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  • Writer's pictureThe Convergence

An Overlooked Aspect of a Heterogeneous Nation: Singapore's Language Policy

By Alamelu, Editor

A sign displaying the four most used languages in Singapore. Photo: Lester Balajadia/Shutterstock


On August 29, 2021, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong dedicated an entire section of his National Day Rally (NDR) speech to address race and religion in Singapore. He described the negative consequences the COVID-19 outbreak has had on race relations here, and reminded us of the fragility of our racial harmony that many of us have come to take for granted. In detailing the difficulties we have experienced thus far as a young nation trying to effectively navigate living in a multicultural, multiracial, multilingual society, PM Lee briefly mentioned the decisions our government made with respect to Singapore’s language policy immediately after independence. His exact words are as follows:

“English, not Chinese, became our working language, so that no race would be privileged over the others. At the same time, we preserved the mother tongues. We retained Malay as our national language and continued singing Majulah Singapura with gusto in Malay.” [5]

While this succinctly captures our government’s initial view of the four primary languages used in Singapore — namely, English, Chinese (Mandarin), Malay, and Tamil — it does not reflect the changes in both the public and the government’s perspectives on language management and policy over the years. This piece hopes to achieve just that, by explaining the governmental decisions that have been made since independence regarding Singapore’s language policy, and how the public’s views about it continue to evolve.

Singapore’s Language Policy Immediately Following Independence

English was chosen as Singapore’s main official language in the 1960s for two distinct reasons.

The first of the two is the fact that “the status of the English language is an important barometer of how successful Singapore is in its attempt to stay relevant to, and engaged with, the world ‘outside’.” [4] As a nation that has historically always prioritised the maintenance (and expansion) of its presence and relevance on a global scale, adopting the language that would maximise its ability to participate in international business and affairs was non-negotiable for our leaders at the time. In a 2015 article for the Washington Post, Noack and Gamio stated that, not only is English spoken in 101 countries (making it the most popular language in this respect), it is also an official language in as many as 35 countries. [6]

The second reason is that English served as a convenient interethnic lingua franca for Chinese, Malay and Indian Singaporeans, by virtue of not being the mother tongue of any of the three main racial groups. Poignant events in Singapore’s history pre-independence, such as the 1964 racial riots, emphasised to the government the importance of balancing Singapore’s fragile race relations. Goh & Holden (2009) posited that the “elevation of the riots of 1964 … to the status of national traumas justifies policies of multiracialism, inscribing a belief in the primordiality of racial conflict deep in the national [psyche] of [Singapore]”. [1] Thus, it is clear that the government’s persistent fear of the eruption of (further) racial conflicts urged them to prioritise uniform treatment of all the racial groups in Singapore.

English therefore seemed the obvious choice to be Singapore’s default official language as, this way, the government could maintain racial and linguistic equality amongst the three founding races of Singapore.

On the other hand, in the same way that Singapore’s relevance and upward mobility in global economic spheres has always been prioritised by the government, the importance of bilingualism in Singaporeans has been emphasised as well. Our leaders at the time designated Mandarin as the mother tongue of the Chinese, Malay as the mother tongue of the Malays, and Tamil as the mother tongue of the Indians. They presented their reason for requiring fluency in a mother tongue — on top of English — “in official discourses as a crucial cultural anchor that connects an ethnic community to its ancestral repository of traditional values.” [4] This way, Singaporeans could confidently participate in international business without fearing a loss of connection to their cultural roots.

Speak Mandarin Campaign & Speak Good English Movement

The notion of forced bilingualism in English and in a mother tongue chosen by the state was not as easy to grasp for some Indian and Chinese Singaporeans as it was for others because of the linguistic diversity present within these communities.

While the mother tongue assigned to Indian Singaporeans is Tamil, “a majority (54 percent), nearly half of the South Asian community report using various [non-Tamil] Dravidian languages … or Indo-Aryan languages”. [2] Over time, in “acknowledgement of the challenges of Tamil as the mandatory second language in education for Indian students,” the government has made exceptions for Indian Singaporeans who are not Tamil speakers by granting them “a concession to study any of the three official mother tongues” and making “the unique allowance of five additional South Asian languages [Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali and Gujarati] in lieu of Tamil.” [2] The latter policy is “a direct result of community advocacy” has been in place since 1990. [2] Jain (2021) conceives of these changes as “the multilingualism (both at the societal and individual levels) of the South Asians … [forcing] unique concessions from policy.” [2]

As an aside, it is noteworthy that all five of the South Asian languages mentioned above are Indo-Aryan languages spoken primarily in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Northern, Eastern and Western India. Therefore, although many more Indian Singaporeans are now able to study their heritage languages as their mother tongues, non-Tamil South Indian Singaporeans still find themselves left only with the option of Tamil in school (if they wish to study a Dravidian language).

