Speak Mandarin Campaign

Singapore Infopedia


The Speak Mandarin Campaign was launched on 7 September 1979 by the then prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. The campaign was initially started to simplify the language environment, improve communication among Chinese Singaporeans from the various dialect groups, and create a Mandarin-speaking environment in support of the national bilingual education policy. Over the years, the campaign has evolved and expanded its goals to include the promotion of Chinese culture in general among Chinese Singaporeans.

In 1966, the Singapore government decided to adopt a bilingual education policy in which English would be promoted as a first language due to its prominence as the language of international trade. This was to ensure that Singaporeans would be able to effectively participate in the global economy. Singaporeans would also learn their respective mother tongues, such as Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, so as to remain in touch with their culture and heritage.

By the 1970s, the continuing use of dialects among the majority of Chinese Singaporeans was hampering the successful implementation of the bilingual education policy. The media reported that there was in fact an increasing preference to speak dialects among members of the Chinese community. The then senior parliamentary secretary of the Ministry of Culture, Dr Ow Chin Hock, expressed his concern that the Chinese community would communicate predominantly in English and dialect should the trend be allowed to continue.

To address this trend, a committee was formed in August 1979 to oversee the launch of the Speak Mandarin Campaign. The committee was made up of representatives from the Chinese press, cultural and educational bodies, industrial and commercial trade affiliates, and clan associations. The committee was headed by Ow and its task was to coordinate the plans and activities of the respective groups involved in the campaign so as to avoid duplication of efforts.

The Speak Mandarin Campaign was official launched on 7 September 1979 by the then prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. The campaign’s official aims were stated as follows:
a. To simplify the language environment for Chinese Singaporeans;

b. To improve communication and understanding amongst Chinese Singaporeans; and
c. To create a Mandarin-speaking environment conducive to the successful implementation of the bilingual education programme.

Campaign evolution and slogans over the years
During the first ten years of the campaign, the top priority was to have Mandarin replace dialects as the lingua franca of the Chinese community. As such, the campaign slogans for this period were targeted at people who could speak some Mandarin but still felt more at ease communicating through dialects. Examples of such slogans include “Speak more Mandarin and less dialects” (1979), “Learn Mandarin, Speak Mandarin” (1981) and “Please speak Mandarin, your children’s future is in your hands” (1984).

By the late 1980s, the campaign had successfully persuaded the majority of Chinese Singaporeans to speak Mandarin instead of dialects. The focus of the campaign for the next decade was therefore expanded to include promoting Chinese culture in general. The target audience was also changed from blue-collar to white-collar workers. This shift in focus was reflected in the campaign slogans of the period, such as “If you’re Chinese, make a statement – in Mandarin” (1990), “Mandarin for Chinese Singaporeans: More than a language” (1991–1992) and “Mandarin: Use it or lose it” (1994–1995).

For the 20th anniversary of the campaign in 1998, the organising committee was renamed as the Promote Mandarin Council to reflect its wider role in promoting the language. A new council logo, a stylised version of the Chinese character for “door”, was also adopted. That same year, the campaign started targeting English-educated Chinese Singaporeans to encourage them to speak Mandarin. This moved was in response to research results indicating that this segment of the Chinese community was losing touch with the language. The new campaign goal was to build up a community of Chinese Singaporeans who would possess a high proficiency in Mandarin as well as an appreciation of Chinese culture, traditions and history.

Campaign activities over the years
Since its inception, the campaign has been promoting the use of Mandarin within the Chinese community through various publicity and outreach activities. For the 1982 campaign, Mandarin classes were conducted for Chinese civil servants and they were asked to refrain from using dialects during office hours. Mandarin classes were also conducted for members of the public. Two series of Mandarin lessons, “Conversational Mandarin” and “Reach for Mandarin”, were produced on cassette tapes and made available to the public with some 83,000 sets sold.

