I posted the following as a comment on TOC but I thought it merited a full post here on my own blog:
In the US, people are free to learn languages based on an individual's needs, whether for economic gain, one's family/cultural environment, or just out of interest. The government does not force (in spite of some bigoted cries for ALL US citizens to have to know English) people to learn (American) English. Instead, the US government adapts ... in areas where there are more Spanish speakers, you tend to see more documents available in Spanish. If it is not economical to make multiple copies of forms and instructions, they offer translation services as best as they can.
What Singapore lacks is the confidence in ourselves. We are not confident that need, economic or otherwise, will necessarily inspire an individual to pursue what is required to fulfill that need. Instead, we rely on the government to "provide".
In doing so, the government left no one with much of a choice as we grew up! We get pigeon-holed into 3 secondary languages (Bahasa Melayu, Tamil and Mandarin) and a smattering of tertiary languages (French, German and Japanese). Under this scenario, to survive in our education system, one has no choice but to tackle a secondary language.
I personally struggled with Mandarin for which I either lacked talent with or just hated the way it was taught. Either way, it felt uninspiring. I learned more about Chinese culture and history playing games like Romance of the Three Kingdoms than from my Mandarin classes in formal education. Perhaps I should have chosen Bahasa Melayu as my "mother tongue" (had I, as a kid, the choice) but Mandarin was the "natural" option given my ethnicity. Cantonese had to take a back seat. It is unclear if I would have succeed with Cantonese given my failure at Mandarin, but I still regret having to "converse" with my late maternal grandmother in broken Cantonese with Mandarin words thrown in when I failed to find the equivalent Cantonese ones (and the awkward moments when grandma fails to understand what I think were the appropriate Mandarin replacements).
Today in the US, I still lack any serious linguistic talent (outside of English), but I no longer feel strait-jacketed. Nowadays, I take joy trying to get a feel for every language my (very) international friends had to offer. From English (it is more diverse than you think) to Italian to Spanish to Polish to Mandarin to Hindi. I do not learn enough to actually converse (other than English and Mandarin, and barely the latter), but I feel great satisfaction understanding aspects of a language (eg. gender associations) and sometimes the cultural aspects. The diversity is staggering and at the same time, beautiful.
The people in Singapore who insist on eliminating everything outside the "supported" languages presented by the media (since we do not, in practice, have private media) are really depriving Singaporeans of this beauty. I would love to see the day private media enthusiasts in Singapore are allowed to present material in any language (or dialect) they desire (eg. "The World of French Music" in French) instead of being strait-jacketed by "official policy".
I would like to add my thoughts on the current discussion of Chinese dialects in Singapore. If individual need had triumphed, I daresay Singapore would have the entrepreneurs interested in the China market being proficient or learning to be proficient with Mandarin while others can pursue their own interests. Instead, we have a situation where many of us possess half-baked knowledge of a mother tongue we are insufficiently inspired with and practice too infrequently to properly maintain. All in the hope that somehow we would ALL employ our mother tongues in the economic service of our nation ...