Thursday, March 19, 2009

Searching for Singapore's soul (Part 2): A losing battle for our dialects

I am truly appalled by the recent speak Mandarin drive. It says two main things:

1. that dialects are a negative interference on the learning of English and Mandarin

2. that it is restrictive because it only confines us to our ancestral village, town, or at best the province.

And to compound the absurdity of this argument, the Straits Times published a letter in the forum by an Ong Siew Chey who said:

Chinese should forget about dialects and stick to mandarin. Language is a tool and we should use the best tool available. Cultural and other values can be dissociated from languages...we do not lose much if we discard dialects

These arguments are highly flawed.

Firstly, a person's ability to learn a language is not a zero-sum game. The government should give Singaporeans greater credit for their capacity to learn. Any doctor will tell you that we do not have a fixed number of brain cells for the learning of languages and should therefore conserve them for only the languages that matter. If anything, my learning of a second and third language helped me appreciate the different languages more.

Granted, with limited time, one may argue that we should be focusing on the languages that matter. But being able to speak a language well has less to do with the number of hours one spends STUDYING it, than with the person's opportunity to practice it and understand the cultural significance of the language.

Which brings me to my next point. How can a person say that: "Cultural and other values can be dissociated from languages"???!!! Language and Culture are intrinsically linked! Good heavens! Which planet is this person coming from?!

Chinese opera sung in Mandarin as opposed to Hokkien can NEVER be the same. There are idoms, terms and phrases used in Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka etc that you cannot fully translate into Mandarin, and which are unique to the historical development of the dialect. You lose the dialect, and you lose the legends, myths and folklores of these communities.

Language is a tool, yes! But who ever said we should only work with one tool. Different tools are designed for different functions, so why rank them as best and second-best? And what's wrong with working with more than one tool?

Lastly, to say that dialects restrict us to only our ancestral town, or province is to have a very limited understanding of the function of language. Can and should we measure the value of a language based on the number of people who speak it? Must everything be valued by a quantifiable measure?

So what if only a village of 20 people speak that dialect? If one of that 20 is my grand father, that ONE person means a lot to me. And he is a part of my history and my family, which I will lose if I don't speak that dialect.

I speak from experience because my late grandparents were from Guang Zhou (a city in China), but I never learnt to speak cantonese. And I grew up very much detached from them, and I never bothered spending time with them because - "What would we talk about when I don't even speak their language?"

Nothing can be sadder than being total strangers with your own family and even when they passed on, I didn't really feel like I had lost a close family member.

Is this the kind of young generation the government really wants to nurture?

Dialects, like language, are a means of communication, and along with communication, peoples' ability to form relationships, identify with each other, and express feelings to each other. You take that away, and you break more than just the language, but the social bonds, sense of community and one's roots.

Did the government not once advocate Singaporean's living overseas to value one's roots and come back to Singapore instead of deserting? We were labeled "stayers" or "quitters".

Do our roots only stop at 1979 when the Speak Mandarin campaign was launched in Singapore?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Should we be searching for Singapore's soul? (Part 1)

I had just finished reading a book by Philip Pan, Out of Mao's Shadow: The struggle for the Soul of a New China.

The book started with a powerful presentation of the Tiananmen Massacre and a very stark contrast: before the communist revolution, the Nationalist party used water jets to quell student protests. But when the communist party came to power, they used guns and tanks in response to the students' demand for democratic reform and an end to corruption.

But what hit me harder, was the conclusion of the book, which I felt mirrored some of the issues we face here in Singapore. This is what he said in the concluding chapter:

The internet has emerged as an important venue for people with shared gather, talk and organise...The hard truth, however, is that many people aren't looking...[the communist party's] "patriotic education" classes in the schools have dulled the public's curiosity...the government has grown expert at manipulating public opinion, especially rallying nationalist sentiment to its side...The party's most important advantage, of course, is the wave of prosperity that it has been riding for more than a quarter century...the wealthiest and most influential tycoons...are the most likely to owe their wealth to the one-party system and the least likely to challenge it.

Indeed, this paragraph can be used to describe exactly Singapore. Singaporeans are very much plugged in to the world wide web, but yet to find people interested in discussing social issues in Singapore - the wrong attitudes we are having towards fertility and aging population problem, the importance of preserving our dialect as a fast disappearing link to our history and ancestry - is not so easy.

Indeed, from the western point of view business development is supposed to be good for democratic development. But the nature of business development in Asia is so different and they fail to understand that in a country where the private sector is nurtured by the state, the business community will be the last people to champion democratic reform.

A friend recently commented to me: "I'm less concerned with saving the world than saving my bank account". Indeed, the government has done a good job of setting the priorities for Singaporeans.

Friday, March 13, 2009

India vs Singapore

I was just in India couple of days ago and I noticed some interesting contrasts.

I was in a car with some friends on a day trip to Jaipur and as we were driving out of Delhi, our driver was pointing out several buildings along the way. He was telling us this building is owned by Ford, that plot of land is going to be developed into a mall, Toyota is going to build an extension etc etc.

I was amazed at how well informed he was about the urban developments of the parameters of Delhi, and his knowledge about big MNCs like Ford, Toyota, and some of the bigger names in India (which I can't even remember now). So I asked him how do you know all this? And he said he reads the paper everyday, both the Hindi and the English ones while waiting for tourists like myself to finish our shopping and sightseeing. As we talked more it was evident that he was very much in tuned to the politics and social issues in India and in fact he was far more informed than I was!

When I came back to Singapore, first thing I did was jump in a cab to get home and enroute I asked the taxi driver, what's new in Singapore. First thing he said to me was citibank shares dropped by more points today and is only worth XXX amount. It used to cost $60 plus a share and now it's only 50 cents or something (I can't remember).

But this is the ethos of Singapore. This is what the city is obsessed about. The stock market, and the occasional murder or petty crime.

Chatting with another friend I realised another irony of life. In India, when I cannot finish my food at a restaurant, I pack it and give it to the kids on the street just outside the restaurant, begging for money. But back here, if I can't finish my food I let the waiter clear it, and it goes into the dump. I'm sure there are starving people in this country. But they're hidden from society, like litter is being put away from the street.

I'm not saying whether this is good or bad, but I guess that's one of the reasons why I like it in India more than here. There, poverty is not hidden and there're plenty of opportunities for people to ventilate their compassion. As much as it bothers me that such poverty should exist right next to such opulence, it is so easy for me to show generosity and compassion to someone less fortunate. But here, charity is monetized and the act of charity is far too tiresome to do beyond signing a cheque.