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Singapore's Dilemma


October 1, 1999: This message was distributed by Papyrus News, a free e-mail distribution list on the global impact of information technology on language, literacy, and education. Feel free to forward this message to others, but please include this introductory paragraph. For information on subscribing or unsubscribing to Papyrus News see


(I had the opportunity to visit Singapore in August 1999 and meet with classroom teachers, university administrators, and Ministry of Education officials. I've started to work on an essay based on my thoughts following this trip. Comments are welcome from anyone, and especially from readers in Singapore. I would also welcome comments or suggestions as to where I might submit a revised or expanded version of this for publication.

You'll note in the poem at the end mention of a popular orangutan named "Ah Meng," which means "Bright Fella" in a Chinese dialect. I have a great picture of me and an orangutan at Singapore's zoo. I don't know if it's Ah Meng or not, but I hope so. The zoo and the neighboring Nighttime Safari are both fabulous and not to be missed. Singapore is a wonderful place to visit and will be the site of the World Congress of Applied Linguistics in December 2002. I hope to see some of you there....Mark).

Singapore's Dilemma

essay in progress, by Mark Warschauer

Singapore is without doubt one of the great success stories of the 20th century. Over the last few decades it has gone from being a relatively poor country to having a standard of living approaching that of the most developed nations. Rates of home ownership are enviable (over 90%), crime is low, the environment is well-protected, and the public education system is outstanding. People of several different nationalities live together with relatively little social strife.

Yet in spite of Singapore's strong economic and social indicators-including a gross national product per capita which by 1997 had already surpassed that of the United States (United Nations Development Programme, 1999)--many commentators, both Singaporean and international, are hesitant to view the country as having fully achieved developed status (see, for example, several articles in Low, 1999b). First, from an economic standpoint, Singapore falls behind in several important measures that are believed necessary for sustainable development. Singapore's economic gains have been due in large measure to its success in becoming an international business hub, with the presence of many multinational corporation. But Singapore lacks a strong indigenous business class that many of its competitors have. There are relatively few computer and Internet start-up firms, or, indeed, start-up firms of any type which are achieving international success (Lee, 1999). Where for example is Singapore's equivalent to Finland's mobile phone company, Nokia, Sweden's telecommunication company, Ericsson, or Israel's Mirabilis firm which gave the world "ICQ"?

The lack of indigenous business success in Singapore, as well as relatively low funding for research and development (Chieh, 1999), contributes to Singapore's low rate of "Total Factor Productivity" (TFP, see Low, 1999a). TFP, defined as the productivity with which capital and labor are combined, measures both technical efficiency and technological progress (Pack & Page, 1992, cited in Low, 1999a). Singapore's unusually low TFP compared to its GNP gives some economists pause about the country's ability to sustain economic growth.

Beyond economic matters are the cultural and political dimensions which are seen to be part of development. The United Nations Development Programme (1999) ranks Singapore lower in its human development index than its economic indicators would merit. This is due in part to the lack of political freedoms in Singapore as compared to Western countries.

Until now, many might contend that political control and economic development have gone hand-in-hand in Singapore. Few would doubt that the strong state policies promoted by Singapore's leaders, and the discipline that they have succeed in imposing on society, have contributed to that country's rapid economic growth. Yet due to changing economic circumstances in Singapore and in the world, this may no longer be the case. In the new knowledge economy, the most successful regions, exemplified by California's Silicon Valley, tend to be those that foster free-wheeling, risk-taking economic activity from below. This kind of economic activity is fostered in part by free market policies-an area in which Singapore is unmatched-but also by a culture which rewards risk-taking, creative thinking, and independent initiative from below. And in these last areas, Singapore, by the admission of its own leaders, has substantial room for improvement.

Singapore's dilemma is thus as follows: how to promote the kind of independent initiative from below that a modern 21st century requires while maintaining the level of communitarian order and harmony that has served the country well (Chua, 1995). This dilemma expresses itself in virtual every area of public policy in Singapore today. I will explore three questions: media censorship, educational reform, and language policy.


