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Opening Address By Mr S Iswaran At SIM University Public Forum

Opening Address By Mr S Iswaran, Senior Minister Of State For Trade And Industry, And Education, At The SIM University Public Forum: "Crossing Culture, Bridging Minds: A Role For Singapore's Languages And Literatures", 1.40pm On 15 August 2009 At SIM University

Professor Cheong Hee Kiat, President of SIM University;
Distinguished guests;
Ladies and gentlemen;


  1. It gives me great pleasure to join you today at SIM University's public forum, "Crossing Cultures, Bridging Minds: A Role for Singapore's Languages and Literatures".

  1. Our decision to adopt English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil as our four official languages came early in our nationhood. Bilingualism is a fundamental aspect of our education system – while English is the medium of instruction in our schools; students also learn their Mother Tongues. This has ensured that we are able to engage fellow Singaporeans of different races, access the global economy, and at the same time remain connected to our cultural roots.

  1. To set the context for this afternoon's discussions, I would like to make some comments about the role of language in nation building, Singapore's bilingual policy, and our four official languages.

The Role of Language in Nation Building

  1. Language is not merely a tool for human communication; it also plays an important role in the development of social identity. With the potential to build solidarity both within and between communities, languages are the threads of our social fabric.

  1. Since Singapore's founding in 1819, the burgeoning of trade and commerce drew people from Malaya, China, India, and elsewhere to our shores. There was little interaction between the various groups of immigrants, and certainly no sense of collective identity.

  1. After more than ninety years of British colonial rule, followed by the tumultuous years of merger and separation, came independence. Among other daunting challenges to be met, the Government was also faced with the need to build a nation out of migrants, and to foster a sense of belonging. There is no doubt that a common language played a crucial part in the building of our nation.

  1. At the same time, all four official languages were accorded parity of recognition – a clear message that all Singaporeans are equal partners in a single nation, regardless of race or language.

  1. Just a week ago, we celebrated our 44th year of nationhood. This year's theme was "Come Together – Reaching Out. Reaching Up." It was a reminder of the need to continually strive towards unity, despite our diversity. The racial harmony we enjoy today is something we can all be proud of, considering how far we have come from the days of being a society of immigrants living in disparate ethnic enclaves.

Singapore's Bilingual Policy

  1. Singapore adopted the bilingual policy in 1966. English was promoted as the first language to ensure that Singapore would be plugged into the global economy. The knowledge of our Mother Tongues, on the other hand, is a cultural compass to our sense of self, identity and values.

  1. As Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his memoirs, "… if we were monolingual in our mother tongues, we would not make a living. Becoming monolingual in English would have been a setback. We would have lost our cultural identity, that quiet confidence about ourselves and our place in the world."

Launch of New Applied Degree Programmes in 2014

  1. Bilingualism will give Singapore a competitive edge over any other Asian city for years to come. It gives us our distinctive identity as a people – while we share a common cultural heritage with many of our neighbours in the region, we are unique in the cohesion and vibrancy of our multicultural society.

Our Official Languages

  1. Clearly, each of our four official languages has a unique and important role to play. 13. Post independence, the Government realized that Singapore's economic future lay in attracting foreign investment, and investing in people, our only natural resource. As the global language of education, commerce and technology, English was not just a convenient colonial inheritance – it has played a crucial role in our economic development. Complementary to the Mother Tongues, the English language also serves as the lingua franca in Singapore – a common, unifying and neutral tool to facilitate communication and mutual understanding.

  1. The vibrancy and growth of the Malay language is critical to Singapore because we are intimately connected to our closest neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia. Last year, MOE implemented the Regional Studies Programme to encourage non-Malay students from selected schools to study Malay or Bahasa Indonesia, and to gain a deeper understanding of Southeast Asian culture and contemporary society.

  1. The Chinese language is also vital to Singapore, especially given the vast opportunities offered by China's economic revolution. To optimally harness the offerings of the Chinese market, MOE has also offered the Bicultural Studies Programme in selected schools since 2005 to nurture a core group of students with deep knowledge of Chinese language and culture. This group of students would have the capacity to cross cultures – to engage China and relate to the West.

  1. The economic dimension of the Indian languages is similarly important, with the rise of India as an economic power. In recent years, MOE has given more cultural landscape.

Emerging Concerns

  1. We will also integrate the work attachments with the classroom curriculum to help students apply what they learn in the classroom in an authentic work environment. This ensures that they apply their projects to real issues at the workplace. In addition, students will take on an applied project scoped around a work-related issue gleaned directly from their work attachments.

  1. Today’s forum will be an excellent platform to discuss several pertinent concerns with regards to the development of language and literature in Singapore. What is the impact of globalization and new media on our Mother Tongues? How can Singapore’s education and language policies adequately support the development of our literary arts? How are our local writers shaping national identity, and making their mark internationally? 18. To shed some light on these issues, we are privileged to have five distinguished speakers on today’s panel, who will be sharing their thoughts and views on multilingualism in Singapore, as well as the future of Singapore’s languages and literatures.

UniSIM's Linguistic Offerings

  1. With these opportunities, graduates of the applied degree pathway will be well-prepared to put theory into practice, and bring with them a set of skills and experience that will make them effective in their job or in whatever endeavours they choose to pursue. They will also find themselves able to move seamlessly from the classroom to the fields of pursuit and back, at any point in their careers.

  1. I would like to conclude by commending UniSIM on its linguistic offerings, which include all four of our official languages. These degree programmes not only help to raise language proficiency levels, but also increase awareness of our ethnic roots. They have been especially well-received by our Mother Tongue Language teachers, many of whom have benefited greatly from these programmes.

  1. UniSIM plays a unique role in our university landscape by shaping the quality of Singapore's workforce through the provision of continuing education and training. I urge UniSIM to continue offering such relevant programmes to cater to the upgrading needs of working adults.

  1. I wish you all an enjoyable and rewarding forum. Thank you.
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