Karen's Linguistics Issues, January 2005 | This Month's Articles | Previous Months  

 A Critical Evaluation of Singapore's Language Policy and its Implications for English Teaching

 by

Manfred Wu Man-Fat, Hong Kong



Introduction

Background Information

The language situation of the Singapore society is unique in several aspects. Firstly, the multi-racial social makeup results in a unique language situation[1] and language profile of the Singapore society[2]. However, it has to be pointed out that bilingualism in Singapore means proficiency in English and one other official language, not proficiency in any two other languages as mentioned in most literature (e.g., Kaplan, 1997). In addition to their mother tongue, most Singaporeans use English for communication[3].

Significance of the Issue

With this unique linguistic background, we know that language policy have to be tailor-made in order to meet the needs of the local situation. Therefore, by identifying the issues related to language policy, better planning can be made. Exploring these issues also means that some of the potential problems can be identified. This allows both policy makers and English teachers to take the necessary steps in policy and implementation to benefit learners.

Aims and Organization of this Article

The first aim of this essay is to evaluate the English language policy of Singapore. This is done by reviewing its successes and exploring the issues related to English teaching. Another aim is to provide recommendations to the issues pointed out.

In order to achieve the above aims, this essay will begin with a review of the major language policies implemented by the Singapore Government. There will also be discussion of the unresolved issues and potential problems related to English teaching, including the emergence of Singapore English, Government's reactions towards Singapore English and the lack of attention given to pedagogic considerations in language planning. Finally, suggestions in terms of policy planning and pedagogy will be given.


A Review of the Development of Language Policy in Singapore

The Singapore Government adopted English among the other 3 languages (Chinese, Malay and Tamil) as the official language in 1956 and started her compulsory bilingual education in 1966 at primary and 1969 at secondary level. Bilingual policy has always been regarded by the Singapore Government as the cornerstone of her economic, political and national successes. In the review of her education system 13 years later (Goh et al., 1979), one of the problems related to language education was ineffective bilingualism. There was less than 40% of the student population having the minimum competency level in two languages at the time. The Ministry of Education regarded its bilingual policy 'has not been universally effective' (p. 403). Another problem stated in the report was low literacy rate, with the situation more serious in the English stream. This contributed to a lot of wastage of resources in the education system. To solve this problem of wastage, the Ministry made the recommendation of giving students the opportunity to do the 'first' languages and possibly a 'third' language in addition to bilingual education alone. For students who could not cope with 2 'first' languages should focus just on one language, i.e., English. For students who could cope well could choose a 'third' language, in addition to English and their mother tongue. This measure could ensure more competent students can maximize their potential and less capable students could at least be proficient in one language (English). This issue of lack of command of English was pointed out again in the Report on Moral Education 1979 (Ministry of Education, 1979).

After much improvement in her bilingual policy, together with the economic, political and social successes experienced by the Singapore society after a decade, the Government has been re-affirming her bilingual policy. For example, in the report of Towards Excellence in School (Ministry of Education, 1987), the Government re-affirmed its view on the importance of English as a medium of instruction. The Improving Primary School Education report (Ministry of Education, 1991) points out there is a need to provide pupils with an adequate foundation of English and emphasized that the recommendations made in the report were consistent with the bilingual policy.

Apart from the above policies and measures on the education system, the Singapore Government has also been active in status planning. Pakir (1998), quoting some former ministers, states that Singapore was the only (non-native speaker) country which has adopted English as its working language. She states 'No other country in the world has the ambitious aim of making its entire population bi-literate in English and one other official language' (Pakir, 1998, p. 86). English has a core role as the working language of government, administration and the judiciary. However, the Singapore Government has been paying little attention to the corpus planning of English in Singapore. Since the large-scale introduction and promotion of English in the Singapore society, the Government has been trying to follow 'standard British English' without recognizing the internal issues of English which is specific to the local context. For example, there is no government body dealing with issues such as codification and purification. Although some local words such as 'saltish', 'sayang' (love), 'makan' (eat) (Brown, 1999) are widely used, the Government pays little attention to them and regards these words as 'Singlish' with negative connotations. As we will see in the next section, this negligence of local English has resulted in some problems.

