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Languages of Singapore

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Title: Languages of Singapore  
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Subject: Culture of Singapore, Driving in Singapore, Music of Singapore, Singaporean literature, Sport in Singapore
Collection: Languages of Singapore
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Languages of Singapore

A warning sign with the four official languages found on all MRT stations

Life in Singapore

The four Languages of Singapore that are recognised by the Singapore Government are: English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil.[1] They were chosen to correspond with the major ethnic groups present in Singapore at the time: Mandarin had gained status since the introduction of Chinese-medium schools; Malay was deemed the "most obvious choice" for the Malay community; and Tamil for the largest Indian ethnic group in Singapore, in addition to being "the language with the longest history of education in Malaysia and Singapore".[2] In 2009, more than 20 languages were identified as being spoken in Singapore, reflecting a rich linguistic diversity in the city.[3][4] Singapore's historical roots as a trading settlement gave rise to an influx of foreign traders,[5] and their languages were slowly embedded in Singapore's modern day linguistic repertoire.

In the early years, the lingua franca of the island was Bazaar Malay (Melayu Pasar), a creole of Malay and Chinese, the language of trade in the Malay Archipelago.[6] While it continues to be used among many on the island, especially Singaporean Malays, Malay has now been displaced by English. English became the lingua franca due to British rule of Singapore,[5] and was made the main language upon Singaporean independence. English remains as Singapore's official language today.

Nanyang Technological University. Dr Ng Bee Chin, Acting Head of the Division, was quoted in the article as saying, "Although Singaporeans are still multilingual, 40 years ago, we were even more multilingual. Young children are not speaking some of these languages at all any more. All it takes is one generation for a language to die." [8]

This prompted a reply from Mr Chee Hong Tat, the Principal Private Secretary of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. In a letter to the editor in the Straits Times Forum, he underlined the importance of English and Mandarin over vernaculars and how using vernaculars "interferes with the learning of Mandarin and English'; a statement that Mr Lee Kuan Yew later corroborated in a speech at the 30th anniversary of the Speak Mandarin Campaign.[66] Referring to the progress of Singapore's bilingual education policy over the decades, Mr Chee Hong Tat also commented that "it would be stupid for any Singapore agency or NTU to advocate the learning of dialects, which must be at the expense of English and Mandarin." [67]

Renewed interest in learning Chinese vernaculars

Since 2000, the Singapore government appears to have relaxed its stance towards Chinese vernaculars.[68] In 2002, clan associations such as Hainanese Association of Singapore (Kheng Chiu Hwee Kuan) and

  • Wendy D. Bokhorst-Heng and Imelda Santos Caleona. "The language attitudes of bilingual youth in multilingual Singapore." Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. Volume 30, Issue 3, 2009. p. 235-251. DOI: 10.1080/01434630802510121. Available at Taylor & Francis.
  • Tan, Sherman (2012), "Language ideology in discourses of resistance to dominant hierarchies of linguistic worth: Mandarin Chinese and Chinese ‘dialects’ in Singapore." The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 23: 340–356. doi: 10.1111/taja.12004 (abstract)

