The management of multilingual and multicultural communities in Singapore

Year: 2001

Author: Saravanan, Vanithamani

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The Island State of Singapore comprises diverse, disparate multilingual communities, which vary in the amount of access that they have to power, status, and management of their language. Political and economic stability and growth have contributed towards socialising many Singaporeans into a common national, social identity (Gopinathan, 1998). How do these multilingual communities forge their links to culture and identity? In 1965 the formula adopted was that of portraying the Singapore nation as a unique ethnic mosaic and the key terms used were multiculturalism and unity in diversity symbolised by the four official languages where educational policies had to be ethnically balanced. The seventies were an attempt at constructing a framework for the underlying themes and models of Singaporean culture. The concept of multiculturalism has allowed the different communities to display their identity through ethnicity, language, religion and other cultural elements. The paper will look at current political discourse on the conceptualisation of multilingualism and multiculturalism in Singapore. It will discuss ideological frameworks used by government agencies to develop a common Singaporean identity but one that retains the separate distinctive linguistic and cultural identities. The conceptual framework that is used to identify multilingual, multicultural identity is not that simple and clear as linguistic and socio-cultural stereotyping is used to ascribe characteristics of ethnic, linguistic, cultural and social identity to Singaporeans with labels that range from 'Chinese-educated' to 'English -educated', 'Chinese elite', to 'Malay elite', 'heartlanders' to 'cosmopolitans' (Saravanan, 1998). Chua (1999) refers to the corporatist characterisation of the Singaporean State to explain the development and implications of its ethnic management policies. The paper will consider implications arising out of socio-linguistic policies for smaller communities. Where do smaller linguistic communities in the Island State of Singapore fit in? Thus to be more Singaporean in one less Chinese, Indian, Malay? Do smaller linguistic communities such as the Indian and Malay communities belong to a conceptual framework of a homogeneous Singapore identity or to a separate, distinctive, ethnolinguistic, bicultural identity or within hybrid bilingual, multilingual identities within a Singaporean identity?