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The language of our forefathers – are we missing something?

By Zyberzitizen

It’s been decades since we were urged to “Speak Mandarin” by the government, instead of speaking our dialects. I’ve never agreed with this policy. This is because I find our dialects fascinating and beautiful. But more than that, my dialect reflect my ‘origin’. It’s a bridge to where my parents and my grandparents came from.

Teochew has a special place in my heart. I remember when I was just a child, Dad would tell us stories in this dialect. The many idioms and phrases and folk songs which are peculiar to the Teochews always made me smile – and even cry.

My uncles are the ones who have really ‘mastered’ the language. Mom calls theirs ‘Pure Teochew’, which to me can be quite indiscernible because they are “so cheem”. But that is why it fascinates me. There is a certain melody or flow to the language and sometimes you do not really have to understand the words to get what is being said.

It is the same with the other dialects in our country – be it Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, or Hainanese.

The “speak Mandarin” campaign

The “Speak Mandarin” campaign has sadly and unfortunately eroded the use of such dialects – especially among younger Singaporeans. There seems to be a lack of “rootedness” to their language. But is this important?

With language (dialects) comes your sense of identity, community, belongingness and uniqueness. Indeed, belonging to a particular dialect group allows you to keep in touch with its culture, customs and traditions.

These are the things which define who you are in the community.

And the dialect is the conduit, if you like, of these customs, culture and traditions. They are the oral history of a people. Such languages fill in the missing parts of written history of our people. And history too plays a part in rooting us, giving us a sense of identity.

There is no doubt that when you hear your own dialect being spoken, it is a markedly different feeling than hearing mandarin or English being spoken.

Separate dialects = segregation?

The question of course is: Does belonging to separate dialect groups prevent us from assimilating into “One People, One Nation, One Singapore”, which seems to be the government’s concern?

My answer would be no. We are already different and diverse – ethnically, culturally, individually. Also, we all have different life experiences. What we should be doing is to celebrate our diversity – whether it is language, or culture or traditions – instead of trying to “keep it out of sight and out of mind” in the hope that a “Speak Mandarin” campaign will create some sort of new “unity” among our different set of people under a new “one language”.

We can be diverse and be united at the same time.

Diversity is our strength – and it should not be seen as a ‘weak link’. “Sameness” does not necessarily mean “unity”. Indeed, “sameness” is uninspiring, it does not add to the vitality or vibrancy of life. Thus, I have always found it immensely regrettable that the government has embarked on the purposeful but artificial promotion of “one common language” – namely, Mandarin.And this has been done to devastating effect, in my opinion. TV programmes, radio shows, even Chinese cultural festivals are celebrated in mandarin instead of the diverse indigenous languages we have here in Singapore.


Mandarin’s economic value

It is argued that Mandarin is an economic necessity, in the same way that SM Goh recently promoted the learning of Arabic. With a booming China, Mandarin will no doubt become a very important language for global trade and business in the years to come.

But how many Singaporeans will be doing business with China?

Sure, there will be the businessmen who will need a decent capacity to speak and understand the language if they’re doing business in China or with China businessmen.

But how about your ordinary Singaporean? We are all not going to be doing business with China or with China businessmen, are we?

And is it a good thing to substitute our dialects for something else because of economic necessity?

There is a place for dialects

Do not get me wrong. I am not against the learning of Mandarin in our schools but I am of the opinion that Mandarin should not be artificially foisted on the general population at large either. I do believe that there is room for dialects in their various forms to be expressed and celebrated.

For example, we could have television programmes in the dialects of our people. This would, first of all, allow our older Singaporeans to know fully what is going on. Even my Mom has difficulty understanding the news in mandarin. I would guess that most older folks have no inkling about globalization.

Secondly, it would bring a certain refreshing dynamism and vibrancy to what is heard, seen and produced in many of our television channels. I have often wondered how reflective our programmes are in representing our diversity.

Thirdly, I would argue that it would also bring an immediate sense of “Singaporean-ness” to our people. There is nothing like hearing another of your “kinsman” speaking the same language. Haven’t we all felt this when we travel overseas and meet with fellow Singaporeans who speak the same way or the same language we do? I was in Europe once and met a fellow teochew Singaporean who was also there on holiday. Conversing with him in our common dialect was indeed emotional. It brought back feelings of kinship and identity which no amount of Singapore Shares ever will.

And is this not what we are trying to do – to create a sense of ‘rootedness’ for Singaporeans? Surely there is no better way to do this than by openly and proudly celebrating and allowing the expression of our ethnic languages – and the culture, traditions and customs that come with them as well?


Chinese New Year 2007

There is a certain sense of “lack” during this Chinese New Year as I observed my relatives celebrate the New Year of the Pig or boar, if you like. I am not sure if Singaporeans out there also felt the same way. A lack of erm….authenticity, even festivity, about the New Year celebration and its associated meaning.

Are we missing something?

A friend recently remarked to me that Chinese New Year is getting to be rather ‘empty’ in Singapore. “There is no meaning nowadays. Everyone is worried about keeping their jobs, the GST, their children’s future, cost of living. What’s so special about Chinese New year now? Kids even speak either mandarin or English. What has happened to our dialects? The traditions and customs? What is Chinese New Year going to be like in the future with so many foreigners here? Even Chingay also must have foreigners performing for us.”

I can understand how he feels.

None of my younger nieces and nephews greeted their grandmother in dialect. It was either in Mandarin or English, which their grandma didn’t understand.

Another friend, who was doing her masters degree in London, expressed similar feelings. “It was strange. I felt more Chinese in London than when I am in Singapore. Chinese New Year there seem to be more festive and meaningful than it is in Singapore. Even with just a small group of Chinese friends there, we felt more kinship than we do when we’re back here.”


Being proud of our heritage

While we spend time, effort and money in trying to integrate and assimilate our foreign friends into our Singaporean society, we should perhaps also spend equal or even greater amount of time, effort and money in making sure that we have a Singaporean identity too. In fact we do have a Singaporean identity. We just need to be proud of it and preserve it and celebrate it.

And I would suggest that we start with us being proud of who we are, where we came from and the roots of our existence. Take pride in our heritage. Rootedness begins with the sense of familiarity – of family, places, of culture, tradition and customs, of kinship and brotherhood or sisterhood. Rootedness is not borne out of the next spanking shopping centre or an artificial language imported and enforced. Rootedness certainly is not and will not be established with the state giving out economic shares or “progress packages”. Or even providing us with luxurious HDB flats.

Be proud of our dialects – the dialects which our forefathers, grandparents and parents were brought up in, the languages which keeps them, even today, connected to each other. The dialects which gives them a sense of identity, of kinship.

And I dream and hope for the day when I hear – once again – the dialects of my forefathers being proudly expressed once again – even on television programmes.

Is it a coincidence that our lack of identity coincides with the erosion of our ethnic dialects?

Imagine this: Imagine our schools teaching the young simple phrases of dialects which our forefathers used when they toiled under the sun, with the sweat on their backs in manual labour.

Now, isn’t that something worth keeping and passing down to our next generation?

Update: Students learn dialect to communicate with elderly (May 6, 2007)

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Leading picture from Sources Of History

Read also Singapore's history here.