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Four Tongues, One Nation: Unpacking Singapore’s Bilingual Policy

Image: Credits to iStock (iStock: Kokkal Ng)

In this Explainer, find out...

  • Why did Singapore introduce a policy of bilingualism?

  • How has the bilingual policy evolved over the decades?

  • What are the benefits and challenges of the bilingual policy?


From the quadrilingual ‘Danger — Keep Out!’ signs dotted across Singapore’s streets to the symphony of languages in classrooms, the island-state’s linguistic diversity is nothing short of marvellous. While strifes based on language afflict other countries, Singapore has long been a model for peaceful linguistic pluralism in no small part due to the legacy of our bilingual policy. 

Often referred to as the ‘cornerstone’ of the nation’s language planning, the success of the bilingual policy is a remarkable feat. However, the policy is not without its shortcomings and challenges. Read on to find out more about the history of the bilingual policy, its important developments, as well as its implications on modern-day Singapore.

What is the Bilingual Policy?

The bilingual policy remains at the forefront of Singapore’s language education today, leaving a lasting impact on youths who have been educated under this system. The policy mandates the learning of two languages from primary school to secondary school. In particular, it emphasises the cultivation of English- knowing bilingualism, which refers to proficiency in English and one other language. In Singapore’s case, the second language that students learn will correspond with their ethnic identity (i.e. Mandarin Chinese for Chinese, Malay for the Malay community and Tamil for the Indians). This second language is commonly referred to as one’s ‘mother tongue language’, even though the term, in the technical sense, refers strictly to one’s first language. 

In addition to the mandatory learning of two languages, annual nationwide campaigns are organised as part of the policy. They serve to promote the learning and speaking of mother tongue languages as well as to encourage the use of grammatically correct English among Singaporeans.¹ As such, this policy encompasses a multitude of different efforts to maintain and bolster its success throughout the years. 

Foundations of the Bilingual Policy

Intelligibility and Identity 

A fundamental belief behind the bilingual policy at the time of its conception was that there existed functional differences between English and other Asian languages spoken in Singapore.² English mainly served as the language of commerce, science and technology. To prosper, there was a prevailing necessity for Singapore to speak a language intelligible to major economic powers like Britain. Meanwhile, other tongues such as Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil served as important carriers of heritage because they encoded aspects of our cultural identity. These languages were also deemed important in preserving the connection with Asian tradition. 

Ultimately, English-knowing bilingualism sought to reconcile the tension between intelligibility and identity. Though English was important, a Singapore that was monolingual in English would impede the transmission of Asian culture through language. The Government also believed that English, being an inherently Western language, could not be treated as an official mother tongue (in the first language sense) in an Asian-rooted society.³ Thus, another language corresponding to our cultural identity was needed as the mother tongue language to complement English. 

Equality and Harmony

Besides a need to balance intelligibility and identity, the bilingual policy was pursued in the interest of equality. In the post-colonial era, English was posited as a neutral language because no major ethnic group in Singapore could claim overt ownership over it. This was particularly crucial to prevent preferential treatment toward any ethnic group, thereby avoiding racial inequality and interracial tensions. 

Social cohesion was an important facet of Singapore’s development, therefore, English was suitable to be both a lingua franca and the main administrative language. With English as the official working language of the nation, opportunities for success were accessible to all. 


It is no secret that along with English, three other languages were also given official recognition — Chinese, Malay and Tamil. This decision was significant as it signalled the commitment to retain astrong sense of identity through language. Furthermore, it outlined a common language for each race, promoting intra-racial communication. Most importantly, all four languages are treated equally. 

Social Context 

Before the language reforms, the multiplicity of languages in Singapore made it difficult to achieve social unity and stability. The majority of the Chinese living in Singapore spoke a variety of dialects (such as Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew), with little using Mandarin as their home language. Tamil was the home language for approximately 60% of the Indian population, and Malay was the home language of most of the Malay population. Linguistic diversity posed inevitable issues in communication and social unity as people were less likely to interact with people of different linguistic backgrounds. 

In addition, the education system divided students based on their vernacular (i.e., their home language) and naturally, based on race. At the time, there were some English-medium schools backed by the colonial government. However, most students were ethnically segregated and enrolled in private schools where the medium of instruction corresponded with their vernacular. This became a pressing concern for the Government. If left unaddressed, Singapore would be divided along linguistic and racial lines, rendering it more difficult to achieve social stability. 

