Featured News You are what you speak

You are what you speak

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What language you choose to use tells more about your heart than about pure linguistic ability.

As someone who comments on the situation on the ground, I avoid identifying with any particular political party for the simple reason that I will p*** everyone off equally.

Someone in my office called me an “opposition man” and every time what I write gets picked up by TR Emeritus, there are plenty who accuse me of being part of the ruling party’s Internet brigade and making millions – which wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I were actually making millions.

That said, I am going to post a lovely greeting from the Workers’ Party, our main opposition party, that is the only other party in Parliament with elected members. I received  the greeting through one of my chat groups. It’s a Chinese New Year greeting that comes in Mandarin and dialects commonly spoken in Singapore, specifically, Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese.

This simple greeting is perhaps the most revolutionary stroke any political party has come up with. It goes against one of the main unspoken rules of “Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore,” which was that the Chinese would be in the majority but “Chinese” would be defined by him.

The clearest signs of his efforts to mould  Chinese Singaporeans into that image was a war on dialects and the insistence that Singaporeans of Chinese should use Mandarin as their second language. I’m old enough to remember “Speak Mandarin” campaigns whose slogan roughly translates as “Speak Dialect Less and Speak More Mandarin.”

Mr Lee’s attitude towards dialect was most apparent in a series of interviews he gave in 2006 when the Government was trying to open up the Middle East market. Mr. Lee was going on about getting Singaporeans to learn Arabic as a third language when he was asked about learning dialect and he rambled on about how the human brain didn’t have the capacity to learn dialects.

His near obsessive opposition to dialect was based on a simple fact – he had come to power on the backs of Chinese workers who were primarily dialect speaking. English educated himself, Mr. Lee understood that English-educated Chinese were not going to start revolutions and so he forced himself to speak Hokkien and Mandarin. Once in power, he wearied of the Chinese educated and  did his best to cut out their cultural affiliations with the streets.

In fairness to Mr. Lee, getting us to “Speak Mandarin” was a good move in as much as China did open up. China is a huge market and even America’s favorite “China-Bashing” president saw to it that his granddaughter could charm China’s president with her fluent Mandarin.

However, while getting Mandarin entrenched was good from a business standpoint, two issues emerged from Mr. Lee’s policies on language.

Firstly, people became less capable with languages. My generation (Gen X) grew up not speaking either English or Mandarin terribly well. Instead of having “pure” English of the Englishman (something the late Mr. Lee took pride in), we brought Singlish to the next level and started merging both languages by treating both interchangeably. So, in addition to having a “Speak Mandarin” campaign, we also needed a “Speak Good English” campaign.

By comparison, the Boomers  and the generation before, were more capable with language. It’s not uncommon for people above 60 to speak a variety of dialects (and let’s not forget the number of our local Tamils who are adept at speaking Chinese dialects fluently). The rules were simple everyone mingled  and absorbed one anther’s language in addition to English.

You could argue that while Mr. Lee talked a lot about creating a “Singaporean Singapore” he may have inadvertently created a more segregated society with his policies on language.

The second issue is perhaps more obvious – people remain attached to dialect and the majority dialect remains Hokkien. Anyone who has served national service will notice that Singapore’s national language is Malay (drill commands all in Malay), the overall language of instruction is English but the language of the people remains Hokkien.

I remember struggling when I needed to get something from the motor transport line and the driver told me: “Don’t mind Sarjen – can you speak Hokkien?”. Our dialects are what connects us to things like family. Sure, I speak Cantonese – very badly – but at Chinese New Year, the greeting is inevitably “Gong Hei Fat Choy,” because that’s how I paid respects to my parents and grandparents. When I married a Teochew girl, it was “Gong Hei Fat Choy,” to my side and “Xing Jai Ju Yee” to hers.

This isn’t particular to the Chinese community. I remember talking to a colleague from Bengal who explained that everyone in India speaks Hindi and English because they are the national and working languages respectively. However, for her, speaking Bengali is from the heart.

So, the Worker’s Party has done something that the ruling party has never dared to do. It reaches out to people in the setting in which they are most comfortable rather than one that they imagine people are most comfortable in. It’s shown up the fact that Mr. Lee’s attempts to eradicate Chinese dialects have been a waste of time and money.

The ruling party should take note that the “other player” in the game is working harder to reach the voters. If it intends to keep its position of dominance, the ruling party will need to show that it is working hard for the voters and getting to know them on their home ground rather than what the party imagines that said home ground to be.


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