Language, Society and Education in Singapore: Issues and Trends

S. Gopinathan, Anne Pakir, Ho Wah Kam, and Vanithamani Saravanan, (eds.)


Times Academic Press


Pp.i-vi, 1-407; ISBN 981 210 121 7; price $29 (US)

This book presents an overview of the topics of (1) language in Singapore, (2) language in society, and (3) language in education, and supersedes an earlier version published in 1994. The issues dealt with can be seen, as the editors put it, as spanni ng from macro to micro. Because English plays a big role in Singapore society at all levels, what happens in this island republic is a microcosm of issues found throughout Asia; wherever bilingualism and especially bilingual education is found in the area , English is bound to be part of the equation.

The material is organized into three sections (the three rubrics already mentioned) as follows:

Chapter 1, by S. Gopinathan, is a history of the ``Language Policy Changes 1979-1997: Politics and Pedagogy." He describes the way Singapore's explicit top -down policy planning has had to contend with realities ``on the ground" and in particular how concerns about Chinese language maintenance by the dominant linguistic group are to be taken into account in a system that favors English-dominant bilingualism. Various tinkerings with p olicy as its affects Chinese speakers, such as the ``Speak Mandarin Campaign" have had to be calibrated with discontent expressed by non-Mandarin speakers, both within the Chinese community and outside it. Responding to the concerns of the dominant group, especially that more Chi nese be used as a medium of education at higher levels, has meant that the goal of an overall unified system for all Singaporeans is so far not attainable (since non-Chinese students will not be expected to use their mother-tongues at these levels.) At the same time, Indians who are not Tamil speakers will be allowed access to literacy in languages like Hindi, Panjabi, etc. through classes offered at community centers. The Singapore system, thus, can be seen as the classic ``top-down" language planning model, constantly calibrating and regulating consequen ces that were not anticipated in the original plan, but trusting always that planners at the top can and will find ways to manage it by constant adjustment and reordering of priorities.

 Chapter 2 (by Tan Su Hwi) is entitled ``Theoretical Ideals and Ideologized Reality in Language Planning"; this chapter is probably the least useful of any in this book. Her unabashedly neo-Marxist approach is to attack the notion (which she blames on Fishman) that English is ideologically neutral and functionally non-competitive in Singapore. Since it is obvious that some people do not do as well in English than others, those who don't will suffer. English, therefore, is to blame, since ``the negative strand of the [Hege lian] dialectics motivates [sic!] the English language to create a discourse that legitimizes the `institutionalization of inequality'" and so on. I suppose the dilemma here is that differential proficiency in English controls access to power and privilege in Singapore; but I wonder if any system anywhere, e.g. Chinese traditional education in mainland China, did not do the same thing? The irony is that if Tan had not herself attained the proficiency in English she exhibits in this essay, she would not be able to do the finger-pointing that she has license to do in this forum; or perhaps she would have to do it in another language that would not be as widely read. English-bashing and English `imperialism' is a popular topic in some quarters; to me the culprit is not English, but the top-down, omniscient language planning ethos of Singapore that empowers other `ideologies' Ms. Tan overlooks, perhaps the most important of which is the denigration of the linguistic resources children bring to the school from home.

The one useful thing Tan's chapter gives us is a replica of Pakir's ``expanding triangles" model of English bilingualism in Singapore, which other scholars (this volume) would use to replace Kachru's `cline of bilingualism'.

Chapter 3, by Anne Pakir, is entitled ``English in Singapore: The Codification of Competing Norms". Pakir's paper is a down-to-earth explication of the question of what kind of English exists in Singapore, and how it shall be dealt with by the educati onal system. For starters she takes on the Quirk-Kachru paradigm, according to which the kind of English found in Singapore can never be treated as a viable variety; it must always be secondary in some way, never `native', always in the `Outer Circle.' P akir shows that Singapore English is indeed indigenized, and of course officialized; she then shows that the Quirk/Kachru benchmark of treating Singapore English as imperfectly learned, deficient, or even just different, is no longer true, if it ever was , and that if it is to function as a dialect of English, which it in fact is (being the first language learned by many Singaporeans) it cannot be categorized any more by the deficiency model. Since Singapore English has now expanded (and is constantly e xpanding) into new roles, such as the imaginative/innovative, the interpersonal, the informative, and the representative, it can no longer be relegated to a subservient role. The Quirk/Kachru paradigm is inherently elitist, it is an expatriate one, and i t is based on observations from another era. In fact it is now simply irrelevant.

