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65th IFLA Council and General


Bangkok, Thailand, August 20 - August 28, 1999

Inter-generational cultural transmission in Singapore:
A brief discussion.

Chong Ching Liang
Oral History Centre
National Archives of Singapore


Singapore is noted for its economic competitiveness and educated workforce but its elevation to a near developed economy status sometimes masks the fact that it became an independent sovereign nation only 34 years ago. During the last three and half decades, Government Policies on education have always been directed towards developing Singapore economically and sometimes this narrow focus had unwittingly bring about the neglect of the non-economic and non-material aspects of Singapore's development. Consequently, the citizenry in the pursuit of material wealth had forsaken the cultural and artistic aspects. Times have changed. It is a nation that is beginning to look beyond the material developments of dollars and cents to developments of other kinds, such as those within cultural and civic spheres. It will also highlight the important role that the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) has as the custodian of the corporate memory of the government and the communities of Singapore. In addition, it also discusses the important role that the Oral History Centre (OHC), a unit within the NAS has to play in helping to collect and promote the collection of history and myths of the oral traditions. OHC's role is to collect records which fill in the gaps in written records, add colour and life to the understanding/learning of history. It will also discuss how oral history projects in schools when appropriately conceived could provide a bridge for the Singaporean Chinese community where the young may speak no dialect and the old may speak no Mandarin.


2. HISTORY: An Introduction

2.1 A Union That Failed

Year Zero for modern day Singapore Republic fell on August 9, 1965. Hitherto, the Singaporean political elite had always envisioned Singapore as part of the Malay peninsula. In 1963, Singapore had entered into what she had felt was the natural union with Malaya and the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak to form Malaysia. It was a tumultuous two and a half years. When the Separation occurred swiftly and suddenly, it was an act that left lasting effects on both the external and internal policies of Singapore. Externally, Singapore-Malaysia relations entered a new phase of country-to-country relations as opposed to operating within a federation of states. Internally, Singaporean leaders faced the harsh realities of rebuilding a nation without the rest of Malaysia as a hinterland. Swampy and virtually devoid of natural resources, the pioneering PAP government had to quickly formulate a series of policies that would enable Singapore to stand on its own.

2.2 Taking Stock

The post-independence government quickly realised that the only resource that Singapore had to fall back on was its population. This sole resource would be continuously developed and tweaked by the government via the various adjustments to the education until it could perform optimally to aid the economic development of the young nation. Fourteen years later, in 1979, Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee presented his landmark Education Report that resulted in a complete overhaul of the education system in Singapore, he said:

There is a wider perspective to this (acquiring competency in English). This relates to our competitive position, both in Southeast Asia and in relation to countries like South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Among the ASEAN states, as our wages increase year by year, we cannot remain competitive in labour-intensive industries for very much longer. But the edge that we have over all of them, except for the Philippines, is the large number of Singaporeans who can understand and use the English language. This would give us advantage in the service and high technology industries which we shall retain for a long time.

Goh Keng Swee (DPM/Minister of Education, In Parliament, 27-03-1979)

3. BUILDING THE COMPETITIVENESS: The Push for Bilingualism

3.1 The Need for A Mother Tongue:

It has always been crystal clear to any political economist analysing Singapore that its survival must reside in its ability to leap frog into the post-industrial era ahead of everyone else in the region. Helping a large portion of its near English-illiterate population acquire competency in functional English had always been the main thrust of the education policy. But, a problem is foreseen.

However, a more difficult problem is arising in the schools. As we move into more English language at the secondary stage, the more will be the influence of the Western ideas and Western values carried in English-language publications. A child does not grow up in isolation. His views, his attitudes, are shaped by his family, his teachers, his friends, by what he reads. The more his friends absorb of Western values, the more these Western values will influence him. Somehow we must abstract and distil the essence of our Asian culture and values so that English may be used for supplementary instruction in moral education.

Lee Kuan Yew, The Importance And The Limits Of Bilingualism, 05-01-1979

One cannot simply replace the mother tongue with English without any danger. As Lee Kuan Yew noted while he was Prime Minister:

And it is not just learning the language (mother tongue). With language goes the fables and proverbs. It is the learning of a whole value system, a whole philosophy of life, that can maintain the fabric of our society intact, in spite of exposure to all the current madness around the world.

Lee Kuan Yew, (Prime Minister, Speech at the Singapore Teacher Union's 26th Anniversary Dinner, 05-11-1972)

In support, former President, C.V.Devan Nair when he was a Member of Parliament said:

I agree with the Prime Minister's observation that the principal value of teaching the second language is the imparting of moral values and understanding of cultural traditions. Chinese, Malay, and Indian stories, myths, mythology and folklore are the stuff and substance of the cultural traditions which we rightly seek to make part of the mental and spiritual makeup of our young people.

