Singapore: from Bilingualism to Biculturalism

People walk along Orchard Road, the retail and entertainment hub of Singapore and a major tourist attraction. (Photo: Komar, Shutterstock)

Singapore's bilingual policy has been the cornerstone of its development "from third world to first." However, as global power shifts from the West to Asia, especially with regards to China, it may be time for Singapore to upgrade its bilingual policy to biculturalism.

Singapore's bilingualism refers to the use of English and one of the three commonly heard ethnic languages, namely Chinese, Malay and Tamil. biculturalism is inclusive of bilingualism, but its connotation is much broader, including customs, religion, art and so forth. Singapore's biculturalism should be a mix of local culture and one of the three ethnic cultures of Chinese, Malay and Indian.

China has been one of the world's fastest-growing economies and will become the largest one within the coming decades. As a result, there has been a global interest to learn Chinese language so as to better establish closer business relationships with China.

If Singapore wants to continue riding on China's growth, mastering English and Chinese language will not be enough. Singapore needs to foster more "bicultural talent" and strengthen its cultural underbelly. As a nation of immigrants, Singaporean culture is described as a mixture of mainly British, Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures. However, just like its Singlish, Singapore's local culture seems to be flawed, as it is "neither fish nor fowl."

There is a saying that if political reforms need six months and economic reforms need six years, then cultural reforms may require at least 60 years. Since Singapore's independence in 1965, it has fortunately built a strong institutional culture emphasizing peace, progress, justice, equality and democracy—the flag's five stars. However, even after 48 years, Singapore still lacks a vibrant social culture. A survey in 2012 revealed that Singapore's society is perceived by its citizens as competitive, self-centered, elitist and grumbling.

"Culture determines social development," Taiwan's first Culture Minister and scholar Lung Ying-Tai emphasized. A society without a strong culture will blur citizens' sense of identity and eventually undermine social cohesion. It is clear that Singapore is one independent nation. However, each ethnic group should wisely inherit its own traditional culture; otherwise, people will lose their ethnic roots and confidence. Singapore needs to purify and strengthen its social culture by introducing more authentic Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures through biculturalism efforts.

Fortunately,theSingapore government has realized the importance of culture and has been intensifying efforts on culture preservation and introduction. That was the key reason why international action superstar Jackie Chan donated his four Chinese Hui-style ancient buildings to Singapore, despite various public criticisms and uproar over his plan in China. Jackie also explained that he was deeply touched by Singapore's sincerity and professionalism about cultural heritage conservation.

The Singapore government has also taken concrete actions to promote bilingualism and biculturalism. In November 2007, the Business China (Singapore) was initiated to "nurture bilingual and bicultural Singaporeans to develop a cultural and economic bridge with China." In November 2011, Lee Kuan Yew personally launched the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism along with his book, "My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore's Bilingual Journey."

On May 19 this year, the four main Chinese community organizations in Singapore—the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry, the Chinese Development Assistance Council and the Business China—co-organized for the first time a sharing forum. All four organizations expressed their desire to further promote bilingualism and biculturalism in Singapore.

Nonetheless, governmental efforts itself are never adequate. At the ground level, families play a more critical role in promoting both bilingualism and biculturalism. If Singaporean parents are not willing to appreciate the importance of shifting their educational focuses from the West to Asia, it will significantly impede the younger generation from inheriting traditional Eastern cultures.

Furthermore, instilling biculturalism is an ambitious and great vision, but there are several precautions to be considered. First, Singapore must firmly uphold its own sound institutional culture, especially the rule of law, as it is one of Singapore's precious competitive advantages. While learning from other cultures, Singapore should "take the essence, but discard the dross," so as to avoid diluting its core social values.

Second, the aims of biculturalism should be practical. Even Lee Kuan Yew commented, "Bilingual policy is simple, but bicultural talent is hard to find." In fact, only very few elites can fluently master two languages and two cultures, especially English and Chinese. It is unrealistic to expect all students to acquire such bicultural genius, so the policy needs a delicate balance between the two cultures.

Lastly, Asian immigrants may make positive contributions to Singapore's biculturalism. The Singapore government can directly introduce authentic Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures by attracting more cultural talent. Although integration is the priority whereby new immigrants are required to embrace Singapore's core values, they should also be more explicitly encouraged to retain their positive original cultures to inspire the locals.

Singapore's success has been largely credited to its visionary foresight. If Singapore can succeed its great upgrade from bilingualism to biculturalism in the future, it will likely continue and even enjoy greater prosperity in this "Asian Century."

Sun Xi is a graduate of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore as well as an investment analyst and independent commentary writer based in Singapore.