Languages in Singapore

European Straits #113

Nicolas Colin

Dear all,

I’m back from Singapore, which was fascinating in so many respects. Here’s the short version: I learned too much to share it all in one single issue!

And so today I’ll concentrate on the question of languages in Singapore. How can such a small country (5M inhabitants) harbor so many different languages?

Languages in Singapore

I’ve been obsessed with the question of languages for years. I think they play a critical, yet overlooked, role in determining a country’s success in the global digital economy. A key part of the US tech industry’s power comes from the fact that it grew up in an English-speaking country. Likewise, London as a financial and tech hub is probably indestructible, despite the nightmare that is Brexit, thanks to the English language. Conversely, the fact that countries such as France and Germany lag behind in tech can be explained by their excessive reliance on their local languages and the difficulty that many (including us at The Family) encounter in learning and mastering English. I detailed my thinking on all this in a 2015 article, The Power of the Tongue: English in the Digital Economy.

My long-standing frustration with the lack of fluency in more than one language in the West explains why I was so impressed by Singapore. Many languages are spoken there, well beyond the official one (which is English). This linguistic diversity played a key role in the history of Singapore. And learning and practicing all these languages has long been embedded in the social fabric of this multicultural nation.

After World Word II, the British realized that maintaining their Empire had become unsustainable. In each colony, including Singapore, they set to picking loyal, English-educated local leaders that would help preserve Britain’s strategic and commercial interests over the long term. In Asia, one specific challenge during the Cold War was to avoid having the former British colonies fall under the influence of the People’s Republic of China and, later, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, could have been embraced as that guardian of British interests. He was educated at Singapore’s elite Raffles Institution and then Cambridge University, one result being that English was the only language he knew, alongside just a bit of Malay. However, Lee’s strong anti-colonialist sentiments led him away from becoming a British puppet. Instead he decided to use his legal skills and his mastery of English to defend union leaders and student activists. He then became one of the founding members of the People’s Action Party (PAP), the most radical anti-colonialist political faction at the time, and was elected to Singapore’s Parliament in 1955.

The PAP’s strategy was to appeal to the Chinese-educated masses, and on this front Lee Kuan Yew fell short. Although he was ethnically Chinese, he didn’t know Hokkien, the Chinese dialect that was most spoken in Singapore at the time. Nor did he know Mandarin, as he was of mostly Hakka and Peranakan descent. This explains the composition of the group that co-founded the PAP in 1954. Lee was a talented lawyer, an effective advocate of the cause, and an impressive public speaker. But since he could only do so in English, it was impossible for him to address the majority of non-English speakers in Singapore. And so it fell upon his fellow party members to bridge that gap. One of them, the more left-wing Lim Chin Siong, was a charismatic Hokkien speaker, with an unrivaled ability to inspire the local masses.

Lee’s subsequent personal and political journey helps explain the strategic choices Singapore made regarding languages. First there was a split of the PAP in 1961, with the left-wing faction leaving to form the rival Barisan Sosialis. This forced Lee to finally learn some Hokkien so as to not find himself too far removed from his own constituents. Then in 1963 Singapore joined the new Federation of Malaysia, which meant that Lee had to make his way onto a Malay-speaking political scene. Then, only two years later, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia and had to build relationships with the outside world. This is when Lee, now the Prime Minister of an independent nation, decided to bet on Mandarin.

So now Lee could speak English (his native language), Hokkien (which he learned to stay relevant in local politics), and Malay (which he had notions of and then improved in order to move onto the Malaysian political scene). He proceeded to learn Mandarin, even sending his kids to a Mandarin-speaking school and practicing his own Mandarin with them, for at least three reasons:

  • If Singapore was to embrace a Chinese language, it needed to be Mandarin, the language at the root of Chinese culture and the one spoken by the most Chinese speakers in the world (rather than Hokkien, which was barely spoken beyond Singapore and Taiwan). It was critical for Singaporeans to share a common language and communicate with as much of the outside world as possible, and English was the obvious platform to do just that. But it was also important for Chinese-descended Singaporeans (75% of the population) to cultivate their identity so as to gain confidence. Mandarin was deemed the best complement to English in that regard.

  • From the 1970s onward, the government observed a growing disaffection for higher education in Chinese. The best Chinese students were fleeing Chinese-speaking universities to join English-speaking ones. The remedy to that potential loss of a Chinese identity in Singapore was radical. English was admitted as the main language for all universities. But to compensate for the fading away of Chinese-speaking higher education, the government doubled down on forcing Mandarin on younger Chinese pupils, all at the expense of Hokkien.

