Singapore has four official languages: Malay, Tamil, Chinese and English, reflecting our ethnic diversity and our history. Our mother tongues give us access to our diverse cultures, values and roots, while English is our working language. Using English as the common language for administration and education has helped Singaporeans from all walks of life understand one another and live together harmoniously.
Equally importantly, proficiency in the English language has also provided Singaporeans with a medium to communicate with others around the world - for business and trade, in academia, in international fora, for travel and leisure, over the Internet. It has given Singaporeans a key advantage - global literacy - so that we can directly communicate and convey our views to others in many settings around the world.
Knowing English conveys these advantages only because it helps us understand others and helps others understand us. If we use a form of English that is not understood by others, it might become a charming curiosity, but it would cease to provide Singaporeans with that global literacy that is so necessary in the future globalized and interconnected world.
We are not the only ones who worry about learning English and achieving global literacy. In Japan and South Korea, they are trying to introduce more English in schools. In the Philippines, Hong Kong and Malaysia, countries with a long history of English usage, educationists, businessmen and politicians have all expressed concern about the erosion of standards. All these countries want to improve English standards, to improve the competitiveness of their people and their economies.
We in Singapore already enjoy a decisive advantage in the English Language. We are the only country in East Asia where English is so widely used and taught. We should press home this advantage and strengthen the ability of our people to use English of a standard that allows our people to communicate effectively with others around the world.
This is all the more necessary because we are a small country. We thrive on the international exchange of goods, ideas and capital. Our ability to establish and maintain links with the outside world is of fundamental importance.
In a knowledge economy, language becomes even more important. Developments occur at the speed of thought. Knowledge workers and their products are intimately connected to each other and to the market. They collaborate on research and development and product design across national boundaries. They exchange ideas and market information. Their products and services are produced in several countries simultaneously and sold or delivered in many others. Global literacy becomes a key competitive advantage in such an interconnected world.
The use of English in Singapore has become more widespread. As one example, the proportion of Primary 1 students who come from homes where English is the main language used has nearly doubled from 23% in 1989 to 39% in 1999. The proportion of candidates who obtain an 'O' level pass in English has increased from 67% in 1989 to 73.8% in 1999.
English is more widely used today. However, the quality of English used has suffered some erosion. This is not surprising. For most students English is still not their home language. And for the vast majority of adult Singaporeans who use English, English is a foreign language. They are first-generation users of the language. English was not used at home, and they learnt it only upon entering school.
The syntax, grammar, expressions, pronunciation and rhythms of their own mother tongues come more naturally to them. These creep into the English they use. When students and others who are learning English look for models of English usage in daily life, or for opportunities to use the language, they encounter such usage and accept that as the norm.
The result is that the English in daily use in Singapore has taken on distinct characteristics of its own. Some of these characteristics make it very difficult for Singaporeans to make themselves understood by others, in speech or in writing. It would not matter if we were some isolated and self-contained agricultural or fishing community that rarely needed to come into contact with the outside world. But it makes a critical difference for the Singapore of today and the Singapore of the future. Global literacy is a key competitive advantage. Today we enjoy an advantage in this area. We should improve our global literacy and not allow it to back-slide.
The improvement in our day to day use of the English language must be addressed in a concerted manner.
The schools are playing their part to encourage the use of proper English. Schools have regularly organized Speak English campaigns, speech, drama and storytelling activities, debates, essay competitions, extensive reading programs and English language camps, among a host of others. These activities and programs should continue and even be stepped up if necessary, to encourage the use of standard English among pupils.
To complement the efforts of the schools, the Ministry of Education has also taken concrete steps to improve the standard of English. One of the measures was the revision of the English Language syllabus with substantial strengthening in the teaching of grammar and presentation skills. In order to ensure that our teachers are prepared for this renewed emphasis on the teaching of grammar, a 60-hour course was customized for all teachers of English and will be run over this year and the next.
To provide Singaporeans with a guide on the use of standard English, MOE has also collaborated with the SEAMEO Regional Language Centre on a handbook of grammar that focuses on the correct use of English to address common errors which occur in local usage. This series of handbooks, Grammar Matters, is based on actual examples of errors in English that Singaporeans make.
The user-friendly approach the writers have taken will help the reader be more aware of typical errors in English usage in Singapore. This book will be useful for students, teachers, parents and members of the public. I hope that by using this book, they will be able to improve their own English usage, and also help their friends and colleagues to improve.
I would like to commend the SEAMEO Regional Language Centre for its efforts in publishing this book. The launch of this series of books supports the efforts of the Speak Good English Movement announced by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong on 29 August last year. It now gives me great pleasure to officially launch the book, Grammar Matters.