“. . .if we were monolingual in our mother tongues, we would not make a living. Becoming monolingual in English would have been a setback. We would have lost our cultural identity, that quiet confidence about ourselves and our place in the world.” (Lee Kuan Yew, 2000).
Singapore’s bilingual education policy was borne out of a pragmatic need to operate in the global economy using the English language while maintaining the Asian languages and values of our respective cultures.
With English as the main language of instruction in all the subjects except the mother tongue, every Singaporean student -- by the time he or she leaves school -- would be able to communicate in at least two languages. They would be competent and confident enough to use Standard English wherever they are in the world without feeling their own cultural values and language crowded out. The aim of the bilingual education policy is to ensure that while Singapore remained viable economically all over the world, Singaporeans need not lose their cultural values or identity.
While the Malay Language is the National Language of Singapore, English has been the main medium of instruction in schools since 1987. Singapore’s education system promotes and stipulates bilingualism as its core policy so that children pick up at least two languages in schools -- English and their mother tongue. English is the language of commerce, technology and administration while Chinese, Malay or Tamil, enables the children from the different main races to keep in touch with their heritage and cultural values.
English would also be the language that would serve as the lingua franca for Singaporeans of different races to bond with one another. Chinese, Malays, Indian and Eurasians can use English as the common vehicle for communication and enter each other’s worlds to understand and appreciate one another.
When Singapore became independent from Britain in 1959, we could have easily gone the way of some former colonies and consigned the language of the former rulers to disuse or mangled it into pidgin. The founding fathers of modern Singapore refused to jettison what would serve us well.
In 1966 when the bilingual education policy was adopted, Singapore’s First Cabinet foresaw that the future of science and technology would be mostly written in English. Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew knew that competency in the English language from a young age was vital: “If a student is unable to understand a language, then he is unable to receive information or knowledge in that language. It is therefore crucial that a breakthrough must be made in the English Language as early in life as possible.” (Lee Kuan Yew, 1982).
That foresight has been paying dividends for Singaporeans. When they go abroad to study in English-speaking countries they have no difficulties following lectures or writing their essays. Singapore’s students also excel in international Maths and Science tests conducted in English, faring comparably with their counterparts from many of the English-speaking countries.
In 1979, Mr. Lee launched the Speak Mandarin Campaign to steer Chinese Singaporeans to using a common Chinese language to interact with one another. This would unite the different Chinese dialect groups instead of keeping them compartmentalised and separate. The other racial communities do not have this problem of a common script sounding unfamiliar due to regional or dialectal differences.
The Government has continued to place the priority on all the races being able to get along with one another and there could be no trade- off on that. In the 1991 opening of the Speak Mandarin Campaign, then Prime Minister Mr.Goh Chok Tong stressed this as the cornerstone for nationhood. He said that while the Chinese community should be “tightly knit”, it must also be “tolerant and appreciative of other communities’ heritage, able to communicate with them in English, and work with them for a common future…”
In the years since the bilingual policy was introduced, generations of Singaporeans have felt confident to engage the world and their fellow Singaporeans of different races using English, while being firmly grounded in their own cultural values through their mother tongues.
Singapore Press Holdings. (2000). From Third World To First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew . Singapore: The Straits Times Press
Call No.: SING 959.57092 LEE
Speak Mandarin. Are you game? (2008). Speak Mandarin Campaign Website. Retrieved July 9, 2008, from
Dixon, L.Q. (2005). The bilingual education policy in Singapore: Implications for second language acquisition. ERIC Education Resources Information Center. Retrieved July 9, 2008, from
Daryl Chia, Fung Kiu Yan, Ong Si Yuan, Eugene Chin, Cornelius Wang