Multiculturalism and multilingualism in contemporary Singapore

The climate of Singapore

Singapore, il clima delle forestepluviali

The Republic of Singapore, whose national territory in addition to the main island of Singapore furthermore comprises other 54 andjacent islets, the vaste majority of which are still uninhabited1, covers a total land area of 699,4 square kilometers2.

Located at the southern tip of Malay Peninsula, just 136,8 km north of the equator, the insular state of Singapore is affected by the hot and humid equatorial climate, characterized by frequent and heavy downpours. The average daily temperature shows peaks of intensity that range from a maximum of 30,7 ºC (early afternoon) and a minimum of 23ºC (during the night). With a moisture level among the highest in the world, in certain periods of the year, Singapore goes so far as to go beyong the maximum peak of 90%3.

Among all climatic features that make Singaporean archipelago a real charming and unique environment, we cannot forget to mention the two monsoon seasons. Da novembre a gennaio, le fresche correnti monsoniche che soffiano da nord-ovest sono portatrici di copiose precipitazioni a carattere piovoso mentre, da maggio ad agosto, il vento monsonico che alita da sud-est, oltre a provocare delle brusche escursioni termiche nelle prime ore mattutine, dà vita a delle improvvise e violente raffiche che superano spesso i 140 Km/h, meglio note tra le popolazioni locali con l’appellativo di Sumatras.

The Republic of Singapore

Singapore, Parlamento di Singapore, Governo di Singapore

For what concerns its form of government, the Republic of Singapore is officially recognized as a democratic republic governed by a parliamentary government system having a univestal suffrage.

The Parlament of Singapore is  unicameral and consists of 83 members, each of whom is elected by a population of voters who acquire the right to vote at the age of twenty-one.

Every six years these voters are called to elect the President of the Republica, who in turn, after appointing the Prime Minister, has the task to designate the Ministers of Cabinet, together with whom he will form the Government of Singapore.

The social and religious fabric of Singapore

Buddismo Singapore

According to some statistical data collected during the last census conducted by the Singapore Department of Statistics in 2010, the total population of Singapore is approximately composed by  5.760.700 inhabitants, 3.771.700 of whom are residents and 1.305.000 non-residents.

As a direct consequence of the countless immigration flows occurred over the past centuries, Singapore nowadays offers to the eyes of tourists and ethno-antropology fans one of the most charming and multi-ethnic society in the world. 

The resident population in fact results to be made of: 74,1% da Chineses, 13,4% Malaysians, 9,2% Indians and 3,3% by Europeans, Filipinos and Australians6.

The most widespread religion in the citty-state of Singapore is Buddhism, professed by 42,5% of the resident population. Islam and Christianity, whose respective percentages are 14,9% and 14,6%, are neck and neck. The third position, in a significant decline compared to the percentage of the early Nineties, is held by Taoism, which still involves l’8,5% of resident population. Although Hinduism rised from 3,7% in 1990 to 4% in 2000, it still remains in minority. Around 14,8% of Singaporeans are atheists, most of whom are of Chinese origins. Do not even come to exceed the treshhold of 0,6%7 the individuals who profess other religious beliefs as Sikhism, Judaism, lo Zoroastrianism, il Confucianism, Jainism and other local spiritualistic cults of syncretistic nature8.

Official language, national languages and dialects in Singapore

Singapore, official languages

With reference to the provisions of article 153 A., paragraph (2), belonging to the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore9, the only national Language officialli recognized by the State of Singapore is Malay, in whose written form is categorically allowed only the use of Latin alphabet in order to replace the original characters  belonging to Jawi Alphabet10 through which, albeit in a non exclusive form, are still transcribed bahasa Melayu Phonemes (ancient traditional name for the Malay Language reintroduced in the Federal Republic of Malaysia since the early nineties11. In the paragraph (1) of the same article are moreover mentioned three further languages: Mandarin Chinese, Tamil and English, which, along with Malay constitut the four official languages of the Republick of Singapore.