C.V. Devan Nair (MP for Anson, In Parliament, 27-03-1979)

Hence, opting completely out of the mother tongue is untenable and ultimately not feasible. For political and cultural reasons, the mother tongue must be retained so that "moral pillars" of society may be continuously present to support the social structure. Thus, the education policy must aggressively pursue a "bilingual" emphasis. The reason being that we should not being completely westernised because we have to retain our Asian culture and values but yet learn the best of the west (i.e. the scientific inquiry etc.). The thrust of these arguments could be seen from the previous three quotes by Dr Goh Keng Swee, Lee Kuan Yew, and Devan Nair that argued persuasively for the implementation of the English language but cautioned against the jettison of the "mother tongue".

3.2 Making the Separates Whole: Uniting Singaporean Chinese Via the Education Policy

With the Singaporean Chinese, the bilingual education policy is difficult to pursue as Mandarin, the chosen mother tongue, is not native to the Singaporean Chinese community. Like all human social groupings, the Singaporean Chinese are not homogenous. They are segregated into different clans and dialect groups. At the time of Singapore's independence in 1965, most of the Singaporean Chinese did not speak Mandarin but one of the various dialects. As Lee noted:

And for the Chinese, it is particularly hard because it's a completely different language, it's a completely different script and worse, many speak dialect at home. So, in fact, it is not bilingualism, it's trilingualism or two-and-a-half, and it's a very complicated business.

Lee Kuan Yew, (PM, Prime Minister's National Day Rally Speech, 15-08-1976)

The dialect-speaking environment that enveloped the Singaporean Chinese students in the early days of the bilingual education policy is detailed below:

The average Chinese boy who goes to an English school is really learning two non-mother languages. He learns English, which is not his mother tongue. He learns Mandarin as a second language. It is also not his mother tongue because often the dialect is the language of the home. This presents us with a very grave challenge.

Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Teachers Union's 26th Anniversary Dinner, 05-11-1972

Just exactly how many dialect groups are we talking about? More than 10 major dialect groups. In the government census of 1957, the components of the Singaporean Chinese were reflected as follows:

The Chinese by Specific Community (1957)
Specific Community Number Percentage
All Communities 1,090,596 100.0
Hokkien 442,707 40.6
Teochow 245,190 22.5
Cantonese 205,773 18.9
Hainanese 78,081 7.2
Hakka (Kheh) 73,072 6.7
Foochow (Hokchiu) 16,828 1.5
Henghua 8,757 0.8
Hokchia 7,614 0.7
Kwongsia 292 0.0
Shanghainese 11,034 1.0
Other and Indeterminate 1,248 0.1

Report on the Census of Population of Singapore 1957- Summary Table 12-2

It was not an easy task. But from the government's point of view, it had to be done because the speaking of dialects in the public and at home would interfere with the acquisition of Mandarin in schools. However, in the early days, the thrust of the government to push for Mandarin as an imposed mother tongue was because the Chinese population had to be united under a common language from which the education policy could be formulated. Many of the Chinese dialects do not have written scripts congruent to modern day Chinese language. For instance, Lee Kuan Yew when he spoke on Hokkien instead of Mandarin becoming a dominant Chinese dialect in Singapore society said:

This would be sad, not because Hokkien is an inferior dialect, but because it is a dialect. It is not congruent with the written Chinese script. Present-day written Chinese is Mandarin reduced into script. Spoken Hokkien cannot be put into "bai-hua". If Hokkien prevails, then the standard of written Chinese will go down.

(Lee Kuan Yew, Address To The Historical Society, Nanyang University, 10 February 1978)

But the marginalising of dialects amongst the Singaporean Chinese community was an onerous task as then PM Lee Kuan Yew would admit:

It is an enormous task to get Chinese Singaporeans, whose mother tongues are some 12 Chinese dialects, to make Mandarin their mother tongue. It is probably the most difficult task we have embarked upon the last 22 years of PAP government. Yet without making Mandarin the mother tongue in place of dialects, our policy of bilingualism will not succeed. Dialects will be crossed and mixed into a Singapore Creole or pidgin.

