Four languages, one "economic miracle"
When Singapore announced its independence on August 9, 1965, there was considerable doubt the former British colony would survive. It had no natural resources, no army, and internal unrest was a serious problem: More than 20 people had been killed in the city’s streets during race riots a year earlier. Two regional neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia, were fighting an undeclared war, while another, Vietnam, was at war with the US. Singapore lacked land to grow its own food, it had nothing to export, and it even depended on nearby Malaysia for water. So many countries in Southeast Asia were crippled by corruption, poverty and dependence on foreign aid that a similar fate seemed almost geographically ordained for the tiny, new state.
Yet Singapore went from having roughly the same GDP per capita as Ghana (around US$500) to a higher GDP per capita than Sweden within two generations. It now ranks second on the World Bank’s ease of doing business scale behind New Zealand, boasts a near 100-percent literacy rate, and has an average life expectancy among the world’s highest. Its development has been called an “economic miracle,” and policymakers and politicians around the world invoke Singapore’s ability to defy the odds in rallying support for causes ranging from Brexit to replacing Obamacare.
The man behind the miracle was Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s “Founding Father” and Prime Minister for three decades. He would shape every aspect of the country’s development, from the way it was governed to how its economy ran, and in 1965, Mr. Lee needed to decide what Singapore’s national language was going to be.
At the time, Singapore’s population was around 75 percent ethnic Chinese, 15 percent Malay, and 8 percent Indian – proportions that still hold true today. Not surprisingly, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce urged Prime Minister Lee to make Chinese the national and official language.
In a 2004 speech, Mr. Lee recalled his response: “You must be mad, and I don’t want to hear any more of that from you.” He went on to explain his reaction. “Could we make a living with Chinese as our language of government and our national language? Who is going to trade with us? ... How do we get access to knowledge?” Such a response sounds odd today given China’s economic might, but in 1965 the average income in China was barely $100, adjusted for inflation. (Beginning in the late ’70s, China has enjoyed a “miracle” of its own: Its population has doubled, yet its average income now exceeds $8,200.)
Malay may have been an even more plausible choice for a national language. Singapore had been a Malaysian state for two years, and Malay was perhaps the only common language shared by the disparate population. Still, even though it wasn’t spoken by a majority of the population, Mr. Lee decided English would be the language of business and government. “To attract investors here to set up their manufacturing plants, our people had to speak a language they could understand,” Mr. Lee later wrote. “It was the language of international diplomacy, the language of science and technology, and the language of international finance and commerce.”
Mr. Lee also made Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil official national languages, putting all three – and the people who spoke them – on equal footing. “If we have only English and we allowed the other languages to atrophy and vanish, we face a very serious problem of identity and culture,” he wrote. “What would have happened to Singapore? Where would the Malays be, and the Indians, what future would they have? … The country would fall apart.”