The Death of Dialects in Singapore

I underline the government’s determination that nobody should use dialects. Indeed wise parents will never let their children speak dialect at all . . . The more one learns dialect words, the less space there is for Mandarin words or English words, or multiplication tables or formulas in mathematics, physics or chemistry.
- (Speech on ‘Mandarin must replace dialects as the mother tongue’ on 25 October 1981, by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce 1991)

According to the Government, Singapore’s lack of progress, particularly amongst the Chinese Community, was largely due to the use of dialects creating an incoherent and divided society. To tackle the problem, the Government introduced the Speak Mandarin Campaign (SMC) in 1979, which effectively signalled the beginning of the death of dialects.


One of the many Speak Mandarin Campaign slogans


Singapore’s many Chinese dialects (Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka etc.) came about as a result of early settlers arriving from various provinces in China.

In the 1950s & 60s, Singapore, like many de-colonised countries, began a search for an independent national identity. The Chinese in particular, turned to the cultural products of film and music from Hong Kong as a source of inspiration. The fascination with Hong Kong was also seen as a reactionary and feudal ‘Yellow Culture’ that was set out to oppose the ‘Red’ culture still apparent in Communist China.

Canto-pop in particular, boomed because of its apparent lack of censorship and ‘sexy songstress’, and made its way to the hearts of Singapore with popular Hong Kong singers taking centrestage at the Republic’s newly established culture centre, the National Theatre.


Cantopop made its presence felt in Singapore even before the Four Heavenly Kings.


However, Singapore’s continued emphasis of bilingualism upon independence was becoming more apparent in both schools and the media, and this led to ‘actively discouraging’ the use of dialects championed through the Speak Mandarin Campaign, with then PM Lee going as far to say that ‘ Chinese Singaporeans below the age of forty who speak dialect will the last in queue (in government departments)

Some slogans throughout the years of the Speak Mandarin Campaign include

华人讲华语,合情又合理 (Mandarin’s In. Dialect’s Out – 1983) and
(More Mandarin, Less Dialect. Make it a way of life – 1989)

Some of the first steps on the emphasis on Mandarin by the Government included the removal of popular Cantonese programmes from television and radio stations, most of which were state owned. By 1981, they were phased out, much to the displeasure of even non-Cantonese Singaporeans.

Even up till today, the Media Development Authority(MDA), states that on National Television,All Chinese programmes, except operas or other programmes specifically approved by the Authority, must be in Mandarin. Dialects in dialogues and songs may be allowed provided the context justifies usage and is sparingly used.

None of this is more perhaps more apparent in the movie Army Daze, where Malcolm and gang frequently tell the hokkien spewing character Ah Beng to ‘讲华语‘ (speak Mandarin).


Dialects however received some reprieve in 1991 when the PAP lost four constituencies during the General Elections. One of the reasons cited for poor results being the use of dialects by Opposition leaders reaching out to the Chinese voters.

Many also saw the Speak Mandarin Campaign as a propaganda effort to alienate a large section of the working-ethnic Chinese who still predominantly spoke in Dialects.

The Government then stepped it and although they never actively promoted the use of dialects, they stopped shoft of discouraging it and even allowed TVB, the Hong Kong Cantonese station to be shown on cable television in 1995.

Even the Prime Minister himself has been seen using dialects phrases in many National Day Rallies, none perhaps more famous than his statement one should order mee siam mai hum.

The effects of the Speak Mandarin Campaign were however already evident, with the population of households now increasingly using less dialects and more Mandarin.

Language Spoken at Home Among Chinese Resident Population in Singapore[30]

Predominant Household Language

1957 (%)

1980 (%)

2000 (%)

English 1.8 11.6 23
Mandarin 0.1 10.2 35
Chinese Dialects 97 81.4 30.7


Dialects however represent a truly cultural link and experience for many, the deterioration of which has led to a comprehensive lack of communication between the elderly and their grandchildren.

The beauty about dialects, just like any other language, is that it is able to emote a certain feeling through it words that no dubbing or subtitling is able to accomplish.

It also surprising that the Government, with its constant strive for racial harmony, actually saw the Speak Mandarin Campaign as a way to improve cohesion in the community and not a tool for economic progress and trade relations with the increasing power that was China.

Nothing really beats walking into a dim sum restaurant and hearing the waiters shout to each other in Cantonese, trying to understand what your grandparents say, or simply even telling the coffeeshop uncle that all you want is a nice cup of ‘teh siu dai (tea with milk but less sugar). Dialects should be here to stay and is one of the few things we should not let any form of education or state run campaigns intervene in.

Leave a Reply