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Desinicise Singapore, speak Bahasa and be more Asean

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah




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I was at an American Press Institute editing and writing workshop held in Reston, Virginia in the 1980s. During a discussion about the topics that would interest readers, we were asked to name some that would put people to sleep at their mere mention. Up came: Affirmative action, Unicef, crocquet games, Middle East violence, five-year plans of any sort, and so on.

For some reason, “GATT” was also mentioned at the roundtable session. GATT – General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade – was the predecessor of the World Trade Organisation. If you wanted to people to read your newspaper or tune in to your TV news show, avoid any reference to it, someone said. A number of participants agreed.

I disagreed. GATT was very important to Singapore because we were a trading nation. Trade was our lifeline and had to be regulated. As it turned out, the WTO is even more important today in the current trade war between Uncle Sam and the Middle Kingdom.

In some ways, Singaporeans also tend to overlook the importance of Asean to their lives – before and likely in the years and decades ahead. Unless we change everyone’s mindsets.

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Asean was born to counter a very serious threat from the north. The Indo-Chinese countries, led by Vietnam and backed by the now defunct Soviet Union, looked ready to over-run everything southwards . In the end, the implosion of the Soviet Union put a stop to that seemingly imminent falling dominos scenario. Instead of being dominos of any sort, Asean, which holds its Summit this week – Nov 13 to 15 – in the Republic, has been one of the success stories of modern diplomacy.

Now I come to my view on why Asean has not been properly appreciated by ordinary Singaporeans all these years, at least on a people to people basis.


China and things Chinese dominate life in Singapore. Chinese Singaporeans – who include former Malaysian Chinese turned permanent residents or citizens – by and large do not holiday in Indonesia. They prefer to go to China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, their comfort zone. Their “hinterland” is East Asia, not South-east Asia, with the exception of Bangkok which is a major tourist destination with its own attractions.

Time to change all this before it’s too late, or we may find ourselves becoming truly the orang tumpangan (temporary lodgers) in this non-Chinese neighbourhood.

Have we been looking down on our Asean neighbours, especially the Bahasa-speaking heartland? How many school visits have been planned for places like Jogjakarta, Medan, Bandung or anywhere in Sulawesi? Do many Singaporeans even know where Kuala Terengannu or Gua Musang is?

Our long-term future is with this region where more than 300 million people speak Bahasa. We are far away from the Middle Kingdom. Our education system should make Bahasa a compulsory third language. It is not an unusually burdensome demand. Most Europeans can speak at least three languages, with English as a link language.

Indonesian or Malay cultures should be heavily promoted here, even if we have to desinicise ourselves a bit to be more South-east Asian in outlook, identity and aspirations.

Don’t just pay lip service to Asean. Live it – every day.

Hawkers are the main ingredient in the SEHC menu

It’s a familiar pattern. Some wise guy or guys would propose a bright idea. A small group of group-thinkers would get together to work out a plan. And usually, the very persons or people the plan was supposed to “help” would not be represented or would at most be perfunctorily invited to join, when the die had already been cast.

That seemed to have been the case with the Jurong West Hawker Centre. The public would have been none the wiser about the plight of its hawkers – if not for food guru K F Seetoh.

Suddenly, there has been so much activity on the part of the National Environment Agency. Some concessions are being made to protect the interests of hawkers. The seven social enterprise hawker centres (SEHCs) will have hawkers feedback groups. And the consultations will be ongoing, not ad hoc.

In the first place, why weren’t all these steps taken? Didn’t, as reported, Workers Party NCMP Yee Jenn Jong ask for close monitoring of the SEHCs and didn’t he get a very public assurance that they would be? Why did the 18-member Hawker Centres Public Consultation Panel not think of having hawker reps on board on a permanent basis? Why wasn’t someone like K F Seetoh sitting on the panel?

The main ingredient running through the SEHCs menu is hawkers. Don’t treat them like the alien hum in a mee siam dish.

Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.

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