Singapore is almost alone among wealthy countries in its heavy-handed control over the media. As Yeo and Mahizhan (1999) have noted, media censorship in Singapore has been based on four traditional beliefs:

"(1) that information is physical; (2) that each means of communication is independently controllable; (3) that that the state can control its flow in and out of the country; and (4) that the state can and should be the final abirter of what is good and what is not" (p. 35)

Each of the beliefs is being undermined by the telecommunications revolution and the new information era. Indeed, more than any other country in the world, Singapore is committed to taking advantage of this revolution. Following an economic recession of the 1980s, Singapore has aggressively moved to become an "intelligent island" and a world leader in the knowledge economy. Taking advantage of its compact size, small population, excellent infrastructure, and high degree of home ownership, Singapore is moving to wire the entire country, including most citizens' residences. This high degree of online connectivity will make it much easier for Singaporean citizens to control their own flow of information. Of course the governments' means of controlling information are far from exhausted. All Singaporean Internet Service Providers are currently forced to use proxy servers which limit Singaporeans' access to World Wide Web sites not approved by the government. But it will be difficult for any government, even one as efficient as that of Singapore, to monitor all the electronic information that its citizens receive through media such as e-mail lists, discussion boards, and online voice chat (and the Singaporean government reportedly makes no attempt to monitor individual communications). Beyond the question of the government's capacity for monitoring is the values that are encouraged. If independent initative from below is required for Singapore to fulfill its development goals, can that be achieved when citizens lack the experience in choosing and evaluating their own online information? As Yeo and Mahzihan (1999) suggest, an easing of censorship may allow more "weeds" into the country but will also allow Singaporeans the ability to develop a "civic immune system" (p. 35) that is needed for an information economy and a developed society .


Singapore already has one of the best educational systems in the world, with its students regularly ranking at the top of international tests mathematics and sciecne. But the country is not resting on its laurels. As part of its effort to build an "intelligent island," the government is carrying out an ambituous educational reform effort under the slogan "Thinking Schools, Learning Nation". The three main pillars of educational reform are thinking skills, information technology, and national education. National education refers to the effort to forge a national identity. I will briefly discuss that aspect of educational reform in the next section on language policy. In the remainder of this section, I will discuss the intertwined policies regarding thinking skills and information technology.

"Thinking Skills" refers to an effort to move away from rote learning of facts to develop the kinds of analytic skills needed for a knowledge economy. According to Ministry of Education literature (see their Website at, these include skills in areas such as cross-cultural communication; finding, analyzing, and categorizing information; and learning how to learn. And unlike many other countries where these issues are similarly talked about, Singapore is putting real teeth into making changes promoting these skills. Perhaps most interestingly, the admissions policy for national universities is being revamped. As of 2004, admissions will no longer depend solely on A-level examinations, but will also be determined by a combination of these A-level exams, a reasoning test, and a portfolio of project work and extra-curricular activities.

Information technology is being promoted both as a means to assist thinking skills, and also because technological skills are seen as valuable in their own right. The country is in the midst of a $750 million (US dollar) effort to support information technology in the schools, starting with wiring all the nations schools in three phases. By 2002, every classroom in the school will have 12 ethernet connections in connections; the phase one schools already have these connections in place. By the same year, all schools are projected to have a pupil:computer ration of 2:1. If these goals are reached, Singapore's schools will be better equipped for computer and Internet access than any other schools in the world.

The Ministry of Education is also carrying out an ambitious inservice teacher training project, with the goal of retraining all of Singapore's teachers in effective use of information technology by 2002. A team of 60 full-time trainers from the Ministry of Education visits schools throughout the country over a period of a year, meeting with teachers by subject area every fortnight to conduct inservice training on effective uses of educational technology and also visiting teachers' classrooms to support their efforts. Teachers are encouraged to gradually increase the amount of hands-on student computer time until it reaches 30% of classroom instructional time by 2002.

