The official quadrilingualism

Singapour a pour nom officiel les appellations suivantes: Republic of Singapore (en anglais), Republik Singapura (en malais), Cingkappūrā Kudiyaracu (en tamoul:  சிங்கப்பூர்), Xīnjīapō Gònghégúo (en chinois: 新加坡共和国). En français, on emploie «République de Singapour». C'est un petit État du Sud-Est asiatique de 693 km² situé à l’extrémité sud de la péninsule de Malacca en Malaisie, dont il est séparé par le détroit de Johor. Singapour constitue un archipel formé d’une île principale (île de Singapour appelée aussi Pulau Ujong) et d'environ une soixantaine d'îlots. Dans son ensemble, cet archipel demeure l'un des plus petits pays au monde: il est huit fois plus petit que l'île du Prince-Édouard (5660 km²) et un peu plus grand que l'île de Montréal (421 km²). Par comparaison, la petite Belgique avec 30 530 km² et l'île de Vancouver avec 31 285 km² paraissent énormes, tout en demeurant minuscules par rapport au Canada (9,9 millions km²). 

Étant donné que Singapour est une cité-État, ses divisions administratives sont relativement petites: on compte depuis 2001 cinq districts qui sont eux-mêmes divisés en circonscriptions électorales ("electoral constituencies" et en conseils municipaux ("town councils"). 


Pluralism in Singapore

The population of Singapore (5.7 million in 2018) is very complex compared to Canada’s.  The country is home to three major ethnic groups: Chinese (76.8%), Malay (13.9%) and Indian (mostly Tamils) (7.9%).  There are also a number of “other” ethnic groups, consisting of many Westerners (Australians, British, Americans, New Zealanders, Germans, etc.), as well as a large number of Asians (Japanese, Filipinos, Thais, Koreans, etc.). There are a total of about 40 different ethnic groups in this small territory.

It is important to make a distinction between two types of Singaporeans: residents (70.7%) and non-residents (29.3%), the latter being foreign nationals who are living in the country for a limited time, either to work, study or look after dependents. These non-residents hold a work permit or a residence permit as foreign workers or students, or on other grounds accepted by the authorities. 

Singapore Ethnic Groups and Languages
Ethnic Groups and Languages

Ethnic groups and languages

The linguistic situation in Singapore may come as a surprise, since ethnic groups and languages are so intertwined.  Singapore is the only country in the world that has four official languages over its very small territory: Mandarin Chinese, Malay, Tamil and English.

Chinese make up the ethnic majority (76.8%), but divided among several different Chinese languages, including Mandarin (24.8%), Southern Min (34.5%), Cantonese (7.6%), Hakka (4,3%), Eastern Min (1%), Puxian (0.4%) and Northern Min  (0.3%) etc. The Chinese are not of Singaporean origin; they fled southern China and immigrated to Singapore before or immediately after the Second World War.

The second major ethnic group is Malays (13.9%). From a historical point of view they are the “true” Singaporeans, because they belong to a large linguistic area comprised of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.  On the small archipelago of Singapore, Malays have been minoritized by the Chinese, but at the same time they have benefited from the cultural and linguistic contribution of Indonesians, to whom they are closely related. According to the authorities, all Indonesians are Malays, which explains why only 6.7% of Malays speak Malay; the others speak related languages such as Indonesian, Javanese and Buginese etc.

Indians (7.9%) are the third main ethnic group in Singapore, but only 2% of them speak Tamil.  Thus the Indian community is not a homogeneous one: in addition to Tamil speakers it includes speakers of Bengali, Punjabi, Hindi, Sindhi, Gujarati, Urdu, etc. Of these languages, only Tamil is recognized as an official language.

Finally there are the “other” groups, which make up only 1.4% of the population but include a large number of different linguistic communities which have very few speakers: English, Japanese, Thai, Madurese, Malayalam, Punjabi, Sinhalese, Kannada, Hindi, Sindhi, Korean, Arabic, Vietnamese, etc.

To summarize, the total number of speakers of the four official languages as a first language (henceforth L1) is only 37.2% of the population: Mandarin Chinese (24.8%), Malay (6.7%), Tamil (2%), and English (3.7%). However, speakers of Southern Min Chinese as an L1 account for more than 33% of the population, speakers of Cantonese 7.6% and speakers of Hakka Chinese 4.3%.  And at least 17.3% of the population speaks more than 40 other languages as an L1.

Singapore is home to speakers of Austronesian languages such as Malay and Indonesian, Sino-Tibetan languages such as the Chinese languages; Dravidian languages such as Tamil and Malayalam, and Indo-Iranian languages such as Hindi and Punjabi, not to mention Germanic languages such as English.