Lee Kuan Yew, (PM, Speech at the Mandarin Proficiency Certificates Presentation Ceremony, 25-10-1981)

It was difficult. Sometimes, the self-discipline of the Singaporean Chinese was called for. Families were exhorted to impose the use of Mandarin instead of dialect so that their younger generation could "advance" in their academic pursuits and procure better employment. Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew stressed to the Singaporean Chinese of:

.... how important it was that parents should try and minimise the burden, the load on their children by switching or encouraging them to switch either into Mandarin or into English when they speak to their friends and even to their parents at home. You take off the load, an unnecessary load.

Lee Kuan Yew, (PM, Prime Minister's National Day Rally Speech, 15-08-1976)

So it was, with self-discipline and perceived benefits, that the speaking of dialects was gradually cast off by the Singaporean Chinese community in the Eighties. This was parallel to the Seventies when Chinese-medium education was jettisoned by Singaporean Chinese for an English-medium education. The initial process to replace dialects with Mandarin was sluggish and the government had to launch a major initiative by launching the "Speak Mandarin" Campaign and removing dialect radio and television broadcast to support its implemented education and language policy. It has succeeded somewhat. By the late Eighties, it was apparent that in public places, such as restaurants and public transports etc, Mandarin had to some extent replaced the Chinese dialects as the mode of communication. The following table shows the numbers:

Sample Survey on the Percentage Distribution of Languages Spoken at Housing Development Board Markets and Food Centres
Dialect Mandarin English
Year By Customers By Hawkers By Customers By Hawkers By Customers By Hawkers
Aug 86 77.8 78.2 18.7 18.3 0.7 0.8
May 87 74.1 74.2 21.9 21.9 0.9 0.8
Jun 88 57.7 54.7 36.2 42.2 3.7 0.7
May 89 48.6 43.1 42.7 48.7 4.8 4.4

Source: Housing and Development Board, 1989

At the home of Chinese Singaporeans one sees almost the same startling trend. Within a decade after the bilingual education policy had been aided by the costly yet efficient "Speak Mandarin" campaign. The following figures attest to the effectiveness and efficiency:

Most Frequently Spoken Language at Home for Years 1980-1989
Year Dialect Mandarin English Others
1980 64.4 25.9 9.3 0.3
1982 42.7 44.7 12.0 0.5
1984 26.9 58.7 13.9 0.4
1986 16.1 67.1 16.5 0.3
1988 9.5 69.0 21.0 0.5
1989 7.2 69.1 23.3 0.4

Source: Ministry of Education, 1989

Thus, at the 10th anniversary of the launch of the "Speak Mandarin" campaign, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew could look back and announce that:

We have made progress.... The percentage of new primary one pupils from predominantly Mandarin-speaking families has increased from 26 in 1980 to 59 in 1984. Within the same period, pupils from mainly dialect-speaking families have dropped from 64 to 27. Parents are responding because they are more aware of the benefits to their children.

Lee Kuan Yew, (PM, Speech at the Launching Ceremony of the "Speak Mandarin Campaign",03-10-1989)

The numbers and figures had finally heralded the success of the "Speak Mandarin" campaign and education policy in promulgating bilingualism in the Singaporean Chinese population without the interference of the dialects as an additional language. But whither the opportunity costs?

4. BILINGUALISM: Its Main Cost

Achieving bilingualism within the Singaporean Chinese population is not without its costs given the fact that the English/Mandarin combination could not possibly replace the dialects. Devan Nair probably touched rather close to the tender nerve when he said that:

If at all there is any unease, it is certainly not about the proposals on education policy (Goh Keng Swee Report on Education, 1979), but rather a barely perceptible, an almost secret and gnawing unease, about whether or not the policy of bilingualism will effectively enable our children to preserve the best of their cultural past, and to continue to draw nourishment from their ancient cultural roots.

C.V. Devan Nair (MP for Anson, In Parliament, 27-03-1979)

In fact, aware that bilingualism could not be unilaterally imposed on the Singaporean Chinese population, Lee Kuan Yew said that:

We can solve this problem (of ensuring the proper acquisition of Mandarin) without throwing any dialect away. But we must limit the vocabulary of dialect from only home needs, and only in homes where parents cannot speak Mandarin or English.

Lee Kuan Yew, (PM, Speech at Tanjong Pagar Community Centre Scholarship Presentation, 04-03-1978)

However, it must be noted that the vocabulary of the dialect is whittled down to a small functional amount so as to supply a bridge between generations who could only communicate in a pure dialect-speaking environment and those who had been immersed in the government bilingual education policy.

Let's revisit the costs. We shall focus on the main cost which is that of the loss of cultural transmission between generations. With a younger generation that is no longer competent or proficient in dialects, cultural transmission from the older generations (whose main competency is only in the dialect) becomes problematic. While it is certain that generation gaps occur in all civilisations and cultures, perhaps Singaporean Chinese's experience is unique in that within a generation, the language of communication became a barrier between the grand-parents' generation and the grandchildren as a result of direct and conscious government policy making.