The plans are ambitious and the progress to date is impressive, but again Singapore faces dilemmas in reaching its goals. The current school climate in Singapore, as in many Asian countries, places strong emphasis on order, discipline, and uniformity. Uniforms are required and students are forbidden from wearing brand-name shoes. School disciplinarians cut students' hair in the morning if their locks are too long. Singaporean schoolchildren are well-behaved and hard-working, and the order in a Singaporean class would make many American educators envious. Yet, as seen in other countries such as Japan, this same order and discipline can sometimes discourage independent initiative and creativity. The traditional teacher-centered classroom in Singapore is not necessarily compatible with the kinds of project-oriented group work that exploits the value of information technology and which Singapore's leaders are now promoting. It should also be noted that the campaign for "Thinking Skills" in Singapore does not include the usual accompanying word, "critical."

Not only students but also educators face more rules and regulations than in other countries, including at the university level. And now educators are faced with strong top-down push to integrate information technology in the schools. Whether this will lead to effective use of technology is yet to be seen, but such top-down efforts at technology implementation have been ineffective in other contexts (Cuban, 1986).

Singaporean teachers and students are so far doing well with educational technology. Just to give one example, Singaporean teams won several of the top prizes in the 1998 international ThinkQuest competition (, which involves student collaboration in producing educational Websites. The Ministry of Education's plans are ambitious and well-planned. They reflect a goal not just of getting computers in the schools, but helping teachers learn to use them well. Singapore may well become a model for effective uses of educational technology, not just in Asia but in the whole world. As Singapore does progress in this area, it will be extremely interesting to follow how the contradiction between order and control from above and creative, critical initiative from below plays itself out.


A final dilemma for Singapore relates to language policy. As in other areas, the Singaporean government has had remarkable success in this area over the past few decades but now faces new challenges.

Singapore has had two major goals of its language policy: (1) to develop English as a national language, (2) to simultaneously promote and maintain common languages/dialects among the main ethnic groups in Singapore (Mandarin for the Chinese, Malay for the Malaysians, and Tamil for the Indians). These policies have had both economic and sociopolitical objectives. English as a national language is meant to foster national unity in Singapore as well as the country's global economic integration. The promotion of (single) languages and dialects among the countries main ethnic groups is meant to foster Asian culture and values, while also promoting economic ties to their homelands.

One major success of this policy has been the emergence of Mandarin as a language of common understanding among the country's Chinese, who make up more than 70%of Singapore's population. Most Singaporean Chinese come from southern China and few knew Mandarin well a few decades ago. Today, most young Chinese know Mandarin from studying it in school, and the majority of Chinese secondary students use it to communicate among themselves. At the same time, the government's aggressive promotion of Mandarin as an exclusive dialect among Chinese-a policy which included favoring Mandarin over other Chinese dialects in the mass media-stirred some resentment among elderly people, who favored maintaining their heritage dialect. Some in government also apparently see the value of Chinese dialects for promoting economic ties with southern China. In any case, most Chinese remain bidialectic , with Mandarin becoming an additional dialect rather than replacing the home dialect.

A more substantial controversy is brewing over English. Again, the government has had remarkable success in succeeding in developing English as a national tongue. All Singaporean children study English as a medium of instruction (also taking some classes in their community language), and almost all people save immigrants and some elderly speak English fluently. Success in promoting English has stemmed in part from the country's small size and its former status as a British colony, though at the time of independence far fewer people spoke English well than today.

Whether or not to use English is not a controversy in Singapore. The question is which English? The majority of Singaporeans speak a highly colloquial informal dialect of English called Singlish, which differs greatly from the varieties of English spoken in the United States, Britian, or Australia (Pakir, 1997). As seen from the poem below, Singlish differs from standard British or American English as much as many creoles do, making parts of it unintelligible to speakers of English from other countries. Singaporean government officials, including Singapore's powerful former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, have strongly attacked Singlish as a threat to Singapore's economic viability and to the competetivess of its workforce (Lee Kuan Yew, 1999). Lee has set the goal of wiping out Singlish in a single generation.