In order to provide a more detailed explanation about he various semantic nuances that allow us to distinguish in a very functional way the respective meaning of the expressions “official language” and “national language”, we cannot avoid to focus our attention the definitions provided by the Filipino linguist, and founding member of Linguistic Society of the Philippines (1969-70)12, Bonifacio Sibayan who, in turn, in order to shed light on the existing differences between the meaning of “national language” and “official language”, takes as a model the famous case of tagalog (idiom belonging to the Austronesian languages subsequently renamed Pilipino by the Secretary of the Department of Education Jose Romero in 1959)13 and asserts that:

The case of Pilipino demonstrates very clearly the difference between an official language and a national language. An official language, for example English in the Philippine case, is a language that is recognized as the language of government transactions, rules and regulations, the law, the courts and legislation. A national language on the other hand may or may not be an official language but has two important functions: it is the language that is generally native to the country and is or should be spoken and understood by all thepeople if possible i.e. as the national lingua franca. Most important, it must be accepted by the majority of the people or their elected representatives as a symbol of unity and identity.” (14).

After this brief explanation about the differenciation of the respective concepts of “national language” and “official language”, we can bring our attention back to the exploration of the contemporary Singaporean sociolinguistic scenario.

In addition to the four official languages officially recognized by the Constitution of Singapore, within the national borders of the Republic of Singapore come to life a multitude of foreign languages and dialects, which, as a result of the numerous and massive migratory waves, over the centuries, progressively contributed to the transformation process of what was once upon a time the quite and remote Island of Temasek into a real contemporary linguistic melting pot.

Already in the late Fifties in a total population of approximately 1.445.999 people (according to the census performed in 1957), it was recorded the presence of more than 20 different idioms belonging in turn to 4 distinct linguistic families:

The demographic impact of Sinitic, Dravidian, Indo-Aryan and Malayo-polinesian languages in Singapore

Statistiche Singapore, lingue, dialetti, popolazione, etnie, clima, governo

  1. To a first Group of Sinitic languages (one of the two main branches in which is divided the linguistic family of Sino-tibetan languages) are attributable: the Hokkien dialect that, with a total of around 433.718 mother tongue speakers, representing approximately 30,0% of the total population of Singapore, is the predominant linguistic Group in “Lion City”, the Teochew dialect, which results to be spoken by 17,0% of Singaporeans and the Cantonese dialect which, having around 217.640 surveyed native speakes, involves 15,1% of the local population, gaining the third position on the list of the most widespread idioms in the former british colony of Singapore. Less significant appears to be the demographic impact of other sinitic dialects as: Hainanese (5,1%), Hakka (4,6%), Foochow (1,0%), Henghua (0,5%), Shanghainese (0,5%), Hokchia (0,4%) and Mandarin (0,1%).

  2. Are instead considered an integral part of the western branch of  Malayo-polinesian Linguistic subfamily (whose origins date back to the Austronesian linguistic family)17Malay, which, despite being the only reognized national Language, effectively involves just 11,5% of population,  Javanese and Boyanese, which both can not even cross the threshold of 1,0%.

  3. To the family of Dravidial Languages (whose geographical distibution is mainly concentrated in the current central Southern regions of India and a lanrge part of Northern Sri-Lanka) we can link:  Tamil , spoken by around 5,2% of Singaporeans. and Malayalam, which invests a relatively small percentage of speakers that do not even exceed  1,4%.

  4. To the group of Indo-Aryan Languages (subgroup of Indo-Iranian Languages , belonging in turn to the main branch of Indo European Languages)19 are linked Punjabi, ordinarily used by 0,7% of all residents, Hindustani, which interests 0,4% of population, Bengali which, with about 1.210 speakers, covers just 0,1% of Singapore population and Gujarati, of which are surveyed no more than a thousand inhabitants.

For what concerns instead some statistical data related to the demographic incidence of English Language, we can say that, at the end of 1957, within the national border of the insular State of Singapore there were approximately 26.599 mother tongue speakers, who covered only 1,8% of the total population20.

Further readings and most recommended books

1Dana Léo-Paul, Asian models of enterpreneurship: from the Indian Union and the kingdom of Nepal to the Japanese archipelago: context, policy and practice, Asia-Pacific Business Series, volume 4, World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd, Singapore, 2007, Republic of Singapore.

2Swee-Hock Saw, The Population of Singapore, second edition, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2007, op. cit.

