Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s contribution to English

This post is a little special. Instead of talking about the English language or technology in education, I am going to talk about Lee Kuan Yew.

It is not a tribute because I am not going to jump on the bandwagon of the hundreds, if not thousands of blogs, that speak glowingly of his achievements. That is something that most Singaporeans recognise. His immense drive and vision have brought Singapore to where it is now. Let us not trivialise his achievement.

Instead, what I am going to talk about is his contribution to how English has thrived in Singapore. First of all, let us credit him with selecting English as the lingua franca of Singaporeans. He was under severe pressure during the time when the official language was being decided. English was the language of the minority. Singapore is, after all, a country surrounded by bigger countries that speak Malay and Indonesian. These two languages have a lot of similarities, and choosing one of them would be a logical choice, seeing how small Singapore is compared to these two countries. Chinese and its various dialects could also be another logical choice seeing that it is spoken by the majority Chinese race in Singapore. But history has proven that English was the best choice. Not only was it neutral in the sense that no major ethnic group in Singapore spoke it as a native language, it is also the global business language. Singapore hitched onto the global economy and international trade with ease due to Singaporean’s proficiency with English.

Another thing that Mr Lee had an impact on English was his insistence that civil servants wrote plainly. In fact, it was something he and his colleagues insisted on. There was a speech when Mr Lee narrated that Dr Goh Keng Swee gave a book on plain English to civil servants. I personally experienced it in the days before I became a teacher. I was working in a ministry then. I once wrote a brief for Mr Lee. Of course, my supervisor checked my work before it was handed up to Mr Lee. Within an hour, both of us were summoned to the office of the Deputy Secretary. He closed the door and started telling my supervisor off about how verbose the brief was. He even turned specifically to me and told me that Mr Lee was particular with long-winded prose. That experience became stuck in my head for the longest time. This point of realising that writing in plain prose has stuck. Legal firms, insurance companies and banks now make the habit of trying to write in plain English. Mr Lee was part of this movement to make English understandable to the man on the street.

Finally, we must thank Mr Lee for the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM). Even though it was launched by his successor, Mr Goh Chok Tong, it was Mr Lee that first mentioned that it is importance to speak good English so that Singaporeans can operate effectively in the global movement on 14 August 1999. It is after years of declining English standards due to the rise of Singlish. In particular, English teachers must thank Mr Lee. His background influence on SGEM translated into a collaboration between SGEM and The Straits Times to award the Inspiring Teacher of English Award.

Singaporeans always think about how Mr Lee has had an impact on Singapore’s economic success. It is indeed a fact, and we should be grateful for him. But let us also remember his contributions to the development of the English Language in Singapore.

Finally, let me end by thanking Mr Lee for his contributions to Singapore. He walked the extra mile for Singapore.

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