Yet many Singaporean people feel differently, valuing Singlish as an expression of cultural identity. Just as Lee Kuan Yew feels that globalization makes the use of Singlish a hindrance, others feel that globalization requires Singaporeans to protect their own identity through whatever local means of expression they have, especially one has powerful as language. This sentiment is well expressed by an anonymous poet [note to readers of Papyrus New: if anyone can identify the author or source of this poem, I would appreciate it]:

Wah! I heard we all now got big big debate.

They said future of proper English is at stake.

All because stupid Singlish spoil the market,

want to change now donno whether too late.


Aiyoh! Ang mo hear us talk like that also want to faint.

Even our "U" graduates speak like Ah Beng, Ah Seng.


Singlish is like rojak, everything throw inside anyhow mix.

Got Malay, Indian, Chinese and English, can give and take.


When you donno something is under table or chair,

you ask loud loud "Oi! Under where? Under where?"


When you see somebody behave very bad,

you scold him, "aiyah! Why you so like that?"


When you ended up in a traffic jam, and got stuck,

you complain, "today, I sai chia kena very chia lat."


When you warn your kids to be careful all the way,

you tell them, "careful har, you better don't play-play!"


When you see moon cakes with many egg yolks,

you say, "wah! This type good to eat, very shiok!"


When your friend mistook his mother for his aunt,

you disturb him, 'alamak! Why you so blur one?"


You write like that in exam you sure liao.

Teacher mark your paper also kee siao.


This kind of standard how to pass?

Wait, you sure kena last in class.


Other people hear you, say you sound silly.

So like that how to become world-class city?


Basically Singlish got good and got bad.

Aiyah! Everything in life is all like that.


Actually Singlish got one bright side.

I am talking about our national plight.


Maybe I must explain to you what I mean.

If you're prepared to hear me, I'll begin.


Other people all say we all got no culture.

All we got is a lot of joint business ventures.


So we got no culture to glue us together.

End up we all like a big bunch of feathers.


Wind blow a bit too strong only we fly away.

Everybody all go their own separate ways.


Now we must play Internet otherwise cannot survive.

Next time the only way to make money, or sure to die.


When other countries' influences all enter,

we sure kena affected left, right and centre.


Sekali our Singporean identity all lost until donno go where.

Even Orang-Utan Ah Meng starts thinking like a Polar Bear.


But still must go I.T. otherwise become swa koo,

only smarter than Ah Meng of the Mandai Zoo.


Wait the whole world go I.T., we still blur as sontong,

next time we all only qualified to sell laksa in Katong.


So got this kind of problem like that how?

Either sit and wait or do something now.


But actually we all got one "culture" in Singlish.

It's like rice on the table; it is our common dish.


I know this funny "culture" is not the best around

so we must tahan a bit until a better one is found.


Not all the time can marry the best man,

so bo pian got no prawns, fish also can.


I donno whether you agree with me or not?

I just simply sharing with you my thoughts.


Singlish is just like the garden weeds.

You pull like mad still it would not quit.


Sure got some people like and some do not like.

Singlish and English, they'll still live side by side.


Contrast the view of this poet with that of Singapore's current prime minister, Goh Chok Tong (1999), who said:

"Whether we are publishing a newspaper, writing a company report, or composing a song, does it make more sense to do so for a 3 million audience, or for the hundreds of millions who speak English around the world? We cannot be a first-world economy or go global with Singlish."

Here we have once again a contradiction between control from above and below. Singaporean government officials hope to impose a single standard of English which they think will make their economic competitive. Their goals are admirable and well-meaning. They hope in particular to help the ranks of the poor and poorly-educated who will likely fall behind if they don't have access to the kinds of communication skills required for economic success. As Lee Kuan Yew (1999) noted:

"This will be a disadvantage to the less-educated half of the population. The better educated can learn two or three varieties of English and can speak English English to native Englishmen or Americans, standard English to foreigners who speak standard English, and Singlish to less-educated Singaporeans. Unfortunately, if the less-educated half of our people end up learning to speak only Singlish, they will suffer economically and socially. They want to speak better English, not Singlish" (p. 26).