Further reading

  1. ^ a b "Official languages and national language". Constitution of the Republic of Singapore. Retrieved 2010-11-11. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Dixon, L.Q. (2009). Assumptions behind Singapore's language-in-education policy: Implications for language planning and second language acquisition. Lang Policy, 8, 117-137. doi:10.1007/s10993-009-9124-0.
  3. ^ David, Maya Esther (2008). "Language Policies Impact on Language Maintenance and Teaching Focus on Malaysia Singapore and The Philippines" (PDF). University of Malaya Angel David Malaysia. 
  4. ^ Lewis, M. Paul (ed.) (2009). "Languages of Singapore". Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Lee, C.L. (2013). Saving Chinese-language education in Singapore. Current Issues in Language Planning, 13(4), 285-304.
  6. ^ a b c Bao, Z., & Aye, K.K. (2010). Bazaar Malay topics. Journal Of Pidgin & Creole Languages, 25(1), 155-171. doi:10.1075/jpcl.25.1.06bao
  7. ^ Goh, Chok Tong. "English version of Speech in Mandarin by the Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong". Speak Mandarin Campaign. 
  8. ^ a b Abu Baker, Jalelah (2009-03-08). "'"One generation - that's all it takes 'for a language to die. The Straits Times (Singapore). Retrieved 2010-10-12. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g "Census of Population 2010" (table 4), Singapore Department of Statistics. Retrieved October 17, 2014.
  10. ^ "Gupta, A. F., Yeok, S. P. (1995) Language Shift in a Singapore Family. Journal of Multilingual and Mutlicultural Development, 16(4), 301-314.
  11. ^ Gupta, A.F. Fischer, K., ed. "Epistemic modalities and the discourse particles of Singapore" (DOC). Approaches to Discourse Particles (Amsterdam: Elsevier): 244–263. 
  12. ^ a b Dixon, L. Quentin. (2005). The Bilingual Education Policy in Singapore: Implications for Second Language Acquisition. In James Cohen, J., McAlister, K. T., Rolstad, K., and MacSwan, J (Eds.), ISB4: Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Bilingualism. p. 625-635, Cascadilla Press, Somerville, MA.
  13. ^ "31 March 2000". Retrieved 2011-01-27. 
  14. ^ What are some commonly misspelled English words? | ASK!ASK!
  15. ^ Tan, Sherman, p. 340-341. "The four recognised official languages are English, Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay, but in practice, English is Singapore's default lingua franca."
  16. ^ Pakir, Anne (1999). "Bilingual education with English as an official language: Sociocultural implications" (PDF).   (Archive)
  17. ^ "Bilingual Education". National Library Board, Singapore. 2009-11-12. Retrieved 2010-10-19. 
  18. ^ Deterding, David. (2007). Singapore English. Edinburgh University Press.
  19. ^ Singapore English definition - Dictionary - MSN Encarta. Archived from the original on 2009-10-31. 
  20. ^ "Singapore Company Registration and Formation". Healy Consultants. Retrieved 19 August 2013. 
  21. ^ Tan, Amelia (2009-12-29). "Refine bilingual policy". The Straits Times (Singapore). Retrieved 2010-11-11. 
  22. ^ a b Literacy and language, Singapore Census of Population, 2000. Singapore Department of Statistics (December 2000). (Archive)
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  24. ^ "'"A War of Words Over 'Singlish. Time. 2002-07-22. 
  25. ^ a b Lee, Edmund E. F. "Profile of the Singapore Chinese Dialects". Singapore Department of Statistics, Social Statistics Section. Retrieved 2010-10-18 
  26. ^ a b Oi, Mariko (2010-10-05). "BBC News - Singapore's booming appetite to study Mandarin". BBC. Retrieved 2011-01-27. 
  27. ^ Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000, HarperCollins, 2000. ISBN 0-06-019776-5.
  28. ^ "Mandarin will become Singaporean mother tongue - People's Daily Online". People's Daily. Retrieved 2011-01-27. 
  29. ^ "Dominant Home Language of Chinese Primary One Students". Ministry of Education, Singapore. Retrieved 2011-02-13. 
  30. ^ a b Tan, Sherman, p. 341.
  31. ^ "Singapore - Language". Retrieved 2011-01-27. 
  32. ^ "Chapter 2 Education and Language" (PDF). General Household Survey 2005, Statistical Release 1: Socio-Demographic and Economic Characteristics. Singapore Department of Statistics. 2005. Archived from the original on 2012-07-05. Retrieved 2010-11-11. 
  33. ^ Tan, P.K.W. (2014). Singapore's balancing act, from the perspective of the linguistic landscape. Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, 29(2), 438-436.
  34. ^ Singapore Arms and Flag and National Anthem Act (Cap. 296, 1985 Rev. Ed.)
  35. ^ Gupta, Anthea Fraser, Singapore Colloquial English (Singlish), Language Varieties. Retrieved 2013-11-11.
  36. ^ Reinhard F Hahn, "Bahasa Baba". Retrieved 2010-11-18.
  37. ^ "Census of Population 2010: Advance Census Release" (PDF). Singapore Department of Statistics. 2010. Archived from the original on 2012-07-05. Retrieved 2010-11-18. 
  38. ^ a b de Rozario, Charlotte (2006). "Kristang: a language, a people" (PDF). Community Development Council. Singapore. Retrieved 2010-11-18. 
  39. ^ Language and Globalization: Center for Global Studies at the University of Illinois
  40. ^ Chan, Leong Koon (2009). "Envisioning Chinese Identity and Managing Multiracialism in Singapore" (PDF). University of New South Wales, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore. 
  41. ^ Vaish, V. (2008). Mother tongues, English, and religion in Singapore. World Englishes, 27(3/4), 450-464.
  42. ^ Romaine, Suzanne. (2004). The bilingual and multilingual community. In Bhatia, Tej K. and Ritchie, William C. (eds). The Handbook of Bilingualism. pp. 385-406. Oxford: Blackwell.
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  44. ^ Kassim, Aishah Md. (2008). Malay Language As A Foreign Language And The Singapore’s Education System. In GEMA Online Journal of Language Studies, 8(1), p47-56.
  45. ^ "Our function as UPTLC". Umar Pulavar Tamil Language Centre, Ministry of Education, Singapore. Retrieved 2010-11-18. 
  46. ^ The Board (2014). Board for the Teaching & Testing of South Asian Languages(BTTSAL). Retrieved October 18, 2014, from
  47. ^ Ministry of Education Media Centre (2007). "Nurturing language proficiency amongst singaporeans". 
  48. ^ Tan, Amelia (2008-07-22). "Conversational Chinese and Malay at more schools". Asiaone (Singapore). Retrieved 2010-11-13. 
  49. ^ Oon, Clarissa (2008-09-08). "PM: Don't lose bilingual edge". Asiaone (Singapore). Retrieved 2010-11-18. 
  50. ^ "SCCL". Retrieved 2010-11-18. 
  51. ^ "Population Trends 2009" (PDF). Department of Statistics, Ministry of Trade & Industry, Republic of Singapore. 2010. Archived from the original on 2011-12-10. Retrieved 2010-10-13. 
  52. ^ Jamie Ee, Wen Wei, "Sorry, no English", AsiaOne, 1 September 2009.
  53. ^ "English test for foreign service staff from July". 2010-01-26. Retrieved 2010-11-17. 
  54. ^ Government of Singapore. (2014). Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally 2014(Speech in Malay). Retrieved October 19, 2014, from
  55. ^ Phua, A. (2012, February 9). Teochew candidate key to their votes. The New Paper. Retrieved October 19, 2014, from
  56. ^ Tan, L. (2012, May 11). Life after GE - Chan Chun Seng. The New Paper. Retrieved October 19, 2014, from
  57. ^ Tan, H.H. (2002, July 29). A war of words over 'Singlish'. Time Magazine. Retrieved October 19, 2014, from
  58. ^ a b Harada, S. (2009). The role of Singapore Standard English and Singlish. 情報研究, (40), 69-81. Retrieved October 19, 2014, from
  59. ^ Loo, G. (2014, May 23). Come in Kangkong Commander! Mr Brown gives his take on air force Singlish. The New Paper. Retrieved October 19, 2014, from
  60. ^ "Use of dialects interfere with learning of Mandarin & English". Singapore: Channel NewsAsia. 2009-03-06. Retrieved 2010-11-11. 
  61. ^ Liang, Chong Ching (1999). "Inter-generational cultural transmission in Singapore: A brief discussion". Oral History Centre, National Archives of Singapore. 
  62. ^ Lai, L. (2013, October 23). Young people speak up for dialects. The Straits Times. Retrieved October 19, 2014, from
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  65. ^ Mendoza, D. (2014, September 25). Singapore Teochew Festival: Celebrating tradition with modern approaches. Today Online. Retrieved October 19, 2014, from
  66. ^ Forss, Pearl (2009-03-17). "Chinese S'poreans should focus on learning Mandarin well, says MM Lee" (reprint). Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved 2014-02-01. 
  67. ^ "Foolish to advocate the learning of dialects". The Straits Times (Singapore). 2009-03-09. Retrieved 2010-10-12. 
  68. ^ Phyllis Ghim-Lian Chew (2009). "An Ethnographic Survey of Language Use, Attitudes and Beliefs of Singaporean Daoist Youths" (PDF). Asian Research Institute,   (Archive)
  69. ^ "Dialects draw more new learners". The Straits Times. 2009-04-09. Retrieved 2010-11-17. 
  70. ^ Yeo, Jessica (2007-05-06). "Students learn dialect to communicate with elderly". ChannelNewAsia (Singapore). Retrieved 2010-11-11. 
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  78. ^ Ng, C.L.P. (2014). Mother tongue education in Singapore: Concerns, issues and controversies. Current Issues in Language Planning, 15(4), 361-375, DOI: 10.1080/14664208.2014.927093.
  79. ^ "Provision of More Dialect Programmes". REACH Singapore (Singapore). 2009-03-26. Retrieved 2014-02-01. 
  80. ^ a b c Foo, Lynlee (2008-07-06). "Local filmmakers include more Chinese dialects in recent works." (reprint). Singapore: Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved 2010-10-17. 
  81. ^ Biston, Jovanda (2007-08-31). "S'pore film on getai brings Hokkien to life". Asiaone (Singapore). Retrieved 2014-02-01. 
  82. ^ "Eric Ng on 881 Soundtrack 2". Sinema.Sg. 2007-10-20. Retrieved 2010-11-18. 
  83. ^ "All things Hokkien in Fest". The Straits Times (Singapore). 2008-10-15. Retrieved 2010-11-17. 
  84. ^ Chua, Soon Pong (2007). "Translation and Chinese Opera: The Singapore Experience" (doc). Singapore: Chinese Opera Institute. Retrieved 2010-10-19. 