Timeline of the Bilingual Policy

Beginnings of the Bilingual Policy (1959)

Then-Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew made his first speech about bilingualism at the Ministry of Education(MOE)’s Rally of Teachers in 1959. He addressed educators on the relevance of bilingual education, asserting that “what (was) in the balance (was) the very basis, the very foundations, of our society.” He marshalled teachers in support of English-knowing bilingualism, emphasising the importance of social cohesion and a strong sense of cultural belonging. Thus began the decades-long drive towards bilingualism. 

Initial Implementation of Bilingual Policy (1959 - 1980s) 

Compulsory Second Language

By 1966, learning a second language was made compulsory for all students enrolled in primary and secondary schools.¹⁰ Those studying in English-medium schools had to learn any one of the other official languages and those studying in vernacular schools had to learn English. Some other subjects were also taught in the second language to create greater opportunities for learning and exposure. 


In 1966, second languages also became compulsory examinable subjects in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). In 1969, the same applied to the Cambridge School Certificate examination, which was taken in the last year of secondary school.¹¹ 

Notably, in 1963, the first language subject (i.e. English for those in English-medium schools, Chinese/Malay/ Tamil for those in vernacular schools) was given double weightage at PSLE.¹² This meant that, in the calculation of overall PSLE scores, the first language subject held twice the weight of marks as compared to each of the other three subjects (i.e. 40% weightage for first language and 20% each for second language,Mathematics and Science). Later in 1973, the second language was also granted double weightage. This emphasised that both language subjects were equally important,¹³ incentivising students to prioritise the learning of the two languages. 


In the early years, the bilingual policy was not effective in producing bilingual students. According to MOE’s 1978 findings, over 60% of students who sat for PSLE and General Certificate of Education (GCE) O-Levels had failed at least one of their language subjects.¹⁴ Moreover, attrition rates in primary and secondary schools remained high. 

The main weakness identified was that standardised syllabi failed to cater to the varying ability levels that students exhibited.¹⁵ This was further exacerbated by the discrepancy between the languages taught in school and those spoken at home. In particular, Mandarin was unfamiliar to students whose actual mother tongue was Chinese dialects. As a result, language competency of students across Singapore remained low and the initial aims of the policy were not achieved. 

Recent Developments of Bilingual Policy (1980s-) 

Differentiated Bilingual Education

Differentiated bilingual education was essential in supporting the varying linguistic competency of students. This would manifest under Singapore’s new system of Streaming. Streaming became a key component of Singapore’s education system in the 1980s, catering to the different learning needs of students. This replaced the ineffective one-size-fits-all system which was previously identified to be the cause of low achievement in language subjects. 

Later, in 2001, a simplified syllabus for Chinese was introduced after a review indicated that the textbooks used were too challenging.¹⁶ At the same time, Higher Chinese was increasingly offered as an option for more advanced students. Similarly, Malay and Tamil had both ‘B’ syllabi and Higher levels.¹⁷ By accommodating the diverse range of students’ linguistic abilities, differentiated learning allowed students to study their mother tongue language at their preferred pace.

SAP Schools

Under the impression that English opened more career prospects for their children, most parents opted for English-medium schools by the end of the 1970s.¹⁸  This resulted in a decline in enrollment in vernacular schools, including Chinese schools. 

The Special Assistance Plan (SAP) was thus introduced in 1979 as a long-term scheme to preserve the best Chinese-stream schools. They were tasked to develop effectively bilingual students who were inculcated with traditional Chinese values.¹⁹ With this, the Bicultural Studies Programme (BSP) was also introduced to SAP schools to cultivate bilingual talents for the country.²⁰ This would allow Singapore to strengthen its professional engagements with China, which was deemed a rising superpower. 

Language Campaigns

In recent years, a steep decline in mother tongue proficiency has been seen across schools in Singapore.²¹ This is especially pertinent to the Malay and Tamil languages since there is a lack of extracurricular enrichment or tuition enrichment targeted towards them.²² Manpower shortage has also posed challenges to mother tongue education in Singapore. This is seen in the inability of schools to push forward with their mother tongue curriculum expansion plans due to a lack of teachers. This lack can be attributed to low interest among Singaporeans to become mother tongue teachers, as well as strict quotas in employing foreign workers.²³ 

With schools struggling to meet the demands of a successful bilingual education, language campaigns have been added to the bilingual education scene. Language campaigns under the bilingual policy include the Speak Mandarin Campaign (SMC), Malay Language Month (MLM), Tamil Language Festival (TLF) and the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM). 

These language campaigns help to plug the gaps in the status quo by providing students from all cultural backgrounds ample opportunities to appreciate their language and immerse themselves in the rich traditions of their cultures. MLM and TLF promote conversations in the mother tongue by infusing cultural activities such as the performing arts and food tasting. Meanwhile, SMC actively reminds the Chinese community to speak Mandarin wherever and whenever possible through community engagement events.²⁴  However, in its early years, SMC primarily sought to eliminate Chinese dialects by promoting the adoption of Mandarin. SMC has since shifted its focus to strengthening the appreciation of Chinese heritage and values. 