Mandarin Chinese is the lingua franca for all Sinophones; Malay for all Malays, Indonesians and Filipinos; Tamil for approximately 60% of the Indians and Pakistanis; and English for everyone else.  In short, the four official languages (English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil) account for 36.4% of the L1 speakers in the country (of which Mandarin represents 24.8%), but these languages allow for communication among almost all ethnic groups, with English being a step ahead of the other languages as a second language (henceforth L2).

Writing systems

To make matters even more complicated, the four official languages are written using three different scripts. Both English and Malay use the Roman alphabet, for example the words "Danger" in English and “Bahaya" in Malay.

Mandarin Chinese, like all other Chinese languages, is written with ideograms, which are generally referred to as “Chinese characters”.  Historically, these ideograms form the oldest writing system in the world, a system that has remained in continuous use for over 3000 years.  The Chinese writing system currently ranks second in the world, behind the Roman alphabet in first place, and ahead of all other writing systems (Cyrillic, Greek, Arabic, Devanāgarī, Hebrew, etc.)

The Tamil script is used to write the Tamil language, which is spoken in southern India, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu and in the Indian union territory of Puducherry, (as a co-official language), as well as in Sri Lanka and Malaysia as a minority language.  Tamil uses a script that dates back over 2500 years; it consists of vowels, consonants, and syllabic units which combine a consonant and a vowel in the same symbol.

Singapour writing systems
Singapour writing systems

English and Singlish

English is regarded as the most important language in Singapore. However, the variety of English normally used as a lingua franca in the country is not the "colonial English language" of British origin, but "Singapore English", a local variety of English based on British English with certain US influences.  This local English differs somewhat from the Standard English used in other countries. Except for Anglophones from the West (Great Britain, the US, Canada, Australia etc.), most English speakers in Asia have adopted Singapore English. In any event, Singapore English and Standard English are mutually intelligible without too much effort.

There is another variety of Singapore English which is very different from Standard English, called Singapore Colloquial English, or simply Singlish (a blend of Singapore and English). This lingua franca has maintained some of the tones of Hakka and Southern Min, developed a simplified morpho-syntactic system, and borrowed words from Mandarin Chinese, Malay, Tamil and other languages spoken in the archipelago.

The better educated Singaporeans are, the more they use Standard English. Conversely, the less educated Singaporeans are or when their L1 isn’t English, as a general rule they have a tendency to speak Singlish.  Thus most Singaporeans alternate systematically between a vernacular variety and a formal variety, depending on the communicative context.  Within the same ethnic group speakers use their L1; otherwise they use English, Singlish or Mandarin Chinese.

Individual bilingualism in Singapore

According to the 2010 census, 28.2% of Singaporeans are monolingual, mainly Chinese or English. Sixty-one percent of the population is bilingual, first Chinese-English followed by Malay-English.


A survey conducted in 2014 by the Pew Research Center (US) showed that Singapore is the most diverse country in the world when it comes to religion.  Buddhism (33.3%) and Christianity (18.3%) are the two dominant religions, followed by Islam (14.7%) and Taoism (10.9%). Hinduism is less common.

In Singapore, there is a relationship between religion, ethnicity and language.  The Chinese are Buddhists and Taoists (57%) although some are Christians (20%). Almost all Malays are Muslims (99%), as are a small number of Indians, and they speak Austronesian languages. Most Indians are Hindu (59%) and speak Dravidian (Tamil) or Indo-Iranian (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali etc.) languages.

The anglophile policies of Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) is the most famous man in Singapore. Among his achievements, he was the first prime minister of Singapore, the cofounder and first secretary general of the People's Action Party (PAP), the founder of the city-state of Singapore (1963). Described as the strongman of Singapore, he was a decisive influence in his country for more than half a century. Even after his death, he remains a point of reference for Singaporeans.

Lee was born in Singapore in 1923. He spoke English as an L1; his parents had been educated in English although they were of Chinese ancestry, mostly Hakka. From childhood Lee was raised in an English-speaking home environment. He only started to learn Mandarin Chinese in 1955, at the age of 32. Before that, he was what is called “a Chinese illiterate”. He learned Japanese while working as a translator during the Japanese occupation of Singapore. However, he always remained an Anglophone and an Anglophile.

Lee Kuan Yew
Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) was the prime minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990, from when he was 36 to 67 years old.  He performed his duties in an authoritarian fashion and did not tolerate any opposition over the more than thirty years he was in power, or even longer, because after he submitted his resignation as prime minister, he retained the position of Senior Minister and Minister Mentor within Cabinet, which allowed him to remain a trusted “advisor” until his death at 92.

As early as 1959, Lee Kuan Yew regarded English as a tool for unifying the different ethnic groups in a country where the population consisted of a majority of Chinese with Malay and Tamil minorities. He viewed English as being more neutral than Chinese for reducing ethnic and linguistic tensions. Lee therefore decided to retain English rather than Chinese as the primary language in Singapore, which would also maximize the economic benefits English could bring to the country.

