China and the World

Speaking the same language

English set to be replaced as Singapore’s first language – by Mandarin

Speaking the same language

Putonghua, please...

When Deng Xiaoping travelled to southern China in 1992 to campaign for faster economic liberalisation, he seems to have liked what he saw: “Singapore’s social order is rather good. Its leaders exercise strict management. We should learn from their experience, and we should do a better job than they do.”

No surprise, perhaps. The city-state is governed by a single political party, bans pornography and punishes corruption mercilessly. There is no spitting or littering in public.

Less than two decades later, China’s cleanliness still has some catching up to do. But, in a reversal of fortune, Singapore is now looking to China for growth.

The financial crisis has taken a toll on Singapore’s export-dependent economy, reducing annual economic growth to 1.1% in 2008, compared with 8.2% annually between 2004 to 2007. Strengthening ties with China has become increasingly crucial for its future.

China is expected to become Singapore’s largest single market for non-oil exports this year, overtaking the US, reckons Irvin Seah, an economist at DBS.

Chinese firms are also extending their reach into Southeast Asia. Early this week, Huaneng Power International, China’s largest listed power producer, announced that it had received state loans to fund a $4 billion acquisition of Tuas Power, one of the three main power producers in Singapore.

Singaporeans are also being urged to improve their fluency in spoken and written Mandarin. This is a dramatic deviation from previous policy (English has long been the first language). Then again, it shouldn’t be too hard: the majority of Singapore’s population (about 75%) is ethnically Chinese. Most of them already speak some Mandarin at home.

The government wants to use these bilingual language skills to cash in on China’s economic success, says Reuters.

“Both English and Mandarin are important, because in different situations you use either language,” says Eng Yee Lay, a shopkeeper in Singapore’s Chinatown. “But Mandarin has become more important.”

That is the view too of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore. Recently Lee told the domestic press that Singaporeans who speak good Mandarin will find new opportunities opening up. He even went so far to say that in two generations, Mandarin will become the city-state’s mother tongue.

“That’s why I advise Singaporeans to make sure their Chinese is up to scratch, because now it’s a valuable extra opportunity,” says Lee.

Singapore has a lot more at stake in China too. Temasek Holdings, its sovereign wealth fund, revealed recently that it has about a quarter of its portfolio invested there. Only Singapore itself has received more Temasek money.

The Lion City’s ties with China run deep. The population of the city-state is dominated by the descendants of immigrants who fled the Chinese mainland generations ago. These people later became some of the first foreign investors after Deng’s market reforms. The two governments have collaborated on major projects like an industrial park in Suzhou and an “eco-city” in Tianjin.

Among the Singaporean investors active in China are offshore oil-rig builder Keppel, water-treatment company Hyflux and property developer CapitaLand.

CapitaLand announced early this month that it plans to double the value of its assets in China to $8 billion, or 45% of total assets.

“As long as China grows 7 to 8% a year in the foreseeable future,” says Chong Lit Cheong, chief executive of IE Singapore, a state agency that promotes companies’ investments abroad, “we will continue to have a bigger presence there.”

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