If race issues could be discussed openly more than 50 years ago, it is ridiculous that we should continue to avoid them and pretend they do not exist. Worse, the very act of not talking about or doing something about them gives the wrong signal that everything is alright. No it is not. And there are practical ways of erasing Chinese privilege, unless the government is afraid of losing the Chinese ground to an opposition party playing the Chinese card.
More than 50 years ago, I was at a university forum. The topic was race relations in Singapore and Malaysia. I cannot remember who the moderator was nor who the person representing the People’s Action Party was, that’s was how colourless both were. But the other two were very well-known. One was our Prof Tommy Koh, very young, combative and much less ponderous than he tended to be today. The other was Dr Mahathir Mahathir, then an up-and-coming and very outspoken Umno politician.
At first the speakers tried to be diplomatic. As they started to argue about race – specifically the treatment of the different races on both sides of the Causeway – sarcastic remarks were hurled around by all the participants. Malays were the original inhabitants and were entitled to bumiputra privileges. The Chinese were here by default and should know their place. And so on.
Trying to paint a graphic picture, the PAP rep spoke about a pond of Malays surrounded by a pool of Chinese in Singapore. Dr Mahathir countered that with his pond of Chinese inside a sea of Malays, so the Chinese, he said, had better behave. Tommy Koh one-upped everyone with his oceans of Chinese and Indians. Strong words flew back and forth in a fascinating no-holds-barred contest of opinions between the two main protagonists.
Why should race be a taboo subject? It wasn’t then, it should not be now. Not only should they be discussed more openly, stop giving this impression the problem will solve itself as society matures or until the country experiences an existential threat through which all the races survive and learn to appreciate one another more.
I put the blame squarely on the government and not a small number of Chinese Singaporeans for the Chinese privilege problem. Much of the unease felt by minority Singaporeans was the result of a period of almost unceasing sinicising of Singapore.
Forcing dialect-speaking Chinese Singaporeans to converse in Mandarin which was not their mother tongue caused a lot of unhappiness. There was also a ripple effect as Mandarinisation often ended up in developing an attitude among some Chinese that Malays or Indians ought to make an effort to speak Mandarin to make themselves clear when it should be the other way round. All Chinese MUST be able to speak English so that they can communicate with non-Chinese Singaporeans in this multi-racial society. Even today, we still have bus captains speaking only Mandarin to passengers. There has been a belated realisation that Mandarinisation has gone too far. More dialect programmes have appeared on local TV, according to some reports. Thanks to Jack Neo, Mark Lee and Michelle Chong.
At the root of the Chinese privilege is Mandarinisation and sinicisation. Here are some of the steps we ought to take to stop the rot.
Speak and use more English
Encourage more Singaporeans to speak not just more but better English. No more meetings in usually half-past-six Mandarin.
Promote visits to more than the Chinese world
Enough of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. There’s a far greater world waiting to be experienced – the region, Japan, South Korea, the Baltics, the West, especially Europe, Egypt, Turkey, Africa.
Merge all the local TV stations into one. No more silo mentality. You get to realise that there are other races in Singapore besides Chinese.
Depinyinise: all place names which have been overzealously pinyinised during a mad rush period in the past. Change Yishun back to Nee Soon, Bishan back to San Teng, disallow too many Mandarin names for condos.
Force all bus captains to speak English
They must pass a test before they are allowed to drive.
No commercial ads or posters in only Mandarin
This is multi-racial Singapore and not China.
Promote Geylang Serai, Little India and Katong more aggressively than Chinatown
The first three are authentically local and more organically heritage than the artificially made-over concoction that is today’s pathetic Chinatown.
If you have to develop more local roots, speak more Cantonese, Hokien, Teochew, Hainanese, Khek, the real mother tongues of many Chinese Singaporeans.
Draw up clear and stronger laws against racial discrimination
Make it an offence to use certain phrases
To protect minorities, ban the phrases “keling” (reference Indians), wan kia (uncivilised child reference Malays) or chau hey (rotten shrimp, reference Eurasians). Draft that into law.
English only for the NDP Rally
And, finally, since today (Aug 18) is NDP Rally day, we should start using only ONE language – English – the neutral language for such a rally.
Let me put it simply. Other than English, the other languages lost favour with parents since 1966 to the extent that all vernacular schools were closed down in 1987. A democratic decision was already made by Singaporeans.
No language can be propped up by artificially means if people do not want it. Especially not if that particular language becomes part of a problem in a country whose government believes we do not belong to this region. Or that the sensitivities of our non-Chinese citizens mean nothing. Our Singapore 2019, as the ND slogan claims? Sounds hollow.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.