This does not mean, of course, that Colloquial Singapore English (CSE) will be used as a medium of instruction in schools, will be written and codified, and or given a formal place in the educational system. But the existence of a diglossia must be re cognized, and the functional domains of the diglossic varieties admitted, such as early use by elementary teachers, use of CSE for informality and solidarity, and its use in creative or personal domains. Indeed, what is challenged is the pedagogical mode l itself, since adherents of the BANA (British-Australian-North American) norms only tend to use an authoritarian teaching style, with instant error-correction, the teacher as paragon of rectitude and correctness, and so on. More attention needs to be pa id to an accurate description of Singapore English diglossia, and what role a Singapore Standard English (rather than BANA norms) could play in the system, with recognition also of informal domains and norms.

 Chapter 4 (Hugo Baetens Beardsmore) ``Language Shift and Cultural Implications in Singapore" is a useful overview of the almost never-officially-mentioned topic of language shift in Singapore, and how the policy focuses on maintenance of the ``mother tongue" (which in many cases it is not) for cultural reasons as a bulwark against value-laden, western-ideologized English.

Chapter 5 (by Joyce James) is entitled ``Linguistic Realities and Pedagogical Practices in Singapore" uses Bernstein's code Orientation and Classification (C) and Framing (F) model to analyze how English and other languages fit with pedagogy in Singapo re; she finds that language policies and the uses of language as `strongly classified and framed' but the outcomes of the policy are differential, because while the values associated with English (technology and industrialization) are explicit and immediately tangible, the values associated with the ``mother-tongue" are vague, implicit, intangible, and lacking in immediacy. Furthermore, the supposed unity of ``Asian values" is lacking; values such as thrift, hard-work, group cohesion are Chinese values, not necessarily Malay or Indian values. Furthermore, since Chinese bilingualism (with English)is more highly favored by the system, the English-Mandarin bilingual (a rare bird, in fact) is superior to any other kind of bilingual. James gives overviews of the charts that delineat e various streaming practices (themselves revealing of the top-down belief in the ability of the system to finely calibrate outcomes) and (if you can hack your way through this thicket) shows them to be unequal and unfair in outcomes. The conclusion is that Singapore gives everybody the same access to education, but a system of examinations and streaming leads to widely disparate outcomes; the most favored are the Mandarin-English bilinguals, both explicitly and implicitly, since Mandarin is a `useful' language and not just a cultural icon.

Chapter 6, ``A Framework for the Analysis of Singapore English" by Anthea Fraser Gupta, begins a second section, ``Language in Society". Her concern replicates to some extent the issues raised by Pakir, namely, what kind of English Singapore English is, how shall we analyze it, and how can we make the best pedagogical use of it? Gupta's preference is to see Singapore English as diglossic, rather than as a creole or creoloid, or as deficient, or as anything other than a self-respecting dialect of English. In other words, Singapore English, like Singapore Malay, Singapore Tamil, and Singapore Chinese, needs to be ta ken as it is, to the extent that it is already a native language of many Singaporeans, and built upon, rather than `corrected' or worse, exterminated.

Chapter 7, ``Language Use and Language Attitudes in the Singapore Chinese Community" is by Xu Daming, Chew Cheng Hai and Chyen Songcen focuses mainly on the sub-policy of making Singapore Chinese give up their dialects and become speakers of Mandarin, a policy that has been successful, though the various dialects (Hokkien, Teo-Chew, Hainan, Cantonese, and other southern Min dialects) have been retained mainly as home languages. This has not been without its psychic costs, and resulting in some alienat ion among the Chinese community, with a tendency to blame English as being the cause of dialect loss, rather than Mandarin (in fact the desire to avoid having English become the lingua franca among Chinese underlay the `Speak Mandarin' campaign). Mandarin has become another source of cultural capital, something that can be used to ``do business abroad" (e.g. in China) and highly valued for its cultural heritage.