3Keng Hshuan, The coincise flora of Singapore: gymnosperms and dicotyledons, Singapore University Press, National University of Singapore, Singapore, 1990, Republic of Singapore.

4Sien Lin Chia, Rahman Ausafur, Tai B. H. Dorothy, The Biophisical Environment of Singapore, Singapore University Press, National University of Singapore, Singapore, 1991, Republic of Singapore.

5Oon Helen, Globetrotter Travel Guide to Singapore, sixth edition, New Holland Publishers Ltd., London, 2008, United Kingdom.

6Wong Wee Kim, Population Trends 2010, Singapore Department of Statististics, Ministry of Trade & Industry, Singapore, 2010, Republic of Singapore.

7MINISTRY OF COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT, YOUTH AND SPORTS, 2010. Singapore social statistics in brief, published by Strategic Planning, Research and Development Division, 502 Thomson Road, 7th Storey, MCYS Building, Singapore 298136.

8Bouma D. Gary (Monash University, Melbourne, Australia), Ling Rod (University of Manchester, United Kingdom), Pratt Douglass (University of Waikato, New Zealand), Religious Diversity in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, National Case Studies, Springer, Dordrecht · Heidelberg ·London · New York, 2010, The Netherlands, Germany, United Kingdom, United States of America.

9CONSTITUTION OF THE REPUBLIC OF SINGPORE, 9th August 1965, Republic of Singapore.

10Goddard Cliff, The Languages of East and Southeast Asia: an introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, United Kingdom.

11Adelaar Alexander, Himmelman P. Nikolaus, The Austronesian Languages of Asia and Madagascar, Routledge Language Family Series, Routledge, 2005, Abingdon, United Kingdom.

13Bautista Maria Lourdes S., Bolton Kingsley, Philippine English: Linguistic and Literary Perspectives, Asian Englishes Today, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, 2008, (PRC).

14Sibayan P. Bonifacio in Fishman A. Joshua, Tabouret-Keller Andrée, Clyne Michael, Krishnamurti B., Abdulaziz Mohamed, The Fergusonian Impact In Honor of Charles A. Ferguson, Volume 1, From phonology to Society, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, 1986, Germany, p. 352, trad.: «Il caso del pilipino dimostra molto chiaramente la differenza tra una lingua ufficiale ed una lingua nazionale. Una lingua ufficiale, per esempio l’inglese nel caso della Repubblica delle Filippine, è una lingua riconosciuta come la lingua delle transazioni del Governo, delle norme degli ordinamenti, della legge, dei tribunali e della legislazione. Una lingua nazionale, dall’altro lato, può o non può essere una lingua ufficiale ma ha due importanti funzioni: è generalmente la lingua nativa del Paese ed è o dovrebbe essere parlata e compresa da tutte le persone se è possibile cioè come lingua franca nazionale. La cosa più importante è che essa debba essere accettata dalla maggioranza della popolazione o dai loro rappresentanti eletti come simbolo di unità e di identità.».

15De Mauro Tullio, Grande Dizionario Italiano dell’Uso, volume VI, SF-Z, Unione Tipografico-Editrice Torinese, Torino, 2000.

16Chappel Hilary, Chinese grammar: synchronic and diachronic perspectives, Oxford University Press, first published as Sinitic grammar: synchronic and diachronic perspectives in 2001, first published in paperback in 2004, Oxford, United Kingdom.

17Moseley Christopher, Encyclopedia of the World’s Endangered Languages, first published in 2007 by Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon, simultaneously published in USA and Canada by Routledge, New York, Taylor & Francis Group, this edition published in the Taylor anf Francis e-Library, 2008.

18Krishnamurti Bhadriraju, The Dravidian Languages, Cambridge Language Surveys, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, United Kingdom.

19Ramchandani Indu, Hoiberg Dale, Student’s Britannica India, volume three, Encyclopedia Britannica (India) Private Limited, New Delhi, India.

20Chua, Report on the Census of Population, 1957, pp. 155-61, tables 39-43 cit. in Afendras A. Evangelos, Kuo C. Y. Eddie, Language and Society in Singapore, Singapore University Press, Singapore, 1980, Republic of Singapore.

Dr. Biagio Faraci, traduttore tecnico, interprete di trattativa ed international web business consultant

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