The Singapore government should reverse its longstanding policy of discouraging Chinese dialects and encourage greater use of dialects. I am heartened that recently, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam expressed greater acknowledgement of the dialect backgrounds of Singaporean Chinese.
I go further than that and urge the Singapore government to encourage the use of dialects to nurture a homegrown culture and encourage non-Chinese groups to use their mother tongues, beyond Singapore’s four official languages of English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil.
In a speech on August 13, Shanmugam announced that the Singapore Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) will include Singaporean Chinese parents’ dialect in their children’s digital birth certificates issued from September 1.
Shanmugam said he has taken into account the feedback from Chinese clan associations, the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry, and the media, as well as other feedback, and the Singapore government has decided it would reinstate information on Chinese people’s dialect groups in their digital birth certificates.
“Dialect groups are important to many people, including as a means of recognising one’s identity and one’s roots,” said Shanmugam.
I can relate to the importance of dialects in grounding me in my roots as a Singaporean Chinese. When I was young, I could not directly converse with my late paternal grandmother because she understood Hokkien and Cantonese but not English or Mandarin, while I could not speak either dialect. So my father had to be the translator between my grandmother and me, who spoke in English.
In the Chinese part of his National Day Rally speech on August 21, Prime Minister Lee cited Singaporean expressions in Chinese dialects, which are not used in China. For example, when Singaporean Chinese couples date, they use the Cantonese term “paktor”, Prime Minister Lee said.
When Singaporeans go on vacation, Singaporean Chinese often use the Hokkien phrase “jiak hong”, Prime Minister Lee pointed out. “Jiak hong” literally means “eating air” and is derived from the Malay term “makan angin”.
Singaporean Chinese refer to a business boss by the Hokkien term “towkay”, Prime Minister Lee noted. Mainland Chinese often use the Mandarin phrase “laoban” to describe a business boss.
The Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre will set up a research group to study local Chinese culture, and the Singapore government will support this effort, Prime Minister Lee announced.
“Singaporean Chinese people are no longer fallen leaves returning to their roots (in China), but fallen leaves which plant roots (in Singapore),” Prime Minister Lee declared.
By reviving dialects, Prime Minister Lee is highlighting the distinctness of Singapore from China. The difference between Singapore and China can be likened to that between Argentina and Spain. Although Spanish is the national language of Argentina and many citizens of that Latin American nation are of Spanish descent, Argentinians invented the tango, which Spain does not possess.
If Singaporeans’ use of the Chinese language and culture is very similar to those of mainland China, Singapore can easily get plugged into China, since three-quarters of the Southeast Asian nation’s population is Chinese. Nurturing a homegrown Chinese culture in Singapore is similar to creating an IT operating system that is different from the Chinese IT operating system, so Singapore cannot seamlessly plug into the Chinese operating system.
I interpret Prime Minister Lee’s recent promotion of Chinese dialects as a means to keep some distance from China amidst the fraught Sino-US relations. Prime Minister Lee has repeatedly said Singapore does not want to choose between the two superpowers. Thus, keeping a distance from China is Singapore’s way of not choosing between the two titans.
Ironically, it was Prime Minister Lee’s late father, Lee Kuan Yew, who made it easier for Singapore to plug into China. During the early 1970s, while Lee Kuan Yew was prime minister, the Singapore government switched from traditional Chinese, as practised in Hong Kong and Taiwan, to simplified Chinese, as practised in mainland China. On one hand, it was a good move because simplified Chinese made learning Chinese easier for Singaporean students compared to traditional Chinese. On the other hand, it replaced Singapore’s Chinese language system with that of mainland China, instead of that of Taiwan.
In September 1979, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew launched the Speak Mandarin Campaign to promote Mandarin and discourage the use of Chinese dialects.
The policies emphasizing simplified Chinese and Mandarin show what a great visionary Lee Kuan Yew was, as he foresaw the rise of China many years before it happened. Now that Lee Kuan Yew’s brilliant foresight has come true, China’s arrival as a superpower has made the world’s pre-eminent superpower, the US, uncomfortable. Hence, the current friction between the supreme power and the rising power, catching Singapore in between.
In the past, the Singapore government feared that if Singaporeans spoke too much dialect and spoke improper English, it might detract from the city-state being an international financial hub. But Hong Kong, where I live, proves this is not the case. Cantonese is the most widely spoken language in Hong Kong, yet Asia’s World City is a major international financial centre. Hong Kong people take Cantonese opera as well as the opera of other parts of China seriously. Many Hong Kong people pay lots of money to watch Chinese opera, the way British people pay premium prices to attend Western Opera in London. In contrast, Chinese opera has been relegated to the backwater in Singapore.
Singaporeans should be encouraged to promote the culture of their dialects because it will spur a renaissance of Teochew opera, Cantonese opera, Malay shadow theatre and Tamil movies. Producing a film, poem, and novel in one’s mother tongue opens the wellsprings of an ethnic group’s collective psyche, which gushes forth naturally in art.
The works of a dialect group can be appreciated by other ethnic groups through subtitles and translations in various languages. Korean drama is made in the Korean language, yet they are popular in many countries.
The Malay and Indian communities, as well as other groups like Arabs, should be encouraged to boost artistic production according to their heritage. In recent years, many northern Indians have moved to Singapore. They should be allowed to practise their languages instead of Tamil, a southern Indian tongue.
While I advocate more use of Chinese dialects and the mother tongues of non-Chinese groups, it should be voluntary. Dialects should not be compulsory in schools, but offered as optional subjects or taught in special schools for whoever wishes to learn them.
Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet who lived in the 13th and 14th centuries, wrote his epic poem, the Divine Comedy, in Italian, not Latin. His poem, a classic of world literature, raised the quality and stature of the Italian language and culture. Likewise, Singaporeans can produce world-class local art in their native tongues.
Toh Han Shih is chief analyst of Headland Intelligence, a Hong Kong risk consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.
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