Chapter 8 Vanithamani Saravanan's chapter, ``Language Maintenance and Language Shift in the Tamil-English Community" takes on the usually unmentionable (at least officially) topic of language shift, which is perhaps most prevalent in the South Asian di aspora in Malaysia and Singapore. In fact her use of the term ``Tamil-English" in the title hits the nail on the head: Tamils are in many cases de facto English-dominant bilinguals, or perhaps English speakers with a reading knowledge of Tamil (which the y are required to learn in school). Surveys of language shift in Singapore do not exist per se, but conclusions can be made by a close study of the Singapore censuses, which V. does. She also squarely faces the self-stigmatization in the Tamil community that sees Tamil as a ``coolie" language (Tamil kuuli means `wage' and kuulikkaaran `wage-earner') from which one must distance oneself. The irony now is that Tamil is maintained as a home language only by less-educated Tamils, and no amou nt of Tamil instruction in schools makes better educated `ethnic' Tamils into Tamil-dominant bilinguals. Tamil is seen as having no economic value in a society that strongly links language (especially English) to economic outcomes; only the poorly educat ed can `afford' to retain Tamil since the kind of work they are prepared for (transport, conservancy, and construction) does not require elaborate linguistic skills.

Chapter 9 (``Malay Language Issues and Trends") is contributed by Kamsiah Abdullah and Bibi Jan Mohd Ayyub, and deals with the familiar tendency in Singapore to choose exonormic standards for Malay, just as for the other languages. Malay exists as a m inority language in Singapore, and has seen its status in Singapore diminish when Singapore withdrew from the Federation of Malaysia, and as English has replaced it as the lingua franca. But more widely in the immediate area (Indonesia, Malaysia), it or mutually-intelligible varieties of it, is/are the dominant language. The idea of selecting a Singapore norm instead of a Malay (or Indonesian) norm is influenced by notions determined by Malay literati who look to Malaysia or Indonesia for inspiration. Malay is not threatened in Singapore by the possibility of languag e shift to the same extent other communities are, i.e. to Chinese (Mandarin) or to English, though some shift to English is reported; but overall Malay perhaps enjoys a healthier and less-challenged existence than do Singapore's other language groups.

In Chapter 10, Phyllis Chew deals with ``The Admission Interview: Strategies of Alignment"; she analyzes how the admission interview constitutes a kind of gateway to certain kinds of employment, especially childcare teaching. Successful candidates ca n use a continuum of styles, from informal to very formal, to gain admission to the job, but unsuccessful candidates, having never been introduced to it, ``cannot align themselves to the dominant set of discoursal norms prevalent in an institutional setting (p. 192)." How they m ight be trained to do this is not revealed by this chapter, though the need for rectifying this imbalance is hinted at.

Chapter 11, by Ismail S. Talib, is entitled ``Responses to the Language of Singaporean Literature in English" and attempts to address the issue of how Singaporeans can own the English language by creating works of literature in it, particularly those that embody a sense of personal or national identity in the language. The irony is that English is the only language known by all ethnic groups in the republic, so that it is the only tongue in which they might write their Singaporean identity; but in the process these very writers may disconnect themselves from their ``mother" tongues.

Chapter 12 begins the third section, Language in Education, and as Gopinathan hints in his introduction, this section is the weakest, since (according to him) it lacks theoretical sophistication and/or principles, both in Singapore and abroad, i.e. ``t here is still a need for some theoretical principles to frame its many activities (p. 11)." Ho Wah Kam's chapter, ``The English Language Curriculum in Perspective: Exogenous Influences and Indigenization" deals with the problem of developing an indigenous curriculum to meet local needs, to rep lace the colonial/exogenous curriculum Singapore started with.

In chapter 13, Joseph Foley argues that ``to enable the modern citizen to take his/her place in society, effective literacy must be a primary concern of the formal educational system (p. 245)." This hardly seems controversial; what may be debatable is how one defines ``effective literacy"; for Foley (and others) it consists of recognition (decoding signs as wordings, and wordings as meanings); reproduction (learning about the world and interacting with and relating to other people); and empowering, lea rning about how language works as a creative force. Foley's critique is that the Singapore system often does not go beyond reproduction; children do not go beyond common-sense knowledge (typically spoken) to educational knowledge (typically written), and in particular do not learn different genres of written styles.