Yet, this situation arose because it was imperative and necessary that such bilingual education policy initiatives be carried out. Thus we now have the inseparable twins of nation building, Economy and Culture, colliding. Both are essential to a small, resourceless country like Singapore. Without a healthy economy, Singapore would not survive; without culture, Singaporeans would be characterless and transient in nature.

5. BRIEF DIGRESSION: Oral History Centre

At this point, this paper seeks a little digression. While scarcely known, the OHC is twenty years old. Oral history gained its first formal foothold in Singapore in 1979. A department then known as the Oral History Unit (OHU) was set up and placed within the domain of the National Archives. For the first time, there was a department devoted to the gathering of historical accounts via the recorded voice. Then DPM, Dr. Goh Keng Swee felt that it was necessary to record the struggles of the Fifties and Sixties so that future generations of Singaporeans would know of the rigours of nation-building. It began with a few researchers working on three projects but that has since grown from a single project to multiple projects. The three oral history projects are namely Pioneers of Singapore Rags to Riches; Political Developments of Singapore 1945 - 1963 and the Japanese Occupation. The other projects were added later. The most outstanding of which must surely be the Japanese Occupation where there is decidedly a lack of written documentation. The British were not here to keep records and the Japanese military administration did not leave any either. The bulk of this project consists of dialect recordings, not Mandarin recordings. In addition, the OHC has also collected nursery rhymes from Malay, Tamil and some of the Chinese dialects.

Oral history helped to plug in the gaps when numerous surfaced.

Administratively, we have gone through many changes. This small department was functioning under the National Archives from 1979. Oral History Unit started in 1979 with It was then detached from the National Archives and set up on its own as the Oral History Department (OHD) in 1985. The OHD later returned to the fold of the National Archives in 1993 when the National Heritage Board was formed. The new name for the OHD is the Oral History Centre. While the name changed, the corporate mission remained the same: that is, to collect a people's history of Singapore. To date, we have amassed over 2000 interviews and some 10,000 recorded hours across a spectrum of language and subject groupings. The interviewees come from all walks of life.


Fortuitously or ironically, the OHC's mandate was decided when it birthed in the same year as the "Speak Mandarin" Campaign. Its destiny is decided. The task is clear: OHC would have to collect a series of oral documents that would capture the nuances and intricacies of the Chinese dialects that are quickly dying. Hence, the voice of the past is captured. At twenty, a vibrant youth, OHC must do more.

Collecting oral historical documents and keeping them safe will not help the vast majority of Singaporean Chinese who might not (might not be aware of the oral history collections or are not inclined to use the NAS reference room) have the chance to use OHC's archival holdings. This is for the simple reason that while Library connotes an invitation to users to borrow books and imbibe knowledge, the Archives connotes an alternative image of custodians and safe keeping. The Archives thereby presented an inherently unfriendly image of being a place where things were kept under locks and keys rather than borrowed out. Thus, the archival collections in Singapore would remain inherently foreign to the public unless they are aggressively disseminated. These dissemination initiatives must also be pro-active in nature, so that oral history could actively attract more believers and practitioners. In order for a rich and diverse collection of oral history recordings to flourish in Singapore, the methods of oral history and its product, the oral history interview tapes, need to be disseminated via non-traditional means such as oral history materials are used for television docu-dramas, period dramas shown over the broadcast television, web-pages in the world wide web (eg. www.knowledgenet.com.sg) , or recorded compact discs of vocal collages or educational CD-ROMs.

If the researchers and general public accept the oral history archives as a good source of historical knowledge, and do come to accept/adopt oral history, they would be more likely to support us in what we are doing. That way, oral history would be indirectly seen as a progressive rather than a retrograde methodology. As such, the OHC must reach out to the public and push for the public to share in OHC's role and duty. The logical place to start would be in the schools.

6.1 The Oral History Centre and Schools

Schools are an obvious choice for dissemination. If the students can be convinced that history can be interesting and is valuable, then it will remain with them when they grow up. The teaching of history will also be easier as now, students of history will have a practical arena to test their knowledge. The biology students have their dissections, history students will have their interviews.

However, this is not entirely a one way flow of benefits. As much as schools may be able to derive some benefit from the use of oral history, the OHC will also benefit greatly from a tie-up with the schools. The school children would have acquired an alternative mode of inquiry known as oral history and could possibly be more sensitised to a need for a paradigm shift beyond paper research to accommodate oral historical research as well. For over a decade, the main focus of the OHC has always been the collection of materials. The OHC is re-evaluating its position.

