You say buay, I say tahan: The linguistic situation in Singapore

“Few places are more interesting to a traveler from Europe than the town and island of Singapore, fiirnishing as it does, examples of a variety of Eastern races, and of many religions and modes of life” (Wallace 1869: 31). A British naturalist and explorer, Alfred Russel Wallace, made this observation of racial, religious, and cultural diversity in early 20th century Singapore. Since the early 20th century, Singapore has been home to a diverse population that hailed from China, India, and the neighboring Malay Archipelago. According to Chew (2013), a 1911 census recorded a total of 54 different languages and 48 different races, reflecting a diversity and plurality that makes Singapore an intriguing research site for the study of sociolinguistics.

The complexity and diversity of the linguistic situation in Singapore engendered a distinct variety of English or Colloquial Singapore English which is the subject of extensive research and study (see Foley 1988; Gupta 1994; Brown 1999; Lim 2004; Low and Brown 2005; Deterding 2007; Leimgruber 2013; Bao 2015; Ziegeler 2015, among many others). In this chapter we will examine the complex linguistic situation of Singapore from two perspectives - a macro-level understanding of languages in Singaporean society and a micro-level understanding of how individuals draw on their respective linguistic repertoires to communicate with one another.

Languages in Singaporean society

Located at the southernmost tip of peninsular Malaysia and with the Riau Islands to its south, Singapore is 137 kilometers or 85.1 miles north of the equator (see Figure 2.1). It has a total land area of 719.9 square kilometers or 278 square miles (Singapore Department of Statistics, Population and land area 2018), and consists of one main island and over 60 islets.

With the signing of a treaty between Thomas Stamford Raffles and Sultan Hussein Shah, the British East India Company began to develop the southern part of Singapore into a British trading post in 1819. Before Singapore became a British trading port, approximately a thousand people lived on the island (Turnbull 2009), and most of them were indigenous people, except for a few dozen Chinese. As a result of immigration from neighboring regions, Singapore’s population soared to a hundred thousand in 1869. The three main sources of immigration to Singapore

Map of Singapore and surrounding region

Figure 2.1 Map of Singapore and surrounding region

Source: Modified from http://d-maps.eom/m/asia/malaisie/malaisie01.gif

Table 2.1 Ethnic composition of Singapore from 1840 to 2010

Year

Total population

Chinese

Malay

Indian

Others

1840

35,389

50.0%

37.3%

9.5%

3.1%

1860

81,734

61.2%

19.8%

15.9%

3.1%

1891

181,602

67.1%

19.7%

8.8%

4.3%

1911

303,321

72.4%

13.8%

9.2%

4.7%

1931

557,745

75.1%

11.7%

9.1%

4.2%

1957

1.445,929

75.4%

13.6%

8.6%

2.4%

1980

2,413,945

76.9%

14.6%

6.4%

2.1%

2000

4,017,733

76.8%

13.9%

7.9%

1.4%

2010

5,076,732

74.1%

13.4%

9.2%

3.1%

were the Malay Archipelago, South China, and India. Since 1911 the ethnic composition of Singapore has remained relatively stable with roughly 70% Chinese, 14% Malay, and 9% Indian. Table 2.1 shows the ethnic composition of Singapore from 1840 to 2010 (Aye 2005: 9, supplemented with 2010 census data).

In the year 2010, there were 5, 076, 732 people living in Singapore. Of these 5 million people, 3, 230, 719 were Singapore citizens, 541, 002 were permanent residents and 1, 305, Oil were non-residents which includes foreign workers, students, and their dependents (Singapore Department of Statistics, Census of population 2010).

Not only were there changes in the demographics of Singapore over time, the linguistic repertoire of individuals also changed with the passage of time. Major shifts in the linguistic repertoire of individuals corresponded to major sociopolitical changes in Singapore’s history and can be roughly divided into three broad historical time periods (Lim 2007; Ansaldo 2010).

Precolonial period (before 1819)

Bazaar Malay was the lingua franca for inter-ethnic communication in Singapore before the British established their trading port in 1819. It is a morphologically simplified trade language that was the result of contact between indigenous Malays and Chinese traders (mainly Southern Min speakers), and has been used throughout the Malay Archipelago since the 15th century.

Colonial period and period shortly after Singapore’s independence in 1965 (1819-1970S)

From 1819 to the 1970s, Bazaar Malay continued to serve as a lingua franca for communication between different ethnic groups in Singapore. Amongst the Chinese, Southern Min served as the lingua franca for people who spoke mutually unintelligible Chinese dialects. Other common languages spoken during this time period include Baba Malay (a contact language formed when Chinese men married local Malay women), other Chinese dialects like Cantonese and Hakka, Indian languages especially Tamil, and English spoken by Eurasians.

From 1970s to present day

With the implementation of the bilingual policy in education in 1966, Bazaar Malay was gradually replaced by English as the lingua franca for inter-ethnic communication. Similarly, Southern Min was gradually replaced by Mandarin or Modern Standard Chinese as the lingua franca for the Chinese people. Moreover, a large influx of iimnigrants from North China (Mandarin with dialectal differences), North India (Hindi, etc.), and the Philippines (Tagalog) in the last decade has brought in new language varieties. At present, approximately 40% of the population in Singapore are immigrants (permanent residents and those on work permits/student visas). However, the contact between iimnigrants and Singaporeans is not very intense as new immigrants and Singaporeans largely keep to their own groups.

 
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