Between 1983 and 1987, Dial for Mandarin lessons were made available over the telephone line on a 24-hour basis to members of the public. The service proved popular, receiving an average of about 40,000 calls during peak hours.

For the 1998 edition of the campaign, the popular local comic book character Mr Kiasu was featured in a series of comic strips titled “Mr Kiasu Learns Mandarin” that were published on the campaign website and in The Sunday Times newspaper. The use of a comic book character was aimed towards providing a light-hearted way for the public to learn Mandarin.

In 2000, the council organised the first Mandarin Film Festival in support of the campaign. A total of 12 critically acclaimed films produced by some of China’s best producers and directors were screened during the festival.

In July 2012, the council celebrated the campaign’s 33rd anniversary by launching the iHuayu iPhone app. The smartphone software was designed as a bilingual language learning tool with a database containing some 50,000 commonly used business and Singapore-related terms in both English and Mandarin.

The results

The campaign did not take long to succeed in changing the language habits of Chinese Singaporeans. Predominantly dialect-speaking households fell from 76 percent of the population in 1980 to 48 percent in 1990, while Mandarin-speaking households rose over the same period from 13 to 30 percent. Surveys carried out 10 years after the campaign was first launched showed that 85 percent of the Chinese population aged 12 and above were able to speak Mandarin fairly well or fluently, compared with 76 percent in 1981.

The impact of the campaign was also strongly felt in public settings. In 1989, a survey showed that 83 percent of hawkers could converse in Mandarin compared to 30 percent in 1979. Hawkers speaking Mandarin in HDB markets also increased from 18 percent in 1986 to 49 percent in 1989. Customers using Mandarin rose from 19 percent to 43 percent over the same period.

Although most Chinese Singaporeans have now switched from speaking dialects to conversing in Mandarin, the campaign faces a continuing challenge to promote Chinese culture amidst the competing influence of Western popular culture in Singapore.

Lim Siew Yeen and Jessie Yak

Goal for common language among Chinese. (1979, August 13). The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Gopinathan, S. (1998). Language, society and education in Singapore: Issues and trends. Singapore: Times Academic Press.
(Call no.: RSING 306.4495957 LAN)

华人,华语,华文 [Mandarin: The Chinese connection]. (2000). 新加坡: 推广华语理事会.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 306.4495957 MAN)

Iswaran, S. (2009). Opening address by Mr S. Iswaran at the SIM University Public Forum: “Crossing cultures, bridging minds: A role for Singapore’s languages and literatures”. Retrieved from http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/speeches/2009/08/15/opening-address-by-mr-s-iswara.php

Launch a promote-Mandarin campaign. (1979, August 16). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Lee K. Y. (2012). My lifelong challenge: Singapore’s bilingual journey. Singapore: Straits Times Press.
(Call no.: RSING 306.4495957 LEE)

Lee to launch 'use Mandarin campaign'. (1979, September 7). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

New logo for Speak Mandarin Campaign. (1998, August 7). The Straits Times, p. 59. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Panel set up to promote Mandarin. (1979, August 17). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Speak Mandarin Campaign. (2013). About the Campaign. Retrieved from http://www.mandarin.org.sg/category/about-the-campaign/

Teo, Thomson S. H. (2002). Language planning and social transformation strategies to promote Speak Mandarin Campaign in Singapore. Research paper, National University of Singapore.
(Call no.: RSING q306.4495957 TEO)

推广华语运动开幕演讲专集, 1979–1989 [Compilation of launch speeches for the Speak Mandarin Campaign, 1979–1989]. (1989). 新加坡: 交通及新闻部, 推广华语秘书处.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 495.1095957 SPE)

Further resources
Kuo, E. C. Y. (1983). "Speak Mandarin Campaign" as a form of language planning in Singapore. Hawaii: Conference on Linguistic Modernization and Language Planning in Chinese-Speaking Communities.
(Call no.: RCLOS 306.4495957 KUO) 

The information in this article is valid as at 4 July 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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