The Speak Mandarin Campaign was launched in 1979 by then Lee Kuan Yew. The motivation was to discourage the use of various by Chinese Singaporeans and to encourage the speaking of as a common language among the Chinese population. The campaign aims to :
*simplify the language environment and understanding amongst Chinese Singaporeans.
*improve communication and understanding amongst Chinese Singaporeans.
*create a Mandarin-speaking environment conducive to the successful implementation of the bilingual education programme.
The Campaign continued in the 1990s as the country's second generation leaders, led by Goh Chok Tong, took over the government.
"For the Chinese community, our aim should be a single people, speaking the same primary language, possessing a distinct culture and a shared past, and sharing a common destiny for the future. Such a Chinese community will then be tightly knit. Provided it is also tolerant and appreciative of the other communities' heritage, able to communicate with them in English, and work with them for a common future, Singapore will grow to become a nation."
:— ''PM Goh Chok Tong, 1991 Speak Mandarin Campaign Launch''
From 1979 to 1981, the Speak Mandarin Campaign was targeted at Chinese Singaporeans, in particular, specific groups such as hawkers, workers, white-collar workers and senior executives, to encourage them to speak Mandarin instead of non-Mandarin Chinese languages so that they could better communicate with each other, especially among various dialect groups. This objective has been largely achieved. However, research indicated that Mandarin was losing ground among English-educated Chinese Singaporeans who were starting to lose their Mandarin or Chinese language skills. The program coexists with other similarly run language advocacy campaigns, such as the Speak Good English Movement.
From 1991 onwards, the SMC has shifted its objective to encourage English-educated Chinese Singaporeans to speak Mandarin. In 1994, the SMC specifically targeted English-educated business professionals and working adults, promoting the use of Mandarin to keep their links to cultural roots and to better appreciate the heritage and value. This would complement the influence of the western or English-speaking world on their world view and perspectives.
The Speak Mandarin Campaign is a year-round campaign, that uses publicity and activities in the community to create awareness and to facilitate the learning of Mandarin. This included publications such as CD-ROMs and tapes of Mandarin lessons, handbooks of English-Chinese terms as well as telephone Mandarin lessons to help people to learn Mandarin. As part of the campaign to promote greater use, the English newspaper The Straits Times publishes daily Mandarin vocabulary lessons. Recently, the campaign took on a theme "''hua yu Cool''" , and use TV game shows and music performances by local pop stars, to increase the awareness, especially in younger people. However, this is sometimes viewed as a mockery of the campaign's intents, as Mandarin 's 'coolness' has to be expressed in English. It has not been significantly successful.
In addition to positive promotion of Mandarin, the campaign also includes active attempts to dissuade people from using non-Mandarin Chinese languages. Mostly notably, the use of non-Mandarin Chinese languages in local broadcast media is , and access to foreign media in non-Mandarin Chinese languages is limited. Imported serial dramas from Hong Kong and Taiwan are available on TV but these are often dubbed in Mandarin to comply with broadcasting laws. Nevertheless, undubbed originals in Cantonese and Hokkien are often easily available from shops.
The Speak Mandarin campaign has enjoyed visible success since it first started. In 1980, Mandarin speakers made up only 26% of the population, but by 1990, this figure had moved to over 60%, and has continued to increase. Usage at home remains a minority, but according to the Department of Statistics which deals with the demographics of Singapore, Mandarin was the most frequent language spoken at home for 23.7% of the population in 1990, and this increased to 35% in 2000, becoming a plurality. The use of dialects as the most frequent language spoken at home has declined from 39.6% to 23.8%.
Lee Kuan Yew, himself a native English speaker who had learned Mandarin later in life, expressed his concern about the declining proficiency of Standard Mandarin among younger Singaporeans. In a parliamentary speech, he said: "Singaporeans must learn to juggle English and Mandarin". Subsequently, he launched a television program, ''华语!'', in January 2005, in an attempt to attract young viewers to learn Mandarin.
In June 2005, Lee published a book, ''Keeping My Mandarin Alive'', documenting his decades of effort to master Mandarin — a language which he had to re-learn due to disuse:
"...because I don't use it so much, therefore it gets disused and there's language loss. Then I have to revive it. It's a terrible problem because learning it in adult life, it hasn't got the same roots in your memory."
The Speak Mandarin Campaign has come under criticism from several fronts. Non-Mandarin Chinese language speakers have complained that their children have to study two foreign languages — English and Mandarin. This is contrasted to a possible alternative policy of English and their native language, and that the emphasis on Mandarin threatens family ties, as older generations are often not conversant in Mandarin. Lee Kuan Yew himself recognized this and acknowledged that for many Chinese Singaporeans, Mandarin is a "stepmother tongue" and "dialect is the real mother tongue". Some critics have noted the irony in that Mandarin education system's goal of promoting cultural identity has left many younger generations of Mandarin speakers unable to communicate with their non-Mandarin Chinese language-speaking grandparents. They have also compared the policy to that of Russification and intentional .
Non-Chinese language communities , on the other hand, have argued that the effort placed into promoting Mandarin weakens the role of English as Singapore's ''lingua franca'' and threatens to marginalize Singapore's minorities. Some have expressed concern that requirements of Mandarin fluency or literacy could be used to discriminate against non-Chinese minorities. Current employment laws prohibit racial discrimination but employers often circumvent this by requiring applicants to be bilingual .