On Train announcements and Language Rights

If you are a frequent commuter on the North-South and East-West Lines, you should have noticed for a few months now a new announcement made when a train pulls into the station. The stations’ names are now also announced in its Mandarin form, following English.

So, big deal. Singapore officially recognises four languages. Important train announcements have always been made in all four languages, with signs to match throughout the trains and platforms. Multiracialism is the bedrock of our nation. The introduction of Mandarin now to announce the names of stations simply shows we are a multilingual society, so what’s wrong?
To be honest, I was surprised when I first heard it whilst travelling. I was, in fact, anxious to see if anyone else heard it and what their reactions were, especially those who were not Chinese. Everyone appeared not to notice, except for a group of teenage Malay boys who began a game amongst themselves, repeating the Mandarin pronunciations of station names as the train arrived at each stop. They were doing a great job I must say, and I never thought that train announcements could help one to learn Mandarin. I used to play the same game myself, mimicking the public announcements on trains, complete with the right intonation and accent, though I could never master the Tamil segment as well as the Malay boys speaking Mandarin now.
In any case, I felt perturbed by this seemingly trivial addition of Mandarin to banal announcements. Thinking to myself, I was actually disturbed by my initial reaction of being disturbed. I was literally having a debate within myself throughout the rest of my train journey.
It wouldn’t have been an issue had SMRT adopted English and Mandarin from the outset to announce station names. But why introduce Mandarin now when things have been fine since 1987? Perhaps there is nothing wrong when SMRT chooses to cater to an increasing segment of the population who can largely only understand Mandarin. (I’m assuming most Singaporeans who travel on the MRT would know Somerset Station in English by now, even the elderly like my grandparents who do not speak the language. I, for one, didn’t know what Somerset Station was in Mandarin until I heard it myself). Surely it makes sense for any corporation to adjust to the needs of its customers? SMRT’s explanation certainly suggests that this was exactly what they were doing. Further, immigrants have a right to have their language needs accounted for as well.  The addition of Mandarin is certainly a practical way to recognise the linguistic human rights of individuals who only understand Mandarin. It’s great that Singapore recognises human rights! So why my initial reaction?
I realised that I was disturbed because I perceived this as an encroachment of Mandarin into the public sphere where the Mother Tongues (as defined by the Singaporean State) are supposed to be of equal status. Judging from public reactions over the last week, I wasn’t the only one who felt the same.
The underlying problem is that the rule for translating station names is often inconsistently applied. It’s not as if all the Mandarin versions of the station names are unique in themselves, with meaningful semantics. The Mandarin and Tamil for ‘Somerset’, for example, are actually just transliterations of the English version (ie they are made to sound somewhat like the English). City Hall, however, is meaningfully translated as ‘政府大厦’(Zheng fu da sha) and ‘Nagara Mandabam’. Commonwealth is meaningfully translated into Mandarin as ‘联帮’ but transliterated in Tamil as ‘Kaamanvelth’. And this is the same issue for all place names in Singapore, uniquely multilingual, often difficult to translate, and announced in only English on the MRT since 1987. The Chinese have had to deal with place names like Kembangan or Bukit Gombak. The Malays and Indians had to grapple with Ang Mo Kio and Toa Payoh. (This is, of course, not forgetting how each ‘race’ in Singapore is itself made up of a multitude of ethnic and linguistic groupings). All of this linguistic diversity is bridged by English, which incidentally was chosen as our de facto lingua franca precisely because of its neutral status amongst the ethnic groups.
This is why the nationalist in me (friends who know me might find this amusing) felt that the inclusion of only Mandarin is a breach of this linguistic equilibrium and perceived fairness that had always existed. We all had to learn the language of ‘the other’ to get around Singapore and be a Singaporean. SMRT’s want to cater to those who can only understand Mandarin, may also mean that some individuals need no longer adapt to English as a way of life here. How would the non-Chinese citizens feel about the growing dominance of Mandarin? As anecdotes about service staff who can only speak Mandarin may also suggest, is this station announcement part of a slippery slope leading toward the marginalisation of our non-Chinese citizens? Or is my discomfort a sign that I am a (gasp) closet xenophobe?
I couldn’t resolve this dilemma by the end of my train ride. Language rights of immigrants or linguistic equality of citizens? I bet SMRT didn’t think as long and hard as I did before they implemented their new announcements. Nonetheless, I do have this to say. Even in the most liberal of democratic nations, there have been limits to the extent that immigrants (permanent or temporary) have had their language rights attended to. In evaluating the bilingual policy in Canada, Joseph Carens (2000) argued that it is morally permissible for immigrants in French speaking regions to have to accept French as the lingua franca, rather than stick to using their native language (English or otherwise). In making the choice of migration, immigrants have tacitly entered a social contract with existing citizens to embrace common ways of living and to assimilate to some degree as a part of the nation.
It may be inevitable for some of our ways of life to change with increasing immigration, for it is inconceivable and socially unjust to expect new immigrants to alter all of their values and aspects of their lives. Culture and language are, after all, always in flux. There is, however, a moral case for immigrants to make the effort to accept the mores of their adopted nation. It may be a process of negotiation amongst old and new citizens, though I would suggest that equality of race and language (nebulous as ‘race’ may be, it is a real label here to stay for now) is one Singaporean virtue that should never be compromised.
Carens, J. H. (2000), Culture, Citizenship, and Community. A Contextual Exploration of Justice as Evenhandedness, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Luke Lu will soon be a PhD student in linguistics in the UK. He will miss Singapore’s MRT announcements in four languages. He thanks a Tamil friend for patiently pronouncing station names for him in Tamil.