There is clear evidence of the rise in literacy rate resulted in Government's bilingual policy (Gopinathan, 1980; Tham, 1990; Pakir, 1993). Pakir (1998) and Gopinathan (1980) point out that there had been not only rising literacy rate in Singapore but biliteracy among the 4 major ethnicities[4], with the trend more evident among the younger generations. Another evidence of the success of language policy in Singapore is the trend of English as one of the most popular languages (together with Mandarin) being spoken at home (Pakir, 1993; 1998)[5].

It is widely recognized that Singapore's rising literacy rate and bilingual policy has been contributing to its economic success (Pakir, 1998; Gopinathan, 1980). Bilingual policy has also been contributing to Singapore's social and political stability as well as nation building (Gopinathan, 1977; 1980; Chiew, 1980; Ilamzon, 1977; Richards, 1977; de Souza, 1980; Pakir, 1998). The Singapore Government in general has been successful in what Abbot (1989b) mentions using language as a tool to facilitate a nation's development and expression of national identity.


Issues Related to English Teaching

Since the introduction of the bilingual policy, different types of concerns related to language teaching have been raised. For example, Pakir (1993) mentions the fear of loss of Asian values with the dominance of English, the cultural gaps between generations which speak different languages, the potential disharmony between the English and Chinese educated groups. Beardsmore (1994), Chew (1994), Sripathy (1994) and Xu, Chew and Chen (1994) focus their discussions more on the cultural aspects of Singapore's bilingual policy.

This article focuses on two issues more related to English teaching, including the emergence of Singapore English and the lack of attention given to pedagogic goals in the planning of language education.


Emergence of Singapore English and Government’s Reactions towards Singapore English

New varieties of English emerge when English is used as an additional language for national inter-group communication. These New Englishes are the markers of national identities for users (Abbot, 1989b). Singapore is no exception. Forms of New Englishes have emerged locally in Singapore since the Government introduced her bilingual policy[6]. Ilmazon (1977) in the seventies had already mentioned the trend of indigenization of English in Singapore. Similarly, Crewe (1977b) describes Singaporean English as a 'non-native' dialect with some essential 'foreignness' to native speakers of other English-speaking countries. According to him, the emergence of Singapore English would develop its own norms of acceptability and usage, and give Singaporeans a sense of national identity.

Strevens (1980) explains the reasons for the concern if the localization of English, including international intelligibility and acceptability. The reactions of Singapore Government to these concerns, which in turn give rise to a number of issues, are discussed below.

The Singapore Government regards the emergence of Singapore English as a sign of declining local English standards. One measure implemented by the Singapore Government is the import of native speakers to teach in schools and training of local teachers. However, this measure has resulted in students' confusion over accents (Gopinathan, 1980). It is common for local textbooks to state that their object is 'for students to acquire a command of the English language that is as close to the level of native speakers as possible' (Jones and Mann, 1999) in order to follow the Government's stance.

From the above measure, we can see rather than recognizing the need of a new 'standard' variety among Singaporeans for societal cohesion, the Singapore Government is trying to 'remedy' the situation.

Despite Government's effort to 'raise the standard of English', Pakir (1997) and Lee (1983) point out the power of 'invisible planners', which include parents, peers in schools and teachers in influencing the implementation of Government's policy. To a lot of students in Singapore, it is perfectly acceptable to use the localized forms of English among peers as these types of English are more conducive to friendly relations. In contrast, they view the use of 'Standard English' which they learned in school show social distance. Pakir (1997) found the trend that the new Singapore generation begins to take pride in the indigenization of English in Singapore. Teachers who are the users of Singapore English also share this view. De Souza (1980) in his study found Singaporean teachers accept some features of written English which would be otherwise be unacceptable to native speakers. She also concludes that 'despite deliberate efforts directed at the implementation of a strict standardization according to an external model - Stand English of the United Kingdom - a subtle and long-term corpus change, in a different direction, would seem to be underway' (p. 229).


Negligence of Pedagogic Goals in Language Education Planning

            Education was employed primarily as a means to achieve national cohesion and economic success in Singapore (Yip, Eng and Yap, 1997). Given this premise, it is natural that the aim of language education planning is to facilitate the achievement of this goal. One example is the view stated in 'The Singapore Economy: New Directions' report (Economic Committee, 1986). In this report, the Government reiterated that education policy should keep pace with the economy and society, and language learning was a tool for the training of logical thinking to achieve these two goals. Pakir (1997) also mentions English was valued by the Government in its language education because it allows Singapore to compete with other countries in terms of science and information technology. This results in the pedagogic aspects being neglected. In Gopinathan's (1980) words, 'the idealization of language continues to persist, causing the formulation of problems and policies to be very often a matter of politics rather than that of pedagogy' (p.179). An example given by Gopinathan (1980) is that despite considerable criticism and evidence that a review of the bilingual policy was needed at the 1970s, the Prime Minister's active involvement was needed to bring about the necessary review. Another example is that only after the Prime Minister's active involvement could a curriculum project for language teaching (the Primary Pilot Project) could start at that time.

