Lee Kwan Yew: Parents should speak Mandarin with their Children

Singaporean Chinese parents should speak Chinese with their children as often as possible, Lee Kwan Yew (Li Guangyou, 李光耀), Singapore’s senior minister suggested at the opening ceremony of the Speak Mandarin Campaign 2009 (SMC). Lee made his speech on March 17, thirty years after having launched the campaign. “If the government had left language habits to evolve undirected, Chinese Singaporeans would be speaking an adulterated Hokkien Teochew dialect”, he said. “To effectively promote Mandarin, we closed down all dialect programs on Radio and TV from 1979. (…) I understand the strong emotional ties to one’s mother tongue. However, the trend is clear. In two generations, Mandarin will become our mother tongue.” Lee pointed out that English was mastered by Singaporeans without difficulty, and that a combination of fluent English and Mandarin offered value-add to China as a trade partner. The Speak-Mandarin Movement should not be mistaken for a movement to switch from local dialects to Mandarin as a main language in Singaporean Chinese households, but as a movement for such households to speak more Mandarin, next to English, said Lee.
“China wants to collaborate with us because through English, we are able to connect with the West. At the same time, our Mandarin is fluent enough to communicate with PRC Chinese on different topics and subjects.”

Both Lee Kwan Yew and Lim Sau Hoong (林少芬), chairperson of the Promote-Mandarin Council, mentioned the 2008 Beijing Olympics in their opening speeches. Lee also expressed regret that he and his wife had put the emphasis on English when talking with their children, rather than on English plus some Mandarin.

According to education department data quoted at the event, English is the main language spoken in ethnic Chinese households in Singapore. The use of local dialects dropped from more than 60% in 1980 to less than 10% in 1988 – about ten years after Lee, then prime minister, had started the Speak-Mandarin campaign. Since 2001, use of local dialects is said to be less than 2%.

Mandarin (or putonghua, or guoyu) makes sense economically, but it hasn’t always been family-friendly. The grandparents’ generation didn’t – and still doesn’t – always speak Mandarin, which creates a language barrier to their communication with their grandchildren.

While China is seen as a both established and promising business partner, Malaysia might become Singapore’s motherland again – but probably not in the near future. Lee Kwan Yew brought the topic up in 2007, in an interview with Pacific Perspectives:

When [Malaysia] kicked us out [in 1965], the expectation was that we would fail and we will go back on their terms, not on the terms we agreed with them under the British. Our problems are not just between states, this is a problem between races and religions and civilizations. We are a standing indictment of all the things that they can be doing differently. They have got all the resources. If they would just educate the Chinese and Indians, use them and treat them as their citizens, they can equal us and even do better than us and we would be happy to rejoin them.

Lee gives orders when he thinks something should get done in Singapore. And he gives advice when he thinks that something should get done elsewhere. In 2005, he advised Germans to pace their economic and social reforms up further. A hesitant approach only made restructurings more painful, rather than more endurable:

It is painful because it is so slow. If your workers were rational they would say, yes, this is going to happen anyway, let’s do the necessary things in one go. Instead of one month at the spa, take one week at the spa, work harder and longer for the same pay, compete with the East Europeans, invest in new technology, put more money into your R&D, keep ahead of the Chinese and the Indians.


Related: Branding China – Language(s) of a Multi-Polar World, May 18, 2008

Related: Wikipedia article on SMC

10 Comments to “Lee Kwan Yew: Parents should speak Mandarin with their Children”

  1. In the Chinese world, Singaporeans think they are of the highest class of the Chinese.


  2. They probably do – more than 24 hours have passed now, and noone of them even bothered to post an angry reply!!


  3. @Huolong – Try telling that to HKers/Taiwaners/Shanghaiers/Macanese!


  4. @ FOARP: how do you think they’d react?


  5. I think they should stick to English. They built their success story because of English, not because of Chinese. Only think I don’t like is their government always telling them what they should do, what is right. Let the people decide themselves. Language is such a personal thing, a parent should know in which language he should raise his kid. But learning Chinese in school is always a good thing. And English. And German – yes… I still believe in German, although my diploma didn’t bring me anything so far 😦 sob sob…


  6. Well… maybe the Austrian economic miracle will be replaced by a German one – but only after the current crisis. But it’s hard to think of German as a big business language.
    I think Lee Kwan-yew thinks of the local dialects spoken in Singapore as useless. In an economic sense, he’s probably right, and folklore isn’t Singapore’s greatest asset anyway. If tourists go there, it’s for shopping. But yes, it’s strange how the Singaporean government manipulates – or “engineers” society.


  7. Well, you forgot to mention many intellectuals who write about how the dialects are important and one should learn many languages. I noticed many critical responses in the Straits Times while being in Singapore.


  8. That’s right. There’s something beyond the economy.


  9. can this story language in mandarin


  10. Alicie: wo yuanlai xie yingwen ji zhongwen boke, danshi meiyou ren kan! lingwai yige wenti shi, hen duo diannao meiyou xie hanzi de ruanjian. suoyi, wo bu zai jia de shihou, jiu bu neng xie hanzi.


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