Apart from the efforts to maintain Chinese vernaculars, the Eurasian Association holds Kristang classes for people who are interested in learning Kristang. In this way, it hopes to preserve what it perceives to be a unique part of the Eurasian heritage in Singapore.[38]

[84] With such efforts, perhaps Chinese vernaculars in Singapore will be better equipped to resist erosion.[83] Chinese clan associations play a role in maintaining the Chinese vernaculars. In the past, they provided support to migrant Chinese, based on the province they originated. Today, they provide a place for people who speak the same vernacular to gather and interact. For example, the

Language-specific societies

Indian languages besides Tamil are managed slightly differently from the Chinese vernaculars. Even though only Tamil has official language status, there have been no attempts to discourage the use or spread of other Indian languages such as Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu. For one, movies in these languages are shown in some local cinemas, such as Rex and Screens of Bombay Talkies (see: List of cinemas in Singapore). Furthermore, the local Indian TV channel Vasantham has also allocated specific programme timeslots to cater to the variety of Indian language speakers in Singapore.

Indian languages in the media

Similar to Chinese opera, there are no language restrictions on entries for film festivals. In recent years, more local film makers have incorporated Chinese vernaculars into their films.[80] For example, the local movie 881 revived the popularity of getai after it was released. Getai, which is mainly conducted in Hokkien and Teochew, became more popular with the younger generations since the release of the movie. On the effect triggered by the release of the movie 881, Professor Chua Beng Huat, Head of the Department of Sociology in the National University of Singapore (NUS), commented in the Straits Times that "''putting Hokkien on the silver screen gives Hokkien a kind of rebellious effect. It's like the return of the repressed."[81] The success of 881 is also reflected by album sales of 881 movie soundtrack, which became the first local film soundtrack to hit platinum in Singapore.[82] In other instances, the movie Singapore Ga Ga, a tissue seller sings a Hokkien song while Perth features a Singaporean taxi driver using Hokkien and Cantonese. Local directors have commented that Chinese vernaculars are vital as there are some expressions which just cannot be put across in Mandarin Chinese, and that Chinese vernaculars are an important part of Singapore that adds a sense of authenticity that locals will enjoy.[80]

The Chinese vernaculars are not controlled tightly in traditional arts, such as Chinese opera. As such, they have managed to survive, and even flourish in these areas. In Singapore, various types of Chinese opera include Hokkien, Teochew, Hainanese and Cantonese. In the past, this diversity encouraged the translation between vernaculars for scripts of popular stories. After the implementation of the bilingual policy and Speak Mandarin Campaign, Mandarin subtitles were introduced to help the audience understand the performances. Today, as usage of English rises, some opera troupes not only provide English subtitles but also English translations of their works. For these English-Chinese operas, subtitles may be provided in either Mandarin, other Chinese vernaculars or both. In this way, Chinese opera will be able to reach out to wider set of audience despite being vernacular-specific.[80]