But language fulfills many other means than economic. It is a powerful marker of identity and culture, a marker that people cling to closely when other markers of identity are being swept aside by globalization (Castells, 1997; Warschauer, in press). And it is a marker of identity that Singaporean leaders might well appreciate, especially since they have made the development of national identity one of their main educational goals. According to the Ministry of Education's National Education Policy (The Purpose of National Education, 1999), schooling should serve to "develop national fostering a sense of identity, pride and self-respect as Singaporeans...and by understanding Singapore's unique challenges, constraints and vulnerabilities, which make us different from other countries." This is viewed as important in a small young country with many different nationalities who have just recently begun to develop a sense of national unity.

The contradiction between advocates of English and of Singlish (or, more accurately, between advocates of "English only" and of "English plus Singlish") is not unique to Singapore. Similar debates abound between those for and against use of African-American English ("Ebonics"), Hawaiian Creole English (Pidgin), and numerous other local dialects. In Singapore, though, this contradiction takes on special meaning, since Singlish is spoken by virtually the entire nation rather than just a small sub-group. The use of Singlish thus marks a phenomenon which will likely become more common in the 21st century, as English strengthens its hold as a global language and simultaneously fragments into an increasing number of local dialects (Graddol, 1997). Policy toward Singlish also takes on more meaning for Singapore in light of the other issues mentioned above. While policies regarding media censorship, educational reform, and language use each have their unique elements, in the end they revolve a common question: How can Singapore best combine leadership and direction from above with initiative, creativity, and interaction from below--taking into account the nation's special social, cultural, and linguistic circumstances--to meet the challenges of the 21st century?

These issues confront many countries, but none more so than Singapore due to its multicultural history, its leadership role in information technology, and its integration in the global economy. Many eyes will be on Singapore as it struggles with this dilemma.


Castells, M. (1997). The power of identity. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Chieh, H. C. (1999). What it takes to sustain research and development in a small, developed nation in the 21st century. In L. Low (Ed.), Singapore: Towards a developed status (pp. 25-36). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chua, B.-H. (1995). Communitarian ideology and democracy in Singapore. New York: Routledge.

Cuban, L. (1986). Teachers and machines: The classroom use of technology since 1920. New York: Teachers College Press.

Goh Chok Tong. (1999). Moulding the future of the nation, [Online Excepts of Speech]. Ministry of Education. Available: [1999, October 1].

Graddol, D. (1997). The future of English. London: The British Council.

Lee Kuan Yew. (1999, August 15). Singlish a 'handicap we do not wish on Singaporeans'. The Sunday Times, pp. 26.

Lee, T. Y. (1999). Singapore in economic transition. In L. Low (Ed.), Singapore: Towards a developed status (pp. 66-86). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Low, L. (1999a). The elusive developed country status. In L. Low (Ed.), Singapore: Towards a developed status (pp. 376-398). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Low, L. (Ed.). (1999b). Singapore: Towards a developed status. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pakir, A. (1997). Education and invisible language planning: The case of the English language in Singapore. In J. Tan, S. Gopinathan, & Ho Wah Kam (Eds.), Education in Singapore (pp. 57-74). Singapore: Prentice Hall.

The Purpose of National Education. (1999). The purpose of national education, [Online Information]. Singaporean Ministry of Education. Available: [1999, October 1].

United Nations Development Programme. (1999). Human development report 1999: Globalization with a human face. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Available online:

Warschauer, M. (in press). Language, identity, and the Internet. In B. Kolko, L. Nakamura, & G. Rodman (Eds.), Race and Cyberspace . New York: Routledge.

Yeo, S., & Mahizhnan, A. (1999, August 15). Censorship: Rules of the game are changing. The Sunday Times, pp. 34-35.


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Last updated: October 8, 1999