The lack of attention given to pedagogy contributes to a number of problems to Singapore's language education. Gopinathan (1980) expresses that there are excessive demands language policies placed on average students. It is because most students in Singapore are tackling two foreign languages in primary level because most of them speak Chinese dialects at home and Mandarin is used in schools for Chinese lessons. Besides, the Government has been using language ability alone as the criterion of differentiating brighter and weaker students. Added to the pressure faced by the students is that conventional oral and written tests were employed to judge students' competence. These measures are related to the issues of inequality and linguistic human rights in language planning (Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson, 1994; Tollefson, 1991). Given the importance of English in students' education and career, those without the resources at home are disadvantaged and even marginalized.

English teachers are facing considerable pressure under the present system too. Since the learners' needs especially with reference to the local culture are not addressed, a lot of teachers have to find them teaching remotely from students' needs. Local teachers as users of Singapore English and members of the local society do not have the resources to teach the socio-linguistic aspects of English of the external British standard. There is a lack of textbooks and teaching materials to suit the needs of local learners (Gopinathan, 1980). It is unrealistic to expect teachers to have the expertise, resources and time to develop their own teaching methodology, make adaptation to the curriculum and develop their teaching materials to suit the needs of local students. One possible result is the lowering of learning motivation of learners as they find what they learn in classrooms is remote from their daily lives (Abott, 1989a).


Implications and Suggestions for English Teaching

The two issues described above are inter-related. It is because neglecting Singapore English means neglecting the most important pedagogic aspect in language planning. Tackling the issue of emergence of Singapore English also means problems related to the issue of negligence of pedagogic aspect will be solved. Therefore, implications and suggestions raised in this section will be focused on the first issue, i.e., the issues related to the emergence of Singapore English.

Language Policy

Abott (1989b) recognizes the worries of the loss of intelligibility both within countries and between countries caused by the localization of English in Singapore. Therefore, he proposes the use of both national and international varieties in the classroom. The choice of the use of two varieties should be based on the purposes and circumstances of the classroom, as well as the pedagogy. Although the import of native-speaking English teachers from different countries in Singapore schools provides students exposure of other external standards of English, they are employed with the primary purpose of teaching students to have near-native standard of English as already mentioned. The Government should try to get a balance between the needs of students and the need of the nation in external communication so as not to sacrifice the pedagogic aspect for the nation's economic, social and political development.

Tay (1993) takes a further step by advocating the promotion of Standard Singapore English that is intelligible at an international level at the same time with identifiable local accent and a certain degree of local expressions and vocabularies. The promotion of Standard Singapore English means that the Government has to re-evaluate both her philosophy and policy. The whole teaching professional also has to change its values and practices. It also means that more efforts and resources should be put into looking into the subject of 'Standard Singapore English'. Strevens (1980) points out that the problems of description of the forms of Englishes, problems of typology which refers to the relationships between different Englishes and problems of educational suitability are the common problems of New Englishes. Although a lot of studies have been conducted to address to these problems[7], they are still at the preliminary stage of trying to answer the question of whether there is a Standard Singapore English.

The suggestions of indigenization of teaching methods such as Tay's (1993) are more suitable to the local Singapore context and are more long-term, better solutions compared to the suggestions such as by Abott (1989b). Both the Government and the teaching profession of Singapore should consider these suggestions. However, the first step that should be taken by the Government is to recognize the need for a localized form or forms of Singapore English.

Implementing language policy through the education sector al is insufficient (Kaplan, 1997). In order to address to the above issues, the Singapore Government has to devise more long-term and comprehensive policies in the corpus and status domains. For example, policies on mass communication like television and radio channels, newspapers, books, Government initiatives on public education, language requirements for employment in the Government sector are some of the many aspects which the Government can look into.

Language Pedagogy

Young (1987) shares his experience that methodology in TESOL which was developed in the western culture failed in the Chinese context. He advocates for indigenization of TESOL methodology suitable for local cultures and the needs of students. Given the linguistic background of the Singapore society and the emergence of Singapore English, indigenization is essential. Thus indigenization of not only teaching methodology but also of the curriculum and teaching materials are needed[8].