The use of Chinese vernaculars in Singapore media is restricted by the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA). The rationale given for the resistance towards Chinese vernaculars was that the presence of Chinese vernaculars would hinder language learning of English and Mandarin.[78] However, in order to cater to older Singaporeans who speak only Chinese vernaculars, videos, VCDs, DVDs, paid subscription radio services and paid TV channels are exempted from MICA's restrictions. Two free-to-air channels, Okto and Channel 8, are also allowed to show operas and arthouse movies with some vernacular content respectively.[79]

Chinese vernaculars in local films

The free-to-air channels in Singapore are run by MediaCorp and each channel is aired in one of the four official languages of Singapore. For example, Channel U and Channel 8 are Mandarin-medium channels, Channel 5, Okto and Channel News Asia are English-medium channels, Suria is a Malay-medium channel, and Vasantham is a predominantly Tamil-medium channel. However, these channels might also feature programmes in other languages. For example, apart from programmes in Mandarin, Channel U also broadcasts Korean television programmes at specific allotted times.

Media and the arts

In a 2012 pilot program, SMRT trains began announcements of station names in both English and Mandarin Chinese so as to help Mandarin Chinese-speaking senior citizens cope better with the sudden increase in new stations.[76] However, this received mixed reactions from the public, who believed that the “public did not only have mandarin speaking senior citizens” and many others who complained of feeling alienated. In reaction to this, SMRT claimed that only an English-Mandarin copy was produced as the Malay and Tamil names of stations sounded too familiar to the English names. In 2013, a group of Tamil speakers filed petitions to the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore in a bid to change all the signages in Changi Airport to include Tamil, instead of Japanese. Despite the fact that only 5% of the Singapore population speaks Tamil, they argued that since Tamil is one of the four official languages of Singapore, it therefore should be used to reflect Singapore’s multi-racial background.[77]


While the above examples show how the different languages are used on signs within Singapore, there is scant data on the motivations behind these variations seen, as exemplified by the advisory for “No Alcohol” sales in Little India, which showcased a rare variation from the usage of the four main languages that are commonly seen on most advisory signs. Similarly, the Ministry of Health, in a response to a feedback requesting all hospitals to have 4 languages on its entrances, has claimed that usage of pictorial signages was better in conveying messages, as opposed to using all four languages.[74] Due to problems in the research methodology[75] and lack of governmental statutes that explain these variations, the study on the linguistics landscape in Singapore remain as a controversial field. These problems include non-linearity, where the large numbers of variations seen in Singapore prevents the application of any trends to understand the landscape; and also the lack of any standard legislation that determines any fixed rules on usage of languages on signages.

Limitations in current research methodologies

This picture showcases the differences of languages used in the road signs despite both being in close promixity.

Messages and campaigns that have a very specific target audience and purpose are usually printed in the language of intended readers. For example, the “No Alcohol” signs put up along Little India after the Little India Riots are notably printed in only Tamil and English as a reflection of the racial demographics in the region. During the 2003 SARS epidemic, the government relied heavily on the media to emphasise the importance of personal hygiene, and also to educate the general public on the symptoms of SARS, in which a Singlish rap video featuring Gurmit Singh as Phua Chu Kang was used as the main medium. Similarly in 2014, the Pioneer Generation Package[72] for senior citizens above 65 years of age made use of Chinese vernaculars commonly spoken in Singapore such as Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew, and also Singlish in order to make the policies more relatable,[73] and at the same time raise awareness about the benefits that this new scheme provides for them. These allowances of different language varieties is an exception to the four official languages. This exception is seen for campaigns that are deemed as highly important, and include the elderly, or those who are not as proficient in the English language as the target audience.

An advisory poster found along Little India with information regarding the sale of alcohol.

Notices and Campaigns

Out of the eight general hospitals overseen by Singapore’s Ministry of Health, only Singapore General Hospital has signages in the four official languages. Along Hospital Drive (where Singapore General Hospital is located) and various national medical centres, road directories are entirely in English. Within the hospital itself, signs for individual blocks, wards, Accident and Emergency department, Specialist Outpatient Clinics, National Heart Centre and National Cancer Centre have signs written in the four official languages. The English titles are still expressed with the largest font first, followed by Malay, Chinese and Tamil in smaller but equally-sized fonts, which is in accordance with order given by Singapore’s constitution. Surprisingly, the Health Promotion Board, National Eye and Dental Centres, which are also in the same region, have English signs only. All of the other seven public hospitals have their “Accident and Emergency” sign in English only, with some highlighted in a red background.

Public Hospitals

Most of the foreign embassies in Singapore are able to use their own national or working languages as a representation of their respective embassies in Singapore, as long as their language can be expressed in the script of any of Singapore’s official languages. For example, embassies representing non-English speaking countries such as the French Embassy are allowed to use their own languages because the language can be expressed in Roman script, thus explaining why the French embassy uses its French name. However for the case of the Royal Thai Embassy, English was chosen to represent it in Singapore because the Thai script is not recognized as a script in any of Singapore’s official languages, even though English is less widely used in Thailand than standard Thai.

