Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Singapore Mother-Tongue-Tied

Language policies in Singapore play a role in the grand scheme of social engineering by the political leadership, deemed fit and important by them of course for the nation’s (economic) progress.

As Singapore continues to celebrate its idea and definition of diversity, we citizens are pelted with certain desired versions of what it takes to be multicultural and bilingual.

For instance, there is a strong administrative and social pressure to have a synchronisation of bilingualism and ethnicity, or rather, race. This means, it has somewhat been normalised that ethnic Chinese Singaporeans ought to (be able to) speak Mandarin, a dialect commonly mistaken and cannonised as “Chinese”. Same goes for Malays who should speak Malay, which is actually Bahasa Melayu, and the Indians who should speak, in the words of most culturally relativist ethnic Chinese Singaporean, Indian. That would normally be Tamil, but we have Hindi and Punjabi.

The Indian Singaporean case runs against the grain of the totalising language policy of Singapore. But when you are of the 10% of Singapore, you probably would not have much say in anything at all (unless you’re part of some higher –educated socio-economically privileged ethnic Chinese Christian community with considerable political influence).

Our ethnic Indian friends are as diverse as the ethnic Chinese. As mentioned in earlier posts, not all ethnic Indians speak Tamil. It is the generalisation on the part of the government that might have led to most of us believing that Tamil equals Indian, and therefore Indian is a language, but is in fact actually the Tamil language.

For non-ethnic Indians, most of us would probably not/understand that swept under the carpet are the real mother tongues of some ethnic Indians, or in this case, Singaporeans of South Asian descent. But for the typical Singaporean, all Indians are Indians, whether they come from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan (happiness index any one?) and the Maldives.

You can tell that there is a gulf between social attitudes and policy here. Here we are with the government and its ideals (that appear to be its ideals for society to us), attempting to create a harmonious diverse society, but not too heterogeneously diverse that it threatens their political control of the population, and on the other hand, we still have people who are ignorant of other cultures, a condition not the most conducive for harmony.

Interestingly, I believe the colonisation of the Indians continues to persist in Singapore. You do not have the British doing the job now, but the government. Singaporean Indians are streamlined into adopting new “Mother Tongues” through the school system, simply because state education does not have the resources to accommodate this diversity. For example, I know some Malayalese who have adopted Tamil or Hindi as their “Mother Tongue”.

The streamlining of categorical ethnicity/race and official race-affiliated language has streamlined the population, creating a more distinct and distinguishable set of divisions. This makes the job of policing and policy-making easier for the government. It makes political representation easier too, as well as communication.

Please do note I am not writing as a cultural supremacist or romantic, because I assign no value judgement to the perceived “loss” of culture. The problem I feel here is the calibration and engineering of Singapore society to harbour a kind of diversity that is politically manageable.

Yes, political manageability. It is somewhat entwined with the economic imperative, stereotypically associated with the Chinese merchant-businessman ethos that the island of Singapore has come to be acquainted with for the past 3 to 4 centuries. Yes, the Chinese were already hanging out and trading in Singapore before Raffles arrived and we began celebrating his whiteness in our secondary schools.

As an ethnic Chinese Singaporean, I feel that the bilingualism impressed upon me is a euphemism for the overarching economic imperative. The narratives of “the need to survive, adapt and be pragmatic” do not belong to the working class or the economic elite, but somehow run parallel to the immigrant entrepreneurial or wealth-seeking-and-accumulating Chinese populous, most of whom are our forefathers.

The “other” language in the bilingualism, for me, is Mandarin. The ethnic Chinese Singaporeans are often told that Mandarin is important and part of culture (yes, nothing new), which has resulted in Mandarin not only being officialised as the second language of the yellow-skinned population, but as adopted as the “Mother Tongue”. This has displaced other “Mother Tongues”, that were in fact the “tongues” of our mothers – Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainan and others.

