East or West, where do you stand?

Whilst researching on the 4 royal plaques, came across accidentally on many web resources on the fall of China and its awakening. While Singapore has been favourably praised by Western visitors with terms like ‘Asia lights’, ‘everybody speaks English here’, and ‘its so clean’ etc, the Chinese-speaking countries view Singapore as an anamoly and backward in cultural sophisication due to the Chinese population’s superficial understanding of mainstream Chinese culture. In a rather chauvanistic manner, Taiwan’s prominent political figure and commentator derides Singaporeans as ‘stupid’. I can understand what he is talking about having worked in China myself. I vividly remembered how I was criticized by a Beijing friend as having ‘no culture’ when a group of his friends were discussing Chinese poetry and history. I felt stupid, Li Ao was absolutely right. The Chinese speaking world just cannot fathom why Chinese Sngaporeans could not speak or write Chinese properly. It is only natural for them to think Singaporean Chinese are not very educated on this light as this is their usual gauge for sophisication – Chinese must speak and write Mandarin, even more so when they watch your Mandarin soaps for the past decade!

On a more objective comparison between the Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia, one would notice that there are more interests in Chinese heritage and culture across the causeway. Yet, these Malaysian Chinese perform equally well when put in an overseas context. Yes, we use alot of English in Singapore, but sometimes I feel that Singlish seems to be the norm nowadays. Most educated Chinese Singaporeans write in English, while majority speaks Mandarin. English is merely a working language to the majority Chinese Singaporeans. Singlish becomes the informal social language. The hybriding of local dialects with English is a natural choice as speaking in a manner like one would in a ‘Masters of the Seas’ manner would be rather alien to most Singaporeans. Even for Mandarin speakers in Singapore, the form of local Mandarin slang mixed with dialects appear a little strange to the mainstream Chinese speaking world. What is the conclusion? In a span of about 40 years since interpendence, we have created two dialects – Singlish and Singdarin. Given another 100 years, I am sure a new language would have evolved!

From this observation, it is clear that many of us are unwilling to part with our dialects. Our dialects are important as these are our actual mother tongues. Try tellng a French to use English as their first language and French as their second, see what will happen. Yet the problem in Sinapore is that we are not made up by one majority dialect group as in Taiwan, Hong Kong or provinces in China. In a tiny place like ours, we are alomst like a mini Southern China in terms of the eclectic mix of Chinese from the different provinces. We can witness this from our diverse heritage of Chinese architecture in Singapore. The elite ruling class in Singapore with their scholarly backgrounds speaks English. Meaning, if you want to be ‘Atas’, you had better speak English. Also, due to the displacement of Malay as the common language, English has become the common language for inter-racial communication. For me, there are no reasons to be pro-East or pro-West, I would be happy just to speak Cantonese, a language which was my first language learnt when I was young. However, in order to carry on daily communications with other people, knowing Chinese and English is a necessity. Triligualism is the best for all Singaporeans I think. I remembered that when I was working in Shanghai, the Shanghainese told me that during the colonial days, educated Shanghainese could speak English, Shanghainese and Mandarin. Now, that is truly cosmopolitan. It is my hope that Singaporeans would be proud of their multilingual abilities and yet bring them to a profienciency that can be appreciated by a global audience.

For more information on the history of language divide in the Chinese community, see
http://www.globalpublishing.com.sg/chinese/bookshop/g059_g061_4.html (in English)


6 responses to “East or West, where do you stand?

  1. How we speak and write is exactly the product of our very effective governmental policies. Dunno about you but I’ve always thought the new ways of learning Chinese using hanyu pinyin from Primary school level is utter nonsense. And it’s not just Chinese that’s affected such educational reforms. If I’m not wrong, nowadays, schools no longer drill kids on grammar. Textbooks are written in thematic basis and kids are expected to know the basics from Primary 1.