Despite the fact that Malay is the national language of Singapore, government buildings are often indicated by signs in English and not Malay. Comparing the relative occurrences of English and Malay in building signs, the use of the working language is far more common in Singapore’s linguistic landscape than that of the national language, which is limited to ceremonial purposes. This can also be seen on the entrance sign to most Ministries and government buildings, which are expressed only in English, the working language.

English signage at the Singapore Parliament

Government offices and public buildings

Some notable exceptions include the brown directional road signs for the Merlion Park which are written not only in the four national languages, but also in Japanese. Although many variations exist, this arrangement is widely applied to most places of interest as well as places of worship, such as the Burmese Buddhist Temple which has signs in Burmese and some mosques in Singapore which also have their names printed in the Jawi script even though the Malay language was standardized with the Roman alphabet in Singapore.

The conversion and expression in Roman script of Mandarin and Hokkien into pīnyīn helps non-Mandarin and non-Hokkien speakers with the pronunciation of the name of a place whilst remaining in tandem with the use of English and Roman script in Singapore. The repackaging of the original vernacular and mandarin names of Lau Pa Sat in Roman script, and inclusion of the appearance of an English translation as a secondary title can be seen as a way of heightening the sense of authenticity and heritage of the attraction as it is marketed as a culturally-rich area in Singapore, similar to Chinatown and Little India; both of which were formerly cultural enclaves of the distinctive races. Similarly in places that bear cultural significance, the signs are printed in the language associated with the culture,such as The Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall which has an entirely Chinese sign without any translations.

The majority of Singapore’s tourist attractions provide information through English in the Roman script. In many cases, the entrances of the attraction is written in English (usually with no other accompanying languages) while the distinctive brown road signs seen along streets and expressways which direct tourists come in up to four or five languages, with English as the largest and most prominent language on the sign. Some examples of the different ways in which popular tourist attractions in Singapore display ethnolinguistic diversity can be seen at tourist attractions such as Lau Pa Sat, where the words “Lau Pa Sat” on the directory boards consist of the Mandarin Chinese word “lau” for “old” (老;lăo) and from the Hokkien vernacular words “pa sat” for “market” (巴刹;bā sha), expressed in roman script. The entrance sign of the attraction also includes a non-literal translation in English below its traditional name (Festival Market). It is also called the Telok Ayer Market, a name which makes reference to the location of the attraction and does not have anything to do with its cultural name.

Road signs for a Burmese Temple and the Sun Yat Sen Memorial. Note the Burmese translation on the first sign.
Road signs for Lau Pa Sat and Merlion Park. Note the addition of Japanese on the signs for the benefit of tourists.

Tourist attractions

The multi-ethnic background of Singapore’s society can be seen in its linguistic landscape. While English dominates as the working language of Singapore, the city does not possess a monolingual linguistic landscape. These can be seen from the variety of signs strewn around the city. Signs are colour-coded and categorised by their respective functions: for example, signs which are pointing to attractions are brown with white words, while road signs and street names are green with white words. Some of the most evident signs of multilingualism in Singapore’s linguistic landscape include danger/warning signs at construction sites, as well as road signs for tourist attractions. By observing the variation in languages used in the different contexts, we are able to obtain information on the ethnolinguistic vitality of the country.

Linguistic Landscape of Singapore

Likewise, third-year students from Dunman High can now take a module called "Pop Song Culture". This module lets them learn about pop culture in different vernacular groups through vernacular pop songs from the 70s and 80s. Besides this, students can also take an elective on different flavours and food cultures from various vernacular groups.[71]

[70] In March 2009, a newspaper article was published in Singapore broadsheet daily

Controversy over learning of vernaculars

The preservation of vernaculars in Singapore has been of increasing concern in Singapore since the 2000s, especially among the younger generation of Chinese youths.[62] This sudden revival of vernaculars can mainly be attributed to a feeling of disconnection between the younger and the elder generations, as well as a sense of loss of identity from their own languages roots for many others.[63] While more work has to be put in to revive these vernaculars, the recent 2014 Singapore Teochew Festival[64] held in Ngee Ann City can be regarded as a positive sign that more people are becoming more actively involved in reconnecting with their language roots.[65]

Chinese vernaculars (classified as dialects by the Singapore government), with the exception of Mandarin, have been in steep decline since the independence of Singapore in 1965. This is in part due to the Speak Mandarin Campaign that was launched in 1979. As part of the campaign, all vernacular programmes on TV and radio were stopped. Speeches in Hokkien by the prime minister were discontinued to prevent giving conflicting signals to the people.[60] By the late 1980s, Mandarin managed to some extent, to replace vernaculars as the preferred language for communication in public places such as restaurants and public transport.[61]

Vernacular preservation issues

Most recently, Singlish came into the limelight when Republic of Singapore Air Force pilots supposedly used the language to much effect to prevent their American counterparts from intercepting their communications during the 2014 Red Flag exercise; resulting in a boost in support for the usefulness of Singlish among Singaporean netizens.[59]

There has been a continuous debate between the general Singaporean population and the Government with regard to the status of Singlish in local domains. While the government fears that the prevalence of Singlish would affect Singapore's overall image as a world class financial and business hub,[57] most Singaporeans on the other hand have chosen to embrace Singlish as an identity marker and as a language of solidarity.[58] In an attempt to eradicate the usage of Singlish, the government then began the Speak Good English Movement, encouraging people to use Standard Singaporean English in all contexts instead. Despite the success of the campaign, most Singaporeans surveyed still preferred the use of Singlish to communicate with fellow Singaporeans, and they also believed that they had the ability to code switch between Singlish and Standard Singaporean English, depending on the requirements of the particular situation.[58]

Status of Singlish as an identity marker

Although the use of Chinese vernaculars among the Singapore population has dwindled,[9] Chinese vernaculars continue to be used in election rallies as of the 2011 parliamentary election. For instance, both Low Thia Khiang[55] and Chan Chun Sing[56] were noted for their usage of Chinese vernaculars during election rallies.