  • Finally, as Mainland China took off as an economic giant following Deng Xiaoping’s reforms from 1978 onwards, it became obvious that having a majority of Singaporeans speaking Mandarin would constitute a long-term competitive advantage. Just like English, Mandarin became a global platform on which business-minded Singapore could dance.

Lee Kuan Yew orchestrated the whole, decades-long effort in his typical manner: he tried and led by example. After entering the political scene with only English and a negligible bit of Malay, he ended up being able to address and inspire crowds in English, Malay, Hokkien (for a time), and Mandarin, showing his fellow citizens that anyone can labor their way to mastering yet another language.

I wish our Western leaders had the same discipline: learning English (and Mandarin?) to better communicate with the outside world, but also learning languages spoken by minorities in their own country—Arabic in France, Turkish in Germany, and Spanish in the US (which only a few politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Beto O’Rourke, and Jeb Bush can use).

As an example, I invite you to watch this brief 2015 video in which Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s current Prime Minister (and Lee Kuan Yew’s son, by the way), announces his father’s passing—first in Malay, then in Mandarin, then in English: Passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Because this is what it takes: Like the Pope for the Catholic Church, you can’t lead Singapore if you don’t speak most of its many languages.

(Because yes, there are more languages in Singapore: I didn’t even mention Tamil—or Singlish.)

📚 First, let me recommend two books that I brought back from Singapore:

  • The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is a graphic novel by Sonny Liew that tells the history of Singapore along many different lines, like a graphic fugue of sorts. The complex, nuanced lights it casts on Singapore and its many characters makes it a remarkable counterpoint to the more straightforward story as told by Lee Kuan Yew himself. Above all, it’s an absolute artistic and narrative masterpiece, one that for me ranks as high as the best works of masters such as Riad Sattouf and Art Spiegelman. It won the Singapore Literature Prize 2016. (Thanks James Cham and Yangsze Choo for the recommendation!)

  • The Billionaire Raj is a book by Singapore-based Financial Times alumnus James Crabtree. It depicts the radical change that India is currently going through, with the rise of extreme inequalities and the capture of the political system by wealthy families. What’s striking in James’s riveting painting of modern India is the optimism with which he describes the current state of things: not necessarily the end of the story, but rather a passing phase before the Indian economy becomes more sustainable and inclusive. (Thanks John Thornhill for the introduction!)

🇺🇸 I’ll be in the Bay Area from April 6 to April 17. Part of it will be holidays with my daughter Béatrice, who will join me on this trip. But another part will be talks about Hedge as well as meetings with my colleague Pietro Invernizzi, who’s building a new program in London called The Family (AAA) to help ambitious London-based founders raise their Series A round. If you’d like to meet either Pietro or me (or both), please reach out! Here’s Pietro’s article about the new program: Launching The Family (AAA).

✍️ I published a new article in our Scaling Strategy series: Content-Driven Strategy. Our friend Ian Hathaway commented on it here 🤗: Why Content-Driven Strategy is Smart Business.

📰 I also just published an op-ed in the Financial Times. The key message is that rather than obsessing over tech giants, we should use them as weapons to rein in the old, pre-tech giants. Read it here: The case against breaking up Big Tech.

🇫🇷 Finally, if you understand French and have 2 hours to devote to my career, my parents, jazz, Ecole nationale d’administration, Lithuania, the Inspection générale des finances, entrepreneurship, The Family and many other things, listen to this podcast that I recorded with our friend Jean-Charles Kurdali 🤗Nicolas Colin – Conversations with JCK.

Housing policy in Singapore

In this issue I wanted to cover not only languages, but also housing policy in Singapore. Unfortunately I had a lot to say about languages, and so the housing part is now just a reading list 🤓. Let me introduce it with four core ideas:

  • Singapore was confronted early on with problems that are now common to every large city in the world: extreme density and the resulting unaffordability of housing.

  • To eradicate the slums and make room for everyone, the government took charge à la Henry George: it took control of the land and most of the real estate development.

  • The resulting financial model is a clever combination of the best of social housing (affordability) and the best of homeownership (a sense of ownership).

  • Also, a rule mandates that all blocks should be inhabited by a mix of all ethnicities, so as to avoid interracial tensions like exist in most Western countries.

Here are some relevant articles:

Warm regards (from Paris, France),