin is currently “merely a school subject, not part of their life or culture” whereas Chinese dialects would encourage young Chinese Singaporeans to become interested in and more competent in Chinese as dialects enables Chinese to become “a living language, and a part of our lives, not just a skill to be mastered to earn good grades or to make a living”.
2) The ban on dialects is a suppression of the Chinese identity
The other commonly cited reason for this policy is the government is the intention to unify the Singaporean Chinese community with a single language. However, the view that the Chinese community was divided initially is untrue.
The Singapore ethnic Chinese community up till the 1970s was multilingual and had not much difficulty in conversing with one another. Not only could non-Hokkiens speak and understand the Hokkien dialect – the dialect spoken by the majority, they were even conversant in conversational Malay.
His claim is supported by a contributor to the Singapore Memory who recounts that “different group of dialect speaking neighbours learnt each others’ language”.
Even Lee Kuan Yew also acknowledged the prevalence of Hokkien dominance by highlighting that 90 percent of conversations in hawker centers and in public transports was in Hokkien during the time when the SMC was launched.
Linguist Platt also questioned whether a common language was essential in facilitating communication among Chinese in Singapore and his study concludes that it would be a wrong assumption for two Singaporean Chinese to meet and not be able to communicate if they spoke different dialects. Furthermore, many Chinese Singaporeans did not identify Mandarin as a core marker of their Chinese cultural identity and instead identified more with the dialects of their early socialization experience.
Compared to dialects, Mandarin lacked association with their personal past and had little relevance to the local Chinese communities they grew up in. Thus, the attempt to force a common mother tongue of Mandarin upon the Chinese community was seen by many as an act of imposing a non- existent homogeneity and common identity among Chinese in Singapore.
The eradication of Chinese dialects which many Singaporeans perceive as a rich part of their Chinese culture has also led to a weakening of the Chinese cultural base in Singapore and a sense of loss of an intrinsic part of their identity among Singaporean Chinese.
3) The ban on dialects isolates senior citizens from our community
Besides failing to meet the initial policy objectives of raising the standards of Mandarin; achieving community integration and fostering a sense of identity, the ban on dialects has marginalized the senior citizens in Singapore.
Many elderly Singaporeans are highly dependent on television because they have difficulty walking and are confined at home. Television plays a critical role in enabling them to maintain an ongoing sense of participation in society, combat feelings of alienation and loneliness and is an “important window to the world and a basis for shared experience”.
Older people experiencing problems with seeing or hearing (which afflict at least 20 percent of people over 65) also prefer television over radio or print as television provides both verbal and visual information together. However, many senior citizens are unable to understand entertainment programs and news in Singapore adequately due to poor literacy levels with a total of 86 per cent of elderly women and 71 percent of elderly males having below secondary qualification.
Majority of them (64.3 percent) also converse mainly in Chinese dialects instead of Mandarin. This brings us to the question: How are the elderly going to meet their needs for entertainment and feel a sense of participation in society if they cannot even grasp the content on television well?
In addition, many senior citizens are unaware of current affairs in our society and are less familiar with government aid schemes despite being the ones who need the most help. They are unable to get this information from television as the message is conveyed in a language they are unfamiliar with. For instance, when the pioneer generation package was introduced this year, despite the huge publicity, several senior citizens did not understand what it was about and the benefits they were entitled to.
While, two dialogue sessions in dialects were organized in Jurong West and Tampines to explain the details of the Pioneer Generation Package to seniors in Singapore, the outreach was little with only 100 senior citizens.
Another recent attempt to reach out to the elderly population was an online viral video by the Singapore government explaining the details of the package in Hokkien. However, the video is only current available on YouTube but only 6 percent of Singaporean aged 55 and above use the internet.
Aside from not being able to understand key policy changes that affect them, the elderly were not able to access critical information during times of emergency.
In mid-2013, there was a serious haze in Singapore for more than ten days with PSI within the Unhealthy to Hazardous range daily, hitting record levels of 400. However, despite being one of the group most vulnerable to negative health effects associated with the haze, not a single health advisory was published in dialects to reach out to the elderly to educate them about how to manage this crisis.
The management of this crisis pales in comparison to the previous Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic in 2003 where it was the first time since 1981that dialects commercials (Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and Hainese) were allowed on national television to educate senior citizens on how to better protect themselves against the infectious disease (Tsang, 2003).
4) The ban on dialects impedes intergenerational bonding
Besides being isolated from society, many senior citizens are unable to communicate with their own family members due to the language barrier between the younger generation and the pioneer generation.
Due to the inability to converse in dialects, youths can neither get along with elderly in ageing homes or even their own grandparents. It is no surprise that despite the fact that 90 percent of the elderly are living with their family, more than 20 percent still feel as sense of loneliness which is one of the main causes of depression among elderly in Singapore. Many senior citizens feel isolated and unhappy from not being able to communicate with their own grandchildren.
As Chia Kim Boon, a grandparent described in an interview:
“Each time (my son and his wife) visited, they brought (their children) along…every time i had the same feeling. Happiness when i saw them, but as the visit went on, there was a depressing feeling that grew stronger… by the time they left, I was always quite upset. I knew nothing about (my grandchildren). I couldn’t ask them how was their day in school, what did they learn… my son had to tell me that. I wanted to hear from them…we communicated by hand signs and basic words, what kind of grandparent would like that?”
With more than 70 per cent of elderly Singaporeans emphasizing that care from their family is one of the most important criteria for successful ageing, how can we understand their needs and worries if many young Singaporeans are not well versed in dialects which most of these senior citizens are most comfortable with?
Ending off, it has been twenty years since the Singapore government has initiated the Speak Mandarin Campaign and regulations to suppress Chinese dialects. We have learnt several lessons on the ineffectiveness of this policy on language competency, integration and transmission of cultural heritage as well as the negative impacts on the pioneer generation of Singapore.
There is an urgent need to base language and broadcast policies on solid empirical and scientific evidence instead of allowing them to be driven by ideological perspectives, or political convenience. According to Dr. Ng Bee Chin, not taking immediate steps to restore dialects in our community may result in dialects being lost after this generation.
While some claim that such an attempt will be futile as dialects are no longer widely used. This is untrue as 19.2 percent of ethnic Chinese Singaporeans speak in Chinese dialects at home. Dialect speeches are also given during the General Elections 2011, proving that dialect speakers still make up a significant percentage of this populationSome relaxations to this ban have been made over the past few years including featuring certain dialects operas on free-to-air television.
However, given that the dual sound/language option has been offered to Japanese and Korean drama, it is illogical and unfair to not extend these options for viewers to watch dramas in dialects such as Taiwanese, Cantonese and Singaporean dramas in their original languages, which are still the vernacular language for many Singaporeans.
As Singapore approaches its 50th Anniversary and the government has expressed desire to pay tribute to the elderly for their contributions, we hope that this can be accompanied by the eradication of policies that marginalize the very group of people whom we owe Singapore’s progress to.