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Bilingualism in politics

By Murray Bourne, 18 Aug 2007

We should take bilingualism in politics more seriously. On this issue, Singapore may have some lessons for the US.

After September 11, the Americans realised there was a chronic shortage of Arabic speakers in the CIA, FBI and in most arms of government. In a 2003 article, quoted in Lack of Arabic Translators Hurting U.S., it says:

Despite an aggressive effort to recruit Arabic speakers in the two years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. government still suffers from a shortage that is hampering military, diplomatic and intelligence operations in the Middle East.

The story continues:

The State Department has fewer than 60 employees fluent in Arabic, out of a total of 279 Arabic speakers. Only five have the skills to go toe-to-toe with commentators on Middle Eastern television programs, according to an advisory commission Djerejian headed.

Robert Bryce (author of the book "Cronies") in The Arabic Speaker Deficit: The Language Barrier, says:

... the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which, by the way, is the largest U.S. embassy on the planet, has some 1,000 State Department personnel. (That number does not include all of the service workers and security providers.)

But of that 1,000 people, just 33 speak Arabic and only six are fluent in Arabic.

The Singapore Bilingual Situation

Cut now to Singapore. There are 4 official languages in Singapore:

  • English
  • Mandarin
  • Malay
  • Tamil

Ever since Lee Kuan Yew found himself in the position of prime minister of a newly independent state some 42 years ago, Singapore has been staunchly meritocratic. Whoever is best for the job, no matter what the person's race or religion, should get that job. (Well, it's not that simple of course, but Singapore's situation is better than that of neighboring Malaysia, where there is positive discrimination towards Malays, such that it is difficult for the minority Chinese and Indians to get very far.)

So the Singapore government is an interesting racial mix. While predominantly Chinese (no problem with that, since the country itself is predominantly Chinese), there is a fair smattering of Malay and Indians in the dominant political party, the Peoples Action Party. It is difficult to ascertain whether the proportion of races in the PAP reflects that of the wider community, but at least it is not a one-race party.

There appears to be a good working relationship between the government and MUIS (Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura), the Islamic Religious Council, a statutory body set up in 1968. This relationship was tested after September 11, especially when terrorists were arrested while plotting bomb attacks in the Republic.

Bilingualism in Singapore

Early on, Lee Kuan Yew realised that Singapore would need to be an English-speaking country to survive. However, to ensure that each ethnic group did not get swamped, the PAP introduced a "mother tongue" policy in schools. So students would get most of their education in English, but would also attend lessons delivered in their mother tongue (Chinese, Malay or Tamil) as appropriate.

The result is that most of the population is comfortable (not necessarily competent) in at least 2 languages.

Now to the bilingualism in politics part.

The politicians in Singapore conduct parliament in English. However, when they are in "the heartlands", talking with their constituents, they will most likely need to use their mother tongue and possibly will need to be able to understand one or two other languages.

The Lee Family and Bilingualism

Lee Kuan Yew was embarrassed as a young man when he arrived in England to complete his law degree, because of his lack of Chinese language ability.

He decided when he became prime minister of Singapore to push for bilingualism in school, bilingualism in society and bilingualism in politics. He put his language where his mouth was, and proceeded to study Chinese and Malay.

Lee made sure that his own son, Lee Hsien Loong (the current prime minister) learned Chinese and Malay, as well as English. Many of the PM's speeches are in all 3 languages.

The Lessons

I can't help feeling that the US would be in a lot less hot water if it had made much better use of the Arabic speakers in its midst, long before September 11. Cultural sensitivity is bound to improve with knowledge of others' languages and culture. I hope it's not too late.

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