Tay (1993) provides some specific suggestions for teaching pronunciation in Singapore. Firstly, she points out that teachers should have a different set of attitudes and expectations towards students. For example, teachers should be more open to variations in pronunciation and intonation, and should have more realistic expectations in students' progress towards their improvement. Secondly, both teaching methodology and teaching materials should be adjusted to the learner's' manner of learning. Finally, she advocates that there should be realistic evaluation of students' progress.

Another example of indigenization of teaching methodology is Khoo's (1995) suggestion on the adaptation of the Communicative Approach. According to her, the teaching of grammatical code of Standard English in isolation, which is not encouraged in the traditional Communicative Approach, is desirable in the Singapore context. The reason she provides is that students are using a localized form of Singapore English which is characterized by many borrowings from Chinese and Malay both syntactically and lexically. Therefore, a strong mastery of grammar is essential so that students can develop a certain standard of intelligibility.

The above are only some of the many examples which could be adopted by teachers. However, we must remember that these are just adaptation of models of teaching methodology which were developed in the western contexts. There is the important issue of the development of indigenized methodology. Although this is beyond the scope of this article, it is an important issue which cannot be overlooked.


Conclusion

Despite the fact that language planning in Singapore has been successful in achieving Government's sated aims, there are a lot existing issues and potential problems underlying the bilingual policy. In order to clarify these issues and solve these problems, not only the Government but also the policy makers, and most important of all, the teaching profession should co-operate with each other. Local teachers should take a more active role in influencing language policy. It is because as front line practitioners, they have direct experience on the needs and difficulties of students. Through the co-operation between teachers and policy-makers, more effective and indigenized language policy, curriculum, methodology and teaching materials could be designed.



References

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Abbot, G. (1989b), ‘Understanding One Another’s Englishes’, in Kennedy, pp. 138-144.

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Brown, A. (1999), Singapore English in a Nutshell. Singapore: Federal Publications (S) Pte Ltd.

Chew, J. O. I. (1997), ‘Schooling for Singaporeans: The Interaction of Singapore Culture and Values in the School’, in Tan Gopinathan and Ho, pp. 75-92.

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Crewe, W. ed. (1977a), The English Language in Singapore. Singapore: Eastern University Press.

Crewe, W. (1977b), ‘Singapore English as a Non-Native Dialect’, in Crewe, pp. 96-119.

de Souza, D. (1980), ‘The Politics of Language: Language Planning in Singapore’, in Afendras and Kuo, pp. 203-232.

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[1] According to the Singapore Department of Statistics, the population of Singapore in 2000 is comprised of 77% Chinese, 14% Malays, 8% Indians and the rest other races (Singapore Department of Statistics, 2000).

[2] As far as the language profile of Singaporeans is concerned, in 2000 56% of the population who were literate reported they were literate in two or more languages, among English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil (Singapore Department of Statistics, 2001).

[3] In 2000, 48% of Chinese were literate in English and Malay, 77% of Malays in English and Malay, and 55% of Indians in English and either Tamil or Malay (Singapore Department of Statistics, 2000).

[4] The percentage of the population which was literate in 1990 was 90% as compared to that of 83.5% only in 1980 (Pakir, 1993).

[5] In 1980, there were only 11.6% of all the households in Singapore regardless of ethnicity which spoke English. However, there percentage increased to 20.8% in 1990. The percentage of households which spoke Chinese dialects for the same period decreased from 59.5% to 38.2% (Pakir, 1993).

[6] For example, Pakir (1994), Tay (1993), Gopinathan and Saravanan (1985), Crewe (1997b), Platt (1977), Richards (1977), Gupta (1988) and Pride (1982) have identified a lot of features and varieties both in spoken and written forms of Singaporean English.

[7] See note 6 for examples.

[8] Although the Singapore Government started the indigenization of English language teaching in 1980 by setting up the Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore (CDIS), the CDIS has been relying on foreign expertise from the UK and US. Some of the initiatives of the CDIS such as the REAP (Reading and English Acquisition Programme) was superseded by other initiatives. It is not until 1991 that the English Language Syllabus (Primary and Secondary) was introduced after a major curriculum revision which took into consideration the local context and needs (Ho, 1994). Given this background, we can conclude that the indigenization of English language teaching in Singapore is still in its infancy.


 

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