Language campaigns act as a constant reminder for Singaporeans to stay true to their roots while they use English extensively in school and at the workplace. It is through these intricately-planned initiatives that a sense of pride and identity is instilled within Singaporeans, young and old, to speak their mother tongue. They also help to infuse the mother tongue languages into daily life through a myriad of different meaningful activities, in turn, bringing the bilingual policy to greater heights.

Media and Entertainment

In their bid to encourage more youths to speak their mother tongue, language campaigns have found also their way into Singapore’s media and entertainment industry. The MandarinCool campaign under the SMC, first introduced in 2004, employed popular culture, arts and reading material to influence the Chinese population to speak Mandarin well. This initiative not only managed to reach the youth but also the elderly, encouraging more Singaporean Chinese households to speak Mandarin instead of dialects.

Bilingualism in Today's Context 

Benefits of Bilingualism Today  

While the initial objective of the bilingual policy was to achieve an English-speaking work environment while preserving mother tongue use for cultural purposes, the benefits that are potentially brought about by this policy have expanded further today. 

With an increasingly globalised world and the rising economic status of Asian countries such as Indonesia, India and China, the application of mother tongue languages is no longer limited to their original intent. Rather, it is now crucial for tapping the vast economic opportunities emerging in such Asian countries, highlighting how mother tongue languages now also have practical value for Singaporeans. This sentiment is shared by the Government as well, with Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Heng Swee Keat acknowledging that “with Asia’s economic growth and growing linkages to the world, Singapore seeks to be a global-Asia node. Bilingualism will give our people a competitive advantage and open up exciting new opportunities.”²⁵

Besides the economic advantage offered by bilingualism, it has also been shown that bilingual children have greater mental agility and are better able to multitask and focus on complex tasks.²⁶ Moreover, there are even studies suggesting that bilingualism may better protect against dementia, going to show the cognitive benefits that bilingualism can bring.²⁷ 

Additionally, the objective of English serving as a common medium of communication across all races is now more relevant than ever, given how the world is seeing more fragmentation.  It is of great value when a common language can be used to bridge different languages, cultures, and perspectives by sharing insights from different cultures while learning from one another.²⁸ This facilitates the wider goal of encouraging interracial interaction and understanding. 

Challenges Facing Bilingual Policy Today 

While the original policy intention was to get locals to speak standard English for work settings and their mother tongue for cultural preservation purposes, this did not materialise completely. Rather, mother tongue languages exerted a strong influence on spoken English. This gave rise to Singlish and has become most common in ‘peer group, sibling, adult–child and even adult–adult interactions’.²⁹ As such, while the Government initially envisioned English for use for work and Mother Tongue in social settings, the lines became blurred, giving rise to a local variant of spoken English. More on Singlish can be found in our Policy Explainer on Singlish and the SGEM.

Another prominent challenge facing the bilingual policy is its less-than-ideal effectiveness in encouraging proficiency in the mother tongue and connecting one to his or her cultural roots. While schools can allocate lessons for the mother tongue, students spend a significant amount of time at home. As such, parents play an important role in fostering their efficacy in the language.³¹ However, parents today may not be able to fulfil this role, leading to a decline in mother tongue competence. This is evidenced by the increase of children predominantly English when they enter school, up from 28% in 1991 to 59% in 2010 for Chinese students.³² This highlights how the benefits of the bilingual policy may not necessarily be reaped in today’s context given the lack of opportunities to practise their mother tongue from a young age. 


Language, and our attitudes towards it, are always changing. As detailed in this Policy Explainer, language planning is no easy task. Yet, the bilingual policy has achieved much in the years of its implementation. The policy is unequivocally felt in many crucial areas of Singapore’s development — be it in the cultivation of cultural identity, in crafting street signs or in establishing our place in a globalising world. Next time you come across the all-too-familiar ‘Danger’ sign in our four official languages, stop, and consider the journey that these languages charted in the decades of Singapore’s past. 

MAJU PE_2024_08_Four Tongues, One Nation_ Unpacking Singapore's Bilingual Policy - Google
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This Policy Explainer was written by members of MAJU. MAJU is an independent, youth-led organisation that focuses on engaging Singaporean youths in a long-term research process to guide them in jointly formulating policy ideas of their own. 

By sharing our unique youth perspectives, MAJU hopes to contribute to the policymaking discourse and future of  Singapore.

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