Assessment Opinion

Singapore: Bilingual Language Policy and its Educational Success

By Anthony Jackson & Ee-Ling Low — February 25, 2013 4 min read
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International Mother Language Day was last week and we posted about celebrating the individual mother tongue each of us uses. Today we look at Singapore’s inclusive language policy.

Singapore’s education system has garnered much international interest in the light of its consistently high student achievement in internationally benchmarked tests. Many are asking the obvious question: Why or what accounts for Singapore’s educational success?

While a myriad of factors lie at the heart of Singapore’s educational success, this article will focus on the contribution of careful language planning and policy implementation that has helped the nation to consistently perform well on international student achievement tests.

Singapore is a multi-racial country with diverse ethnic groups and cultures. The major racial groups in Singapore are the Chinese, Malays, Indians, and others (mainly Eurasians). During British colonial rule, the local schools’ medium of instruction was based on their mother tongue: that is, the language of their respective ethnic group.

In 1965, when Singapore obtained full independence, there was a need for a lingua franca to facilitate communication among the different races and different dialect-speaking groups. Then, English was not just a world language, but more importantly, the language of the Commonwealth, and of science and technology. Since no ethnic group can claim English to be their own language, English was considered a convenient means by which Singaporeans could express their common national identity. The government named English, along with Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil—the languages of the major ethnic groups—to be the four official languages of Singapore.

The bilingual education policy was one of the first policies of the newly formed independent government. The policy was implemented as a way of unifying the different ethnic groups while providing an anchor for pupils to their ethnic and cultural heritage. With the implementation of the policy, English-medium schools were expected to offer a choice of Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil as the second language. English was offered as a second language in non-English medium schools. Schools were also expected to use the pupils’ mother tongues as the medium of instruction for Civics and History lessons. Due to the rising popularity of the use of English as the language of international trade, non-English medium schools faced dwindling enrollments. By 1987, all schools were converted to English-medium schools. In terms of university education, English has been used as the medium of instruction since 1979.

Since the implementation of the policy, the population of English-knowing bilingual speakers has been increasing. According to the information reported on the Singapore Census of Population 2010 website, the proportion of bilingual speakers among residents increased by 13.5% between the last census data release in 2000 and 2010.

Literacy Among Resident Population Aged 15 Years and Over

Table from the Singapore Census of Population 2010 website

The bilingual education policy also gave policy makers, educational leaders, and teachers the immediate linguistic ability and access to learn from other education systems, particularly those in English-speaking nations. From teaching materials, to curricula development, to teacher education, to school administration and leadership, Singapore began its important task of nation building through its education system. Educators had international access to a wealth of resources worldwide through different phases of educational development, from the survival-driven phase in the 1960s and 1970s through to the efficiency-driven phase in the late 1970s to 1980s to the ability-driven phase from the late 1990s to the present where multiple pathways are developed in an attempt to maximize students’ achievement potential and to place maximizing every student’s life potential at the heart of all our educational endeavors.

Beyond education, English language competency remains Singapore’s most important asset for international trade. With the economic rise of China and India, being bilingual proves to be of utmost importance. With our Malay-speaking regional neighbors that offer abundant partnership prospects, Malay-speaking Singaporeans will be at the advantage to explore opportunities beyond Singapore.

The adoption of four co-official languages in Singapore means that while Singaporeans are competent in the use of English as an international language, our cultural ties and heritage are not lost by mastering a second language closely linked to the ethnic make-up of one of the major racial groups in Singapore. This policy therefore has the ingenuity of uniting us in a language that none of the racial groups can claim to be ethnically biased while allowing us to celebrate the diversity of the tongues that come along with our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural make-up. In today’s digital age, where information transfer occurs at breakneck speed, high levels of language competency to process, transfer, and communicate information effectively on the global platform will only grow in importance.

Ee-Ling Low is Associate Professor and Associate Dean of Programme & Student Development, Office of Teacher Education, National Institute of Education, Singapore.

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