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October is “Speak Mandarin Month” in Singapore

October 1, 1986

SINGAPORE (AP) _ October is ″Speak Mandarin Month″ in Singapore, and the government today takes its drive to eliminate Chinese dialects into coffee shops and bars in a bid to mop up pockets of linguistic resistance.

The 7-year-old campaign to promote Mandarin in this culturally diverse republic has been deemed successful ever since the government decided that regional dialects had no future.

But this year’s campaign has targeted the hard-core dialect speakers the government says are still speaking regional Chinese tongues in food stalls, canteens and restaurants.

Usage of Mandarin, the language traditionally spoken by China’s ruling class, has improved in Singapore, said Lee Seng Giap, head of the official agency directing the campaign, ″but the improvement has not been good enough.″

He estimated that 80 percent of the Chinese in Singapore, a strategically important island between Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula, are fluent in Mandarin. The rest are mostly elderly with little formal education, Lee said.

Malay, Mandarin, English and Tamil are official tongues for Singapore’s 2.5 million residents, 76 percent of whom are ethnic Chinese.

English, however, is recognized as the language of administration.

When the original language drive started, no more than 10 percent of Chinese homes were Mandarin-speaking and in those households the official language usually competed with Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and at least nine other regional dialects from southern China.

The language question was once a divisive political issue in this polyglot republic, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with a density of 10,357 people per square mile.

But Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew launched the pro-Mandarin campaign in economic and cultural terms.

″The Chinese we speak,″ he said in 1979, ″is divided up among more than 12 dialects. Children at home speak dialect, in school they learn English and Mandarin.

″After 20 years of bilingual schooling, we know that few children can cope with two languages and one dialect, certainly not more than the 12 percent that make it to junior colleges. The majority have ended up speaking English and dialect.″

All Chinese parents, he said, ″face this choice for their children: English-Mandarin or English-dialect. If they allow, or worse, want their children to speak dialects, then their children will find their work in school very burdensome.″

In addition to being culturally desirable, Lee said the universal use of Mandarin would be economically advantageous as China, whose official language is Mandarin, becomes an increasingly important trading partner.

The prime minister kicked off the first drive by ordering personnel in all government offices and hospitals to speak only Mandarin to everyone except those older than 60.

″Anyone who looks young will be presumed to be below 60,″ he said then.

In 1981, Chinese children in kindergarden and first-grade classrooms were assigned new names - Hanyu Pinyin equivalents of those they were given at birth. Hanyu Pinyin is a romanized system of spelling based on Mandarin. Unlike Hanyu Pinyin, dialects have no direct link to written language.

Lee Seng Giap said there is no end in sight to the annual effort to promote the use of Mandarin. ″The campaign has been very successful, but we are not satisfied with what we have achieved.″

But Singapore has done well in spreading the use of Mandarin compared to China and Taiwan, he said, probably because it is so much smaller than either.

The $138,000 budgeted for the 1986 drive will pay for 180,000 stickers, 75,000 hanging mobiles and 50,000 posters. A jingle has been composed and cassette tapes and booklets will push the message.

Four weekend shows featuring xin yao (contemporary songs) and xiang sheng (witty dialogue) are planned this month at local bazaars.

″Dialects are still quite commonly used at food and drink establishments, especially at hawker centers and coffee shops which have been identified as a stronghold of dialects,″ an official statement said.

″The target group has been selected to emphasize to the operators and patrons the importance of and the need to speak Mandarin in place of dialects.″

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