A response to MM Lee


There is a lot to be said for Singaporean-Chinese, myself included, to be ascribed a ‘mother tongue’ that is not really my mother’s (or for that matter, my father’s), one that we have to learn from scratch, in effect as a second-language, and one with which we have little affinity.

What is more lamentable is the fact that these decisions are borne out of unquestioned, state-mandated economic necessity, and subsequently implemented with such swift ruthlessness. Cold, hard-headed decisions that, without our realizing, put a stopper to our personal relations and halt our life stories. How many times have I found great difficulty in conversing with my grandparents, who were by then too old to abandon their original tongues and acquire new ones, while I on the other hand had been discouraged from speaking in their native ones (i.e. my real mother tongue[s]), and force-fed a foreign language called Mandarin.

Singapore prides itself on arriving from ‘Third World to First’ in one generation – (have we really?) – this is the same reason for our extraordinary ability to extinguish our rich southern Chinese heritage, one that is as old as centuries if not the millennia, in a single generation.

Is this something that we, that is to say, Singaporean-Chinese, in the name of economic achievement should be proud of?

I doubt that our ability to speak Mandarin has been, as MM Lee would have us believe, a ‘key advantage’. As academic Linda Lim remarked in an interview with the Straits Times last week, our self-appointed role as conduits to China and India is counter-productive, if not redundant. And after expending so much energies and resources into its teaching and learning, how many of us are truly proficient in Mandarin, beyond the rudimentary phrases needed to get one past the wet market?

Having to master both English and Mandarin without a ‘natural’ cultural-linguistic environment that is necessary for one to be proficient in either language has resulted in us floundering in both. Drowned in this process is our chance and ability to master our true ‘mother-tongues’. It is well-known that the Mainlander Chinese and the Westerners constantly mock our lightweight grasp of Mandarin and English, and, for those doing business in China, they are taking Mandarin lessons to make up for their linguistic lack. Beneath these foreign mockery is the sneering at our cultural ignorance, superficiality, and philistinism. Further, if the ability to speak Mandarin is such an economic asset, why do our education policies prevent our non-Chinese compatriots from learning it? And should Singaporeans be learning Mandarin just so we can ‘bring value-add to China’?

Such vulgar economic justifications for ‘national survival’, for learning languages, for effacing cultures.

Whatever the material benefits I might reap by way of Singapore’s ‘economic usefulness’ to the rest of the world, I derive no dignity in being treated as a cog in a machine, as a means to an end. I would gladly trade, pardon the pun, GDP growth with the ability to speak my native language (it is neither English nor Mandarin) even if it is the most economically unviable language in the world. For that matter, I would be proud to be a Singaporean even if it is the poorest country there is around. What consolation does it bring, to be able to speak to 1.3 billion Chinese all over China if I cannot even engage in a proper conversation with my own family?

That is not to say we should not have encouraged the learning of Mandarin. But it certainly could have been implemented in a less mechanistic manner, and for less utilitarian reasons. It is for these very reasons that we do not want to, or we are unable to, appreciate the value of a language and the beauty inherent in all languages, that exist beyond the jargon and jarring phrases of multinational companies and Internet data banks and global financial-speak.

The choice of languages learnt need neither be government-sanctioned nor mutually-exclusive. Contrary to what the government and the media would like us to think, we are not the only country that adopts a bilingual policy. But compared to other such countries, we are far from being as successful. Learning from them, we might realize that mastering Mandarin need not have come at the expense of our ancestral tongues. Our lack of fluency in multiple languages is not just due to biological limitations (which is far from being a fact). Ill-conceived, flip-flopping government policies and crass economic rationale for learning (or un-learning) languages have contributed to this predicament too.

In two generations Mandarin would be our mother tongue, proclaims MM Lee proudly. But with our appalling level of proficiency in Mandarin, it is not hard to foresee how much and what kind of a ‘mother tongue’ it is going to be. It will probably not be much.

Is the sole value of a language its ‘usefulness’? I don’t think so. On the one hand, use-value is subjective, personal, and should not be decided for me by, of all things, the state. On the parallel, the value of language is in language itself. Languages do not appear out of thin air – we human beings create them, keep them alive, and they live for a simple reason – above being basic tools of communication, they are expressions of our emotions, our humanness. Expressions that, like culture and the arts, live outside the world of money.

We would have been better-off leaving our language habits alone, and letting our ‘adulterated Hokkien-Teochew’ languages evolve on their own. And why not? Languages, like cultures, are living things and they evolve all the time. And over time, our aesthetic sensibilities are honed along with our constant polishing of our tongues, and from where the beauty and poetry in the language emerge. This is true for all languages, from the first grunt in the dark cave eons ago, to the final stanza in the gilded library just now. And why, our Singlish vernacular might one day become high language too, with its inimitable trove of stories and sonnets. If only we would let it, and let our local poets light the way.

But of course, such frivolous pursuits have no place in a country where economic necessity and cultural cringe must prevail. While the sun of the British empire might have set, and the Middle Kingdom’s might yet arise, it seems as long as the ruling regime’s socio-economic ideologies persist blindingly, Singaporeans will always remain colonial subjects, servants to capital.

The way we have gone about picking ‘winning’ languages and experimenting with them as one would in a laboratory, it is what kills language. But not only that – as fellow TOC contributor Deng Chao noted recently, what is wiped out is more than our Teochew, Hokkien, Cantonese, and Hainanese languages. Gone with them would be the irreplaceable and age-old cultural treasures of folklore, poetry, aphorisms and histories, riches that are later infused with the tropical air of the Straits Settlement – a natural confluence of cultures. What is wiped out will be life itself, supplanted by the mediocre, the vulgar and the kitsch.

One day I might become a grandparent too, but what would the world be like then? I do not want to punt on the vagaries of the market or the flow of global finance. I certainly do not want to be enslaved by them. Small as Singapore is, there nonetheless are things that do not and cannot have a price tag. The ability and the freedom to speak, for instance. Invaluable things. 

Am I romanticizing the village?

But how did the village come to be something pejorative in the Singaporean imagination?

What kind of a city are we still building anyway?

Looking at my grandparents, I do wonder what their Singaporean world has been like, for them to one morning find themselves strangers in their own land, unable to be understood and unable to understand, the foreign chatter on the streets, and recounting life stories in a voice whose sweetness their loved ones would never know.

And how much are Singaporeans and our nation, for all our economic growth and material riches the poorer for it, living on benighted money, leaving our history behind.


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