Now put this language policy in a global arena that is experiencing the economic ascension of the country that has recently ended more than five millennia of power-struggling in-fighting (now THAT is Chinese culture). The importance of the Chinese language (a term conveniently used to represent the Mandarin dialect) is sung to Singaporeans with a bass line of economic survival and pragmatism.

The articulation of second language (or “Mother Tongue”) policies to the non-Chinese population is of a different tune altogether, as culture and heritage are invoked. Sure, tell that to the non-Tamil-speaking folks who have to pick up Tamil and whose families do not speak one word of Tamil – tell them their “Mother Tongue” is Tamil. And you have these non-Tamil-speaking kids performing well in subjects other than this second language, and end up slipping through the crevasses of our educational system.

Whenever I see the nationalist rhetoric being spitted from high above down at Singaporeans, I see “progress and prosperity” for Chinese, “happiness, peace and harmony” for the rest.

It is reflected in the private sector when they advertise for bilingual proficiency, they in fact want proficient Mandarin speakers. This is the economic situation, to which our language policy is trying to adapt.

We may be relatively harmonious and peaceful, but this cultural diversity rests on the pillars of the logicality, mentality and economic rationality of the cultural majority. The values of survivability, and later sustainability, and now productivity are all coincidentally relevant immigrant-industrial discourses, which have been absorbed into the national discourse and political framework.

The sense of cultural pride that accompanies “Mother Tongue” proficiency and a bilingualism that matches the colour of skin, is merely an accomplice in the economic imperative. This sense, derived from cultural bigotry of course, has been hijacked and usurped by the economic discourse, that spawns the current mentality that has come to characterise our political and economic leadership.

We do not have the similar style of communication in the promotion of non-Chinese second languages. We do not see the promotion of Tamil in tandem with the economic rhetoric and references to the South Asian economy (because Hindi would have been the slightly better choice even though English still remains dominant). And we do not see the communication of the Malay language proficiency as something that pertains to the economy of the Malay archipaelago, but primarily centres on culture and heritage instead.

We may have a multicultural social environment, but the economic, professional and political opportunities are coloured by the biases of the cultural majority and politico-economic elite (whose demography somewhat has the cultural/ethnic majority), and the rules, terms and conditions of which are pre-determined by and pre-disposed towards this majority.

To break it down, let me give you a couple of examples. This is what happens when you have a government of a country whose racial majority is X race, telling everyone what multiculturalism is. However, what is this particular definition of multiculturalism? What does it include and exclude? What causes does it serve? Who benefits more and who is disadvantaged in the process and outcome?

This is also similar to a government in which there is an overrepresentation of a religion, Y, telling everyone what secularism is. However, what is this particular definition of secularism? What does this secularism include and exclude? What causes does it serve? Who benefits more and who is disadvantaged in the process and outcome?

Or what about gender in Parliament? That would be an interesting one. How else could we ever have been acquainted with the idea that pregnancy = national service, right? Absolute rubbish.

You see, policy, terms and catchphrases are often coloured in a way that befits the description and outcome deemed most desirable by a person or a group of a particular set of identities.

While there can never be true equality, there can be pluralism. But skeptics will also be eager to point out that the ground on which pluralism sits slopes in favour of the majority. All the apparatuses and institutions of the state (also adopted by society) reek of the same kind of ethos associated with particular peoples, who see it as neutral and perhaps universal, hence worthy of being taken for granted to be natural and normal.

But there is always an ethos most of us Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion, can relate to when faced with policies that make little sense (to some/most of us), with government agendas that appear not to help the citizenry, with anything that seems to disadvantage (some/most) of us in terms of culture, professional life, social security, etc., and that is the LAN LAN SUCK THUMB ethos. Whip out those thumbs for now (but once every 4/5 years, that thumb will join forces with the rest of the fingers to mark that X on that ballot paper).


劉claren0812ceb_brunette said...


FranciscoL_Swaney0806 said...


YCK said...

For all our supposedly Confucian heritage, there seems to be no appreciation of 名不正则言不顺.

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levi john said...

Nowadays Tamil Education get more important from singapore government.