Before the 1980s, it was common for politicians to broadcast their speech in Malay, English, Singaporean Hokkien, Singaporean Mandarin and other Chinese vernaculars. For instance, during the 1960s, Lee Kuan Yew learned and used both English and Hokkien frequently in his political or rally speech, as it was vital for him to secure votes in elections from the Hokkien-speaking community. Similarly, Lim Chin Siong, who was charismatic in the use of Hokkien, was able to secure opposition votes. Facing competition and difficulty in securing votes from the Chinese-educated, Lee Kuan Yew also had to learn Mandarin, in order to win the votes from the Mandarin-speaking community.

Language plays an important role in Singapore politics. Even until today, it is important for politicians in Singapore to be able to speak fluent English along with their Mother Tongue (and even vernaculars) in order to reach out to the multilingual community in Singapore. This is evident in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's annual National Day Rally speech, which is communicated through the use of English, Malay and Mandarin.[54]


Sociolinguistic issues

With the influx of foreigners, the population of non-English speaking foreigners in Singapore offers new challenges to the concept of language proficiency in the country. The population of foreigners in Singapore constitutes 36% of the population and they dominate 50% of Singapore's service sectors.[51] Thus, it is not uncommon to encounter service staff who are not fluent in English, especially those who do not use English regularly.[52] In response to this situation, The Straits Times reported that from July 2010, foreigners working in service sectors would have to pass an English test before they can obtain their work permits.[53]

Foreign population in Singapore

Despite government efforts to promote Mandarin through the Speak Mandarin Campaign, the propagation of Mandarin and Chinese culture amongst Chinese Singaporeans continues to be a challenge because Mandarin faces stiff competition from the strong presence of English.[5] However, this situation is not only limited to Mandarin, but also Malay and Tamil, where rising statistics show that English is progressively taking over as home language of Singaporeans.[2][9]

The teaching of Mother Tongue (especially Mandarin) in schools has encountered challenges due to more Singaporeans speaking and using English at home. The declining standards and command of Mandarin amongst younger generations of Chinese Singaporeans continue to be of concern to the older generations of Chinese Singaporeans, as they perceive it to be an erosion of Chinese culture and heritage.[5] This concern has led to the establishment the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language (SCCL) by the government on November 2009.[49] The SCCL's stated purpose is to enhance the effectiveness of teaching Mandarin as a second language in a bilingual environment as well as to meet the learning needs of students from non-Mandarin speaking homes.[50]

Challenges in the teaching of Mother Tongue

In a bid to enhance the linguistic experience of students, in 2007, the Ministry of Education strongly encouraged schools to offer Conversational Malay and Chinese to those who do not take either of these languages as their Mother Tongue.[47] By providing the schools with the resources needed to implement the programme, the Ministry of Education has succeeded in significantly increasing the number of participating schools. More importantly, the programme was also well-received by students.[48]

In contrast to the language policy for Mandarin and Malay, Indian students are given a wider variety of Indian languages to choose from. For example, Indian students speaking Dravidian languages study Tamil as a Mother Tongue.[2] However, schools with low numbers of Tamil students might not provide Tamil language classes. As a result, students from such schools will attend Tamil language classes at the Umar Pulavar Tamil Language Centre (UPTLC).[45] On the other hand, Indian students who speak non-Dravidian languages can choose from Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati and Urdu.[2] However, as with Tamil, only certain schools offer these non-Dravidian languages. Thus, students will attend their respective language classes at designated language centres, held by the Board for the Teaching and Testing of South Asian Languages (BTTSAL).[46]

The Malay-speaking community also faced similar problems after the implementation of the policy. In Singapore, Malay, not its vernaculars, is valued as a mean for transmitting familial and religious values. For instance, ‘Madrasahs’, or religious schools, mosques and religious classes all employ the Malay language.[44] However, Malay in turn is facing competition from the increased popularity of English.[2]

The impact of the bilingual policy differs amongst students from the various ethnic groups. For the Chinese, when the policy was first implemented, many students found themselves struggling with two foreign languages: English and Mandarin.[5] Even though Chinese vernaculars were widely spoken at home, they were excluded from the classroom as it was felt that they would be an "impediment to learning Chinese".[12] Today, although Mandarin is widely spoken, language proficiency has since declined.[5] In response to these falling standards, several revisions have been made to the education system. These include the introduction of the Mother Tongue "B" syllabus and the now-defunct EM3 stream, both in which Mother Tongue is taught at a level lower than the mainstream standard. In the case of Mandarin, Chinese students would study Chinese "B".

