S'pore ambassador to US rebuts NYT story on Chinese dialects

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Singapore's ambassador to the United States has rejected claims in a New York Times (NYT) article that there has been a softening of government policy towards the use of Chinese dialects after decades of what the paper described as "linguistic repression".

The report, "In Singapore, Chinese dialects revive after decades of restrictions", was published on Aug 26.

Author Ian Johnson wrote about the dearth of dialects among the young and cited a three-generation Singaporean family where the Hokkien-speaking grandmother and her English-speaking granddaughter struggle to communicate. This, the article noted, is a consequence of "the Singapore Government's large-scale, decades-long effort at linguistic engineering" as it moved to effectively ban Chinese dialects in favour of Mandarin.

"This linguistic repression, and the consequences for multi-generational families, has led to widespread sense of resentment - and now a softening in the Government's policy," wrote Mr Johnson, who is based in Beijing.

But Ambassador Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, in a letter sent to the NYT on Aug 27, said these assertions of "linguistic repression" in Singapore and a "softening of Government policy" towards dialect as a result of public discontent are mistaken.

The NYT has not published the letter, which Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs released yesterday.

Mr Mirpuri said Singaporeans adopted English as the working language because it was the international language of commerce. He noted that parents, "convinced their children had to master English to survive", sent their children to English-language schools in droves from the 1960s.

"Notwithstanding this powerful trend, the Singapore Government strived to keep the mother tongues (Chinese, Malay and Tamil) alive, by promoting bilingualism as a fundamental education policy," said Mr Mirpuri.

Founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew pushed for Mandarin "because of its economic value, the sheer impracticality of teaching multiple, mutually unintelligible dialects, and to establish a common language among Chinese Singaporeans". "This remains the Government's policy," wrote Mr Mirpuri.

"Most Singaporeans are not linguists with a gift for languages. They know first-hand how difficult it is to master multiple languages," wrote Mr Mirpuri.

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