Use of Chinese Dialects

MP Dennis Tan

Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong (Hougang): Mr Chairman, I use dialects routinely when I communicate with many of my residents every day and many of them are middle-aged to elderly residents. But I have also observed that in many families, most young children do not understand dialects. At best, a small number may understand dialects as they hear their grandparents communicate with them in dialects. But many may not speak or speak competently. I am concerned at this rate there may hardly be some any Singaporeans below 50 who will be conversant in our Chinese dialects in another 20 or 30 years.

The MCCY has previously affirmed that Chinese dialects are part of the Singapore Chinese culture and heritage. As part of the different Chinese migrant groups coming to Singapore in the early years of Singapore, our forefathers come from different parts of Southern China and brought their different dialects to Singapore, together with the dialect group culture. Our dialect group heritage is part of our Singaporean Chinese cultural heritage.

Beyond the speaking of dialect, it is important to preserve knowledge among all Singaporean Chinese of the cultural heritage of our dialect groups, which may include culture, customs and food.

How many of our young Singaporeans have good knowledge of the cultural practices of their dialect group? Recently, I asked a 13-year-old student, what is his dialect group. He shrugged his shoulders and said that he did not know. 

With an ageing population and a younger generation who have a limited exposure to dialect, we are reaching a tipping point. Transferring culture and heritage does not happen overnight and the runway to do so is growing ever shorter. Once this culture and heritage dies off, there is no way of re-building it. We should ask ourselves whether we can do more to preserve this intangible heritage.

I applaud the existing efforts of many of our clan associations in the promotion of the use of dialects as well as the customs, practices and culture of our dialect groups despite the modern cultural challenges.

While our clan associations do offer dialect classes, offering dialects as a third language option at the MOE Language Centre and our Institutes of Higher Learning can be an option to instill interest and promote knowledge. NUS saw a great demand when they offered dialect modules in 2020.

Can the Government do more to enhance the learning and speaking of dialects as well as promoting the knowledge of our customs, practices and culture of our various dialect groups among younger Singaporeans?

Will the Government consider lifting the general ban on TV and radio dialect programmes which is in place since 1981 which can signal to many Singaporeans who take the cue from the Government?

Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth
6 March 2023

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