By Clarissa Oon & Goh Chin Lian
ENGLISH will remain Singapore's master language even as the country nurtures more bilingual talents who can do business with China, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said yesterday.
'The command of English is a decisive factor for the career path and promotion prospects of all Singaporeans.
'For Chinese Singaporeans and those who want to study Chinese, Mandarin will be an added economic advantage with a thriving economy in China for many years to come,' he said.
Even new residents from China know they will not go far without an adequate grasp of English, he added.
'And they are pushing their children to master English, otherwise they will be disadvantaged in getting places in our good schools and universities, and in getting scholarships and eventually jobs.'
However, he drew the line at making it a requirement for permanent residents and new citizens to be fluent in English.
'We cannot make (the requirements for residency) so onerous that they will not come, for example, by requiring permanent residents or new citizens to be fluent in English, which even some existing citizens are not.'
His remarks at a constituency dinner follow a recent debate in The Straits Times Forum pages on whether Mandarin is slowly replacing English as the language on the streets, and its consequences for Singapore's multiracial society.
One ST reader, Ms Amy Loh, wrote how Geylang has evolved from a racially mixed, multilingual area into an enclave for new residents from China, with a growing prevalence of Chinese-only shop signs.
Another letter writer, Mr Samuel Owen, said it is becoming increasingly difficult to order in English in some Chinese restaurants and shops because many workers from China cannot speak English.
While agreeing that Mandarin proficiency was important to Singapore society, Mr Owen urged the Government to strike a balance between that and English as a lingua franca.
MM Lee called on Singaporeans to give the new arrivals from China some time to adapt to life here. 'It is not easy to adjust to a different society, multiracial, multilingual, multi-religious, with different customs and ways of life,' he said.
People also need to be circumspect about the Government encouraging Singaporeans to speak more Mandarin and take scholarships to study in China's top universities
Said MM Lee: 'Do not be misled by the emphasis on Chinese language and culture.
'It does not mean we are displacing English as our working and common language, our first language.'
One new immigrant who made a concerted effort to improve his English was Mr Sam Sun, 39, who had difficulty communicating in the language when he arrived here from Beijing 15 years ago.
The computer engineer and Tanjong Pagar GRC resident improved his English through lessons offered by a church here, and later when he pursued a law degree.
The effort he put in meant that his Singaporean neighbour Rajajwe Velayudan, 41, had no trouble understanding him when they first met at a block party two years ago.
'I could understand his English even though he had an accent. Having more gatherings helps us to open up to one another,' says Mr Rajajwe.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.