SINGAPORE – Singapore’s use of Japanese on signboards in a bid to lure more Japanese tourists has raised concern among some ethnic Indians who feel snubbed at the exclusion of their native Tamil language.
The city-state has four official languages — English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil — to accommodate its multiethnic population, which is mostly Chinese with many Malay and Indian minorities.
Signs are mostly in English, which is the administrative and working language.
But government offices often convey policy information in the four languages, as do announcements for passengers at commuter train stations.
All Singaporean students are required to study their native languages in school, in addition to English.
In recent years, however, multilingual signs have mushroomed at Changi International Airport and at tourist hot spots bearing only three of the four languages plus Japanese. Tamil is not among them, even though Indians make up almost 10 percent of the city-state’s citizens.
The increasing appearance of such signs is widely seen as a deliberate policy to make Singapore more tourist-friendly to non-English speakers, including Japanese.
Last year, Japan was Singapore’s sixth-largest source of tourists after Indonesia, China, Australia, India and Malaysia.
Thamiselvan Karuppaya, a 40-year-old ethnic Indian real estate agent, applied to speak Sept. 19 on the issue at Speakers’ Corner, a park in Singapore’s financial and business district that has been designated since 2000 by the government as a venue for citizens to air grievances.
But he had to abandon his plan after the police objected on grounds that the issue touches on racial sensitivities.
Singapore forbids speakers at the park from talking about race and religion for fear it might ignite tension among the races in the wealthy Southeast Asian state, which, though peaceful now, saw violent riots between Chinese and Malays in the 1960s.
Karuppaya’s friend, Rethinam Sabapathy, 51, said that some street signs near the country’s biggest Hindu temples also fail to use Tamil.
“All this doesn’t make sense. It’s a mistake. They are trying to attract more Japanese by using the Japanese language for the signboards. But as Tamil speakers, we have a slight feeling of being unwanted creeping into us,” Sabapathy said.
“The Japanese are very nice people known for manufacturing good cameras and for their sumo wrestlers, but it’s wrong to put up the Japanese language because they come here to get the real multicultural flavor of Singapore,” he said.
Rebecca Lim, deputy director for infrastructure development at the Singapore Tourism Board, said multilingual signs in Singapore are meant to serve the needs of tourists, especially those who are non-English speakers.
She said the agency encourages multilingual signs that “take into consideration the needs of our non-English speaking visitors from key visitor-generating markets such as Indonesia, Malaysia, China and Japan.”
This is why Chinese, Malay and Japanese were added to English for signs at Changi airport, she said in an e-mail response.
Aside from the signboard issue, Sabapathy, who works as a horticulturist, said ethnic Indians do not feel marginalized as the government does promote their native language by ensuring the continuance of a Tamil newspaper, the state-run broadcasting station runs a Tamil radio channel and brochures explaining government policies also include Tamil.
Singapore’s local population of 3.6 million is made up of 2.7 million ethnic Chinese, 491,000 ethnic Malays and 313,000 ethnic Indians.
If foreigners working in the state are included, Singapore’s population rises to 4.6 million.
In a statement Sept. 19, Singapore police said they have informed Karuppaya the issue he was planning to raise in his speech “is a sensitive one impinging on race.”
“Singapore is a multiethnic society and maintaining community harmony is a key imperative that we must not take for granted,” it said.
Japan used to provide the majority of Singapore’s tourists, but in recent years they have been overshadowed by tourists from emerging Asian economies flocking to Singapore in ever greater numbers due to buoyant economies and a boom in low-cost airlines.
Some 594,000 Japanese visited Singapore last year — a far cry from 10 years ago when more than 1 million Japanese visitors swamped Singapore annually.
Singapore, which last year attracted more than 10 million visitors, is on a major drive to woo even more tourists, and it is building two multibillion-dollar integrated resorts with casinos.