On the other hand, while Chinese Singaporeans spoke multiple languages as their mother tongues too — which we refer to colloquially as Chinese ‘dialects’ — including Hokkien, Cantonese, and Teochew, Mandarin was (and still is) the only mother tongue available to them in schools. In a further bid to encourage Chinese Singaporeans to speak Mandarin and forego their native Chinese dialects, then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew launched the Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979. It can be argued that they were hoping to linguistically homogenise the Chinese Singaporean community by having Mandarin be its lingua franca. As Johnson (2017) said in an article for the New York Times, “this linguistic repression … has led to a widespread sense of resentment” among Chinese Singaporeans. [3] He presented examples of Chinese Singaporeans lamenting the loss of their mother tongues, with one arguing that people considering Singaporeans to be “[not] too expressive” could partly be because “so many of us lost our mother tongue.” [3]

The government made another attempt to manage Singaporeans’ language choices in the year 2000, with the initiation of the Speak Good English Movement by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. The campaign was launched in response to Singaporeans’ increasing use of the local English-based creole language, Singlish; it aimed to promote the use of Standard English instead. Singlish — a local variety of English that “is known to show a high degree of influence from other local languages, particularly Hokkien, Cantonese, Malay and Tamil” — was seen as inferior to Standard English, with Mr. Goh contrasting Singlish with “good English,” implying its undesirability. [10][7]

Further, Mr. Goh talked about how sentences in Singlish are “not only ungrammatical and truncated but often incomprehensible, especially to foreigners,” adding that “the ability to speak good English is a distinct advantage in terms of doing business and communicating with the world.” [7] His emphasis here on the importance of speaking Standard English as a tool for ensuring our competitiveness as a country is reflective of our government’s consistent desire over the years to maintain Singapore’s prominence and relevance as a global business hub.

The Government’s Stance on Language Policy, at Present

There is a concept in sociolinguistics, that is often mentioned in discussions of Singapore’s language policy, known as linguistic instrumentalism. Linguistic instrumentalism is defined by Wee (2003) as “a view of language that justifies its existence in a community in terms of its usefulness in achieving specific utilitarian goals, such as access to economic development or social mobility.” [9] We can see this particularly exemplified here in Singapore, where Singaporean Ministers have been encouraging the use of Standard English amongst all Singaporeans and fluency in Mandarin amongst Chinese Singaporeans because of these languages’ perceived economic value.

In 1985, then Second Deputy Minister Ong Teng Cheong mentioned that Chinese Singaporeans should “learn and speak Mandarin not only because it is the common spoken language of the Chinese community, … but also because the economic value of Mandarin is increasing, particularly after China has started its economic transformation and adopted the open-door policy. … We shall no doubt face competition in our trade and economic activities with China, but we have an edge over others in our bilingual ability.” [9]

Further, in an event commemorating 30 years of the Speak Mandarin Campaign, then-Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew argued in favour of bilingualism in English and Mandarin amongst Chinese Singaporeans as well. He expressed that China did not need “another 3 million Chinese-speaking people”; rather, he posited that “we are useful” because “we have access to the English-speaking world, and that knowledge that goes with it” too. [8]

However, because of their commitment to racial harmony by way of making each of the three largest racial groups’ designated mother tongues official languages of Singapore after independence, the government has found itself needing to emphasise the economic value of the two other official mother tongues — Malay and Tamil — as well, even though this is not nearly as straightforward as that of Standard English and Mandarin.

