Mr Lee on…

Dear Mr Lee,

I refer to the 6 Sept 2011 Straits Times report of your comments on Singapore’s bilingualism. You said you got Singapore to go for English as first language because that connected us to the world, to modern sciences, to commerce and made Singapore what it is.

The Germans, Swiss, Japanese, Taiwanese, Koreans, Chinese and Hong Kongers do not go for English as their first language. But that did not prevent them from getting connected to the world, to modern sciences and to commerce or prevent them from becoming what they are today. There is no evidence that mastering English as a first language was key to our prosperity.

Many Singaporeans credit you with the foresight for recognising English’s economic value and for promoting its use in Singapore. What is less commonly known is that English’s ascent to its preeminent position today in Singapore began long before you came to power. According to Page 4 of the book “Singapore English: a grammatical description” edited by Lisa Lim, it was already obvious during colonial times that English had many material advantages; enrolment in English medium schools was already 27,000 before the Japanese Occupation and that Chinese medium schools were already teaching English; after the Second World War, English became even more lingua franca due to US global power; throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the British promoted English medium schools so that enrolment in English medium schools rose from 32% in 1947 to 43% in 1952 and then overtook enrolment in Chinese medium schools by the end of the 1950s which is about the time you took power.

Page 150 of the book “Singapore: wealth, power and the culture of control” by Carl A. Trocki tells of English medium schools increasing at a faster rate than Chinese medium schools as early as 1950 and that by 1954, more students were enrolled in English medium schools than Chinese ones.

Quite clearly, many people already understood the usefulness of English long before you came along. Given such evidence, we should not go away with the idea that the promotion of English was your wisdom and foresight alone. You merely continued with a trend that began after the Second World War, albeit more ruthlessly perhaps.


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