Thursday, March 19, 2009

Suppression of Dialects in Singapore

I posted the following as a comment on TOC but I thought it merited a full post here on my own blog:

In the US, people are free to learn languages based on an individual's needs, whether for economic gain, one's family/cultural environment, or just out of interest. The government does not force (in spite of some bigoted cries for ALL US citizens to have to know English) people to learn (American) English. Instead, the US government adapts ... in areas where there are more Spanish speakers, you tend to see more documents available in Spanish. If it is not economical to make multiple copies of forms and instructions, they offer translation services as best as they can.

What Singapore lacks is the confidence in ourselves. We are not confident that need, economic or otherwise, will necessarily inspire an individual to pursue what is required to fulfill that need. Instead, we rely on the government to "provide".

In doing so, the government left no one with much of a choice as we grew up! We get pigeon-holed into 3 secondary languages (Bahasa Melayu, Tamil and Mandarin) and a smattering of tertiary languages (French, German and Japanese). Under this scenario, to survive in our education system, one has no choice but to tackle a secondary language.

I personally struggled with Mandarin for which I either lacked talent with or just hated the way it was taught. Either way, it felt uninspiring. I learned more about Chinese culture and history playing games like Romance of the Three Kingdoms than from my Mandarin classes in formal education. Perhaps I should have chosen Bahasa Melayu as my "mother tongue" (had I, as a kid, the choice) but Mandarin was the "natural" option given my ethnicity. Cantonese had to take a back seat. It is unclear if I would have succeed with Cantonese given my failure at Mandarin, but I still regret having to "converse" with my late maternal grandmother in broken Cantonese with Mandarin words thrown in when I failed to find the equivalent Cantonese ones (and the awkward moments when grandma fails to understand what I think were the appropriate Mandarin replacements).

Today in the US, I still lack any serious linguistic talent (outside of English), but I no longer feel strait-jacketed. Nowadays, I take joy trying to get a feel for every language my (very) international friends had to offer. From English (it is more diverse than you think) to Italian to Spanish to Polish to Mandarin to Hindi. I do not learn enough to actually converse (other than English and Mandarin, and barely the latter), but I feel great satisfaction understanding aspects of a language (eg. gender associations) and sometimes the cultural aspects. The diversity is staggering and at the same time, beautiful.

The people in Singapore who insist on eliminating everything outside the "supported" languages presented by the media (since we do not, in practice, have private media) are really depriving Singaporeans of this beauty. I would love to see the day private media enthusiasts in Singapore are allowed to present material in any language (or dialect) they desire (eg. "The World of French Music" in French) instead of being strait-jacketed by "official policy".

I would like to add my thoughts on the current discussion of Chinese dialects in Singapore. If individual need had triumphed, I daresay Singapore would have the entrepreneurs interested in the China market being proficient or learning to be proficient with Mandarin while others can pursue their own interests. Instead, we have a situation where many of us possess half-baked knowledge of a mother tongue we are insufficiently inspired with and practice too infrequently to properly maintain. All in the hope that somehow we would ALL employ our mother tongues in the economic service of our nation ...


Kaffein said...

Glad you are back blogging. Didn't see your updates so I'd thought you decided to drop out from blogging.

Added your link back!


Chee Wai Lee said...

Hey Kaffein,

Thanks! I've been really busy, so it has been on-and-off for blogging for me.

Am really feeling a little guilty about the current burst of blogging too, it is really an avenue of "escape" from trying to graduate!

Cavalierio said...

Hi, saw your comment in another blog re Sg meritocracy and studies done.

Some books here would be of help:

1. Lily Zubaidah Rahim, 1998, The Singapore Dilemma: The Political and Educational Marginality of the Malay Community, Oxford University Press, UK. [- focuses on how Sg's education policies systematically marginalizes the Malay community]

2. Michael D Barr & Zlatko Skrbis, 2008, Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-building Project, Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Press. [study on Sg's scholarship system that systematically perpetuates the dominance of the Chinese majority vis-a-vis other races]

See also his journal articles:

'Racialised Education in Singapore' Educational Research for Policy and Practice, 5:1 (2006), pp. 15-31; and 'Beyond Technocracy: The Culture of Elite Governance in Lee Hsien Loong's Singapore', Asian Studies Review, 30:1 (2006), pp. 1-17.

and FEER articles: [available at]

3. Kenneth Paul Tan, "Meritocracy and elitism in a global city: ideological shifts in Singapore". International Political Science Review, 29, no. 1 (2008): 7-27.

And a nuanced treatment of PAP's comprehensive structures of social control (via public housing, education system, legal system etc.), see:

4. Christopher Tremewan, The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore, Palgrave Macmillan with St Antony's College, Oxford, 1996.

Hope these help! These works might also generally address the 'why' questions in your post on the suppression of dialects.


Cavalierio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chee Wai Lee said...

Cavelierio - cool! That's quite a number of resources, thanks!

Cavalierio said...

no worries mr lee. Another article might be of interest:

Chua Beng Huat, "Multiculturalism in Singapore: An Instrument of Social Control, Race & Class, Vol. 44, No. 3, 58-77 (2003).

-- critique of CMIO policies, rhetoric of 'racial harmony', and the politics of the English language, i.e. how it displaced the ethnic Indians from their previously 'elite' positions within the colonial bureaucracy as well as neutering the socio-political organisation capabilities of other ethnic groups, all while further entrenching PAP dominance.

Fox said...

I've actually read The Singapore Dilemma by Lily Zubaidah Rahim (who is the late Yusof Ishak's niece).

The book contains quite a number of factual inaccuracies. For example, it claims that secondary school admission depends on the address of the applicant (e.g. RI favours applicants living in Bishan) and it is biased against Malays who don't live in pricier neighbourhoods like Bishan.

That is of course nonsensical. Such looseness with the facts make me suspicious of Lily Rahim's book.

Chee Wai Lee said...

Wow, I just realized the comments do not print the dates ... only the time.

Anyway, Fox, if you read this blog post again, is there a reason you think Lily Rahim made an unsubstantiated claim? Did she not cite references or provide evidence?

I have not read that book yet, btw.

Fox said...

I think that Lily Rahim hasn't lived in Singapore for a long long time and confused secondary school admission with primary school admission. I am not sure about the references though because I wasn't really checking for the references when I read the book. The part about people being admitted to secondary schools on the basis of where they lived struck me as being odd because almost every Singaporean should know that isn't true.