As Wee (2002) states, the difficulty of “[playing] up the economic values of Malay and Tamil so that these other mother tongues might be considered as attractive as Mandarin” “lies in its plausibility; that is, whether Malay and Tamil can be argued to have the same kind of economic value as Mandarin.” [9] He suggests possible reasons for the fragility of arguments encouraging fluency in Malay and Tamil on the basis of their economic values. For Malay, he indicates that “Singaporeans tend to be less impressed with the economic potential of Indonesia, Malaysia or Brunei than with that of China.” [7] As for Tamil, he states that “business with India … is more likely to be carried out in English than Tamil,” which indicates that Tamil is not as crucial to Singaporeans’ success in international business spheres in the way Mandarin is. [9]

As mentioned earlier, the government launched a language campaign in 2000 to urge Singaporeans to speak Standard English over Singlish so as to safeguard Singapore’s ability to conduct business on a global scale. However, it has seemingly relaxed its stance on the matter in recent years, going so far as to use Singlish in advertisements and other mediums when eager to connect with Singaporeans on a personal level. A striking example of this would be the government’s utilisation of iconically Singlish words like “lah,” “leh” and “liddat?” on National Day Parade floats in 2015. [11] This can be considered a result of Singaporeans’ persistence with the use of Singlish and the majority of Singaporeans’ ability to code-switch between the two varieties of English spoken here.

National Day Parade floats in 2015. Photo: BBC

Singlish’s uniqueness in its intrinsic reflectiveness of Singaporean society — because of the way in which it comprises words from all the major languages spoken in Singapore, for example — has enabled Singaporeans to feel as though Singlish enables them to perform their Singaporean identity. Using Singlish allows Singaporeans to form connections with one another, regardless of factors — such as race and socioeconomic class — that may otherwise impede this process. Moreover, most Singaporeans are able to code-switch between Standard English and Singlish, using Standard English in more formal, official contexts and saving Singlish for informal, relaxed settings. Singaporeans’ bidialectalism has made it much harder for the government to reduce our use of Singlish.


The decision by early Singaporean leaders to make English the default official language stemmed from their discomfort with “[privileging] one particular ethnic group over others” and awareness that fluency in English would benefit “a country that was newly independent and struggling economically” [10]. Their desire for Singaporeans to maintain a strong connection with our Asian values while aspiring to achieve great economic heights manifested in their insistence on bilingualism within Singaporeans in English and a mother tongue.

However, this policy of a compulsory mother tongue was initially met with resistance, especially within linguistically diverse racial groups, since they were now expected to speak and be fluent in the sole language that the government had allocated for their respective racial groups (even and especially if it were not already their mother tongue). While pushback from the Indian community eventually won out, the Chinese community was pressured even more to speak Mandarin instead of the other Chinese dialects via the Speak Mandarin Campaign.

Over time, however, this emphasis on Mandarin by the government has proven useful to Chinese Singaporeans, given China’s rapid economic growth in the last few decades. Yet another aspect of Singapore’s language policy that our leaders have become more permissive with in recent years is Singaporeans’ use of Singlish. While they have always emphasised the ‘non-standardness’ of Singlish, there is greater understanding on the government’s part now that fluency in Singlish is one way in which locals are able to (and choose to) perform their Singaporean identity.

In conclusion, the government has sought to pursue language policy as part of numerous tools in their mission to build a successful Singapore. As part of nation-building efforts, language policy has taken a pragmatic approach, focusing on hard, rational objectives such as the economic benefits of certain languages and ensuring peaceful relations between the different racial groups. Nevertheless, local traits and adaptations, such as the rise of Singlish, highlight the influence the public has had on language policy in Singapore.

Despite initial resistance, policy makers have slowly sought to understand how Singlish can be used to promote the Singapore spirit, by underscoring its intrinsic Singaporean-ness. Thus, it can then be said that the language policy decisions that Singapore’s leaders made at independence and have chosen to stick with and let go of since then point to their increased awareness of changing economic and social landscapes both globally and locally. This showcases the progress of Singapore’s language policy over time, from a top-down approach towards one that incorporates on-the-ground sentiments and feedback.






[4] Lim, L., Pakir, A., & Wee, L. (2010). English in Singapore: Modernity and management.






[9] Wee, L. (2003). Linguistic instrumentalism in Singapore. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 24(3), 211–224.

[10] Wee, L. (2018). The Singlish Controversy: Language, Culture and Identity in a Globalizing World.



Alamelu is a third-year student majoring in English & Economics and an editor for The Convergence. She’s deeply interested in inequality and the factors that create and sustain it, and hopes to amplify the voices of minorities through her work. When not writing or rushing to meet deadlines, she’s likely knee-deep in oddly specific Internet wormholes or rewatching her comfort television shows.


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