Impacts of bilingual education policy

The Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism was set up on the 28 November 2011. The Fund aims to promote bilingualism amongst young children in Singapore, is set up to supplement existing English and Mother Tongue language programmes in teaching and language learning. It is managed by a Board chaired by the Singapore’s Minister of Education, Mr Heng Swee Keat and advised by an International Advisory Panel of Experts.[43]

While 'Mother Tongue' generally refers to the first language (L1) elsewhere, it is used to denote the "ethnic language" or the second language (L2) in Singapore. The Ministry of Education (MOE) in Singapore defines 'Mother Tongue' not as the home language or the first language acquired by the student but by his/her father's ethnicity. For example, a child born to a Hokkien-speaking Chinese father and Tamil-speaking Indian mother would automatically be assigned to take Mandarin as the Mother Tongue language.[42]

Singapore has a bilingual education policy, where all students in government schools are taught English as their first language. Students in Primary and Secondary schools also learn a second language called their 'Mother Tongue' by the Ministry of Education, where they are either taught Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil.[39] English is the main language of instruction for most subjects,[2] while Mother Tongue is used in Mother Tongue lessons and moral education classes. This is because Singapore's 'bilingualism' policy of teaching and learning English and Mother Tongue in primary and secondary schools is viewed as a 'cultural ballast' to safeguard Asian cultural identities and values against Western influence.[40][41]

Bilingual education policy

The majority of Singaporeans are bilingual in English and one of the other three official languages. For instance, most Chinese Singaporeans can speak English and Mandarin. Some, especially the older generation, can speak Malay and additional Chinese vernaculars such as Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, and/or Hainanese.

Bilingualism and Multilingualism

Kristang is a creole spoken by Portuguese Eurasians in Singapore and Malaysia. It developed when Portuguese colonizers incorporated borrowings from Malay, Chinese, Indian and Arab languages. When the British took over Singapore, Kristang declined as the Portuguese Eurasians learned English instead. Today, it is largely spoken by the elderly.[38]

Eurasian languages

Apart from Tamil, some of the other Indian languages spoken in Singapore include Malayalam, Telugu, Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati.[2]

Tamil is one of the official languages of Singapore and written Tamil uses the Tamil script. According to the population census of 2010, 9.2% of the Singaporean population were Indians,[37] with approximately 36.7% who spoke Tamil most frequently as their home language.[9] It is a drop from 2000, where Tamil-speaking homes consisted 42.9%.[9] On the other hand, the percentage of Singaporean Indians speaking languages other than Tamil, categorised under "others", have increased from 9.7% in 2000 to 13.6% in 2010.[9]

Indian languages

Other varieties that are still spoken in Singapore include Bazaar Malay (Melayu Pasar), a Malay-lexified pidgin, which was once an interethnic lingua franca when Singapore was under British rule.[6][35] Another is Baba Malay, a variety of Malay Creole influenced by Hokkien and Bazaar Malay and the mother tongue of the Peranakans,[6] which is still spoken today by approximately 10,000 Peranakans in Singapore.[36] Other Austronesian languages, such as Javanese, Buginese, Minangkabau, Batak, Sundanese, Boyanese and Banjarese, are also spoken in Singapore, but their use has declined. Orang Seletar, the language of the Orang Seletar, the first people of Singapore and closely related to Malay is also spoken near the Johor Strait, between Singapore and the state of Johor, Malaysia.

Bahasa Melayu, the standardised form of the Malay language, is one of the official languages of Singapore and is written in a Roman script known as Rumi. It is the home language of 13% of the Singaporean population.[1][33] Malay is also the ceremonial national language and used in the national anthem of Singapore,[34] in citations for Singapore orders and decorations and military foot drill commands, and is the variety taught in Singapore's language education system.

Malay languages

Traditional Chinese characters were used in Singapore until 1969, when the Ministry of Education promulgated the Table of Simplified Characters (simplified Chinese: 简体字表; traditional Chinese: 簡體字表; pinyin: jiăntǐzìbiǎo), which differed from the Chinese Character Simplification Scheme of the People's Republic of China. In 1976, Singapore fully adopted the simplified Chinese characters of the People's Republic of China. The following year, the second attempt to simplify the characters was stopped, thus ending the long period of confusion associated with simplification. Although simplified characters are currently used in official documents, the government does not ban the use of traditional characters. Hence, traditional characters are still used in signs, advertisements and Chinese calligraphy, while books in both character sets are available in Singapore.

Written Chinese

Other Chinese vernaculars, sometimes inaccurately referred to as Chinese dialects, also have a presence in Singapore. Amongst them, Hokkien used to be an unofficial language of business until the 1980s.[31] Hokkien was also used as a lingua franca among Chinese Singaporeans, and also among Malays and Indians to communicate with the Chinese majority.[5] As of 2012, the five main Chinese vernaculars spoken in Singapore are Hokkien (41.1%), Teochew (21.0%), Cantonese (15.4%), Hakka (7.9%) and Hainanese (6.7%), while Fuzhou dialect (Hokchia, Hokchew), Pu-Xian Min (HengHua), and Shanghainese have smaller speaker bases.[25][30][32]

Other Chinese vernaculars

In 1979, the government heavily promoted Mandarin through its Speak Mandarin campaign. The then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew stated that Mandarin was chosen to unify the Chinese community with a single language.[27] With the rising prominence of Mandarin in Singapore at that time,[2] politicians such as Lee theorized that it might overtake English,[28] despite strong evidence to the contrary.[29] From the 1990s, with the perceived increase in commerce and trade possibilities with Mainland China, the Singaporean government promoted Mandarin as a language with high economic advantage and value.[30] Today, Mandarin is generally seen as a way to maintain a link to Chinese culture.[26]

Standard Mandarin is generally spoken as the lingua franca among the Chinese community in Singapore.[26] Simply known as Chinese, it is the designated Mother Tongue or 'ethnic language' of Chinese Singaporeans, at the expense of the other Chinese vernaculars.

