, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 97-114
Date: 30 Dec 2009

‘Burdens’ and ‘handicaps’ in Singapore’s language policy: on the limits of language management

Abstract

Singapore’s language policy has no place for either the various dialects of Chinese (the exception is Mandarin), or Singlish (a colloquial variety of English). These have been the targets of government campaigns that aim, as far as possible, to ensure that Singaporeans stop using them. However, it is interesting to observe that government officials themselves have been known to use these ostensibly denigrated varieties, as has happened in the course of political campaigns, public health messages or other public events. This paper therefore addresses the question of why the Singapore government would engage in the very same linguistic practices that it attempts to proscribe. In addressing this question, the paper argues that it is important to appreciate that the dialects and Singlish are sociolinguistically distinct. Unlike the dialects, Singlish is not as extensive a social language. This distinction is not usually appreciated in official discourses, which employ essentially the same metadiscursive regimes towards both Singlish and the dialects. As a consequence, the government is unable to sufficiently recognize the different practical challenges posed by the dialects and Singlish. The paper closes by suggesting that the problems encountered by the government in dealing with the dialects and Singlish can provide useful insights into the limits of language management, which refers to the explicit attempts by relevant authorities to control the language choices available to a targeted group of speakers.