Lee Kuan Yew’s first language was English. He spoke it with a Singaporean accent. His vowels sounded roundly imperial.
He came from a family of merchants and businessmen, a Hakka family which had emigrated from Guangdong province in the 1860s. In Singapore they adopted English. They were comfortably off, but not rich. Lee was educated at Raffles Institution in English.
The Telegraph obituary says that he spoke Malay and Cantonese as a child. Some Chinese, in that case, had stayed in the family.
Lee arrived in Cambridge (he married his wife secretly in England: his tutors would not have approved) before we had surrendered even India and ten years before we had to give away anything else.
He started learning Mandarin at the age of thirty-two and Hokkien at thirty-eight. Did he learn to read and write them or only speak? Did he learn Tamil?
He encouraged Chinese Singaporeans to learn Mandarin and launched a Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979.
He believed in keeping ancestral languages, but also in having English as a lingua franca. Has the use of Mandarin placed the Chinese above other ethnic groups in a way that the humbler Hokkien did not?