It is now necessary to initiate contact with schools. In 1997, the OHC conducted a mail survey of all the schools in Singapore and the data collected was as follows:

Primary Secondary Post-Secondary
"Yes" to seminar 40.3% 49.0% 61.1%
"No" to seminar 7.7% 4.1% 11.1%
Did not respond 52.0% 46.9% 27.8%

Total Survey Sent Out 196 147 18
Total Surveys Returned 94 78 13
Response Rate 47.96% 53.06% 72.22%

Source: Oral History Centre, 1997

The information that came with the survey ascertained a couple of things, chief of which were:

  1. there was enough interest to hold a seminar as more than a hundred school teachers replied that they would attend an oral history seminar if the OHC were to organise it. This roughly translates into around 45% of all the schools surveyed (see above table)
  2. teachers were willing to employ oral history in the classrooms if they could work it into the curriculum.

The survey response was encouraging enough for the OHC to organise an oral history seminar for teachers in March 1997. The seminar has since gone annual. The OHC is now able to maintain an annual link with the schools. Hopefully, teachers would be able to learn about oral history and its applications in school during these seminars. As of the present, a primary school, under its own initiatives, with a project team of 10-12 year olds has successfully completed an oral history project on the topic of "what makes a Singaporean Singaporean". Likewise, a secondary school had also started an oral history project on school identity with project teams of 15 year olds. Two schools and a humble beginnings. But with the future, the OHC hopes that schools will expand into the areas of myths, legends and oral history projects beyond mere school and academic concerns.

6.2 OHC's Work Plan

In order for the above to succeed, dissemination must be flawlessly executed and new converts to oral history be found. It is here where the title of this conference, "Preserving Oral Traditions", intrigues me. In Singapore, the OHC actively pursues the task of collecting a social history recounted through voices via the traditional method of question and answer. Oral tradition vis-a-vis myths and legends had somewhat hit a road block in the first three decades of Singapore's existence because of the general populace emphasis on, and preoccupation with, material and pragmatic pursuits.

In recent times, there has been a much-needed re-emphasis on history by the government who realised that nation building must extend beyond mere economics. With this, the education policy is slowly shifting to ensuring that the humanities (particularly in the subjects of history and social education) are re-emphasised. In this current climate of change, it is an opportune time for the OHC to work in partnership with schools on a series of projects to collect oral history and orally transmitted legends, myths, folklores and nursery rhymes.

A project that can be launched to reacquaint students with the older non-Mandarin generation in order to draw out the rich store of folk tales, myths and legends would be to employ parents who are still competent in dialect to act as the bridge (or translators) between generations. Since the parents would be recruited as translators, the children interviewers need not have competency in dialect although the ability to understand would be a great asset. That way, the locked stories of the old can be passed on to the young.


To recap: The situation in Singapore is critical with regards to oral traditions. Hitherto, there has always been an imbalance between cultural and economic survival. For the period of economic nation building, education and language policies are formulated for the sole purpose of gaining economic independence for Singapore. However, with the maturing of the economy, there is a growing re-emphasis on the other non-economic aspects of nation building such as cultural preservation via historical lessons. Hitherto, while the nation orientated it self from a mainly mother-tongue speaking population to a mainly English speaking nation, oral traditions had been going through a slow and invisible atrophy. Oral traditions slipped into the background and the only official centres in which oral traditions are actively pursued is the Oral History Centre within the National Archives of Singapore and the Military Heritage Branch of the Ministry of Defence.

In reality, there is only one national centre that actively and systematically collects and maintain an oral history archives of Singapore and this is the Oral History Centre. There are no other formal or informal organisations or individuals that seek actively to retain an oral record from the past.

The main barrier could be a mere problem of the mindset. Perhaps, with enough exposure of the younger generations to the realm of oral traditions, it would force the coming generations of Singaporeans into a paradigm shift where cultural history will be deemed important. In that climate, perhaps oral history would be accepted as a methodology that is seen to be as important as scientific inquiry.

Our long term goal is to have a sizable group of Singapore's population collecting oral history of their own pet topics. We would like to see community, social, commercial organisations augment their archives with oral history recordings so that ultimately, the history of Singapore will live forever more, in a more colourful canvas of voice and emotion. It is hoped that the brief interruption in the inter-generational transmission of oral traditions would remain just that: a brief interruption.

(This article reflects the viewpoint of the officer in question and does not necessarily reflect the views of the National Archives of Singapore.)


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