Cultural Identity and Modernization in Asian Countries

The Case Singapore Model

Eddie C. Y. KUO

Most developing countries in South and Southeast Asia are constantly confronted with the problems of ethnic and cultural diversity. The presence of competing ethnic and cultural groups in these states generally means that the establishment of new nationhood requires the cultivation of a new national identity. This emergent national identity can be achieved either through an expansion and elevation of an indigenous ethnic/cultural identity imposing upon other "less" indigenous and usually minority groups, or through the development of a new supra-ethic identity treating various ethnic groups on an equal standing. In either case, it is expected that the emergence of a new national identity is no likely to be natural or spontaneous. The crucial problem faced by these new multi-ethnic states is thus the potential conflict between loyalty to one's ethnic community and loyalty to the wider national community. The essential question is how the two can be reconciled rapidly and smoothly to facilitate the process of nation-building.

The problem is further complicated as the different ethnic groups often speak different languages and demonstrate loyalty to their respective linguistic tradition. Linguistic diversity thus tends to lead to a low level of communicative integration, making modernization a long and difficult process in these countries.

Singapore is one of such multiethnic countries in Southeast Asia, with about 77% Chinese, 15% Malays, 6% Indians and 2% of other smaller ethnic groups. The complexity of the sociolinguistic situation in Singapore is reflected in the existence of four official languages in this island state of 2.4 million population. (For a detailed analysis of the sociolinguistic situation in Singapore, see Kuo, 1980).

At the time of Independence, the leaders of Singapore decided that there would be four official languages in the Republic. Malay, Chinese (Mandarin), and Tamil were selected to represent three ethnic-cultural traditions in Singapore, and English because of its international status and Singapore's colonial background.

Of the four official languages, Malay is designated the national language, reflection both the historical and national position of the island-state. The role of the national language, however, is almost exclusively symbolic at the official level, used in the National Anthem and military commands. As a national language, Malay is however not taught as a compulsory subject in school for the non-Malays, and a person need not pass a national language test to become a naturalized citizen of Singapore.

English, as the non-ethnic and thus neutral official language, has over the year evolved to become the de facto dominant working language in Singapore. It is the high language for all formal official functions and the only language taught in all schools at all levels. As more and more of the younger generation Singaporeans are going through the formal educational system, the trend toward the increasing use of English in all domains seems sure to continue.

The other official language, Tamil, as the language chosen to represent the Indian population in Singapore, is in a rather weak position. The Indian community in Singapore is not only small but also diversified in language and religion. As more and more Indian families are shifting to using English as the home language, the position of Tamil appears to be weakening.

Chinese Mandarin is not the mother tongue for the majority of the Chinese. Yet historically,, the national language of China has long been accepted by the Chinese in Singapore (and indeed Southeast Asia) as the language to officially represent the ethnic Chinese. It is the language taught and used as the medium of instruction in Chinese schools. It is also used among the Chinese-educated as the high language for official and formal functions. For the informal occasions, Hokkien, the mother tongue of the major Chinese dialect group, has long been the lingua franca, highly functional in many social domains.

From the above discussion, it is clear that Singapore society is characterized with the co-existence of several competitive cultural traditions. There is at the same time the lack of a strong indigenous host culture and host language. It is quite unlikely therefore that there can be rapid cultural and linguistic assimilation, with the Singapore society as the "melting pot," among the heterogeneous population. Cultural and linguistic pluralism is adopted by the leadership and accepted by the majority of the population as the guiding policy option in this multiethnic society. According to Stewart, language planning policies of new states generally fall into two types of strategies: (1) the eventual elimination, by education or decree, of all but one language, which is to remain as the national language; (2) the recognition and preservation of important languages within the national territory, supplemented by the adoption of one or more languages for official purposes and for communication across language boundaries within the nation (Stewart,1968: 540)

Of these two strategies, the first one clearly aims at eliminating linguistic diversity, and is usually part of a more general policy of eventually assimilating all ethnic minorities into a "national" culture. The second approach is more tolerant of cultural diversity, and usually reflects an official policy of cultural pluralism. The second approach is clearly the policy being adopted in Singapore today.

In the cases of the latter strategy, the underlying policy rationalizations are most clearly presented by Nayar:

This policy...partakes of a general strategy which seeks to establish a national loyalty and identity without destroying subnational ties, the strategy of "unity in diversity." Such a strategy endeavors to build a national loyalty over and above local loyalties, moderating and domesticating the latter but not eliminating them...It endeavors, in good measure, to build and sustain national loyalty on the part of citizen, indirectly, through providing gratification to the diverse groups. (1969: 10)

Kelman (1971) analyses the problem from a socio-psychological point of view. He points out that sentimental society pose a potential barrier to participation in the national system and to the development of a national identity. However, he believes that so long as the existing socio-political structure is effective enough to satisfy the basic needs of the individual and his ethnic/language community, the resultant instrumental attachments may eventually lead to sentimental attachments to the new state and then to the emergence of a new national identity.