Lee Kuan Yew imposed his goals on the government and citizens of his country.   In his view it would be easier to unify a multilingual country with a foreign language rather than a local language competing with other languages. The prime minister’s goal was to use English to level out the competing local languages.

English as a common language

Below are Lee Kuan Yew’s thoughts on this subject, from a speech he gave in October 2000 at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, a school of public policy and public administration at Harvard University (Cambridge MA).

[Singapore's Chinese are mainly descendants of people who came from different parts of China speaking different dialects. Malays from different parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. South Asians are from different parts of the subcontinent. The rest came mainly from other parts of Asia. We needed a common language. English is not any group's mother tongue, so no one gained any advantage... We have not forced or pressure cooked a national identity. We aimed for integration, not assimilation.

Out of respect for its three main ethnic communities, Singapore has adopted Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil, along with English, as its official languages. Malay is the national language.]

The rationale for “respect” for the three main ethnic communities — Chinese, Malay and Tamil — was more a theoretical principle than an actual practice; it still needed to become socially accepted. In fact, English would serve as an instrument of standardization and a tool for avoiding use of the local languages.

Clearly Lee Kuan Yew always knew that it was necessary to present English as indispensable in meeting Singaporeans’ need for economic wellbeing.  In his book  My Lifelong Challenge (2011) Lee Kuan Yew explained that he had to impose English in order to attract investors, and because English had been the language of international diplomacy, science and technology, and international finance and commerce since the end of the Second World War.

[How would Singapore make a living? With barely 700 sq. m of land, agriculture was out of the question. Trade and industry were our only hope. But to attract investors here to their growing plants, we could understand. That language had to be English- since World War II ended, the English language had spread. It was the language of international diplomacy, the language of science and technology, and the language of international finance and commerce. Singaporeans would have increased opportunities if they had a strong mastery of English.

For political and economic reasons, English had to be our working language. This would give all races in Singapore a common language to communicate and work in.]

After Singapore became independent in 1965, the use of English became even more widespread. The prime minister was careful to adopt English as the primary language of instruction in all schools in the country.  Consequently, English became an official language with the same status as Malay, Mandarin and Tamil. Lee feared ethnic conflicts like the plague, and ensured that tensions would be eased by trying to reduce social inequalities among the different linguistic groups in the country, but in reality the aim was to suppress the rise of local languages in favour of English, his L1.

The language campaigns

Lee Kuan Yew also drew up a specific policy for Chinese. Before independence, most Chinese in Singapore spoke Min Nan as their L1, but others spoke different Chinese languages, including Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Min Dong, Puxian, Min Bei, etc.  Lee wanted the Chinese community to be unified by a common language: Mandarin Chinese. For this reason, the government of Singapore promoted Mandarin, as it had English, as a language with high economic value. 

The authorities never used the term “language” when referring to the various Chinese languages, except for Mandarin; the label applied to the others was always “dialect”. These varieties of Chinese are also languages in the same way Mandarin is, but they do not enjoy the same status. As a result they have been experiencing a steep decline, particularly since 1979, due to the "Speak Mandarin" campaigns.

In the context of these promotional campaigns, all radio and television programmes broadcast in “Chinese dialects” were prohibited. By the end of the 1980s, Mandarin had supplanted these “Chinese dialects” in most public spaces. In short, all government efforts banked on the importance of Standard English and Mandarin compared to the other languages to the point where many citizens have spoken of segregation rather than promotion.

"Speak Mandarin" campaigns.

In 1990, Goh Chok Tong became the second prime minister of Singapore (from 1990 to 2004), replacing Lee Kuan Yew, but the latter remained an influential member of Cabinet in his position as Senior Minister, and later as Minister Mentor. Lee encouraged his successor to embark on new language campaigns to promote “good English” and put a stop to the growth of Singlish, a low prestige variety which has always worried the government.  Because Singlish is in competition with English, for years the authorities have been conducting information campaigns like "Speak Good English" and "Speak Well. Be Understood" in order to minimize the growing importance of Singlish. In the 2000s, the government of Singapore relaunched the "Speak Good English" campaign, admittedly without much success. Far from being on the decline, Singlish continues to prosper.

Speak Good English

Lee Kuan Yew’s considerable importance in the recent history of Singapore must be acknowledged. This small republic is the only country in the world to have adopted four official languages, English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. One of the rare other states to be as multilingual is without doubt the Serbian province of Vojvodina, with its six languages (Serbian, Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian, Croatian and Rusyn). The four official languages of Singapore, whose status derives from directives from Prime Minister Lee, are identified in the Constitution of 1965, which has been amended frequently. Article 153A proclaims the official status of the four languages, while specifying that Malay is “the national language”.