Standard Mandarin

Language most frequently spoken at home among Chinese resident population aged 5 and over[9][25]
Home language 1990 2000 2010 1990 (%) 2000 (%) 2010 (%)
Total 1,884,000 2,236,100 2,527,562 100.0 100.0 100.0
English 363,400 533,900 824,616 19.3 23.9 32.6
Mandarin 566,200 1,008,500 1,206,556 30.1 45.1 47.7
Chinese Vernaculars 948,100 685,800 485,765 50.3 30.7 19.2
Others 6,400 7,900 10,625 0.3 0.4 0.4

According to the population census, Chinese vernaculars and Mandarin are the most common languages spoken at home. They are used by 51% of the population.[22] The table below shows the change in distribution of Mandarin and other Chinese vernaculars, as well as English, as home languages of the resident Chinese population of Singapore in 1990, 2000 and 2010. It can be observed that the percentage of the population who speak English and Mandarin has increased, while the percentage of who speak other Chinese vernaculars has decreased.

The Teochew Building houses a prominent Teochew clan association in Singapore, the Ngee Ann Kongsi.

Chinese languages

Despite this, Singlish is still widely spoken across the island and viewed by most Singaporeans as a trait that identifies them as uniquely Singaporeans.

Singlish, an English-based creole language language with its own consistent rules and phonology, is also widely used on the island.[23] However, usage of this language is discouraged by the local government, who favour Standard English.[24]


English is the native language of 32% of Singaporeans, but has the largest number of speakers if statistics were to account for speakers of English as a second language.[22]

There has been a steep increase in the use of the English language over the years.[19] Singapore is currently the most proficient English-speaking country in Asia.[20] Then Education Minister, Ng Eng Hen, noted a rising number of Singaporeans using English as their home language in December 2009. Of children enrolled in primary school in 2009, 60% of the Chinese and Indian pupils and 35% of the Malay pupils spoke predominantly English in their homes.[21]

Furthermore, the switch to English as the only medium of instruction in schools aided in bridging the social distance between the various groups of ethnic language speakers in the country. Between the early 1960s to the late 1970s, the number of students registering for primarily English-medium schools leapt from 50% to 90%,[17] as more parents elected to send their children to English-medium schools. Attendance in Mandarin, Malay and Tamil-medium schools consequently dropped and schools began to close down. The Chinese-medium Nanyang University also made the switch to English as the medium of instruction despite meeting resistance, especially from the Chinese community.[18]

When Singapore gained self-government in 1959 and independence in 1965, the local government decided to keep English as the main language to maximize economic benefits. Since English was rising as the global language for commerce, technology and science, promotion of its use in Singapore would expedite Singapore's development and integration into the global economy.[16]

Under the British colonial government, English gained prestige as the language of administration, law and business in Singapore. As government administration increased, infrastructure and commerce developed, and access to education further catalyzed the spread of English among Singaporeans.

Singapore English is regarded as the main language in Singapore,[11] and is officially the main language of instruction in all school subjects except for Mother Tongue lessons in Singapore's education system.[12] It is also the common language of the administration, and is promoted as an important language for international business.[13] Spelling in Singapore follows the British system, due to the country's colonial past.[14] English is the country's default lingua franca despite the fact that four languages have official status.[15]

A street directional sign in Singapore in English
All directional signs in Singapore are written in English.



  • English 1
  • Singlish 2
  • Chinese languages 3
    • Standard Mandarin 3.1
    • Other Chinese vernaculars 3.2
    • Written Chinese 3.3
  • Malay languages 4
  • Indian languages 5
  • Eurasian languages 6
  • Bilingualism and Multilingualism 7
    • Bilingual education policy 7.1
    • Impacts of bilingual education policy 7.2
    • Challenges in the teaching of Mother Tongue 7.3
    • Foreign population in Singapore 7.4
  • Sociolinguistic issues 8
    • Politics 8.1
    • Status of Singlish as an identity marker 8.2
    • Vernacular preservation issues 8.3
    • Controversy over learning of vernaculars 8.4
    • Renewed interest in learning Chinese vernaculars 8.5
  • Linguistic Landscape of Singapore 9
    • Tourist attractions 9.1
    • Government offices and public buildings 9.2
    • Public Hospitals 9.3
    • Notices and Campaigns 9.4
    • Limitations in current research methodologies 9.5
    • Controversies 9.6
  • Media and the arts 10
    • Chinese vernaculars in local films 10.1
    • Indian languages in the media 10.2
    • Language-specific societies 10.3
  • Notes 11
  • Further reading 12

Many Singaporeans are bilingual since Singapore's bilingual language education policy promotes a dual language learning system from as early as primary school. (See Language education in Singapore) English is used as the main medium of instruction. On top of this, every child learns one of the four official languages as a second language, according to the ethnic group of the child's father. The second language is seen as a means to preserve unique cultural values in the multicultural society and to allocate an ethnic identity to each child. However, the use of these ethnic languages is steadily decreasing in homes as English becomes predominant.[10] (See Language attrition) The loss of the vernaculars is even more prominent as they are rarely used in mass media, and the elder population form the main group of vernacular speakers in Singapore.

[9] are more frequently used than Tamil.Indian languages Tamil is listed as the fourth national language of Singapore and represents the Indian community. However in reality, other [8] have been classified by the government as dialects, although such a classification is disputable by linguistic standards. Government language policies and changes in language attitudes based on such classifications have led to the subsequent decrease in the number of speakers of these vernaculars.Cantonese and Hainanese, Hakka, Teochew such as Hokkien, Chinese vernaculars China's economic rise in the 21st century has also encouraged a greater use of Mandarin. On the other hand, other [7]

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