Accordingly, in such new states, language policies ought to be based entirely on functional considerations:

That is, in selecting languages for various purposes... central authorities ought to be concerned primarily with two issues: (1) how to establish and facilitate patterns of communication... that would enable its socio-economic institutions to function most effectively and equitably in meeting the needs and interests of the population; and (2) how to assure that different groups within the society... have equal access to the system and opportunities to participate in it. (Kelman, 1971:40)

In the light of the above discussion, it becomes easier to understand the general strategy of the language policy being adopted in Singapore in relation to nation-building and national development.

The general language policy of Singapore can best be described as multi-lingualism or linguistic pluralism, which prescribes that all four official languages should be treated as equal. In actual practice, however, few would argue seriously that all the four official languages can be treated exactly equal. Among the four, English has evolved to become a de facto working language, functioning as a unifying working language at the national level. This is a policy that satisfies both "issues" suggested by Kelman. On the one hand, the use of English promotes economic progress for both society as a whole and its individual speakers. It is in other words, the language of modernization. On the other hand, English is a non-native language in which none of the major ethnic groups is at an advantage over the others. The use of this "neutral" language helps rule out any substantial inter-ethnic conflict based on the language issue in Singapore.

The status and function of English in Singapore are most clearly delineated in relation to economic development and modernization. It is often pointed out that Singapore lives by trade and that the language of that trade is English. The use of English in Singapore thus greatly aids the attraction of overseas capital, trade and industrial investment. As a dominant international language, English is also believed to provide access to the vast range of technical and organizational knowledge of the West.

English, which is not an ethnic mother tongue, is also promoted in Singapore as the lingua franca of inter-ethnic communication. In fact, many researchers have found that the learning of English is associated with a loyalty to Singapore that can facilitate the emergence of a supra-ethnic Singapore identity. Yet this stronger feeling of Singapore identity and presumably a lower level of ethnocentrism are achieved at the cost of a more superficial association with the ethnic culture. It seems that only when one is free from sentimental attachments to his own ethnic tradition can be progressively look forward and develop a new identity at the supra-ethnic level. The dilemma is that, while it is desirable to maintain certain sentimental attachments to one's own ethnic-cultural tradition, this may hinder the development of a new identity, which can best be built initially only on an instrumental basis.

As an international language, English not only opens the door to modern technology and skills, but also makes available to its speakers the mass culture of the West, which often conflicts with traditional cultural values. The danger is, as the Prime Minister Mr. Lee Kuan Yew pointed out several years ago, that too much emphasis on English may lead to the "detrimental effects of deculturalization," of producing "anaemic, uprooted floating citizens without the social cohesiveness and the cultural impetus that give the people the drive and the will to succeed as a group" (quoted in Josey, 1971:346).

Confronted with the dilemma, Singapore's answer to the problem is the provision of bilingual education. The practice of bilingualism prescribes that all pupils must learn two languages from Primary One onward. The two languages are English and one of the ethnic languages. Subjects such as mathematics and science are taught in English, the language of modernization; while history and civics (moral education) are taught in the respective ethnic language. It is believed that the learning of the ethnic language can lead to an appreciation and hence retention of ethnic cultural values and traditions. It also satisfies the need for sentimental attachments to the ethnic culture.

The role of language policy in Singapore in relation to nation-building is therefore to cultivate instrumental attachments by maintaining a high level of economic development, presumably through the use and spread of English. At the same time, traditional values are retained through the continues use of ethnic language. Hopefully, the process should lead eventually to sentimental attachments to the new state, to a higher level of cultural integration, and perhaps to the emergence of a supra-ethinic national identity.


Deutsch, Karl W.
1966Nationalism and Social Communication, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Josey, Alex
1971Lee Kuan Yew, rev ed., Singapore, Asia Pacific Press.
Kelman, Helbert C.
1971"Language as an Aid and Barrier to Involvement in the National System", Can Language Be Planned? eds. Joan Rubin and Bjorn H. Jernudd, Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.
Kuo, Eddie C. Y.
1980"The Sociolingustic Situation in Singapore," in Language and Society in Singapore, eds. E. Afendras and K. Kuo, Singapore: Singapore University Press.
Nayar, Balder Raj
1969National Communication and Language Policy in India, New York, Praeger.
Stewert, William A.
1968"An outline Sociolingustic Typology for Describing National Multi-lingualism," in Readings in the Sociology of Language, ed. J. A, Fishman, the Hague: Mouton.