    But if you ask me where I stand where Singlish is concerned. I’ll say I’ll gladly embrace this language as a motif of our Singaporean culture. It’s a reflection of grassroot desires and no, there’s no reason to say nay to Singlish.

    By the way, Kent, I presume you are now in Australia. I’ve also notice some interesting similarities in Howard’s approach to education. I ‘ve commented this in my WordPress blog. Care to share your thoughts on this matter?


  2. Short caption on my trackback to your post, url as below:

    With globalisation, we are increasingly exposed to such transience in our human relations – of temporal encounters with other cultures either in cyberspace or through folks visiting from other nations – particularly in cities such as Singapore or Melbourne. Indeed, preserving the ‘original’ state of a language is quite a fruitless endeavour taking into consideration how passing of time serves to re-write the history and the evolution of mobile cultures.


  3. There is absolutely nothing wrong with grassroot desires and Singlish or Singdarin. However, besides knowing the local patois, one must not be so arrogant to think that’s our culture, it is at most…subculture. On the note of grassroot culture, say dialects, the majority of Chinese Singaporeans speak peasant dialects, with a very limited amount of vocabulary. So what does that mean? Chinese Singaporeans are weak in dialects, Mandarin, English but perhaps strong in Singlish and Singdarin. The best part is, most are vocally inexpressive – whether it is culture or plain confusion in grammatical expression, I have no idea. Even the various dialects are intermixed at various levels.
    Not unlike Dick Lee’s ‘Fried Rice Paradise’, Singapore’s culture and language patterns are like rojak – tasty to some, sinful to others.

  4. i have studied at a neighborhood school and a supposedly elite junior college. i have taught at myriad schools, one that was a traditional chinese institution, a few neighborhood schools and an autonomous school founded on strong Anglican values.

    my beliefs are so because of this gradual moulding through the Singaporean education experience and my abhorrence of those who struggle with Mandarin and do not realise their roots and even the functional importance of the language persists till today.

    Yes, the “jia kantang” can choose to fail in the subject at the expense of being a monolingual (English) in a multicultural society — it’s their loss. but to despise the language and alienate those who are brought up in Chinese-speaking families, is shallow and often, something that is perpetuated by even teachers themselves.

    “B” syllabus to boost the interest in the Chinese language? I think not.

    It’s more for the “jia kantang” kids to get by better in life, learning Chinese that has reduced to ghastly simple forms.

  5. Dear Kuan,

    It does’nt really matter if someone is ‘Jiak Kantang’ or ‘Chinese helicopter’. We are all Singaporeans. Important to note, it is better to be proficient in both languages then just be satisfied with one. When you are only good in one language, the danger of becoming chauvanistic over the value of the lingo. Foreigners are always amused when they look at our petty arguments over ‘English-speaking’ or ‘Chinese-speaking’ issues. The fact is, our English is never going to be the same as British or American English. Likewise, our Chinese is never going to be the same as Mandarin from Taiwan or China.

    On a deeper level, the linguistic battle is merely a sign of social discontentment. Where 80% of Spore’s Chinese population stays in HDB and probably speaks dialects or Singdarin, the 20% who stays in private apartments or landed properties have a tendency to be English-speaking. This is of course a generalization. But I believe, class discontentment is the real root of linguistic battles in Singapore.

  6. Some 20 years ago the Government went on a campaign to encourage chinese to”speak Mandarin”. At the grassroots level the schools allow the children to avoid using English and instead use a crude bastardinsed Mandarin. This deviation was not corrected and allowed to fester. Today our schools pretend to teach English through a cohort of teachers brought up under this system and use their broken English as the medium of instruction.

    The vast majority of chinese children especially in our heartlands still elect to cop out by using a bastardised form of Mandarin and a crude level of elementary of written Chinese far inferior to China, Taiwan, HK or even Malaysia.

    Our Malay children uses broken English to communicate with their classmates of the other races, but prefer to mix socially only with other Malays where they can converse in Malay.

    Watch them after school.

    We need more cohesion.
    A focus on teaching languages is essential.

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