Section 153A (official version)

Official languages and national language

1) Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and English shall be the 4 official languages in Singapore.

2) The national language shall be the Malay language and shall be in the Roman script:

Provided that —

(a) no person shall be prohibited or prevented from using or from teaching or learning any other language; and

(b) nothing in this Article shall prejudice the right of the Government to preserve and sustain the use and study of the language of any other community in Singapore.

Thus Malay has the dual status of official language and national language due to the proximity of the city-state to the Malay-speaking world.  Indeed, Singapore is completely surrounded by Malaysia and Indonesia, two countries whose official language is Malay, specifically Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia. Malay’s status as the national language in Singapore is purely symbolic; the only advantage of this status is that the national anthem “Majula Singapura” is sung in Malay.  In any event, the fact that there are four official languages doesn’t necessarily mean that all of these languages are equal in practice; there is “many a slip twixt the cup and the lip”.

Unlike the federal government of Canada, which passed the Official Languages Act in 1988, granting equal status to English and French, Singapore has never drafted a law on bilingualism or quadrilingualism. Recognition of the four official languages is limited to Article 153A of the Constitution. At best, successive governments have passed about 15 laws on subjects other than language with one or two articles related to language in criminal proceedings, companies and corporations, price controls, securities and contracts, commercial trusts, patents, banks, etc.

Languages in Parliament

The languages permitted in parliamentary debate are English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. This is also recognized in Article 44 of the Constitution. In practice, the language most widely used by parliamentarians is English, followed closely by Mandarin, then more rarely (that is to say “occasionally”) by Malay and Tamil.

While the people’s representatives accept that in practice all four languages can be used in oral debate, only English is used to draft and enact laws. The system of simultaneous interpretation adopted in Parliament only goes in the direction of Chinese, Malay or Tamil to English. The fact that there is no simultaneous interpretation going from English to the other languages supports the assumption that everyone knows English. It is clear that this system is different from the one in place in Canada, where simultaneous interpretation goes in two directions, that is from English to French and from French to English. It is essential for parliamentarians in Singapore to know English, because bilingualism only applies to transitions to the “super-language”.

Languages in the justice system

Because there are four official languages in Singapore, all citizens have the right to request a trial in the language of their choice, English, Mandarin, Malay or Tamil. However, it is much easier to provide documents in the four languages than it is to expect judges to know these languages. All judges must know English, because it is the language in which laws are written. Many judges can also speak Chinese, sometimes Malay and rarely Tamil. When there is a bilingual trial involves languages other than English (e.g. Mandarin-Malay) a judge who can speak the two languages is brought in. English is generally the only language used in the court of appeal, but an interpreter can be called in if needed.

In practice, English and Malay are the languages most used in the lower courts, while in the higher courts it is English. Translations into Chinese and Tamil are part of standard procedures. 

Languages in the public service

Because quadrilinguism was proclaimed in the Constitution, the public service uses the four official languages in its dealings with citizens, but there is a tendency to give preference to English and Mandarin. That being said, all citizens can request both oral and written responses in the language of their choice. Even if services are offered in the four official languages, in practice Malay and Tamil are neglected in favour of English and Chinese. Indeed, most government departments and agencies settle for disseminating official documents in English, although upon demand the documents can be made available in the language of the request. To give an idea of standard practice, below is an excerpt from the 2004 Business Trusts Act:

Section 99 [official version]

Translation of instruments

3) Where a person is required to maintain or keep any accounts, minutes or other records under this Act and the accounts, minutes or other records or any part thereof is not maintained or kept in the English language, the person shall —

(a) cause an accurate translation of that accounts, minutes or other records or that part of the accounts, minutes or other records in the English language to be made from time to time at intervals of not more than 7 days; and

(b) maintain or keep the translation with the accounts, minutes or other records for so long as the accounts, minutes or other records are required under this Act to be maintained or kept.

The requirement to prepare English translations is present in several laws, even though Chinese, Malay and Tamil are also official languages.  This requirement is very important, because it demonstrates the importance of English in the country.

Constitutional provisions

Monolingual signs do not occur as a rule, except for signs identifying a government department or organization, where only English appears. Bilingual signs are frequent, but always in English with another language, normally Chinese, and less frequently Malay or Tamil. Many road signs are quadrilingual, but with English always in the most prominent position. The English version always comes first (Merlion Park), followed, in descending order, by Chinese (魚尾獅公園), Malay (Taman Merlion) and Tamil (மெர்ரியன் பார்க்), and sometimes Japanese (マーライオンパーク). When it comes to government departments and agencies, the linguistic landscape in Singapore is not characterized by wide-spread quadrilinguism, but rather by the exclusive and omnipresent use of English.

Merlion Park