“We Can Do Better”: The Singapore Perspective on English

Speech by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Former Minister Mentor and current Senior Advisor to Government of Singapore Investment Corporation at the Launch of the English Language Institute of Singapore (ELIS) on Tuesday, 6 September 2011, at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre.

Minister for Education
Mr Heng Swee Keat

Principals and teachers

Ladies and gentlemen

It gives me great pleasure to be present this afternoon at the launch of the English Language Institute of Singapore or ELIS for short. The launch of ELIS shows how far Singapore has come in terms of establishing English as the lingua franca among what was, 46 years ago, a community of polyglots, speaking a variety of dialects and languages.

Historical Importance of English

When Singapore became independent in 1965, we had a population that spoke a range of different dialects and languages. This was a result of the colonial education system which favoured the English-speaking, but allowed vernacular schools with different mediums of instruction to co-exist.

Political and economic realities led us to choose English as our working language.

75% of the population then was Chinese, speaking a range of dialects; 14% Malays; and 8% Indians.

Making Chinese the official language of Singapore was out of the question as the 25% who were non-Chinese would revolt.

In addition, the geographical reality was, and remains today, that Singapore would be economically isolated from the wider world if Chinese was chosen.

And China then could not be of much help to our economic development.

With barely 700 sq km of land, we could not make a living out of agriculture.

Trade and industry was our only hope for economic survival.

To attract investors here to set up their manufacturing plants, our people had to speak English, the language that is either the first or second language of the major economies of the world.

English was our best choice, the language of international diplomacy, science and technology, and international finance and commerce after World War II.

The British had spread the English language across several hundred millions in Asia, especially India and Africa, besides the old Commonwealth of Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

The Americans inherited this huge English speaking mass when they became the dominant power after World War II and made it the largest language spoken across many nations.

The choice of English as our lingua franca gave all races equal opportunities through a common language to learn, communicate and work in.

We kept our original languages by our policy of bilingualism, allowing opportunities for people to study their respective mother tongues. This built a sense of belonging to their original roots and increased their self-confidence and self-respect.

Thus, a united multi-ethnic, multi-lingual people ensured Singapore’s survival. Had we not chosen English, we would have been left behind.

Current Importance of English

We are the only country in the region that uses English as our working language, the main medium of instruction in our schools.

This has given our young a strong advantage of growing up in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual society, all speaking the international language of commerce and trade, English, and their mother tongues, Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and others as their second languages.

English-speaking Singaporeans are sought after by MNCs, international organisations and NGOs because we can connect with the English-speaking world, and can operate comfortably in multi-cultural environments, in countries like China, India, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Singaporeans add value to these economies by being able to speak both English and Mandarin and other major Asian languages, acting as a bridge between them and the peoples of America, Europe, Japan, India and ASEAN countries.

As an English-speaking society, we have drawn foreign talent to our shores.

There is an intense worldwide competition for talent, especially for English-speaking skilled professionals, managers and executives. Our English-speaking environment is one reason why Singapore has managed to attract a number of these talented individuals to complement our own talent pool.

They find it easy to work and live in Singapore, and remain plugged into the global economy. Singapore is a popular educational choice for many young Asians who want to learn English, and they get a quality education. This has kept our city vibrant.

Future Challenges

English has given Singapore a head start vis-à-vis our neighbours; but this competitive edge is not permanent.

Today, because competence in English is no longer just a competitive advantage, many countries are trying to teach their children English.

It is a basic skill that many children want to acquire in the 21st century.

Many countries in the region realise the importance of schooling their young in English.

But it will take decades to restructure a country’s language policy.

For example, the demand for English teachers in these countries has grown in recent years and English schools are mushrooming in China, Thailand and Vietnam.

This is a worldwide phenomenon.

Even native English speaking countries are concerned about the standard of English among their people.

The UK and the US want to raise their standards of English.

Importance of Effective Communication in the 21st Century

How do young Singaporeans fare in this increasingly competitive landscape? How well do our young people communicate, and how can we ensure that they are able to hold their own in the future?

Communication skills are one of the most important competencies needed in the 21st century workforce.

If one is to succeed, he or she will need a mastery of English because it is the language of business, science, diplomacy and academia.

We have built a good English language foundation for our students.

Our achievements in international benchmark tests like Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)1 and Progress in International Reading Study (PIRLS)2 are well documented.

We can do better.

We must help every child to attain higher standards in English, and our best students must be able to hold their own internationally.

Home background plays an important role in developing good English language skills.

And we are maintaining our mother tongues.

This makes it difficult unless children are exposed to the two languages early in life, from the time they are babies, according to research by specialists including Dr Jeanette Vos.

However, not all our homes have this practice. We must ensure that all children, regardless of their backgrounds, have equal access to a quality education in our schools.

To maintain the high standards of English competency in Singapore, we need to ensure that from the time a child steps into kindergarten, he is exposed to good English.

Our schools must provide a rich language environment.

There must be a strong reading culture where children can access and enjoy good books.

There must be a culture of oracy.

Opportunities must be given to students to speak in English.

Students must present information and ideas, to clarify and to debate robustly with each other in English.

Developing a high level of English language competency in our students cannot be the work of the English teacher alone.

It is the responsibility of every teacher who teaches subjects in English.

Teachers must use good English when they question, speak and write in the classroom.

They are the best role models for our children if our young are to be effective communicators.

In leading this, there is no more important person than the Principal.

Principals must foster a culture where good English permeates every classroom and every interaction between teachers and students.

We must galvanise the whole school community to be role models of good English.

Together, we must encourage our students to speak well, read widely and constantly to improve their English competency.


The launch of ELIS is timely.

You, the educators, must be the standard-bearers of the language.

You need to encourage, stimulate and challenge your students to be excellent communicators in English, able to hold their own at home and abroad.

You must, yourselves, constantly seek to improve your own command and appreciation of the language so that you can engender the same love and appreciation of English in your students.

Our teachers have a strong sense of mission, and a desire to prepare our young.

Upgrade your skills and your competency in English, so that you can play an important role in grooming future generations.

I congratulate ELIS on its launch and look forward to the Institute improving the teaching of English in our schools.

Thank you.


In 2009, Singapore participated for the first time in the PISA which studies the capacity of students near the end of secondary education, to apply knowledge and skills in Reading, Mathematics and Science in a variety of real-life situations.

A total of 5,152 15-year-old students from 167 secondary schools and 131 students from 4 private schools in Singapore participated in PISA.

Singapore was the top performing country among those that administered the assessment in English.

Our students performed significantly better in Reading than those from traditionally English-speaking countries such as Australia (9th), the United States (17th), Ireland (21st) and the United Kingdom (25th) and were on a par with students from Canada (6th) and New Zealand (7th). ↩

Singapore emerged 4th out of 45 education systems that participated in PIRLS 2006.

The PIRLS 2006 results affirm that Singapore’s approach to the teaching of English Language is progressing in the right direction.

Schools and parents should continue to work in close partnership to foster good reading habits in our pupils, including providing a home environment which encourages reading. ↩


Participating in a MOOC

Currently, there are two ways to find out what learning in a massive, open, online course is like: One, you can participate in such a course, provided you have the time necessary to invest in such a learning experience. When your time is the limited and precious commodity that we all know it to be, you may not be able to participate, however.

Don’t feel bad about that. That’s life, and for the majority of us mortals, we work for a living in a world that will not let us simply employ our time in any pursuit. We have to be selective, to be balanced with the way in which we invest our time. Families, friends, hobbies, rest & relaxation demand an equal share of the 24 hour clock. So, if we can’t participate in a MOOC, that leaves option two available.

Option Two? You can read this book…

My #CCK11 Experience
by Thomas Jerome Baker

Stephen: “On Jan. 17 George Siemens and I will launch the third offering of our online course called ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge’ – or CCK11. We use the term ‘connectivism’ to describe a network-based pedagogy. The course itself uses connectivist principles and is therefore an instantiation of the philosophy of teaching and learning we both espouse.” This book is the result of my participation in the #CCK11 course

My #CCK11 Experience


The International Baccalaureate [Kindle Edition]

The International Baccalaureate [Paperback]

The global search for high-quality education, embedded in high-performing education systems, has taken on mythical proportions, almost resembling the alchemists’ quest to turn common metals into gold.

It is my hope that the present day search for global education, equitable and providing equality of opportunity for all, shall not cease until the “gold” we seek, has been found.

I therefore dedicate this book to all the educators, researchers, parents and students the world over, who strive to achieve this elusive goal,high-quality education for all the citizens of the world.

In this endeavour, it is my belief that the International Baccalaureate merits a closer look, based on their more than 40 year history of delivering consistently excellent results.

I add that all of the reflections and views in this book are mine alone, unless otherwise noted, and can not be attributed to my employer or any other organization I am affiliated with, past or present. For any errors or oversights, I bear the complete responsibility.


Amazon Author Page: Thomas Jerome Baker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He is the Head of the English Department at Colegio Internacional SEK in Santiago, Chile.

He is the Co-Founder and Co-Organiser of EdCamp Santiago, free, participant-driven, democratic, conversation based professional development for teachers, by teachers. EdCamp Santiago 2012 was held at Universidad Mayor in Santiago.

Thomas is also a past member (2011-2012) of the Advisory Board for the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association (HETL), where he also serves as a reviewer and as the HETL Ambassador for Chile.

Thomas was recently selected for membership in the Comunidad de Innovacion Escolar, sponsored by the Telefonica Foundation and Foundation Educacion 2020. The aim of the group is to create a diverse network of highly innovative and entrepreneurial-minded educators who develop, create and strengthen the capacities and abilities of their educational settings, in order to expand and enrich educative processes that promote creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

As an author, Thomas enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics, both fiction and non-fiction. He is the creator of a new genre, the imaginary interview, in which the writer creates an interview with a guest, based on their work. In his latest interview, he interviewed himself, having published his new book, The Last Shot! It’s available on Amazon, both as a paperback and also as a digital book, on the Amazon Kindle platform.

Thus far, he has written the following genres: romance, historical fiction, autobiographical, sports history/biography, memoir, interviews and English Language Teaching. He has self-published a total of forty five (45) books overall.

The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family, his wife Gabriela, and his son, Thomas Jerome Baker, Jr.



About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
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