Choosing English as working language ensured S’pore’s survival: Lee Kuan Yew

By S Ramesh,

SINGAPORE: Singapore’s former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, has spoken of how the choice of English as the country’s working language has ensured the country’s survival.

Launching the English Language Institute of Singapore on Tuesday afternoon, he said that had the nation not chosen English as a working language, it would have been left behind.

Mr Lee said: “When Singapore became independent in 1965, we had a population that spoke a range of different dialects and languages. This was a result of the colonial education system which favoured the English-speaking, but allowed vernacular schools with different mediums of instruction to co-exist.

“Political and economic realities led us to choose English as our working language. 75 per cent of the population then was Chinese, speaking a range of dialects; 14 per cent Malays; and eight per cent Indians. Making Chinese the official language of Singapore was out of the question as the 25 per cent who were non-Chinese would revolt.

“In addition, the geographical reality was and remains today, that Singapore would be economically isolated from the wider world if Chinese was chosen. And China then could not be of much help to our economic development.”

He explained that the choice of English as Singapore’s “lingua franca” gave all races equal opportunities through a common language to learn, communicate and work in.

Mr Lee added: “We kept our original languages by our policy of bilingualism, allowing opportunities for people to study their respective mother tongues. This built a sense of belonging to their original roots and increased their self-confidence and self-respect. Thus, a united multi-ethnic, multi-lingual people ensured Singapore’s survival. Had we not chosen English, we would have been left behind.

“We are the only country in the region that uses English as our working language, the main medium of instruction in our schools. This has given our young a strong advantage of growing up in a multi-cultural multi-lingual society, all speaking the international language of commerce and trade, English, and their mother tongues, Chinese, Malay, Tamil and others as their second languages.”

Mr Lee added that it has also benefited Singapore economically. As an English-speaking society, Singapore has drawn foreign talent to its shores as they found it easier to work and live in the country and remain plugged into the global economy.

He said: “There is an intense worldwide competition for talent, especially for English-speaking skilled professionals, managers and executives. Our English-speaking environment is one reason why Singapore has managed to attract a number of these talented individuals to complement our own talent pool.

“They find it easy to work and live in Singapore, and remain plugged into the global economy. Singapore is a popular educational choice for many young Asians who want to learn English, and they get a quality education. This has kept our city vibrant.”

Mr Lee said one of the challenges ahead is to decide whether to adopt British English or American English.

He said: “I think the increasing dominance of the American media means that increasingly our people, teachers and students will be hearing the American version, whether it is ‘potatoes’ or ‘tomatoes’. They will be the dominant force through sheer numbers and the dominance of their economy.

“I believe we will be exposed more and more to American English and so it might be as well to accept it as inevitable and to teach our students to recognise and maybe, to even speak American English.”

Turning to the future, Mr Lee stressed that communication skills are one of the most important competencies needed in the 21st century workforce. 

He said Singapore has built a good English language foundation for its students, with achievements in international benchmark tests like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Progress in International Reading Study (PIRLS) being well documented.

But he felt that Singapore can do better and must help every child to attain higher standards in English. Singapore’s best students must also be able to hold their own internationally.

For this, Mr Lee added that the home background played an important role in developing good English language skills.

So to maintain the high standards of English competency in Singapore, he said there is a need to ensure that from the time a child steps into kindergarten, he is exposed to good English. 

Mr Lee said: “Our schools must provide a rich language environment. There must be a strong reading culture where children can access and enjoy good books. There must be a culture of oracy. Opportunities must be given to students to speak in English. Students must present information and ideas, to clarify and to debate robustly with each other in English.”

Also, developing a high level of English language competency in students cannot be the work of the English teacher alone. 

Mr Lee said that it is the responsibility of every teacher who teaches subjects in English. They must use good English when they question, speak and write in the classroom and they are the best role models for children, if the young are to be effective communicators.