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.


Uncle! Teh siu dai!


  1. Pingback: Chinese street opera in Singapore | The Lion Raw

  2. Pingback: 23princessroad's Blog

  3. Pingback: Death of Dialects? | 14S13 GP Blog

  4. Get your current loan officers to stay with you for an extra average month,
    and you. A chattel mortgage can benefit sole
    proprietors with an ABN if such traders are seeking a new car to be used in boosting their business opportunities.
    There is always an interest-only mortgage solution to most problems including “how to repay your interest-only mortgage before you retire”.
    My first job was working for Nations – Bank, before Bank of America and Nations –
    Bank merged around 1999. ve been being more interested in short term gains of getting their
    clients into loans that start out with low rates but then a couple of years down the
    road turn into trouble.

  5. In fact when someone doesn’t know then its up to other
    users that they will assist, so here it occurs.

  6. Alcoholical wines for example like white or red wines, champagne
    otherwise spirits are generally perfectly-liked on business gatherings.

    He will surely enjoy the gift and appreciate the time
    and energy you put into it. If you are fond of writing
    poetry, compose a poem articulating your love for them on a fancy
    paper and have it framed.

  7. You’ll find one of the big advantages of a copper bottom cookware set the
    moment you start extracting your brand new pans
    and pots from the box. Also, food doesn’t brown as well in a nonstick pan. The storage of the pans is far easier when you may have this potential at your disposal.

  8. Henry

    The slogans for the speak Mandarin campaign are slightly different in English and Chinese.

    The 1983 Chinese slogan, 华人讲华语,合情又合理 can be translated as “Us Chinese people (华人) should speak Mandarin Chinese (华语); only then can we understand each other and be in harmony”. We can see that the Chinese slogan places greater emphasis on the unifying aspect of Mandarin Chinese, in contrast to the rather blunt “Mandarin’s In. Dialect’s Out”

    Likewise the 1989 slogan “常讲华语,自然流利” can be translated as “The more you speak mandarin Chinese, the more natural and fluent you get in speaking”

  9. Pingback: SG50 Shades of Grey | Zenov Yap | Live. Life. Love

  10. Pingback: Ink Imprints

  11. Pingback: Crazy Rich Asians: Hollywood and the Communist Party share a simplistic idea of what it means to be Chinese | Hong Kong Free Press HKFP

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: