Difference Between Singapore National Language and Official Language

The use of official languages and national languages are typical among multilingual nations. In Singapore, there are four major ethnolinguistic groups which purpose varies, whether national or official.

A language has a different characterization depending on its communicative purposes. It varies in terms of commonly spoken language, second language, regional dialects, local slang, etc. These are noticeable if you interact with a citizen from a multicultural nation like Singapore.

But how would you know which of these languages are established as national and official languages? What characteristics are required for a language to be classified as one in Singapore? And how do people cope with the number of languages being spoken in their country?

Read on if you want to know more about the languages spoken in Singapore and how they differ from each other.

Official Language

The official language of a country is commonly used in government functions, and it is utilized in all government services for the general public. Official languages are used for high-status functions in a state, namely the government, education, and media.

In contrast, official languages must undergo legal processes before they are declared among the languages spoken in a country. And its core function is primarily practical, representing the existence of legislation and sovereignty of a nation.

For instance, the official language of Singapore represents the major ethnic groups residing in Singapore and is influenced by the bilingual education policy of Singaporean schools.

This language diversity resulted in the four official languages of Singapore: Malay, English, Mandarin Chinese, and Tamil. These different languages have the same formality purpose in Singaporean government engagements, specifically in a national court, parliament, or business.

National Language

In terms of the most widely spoken language in a country, national languages hold a symbolic status for being the source of culture and identity because it is a language spoken by the majority of the population. It is used for general purposes consisting of daily transactions, conversational purposes, and regular communication tools.

The designated national Singaporean language is Malay for being the native language of the country. The Malay language defines the people of Singapore, including their culture and history.

Nationalism is the core function of Malay, among other languages, which can be observed for its prominence in Singapore’s national anthem and military drill commands. The constitution of Singapore explicitly protects the Malay language to preserve the linguistic and cultural roots of the country.

What Language Is Spoken In Singapore?

Singapore is ethnolinguistically diverse, reflecting the multitude of languages in the country. The four widely spoken languages in Singapore are English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil.

Singaporeans speak a variety of languages spoken in Singapore, which depends on the demographic of the population. According to this study, 74.1 percent of the population in Singapore is made up of Chinese Singaporeans, 13.4 percent points to Malay, 9.2 percent are Indian, and the remaining 3.3 percent are classified as ‘others’ by the government.

This denotes that the languages of Singapore may serve different purposes, but they remain to be utilized as a tool of communication to connect the people of Singapore.

Malay – National Language of Singapore

The Malay language is the established national language of Singapore, and it is also declared as one of the official languages. Malay is an Austronesian language spoken in Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia, also called Bahasa Melayu.

Despite the multitude of languages spoken in Singapore, Singaporean Malay households use their mother tongue to link their cultural identity with the language to counter the shift towards English.

Malay as a language in Singapore still has other varieties like the Bazaar Malay and Baba Malay that remain to be spoken as the mother tongue of Peranakans in Singapore.


Another dominant language in Singapore is the language of global communication, which is English.

The English language is internationally spoken. It connects people from different continents as a neutral language between native English speakers and non-native speakers, which signifies its prominence in turning Singapore into a global economic powerhouse.

English is the main language of instruction in Singapore and an important tool for international business communication. Singaporeans proficiency in English is known among other nations due to its prioritization of the international language.

According to the English proficiency index, Singapore ranked fourth with very high proficiency among the global ranking of countries and regions, following Netherlands, Austria, and Denmark.

The English language in Singapore gained prestige due to the British colonial government in the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thus, the conventions of British English are noticeable when Singaporeans speak English.

Mandarin Chinese

The Chinese community in Singapore makes up the largest ethnic group in Singapore, accounting for 74 percent of the population. The majority of this ethnolinguistic group speak Mandarin, divided into speakers of other Chinese dialects.

The prominence of the Chinese language in Singapore has been caused by the migration of Chinese people to Southeast Asia since the 19th century. The occurrence of the migration greatly integrated Chinese culture along with the Chinese language in Singapore.

Aside from the Mandarin language, other Chinese dialects are spoken in Singapore like Hokkien, Hainanese, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, and Shanghainese. These Chinese dialects have a smaller community of speakers who blend borrowed words into the Standard Chinese language from a Chinese dialect.


Despite the number of Indian citizens residing in Singapore, the Tamil language had gained prominence among other Indian languages. 9.2 percent of the population in Singapore are made up of Indians, and 76.7 percent of these Indians speak the Tamil language as their mother tongue. Apart from Tamil, other Indian languages spoken in Singapore consist of Malayalam, Telugu, Bengali, Hindi, and Gujarati.

Tamil became one of the official languages in Singapore since the majority of early Indian settlers in Singapore came from the Tamil Nadu region. In spite of the recognition of Tamil in Singapore, you can still learn the diverse languages of India in the schools of Singapore.


Singlish stands for Singaporean English, an English-based creole language spoken in Singapore. When hanging out with a Singaporean, you would notice several local slang being injected into your English conversation; the distinct accent is also noticeable once you are conversing with a Singaporean English speaker.

Here are a few words if you want to speak Singlish or understand Singapore English:

  • Can or not? – asking if something can be done.
  • Catch no ball – cannot understand a thing.
  • Agak-agak – Malay word when giving a rough estimate.
  • Bo chap – translates to “don’t care” in Hokkien; it defines someone who is being indifferent.

In Singapore, English played a huge role in business trade, communication, and the development of the Lion City. The diversity of languages in Singapore resulted in the creation of Singlish, which consists of many discourse particles and loan words from the other major languages of Singapore like Malay, Mandarin, and Hokkien. Singlish is not typically used in formal communication, but it has a huge part in the Singaporean identity; it represents the blend of several cultural identities in Singapore that transcends social barriers.

Bilingualism in Singapore

Communication with other linguistic groups around the globe is an important advantage among all nations and their citizens. Hence, the mandate for bilingualism can be beneficial to ease communication barriers with other linguistic groups.

The government highly encourages bilingualism in Singapore; thus, Singaporeans need to be proficient and fluent in both English and other ethnic mother tongues consisting of Chinese Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil.

The Singaporean government established the Bilingual Policy to promote the major ethnolinguistic groups in Singapore along with the increasing importance of English as a gateway to economic success.

In Singapore, language is put on a pedestal that opens up its citizens to the diversity of cultures in the society and unlocks the potential for international pursuits.

To Conclude

Understanding language and cultural differences mean we would be able to communicate effectively and politely to different people with different cultural identities. Learning several languages and their use in society leads to increased linguistic tolerance to diversity; it illustrates how we can cope despite our differences.

The Lion City of Southeast Asia embraces the diverse cultural identity of its citizens by promoting the use of all four major languages: Malay, Chinese, Tamil, and English in different social contexts, whether it is formal communication or day-to-day interactions. Despite the gained prestige of English in Singapore, the government remains to nurture the use of native languages to protect the rich linguistic and cultural backgrounds of major ethnicities residing in the country.

Singapore’s ethnic diversity and multiculturalism remain relevant as a core of the country’s identity. Any Singaporeans bear great importance to their cultural roots. For instance, Chinese parents are likely to be keen on their children learning Mandarin, or Malay parents would want to teach their children the Malay language.

In the face of globalization in a fast-paced country, Singapore serves as the site for preserving multicultural and multiracial identities without compromising the opportunity for sustained economic growth through communication.

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