Chapter 14, by Maha Sripathy, ``Language Teaching Pedagogies and Cultural Scripts: The Singapore Primary Classroom" critiques the use of pupil participation patterns in the classroom and their lack of congruence with culturally familiar patterns of int eraction at home, in particular the Shared Book Approach (SBA) and the Language Experience Approach (LEA), both of which are based on a socio-constructivist view of learning as developmental and negotiated collaboration (p. 270)." Sripathy claims that th ese approaches are nothing like what children come to school with, especially if they are from Chinese or Indian family backgrounds, where negotiation and participation are not favored; for her, only Malay children are likely to favor these strategies. Fu rthermore, teachers from Chinese and Indian backgrounds are more likely to reject the participatory approach as `disruptive': children are to accept the teacher's authority and not ask questions or negotiate meanings.

But it must be said that this reviewer's experience in observing Tamil classes in the Singapore schools did not bear this out: the participation of younger students in the construction of a (class-dictated) story (an LEA approach) seemed much more live ly and validating of their home language knowledge than the grammar-lecture approach of a more traditional teacher, observed in a higher-level class. If I were to predict which group of students were to take away something of value from what they learned in their Tamil class, it would be the class taught with the CDS approach. Would this be different if the meanings being constructed were English meanings rather than Tamil meanings?

Chapter 15, ``Is Singlish Grammatical?: Two Notions of Grammaticality", by Ho Chee Lick and Lubna Alsagoff deals with the age-old problem encountered in any linguistics class, namely, the linguist's idea of descriptive grammar (and grammaticality) vers us prescriptive grammar (the grammaticality handed down by authorities on high) which students, and in particular teachers, bring to the study of language. Apparently it is needed in this collection to deal with the prescriptive tradition and the strong tendency of teachers to see only standard (Singapore) English as grammatical, and colloquial (Singapore) English (CSE) as impossibly ungrammatical.

Chapter 16, ``Acquiring English Literacy in the Singapore Classroom" replicates issues discussed elsewhere, such as the role of English in ``socializing young Singaporeans into a common consciousness." As such, however, it does not add much to our kno wledge of which features, discourse strategies, or lexical items help define common linguistic consciousness for Singaporeans.

Chapter 17, ``Reading and Writing Instruction in Singapore: Issues and Trends" (Susheela A. Varghese) attempts to deal with the shortcomings of a 1991 revision of the English Language Syllabus, which advocates pragmatic competence, but does not delive r it.

Chapter 18, ``Meaning-constructing Strategies in English and Chinese Writing: Effective versus Ineffective Writing," by Ruth Wong Yeang Lam deals with the problem of teaching literacy in two languages, with two different writing systems, and the failur e of the pedagogical system to reconcile the two with one underlying approach, thereby maximizing the gains of bilingualism, while chapter 19, ``The Teaching of the Chinese Language in Singapore," by Ang Beng Choo deals with the always thorny issue of how to teach Chinese to a level of proficiency, especially writing (and knowledge of characters) that satisfies language teachers and Chinese-educated parents alike. In order to meet these demands, students ar e exposed to more authoritarian teaching techniques (including product-oriented teaching, rather than process-oriented) than they are used to in other classes, and unless they see immediate uses to which they can put their knowledge of Chinese (the immediately practical and pragmatic goal mentioned earlier) they are often unhappy with the requirements made of them. The demand for Singapore-supplied goods and services in China now seems to satisfy that need for immediate gratification.

Chapter 20, ``The Use of Computers in the Teaching of Writing," by Renu Gupta, Robert Hvitfeldt, and Vanithamani Saravanan ends this collection with a whimper instead of a bang.

Singapore has recognized since it separated from Malaysia that is has no natural resources other than the ``cultural capital" of its citizenry, and that economic success relies on proficiency in English and the western technology English allows access to; its educational system's reliance on explicit bilingualism (English and another Asian language), is therefore a life or death issue. Its success is therefore constantly being monitored internally (hence this book), and can stand as an example for any other polity that might want to emula te aspects of the system. Indeed any society that experiments with bilingual education would do well to scrutinize Singapore's experience. This volume chronicles that experience, both for internal and external consumption.

What we must conclude, however, is that over time there has been an abandonment of the ideal of bilingualism for all. Instead, by the end of the millennium, only an elite will be effectively perfectly bilingual, and others will show higher proficienc y in English than their mother tongue (i.e. will be English-dominant), while still others may not have obtained proficiency in English to access anything other than menial jobs. This is a sobering message for the advocates of bilingual education everywhere.

Reviewed by Harold F. Schiffman, Department of South Asian Regional Studies, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305