The Introduction and Dissemination of English in Singapore and Malaysia

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

The widespread use of the English language in the nations now known as Singapore and Malaysia derives from the period of British colonial rule, which began in the 1820s. According to the "Brief History of Singaporean and Malaysian English," which appears in the 1997 edition of The Times-Chambers Essential English Dictionary, which draws upon Gupta's work listed below, English "was seen as the gateway to membership of the elite under the colonial government," and within a decade of the extension of the British Empire to include this area of South Asia, "Schools using English as their medium for teaching had already been established" (vi). Many of the first students at these schools were Eurasians, who spoke English at home, but Chinese students also attended in significantly large numbers. "The language common to all these children would have been Bazaar Malay or Baba Malay," which has therefore done much to shape informal Singaporean and Malaysian English.

As time went on, more Chinese who spoke Cantonese or Hokkien as their native tongue attended these English-language schools, and by the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, Chinese and Indian girls also enrolled, as did a number of Malay speakers. "From the early part of the 20th century, therefore, English was beginning to be used as a native language by the children of those who had attended English-medium schools (especially the Straits Chinese and middle-class Indians" (vi).


The Times-Chambers Essential English Dictionary (TCEED2). 2nd edition. Singapore: Federal Publications/Chambers-Harrap, 1997.

Gupta, Anthea Fraser. The Step-Tongue: Children's English in Singapore. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1994.

Main Web Page Singapore Literrature Bibliography