Diglossia should not be allowed to perpetuate

Diglossia should not be allowed to perpetuate

This letter was submitted via the Readers’ Contribution page.

Much has been said on the inappropriateness NTU Valedictorian, Mr. Darren Woo’s speech, as seen on Youtube

To be clear, I believe Mr. Woo’s remarks were unintentional (at 8 min mark of video), that he had only meant to transition into his Chinese proverbs with a joke (as he did when trying to include other division in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences), but unfortunately did not understand the implications of his words. In this context, we can and should forgive a young man’s unwitting error.

Yet, when I compare reports between the Chinese and English papers on the mainstream media, one aspect of this episode seems to have received unbalanced reporting and little attention in the English media, and that is the underlying language ideology that has caused Mr Woo’s accidental Freudian slip.

To be precise, this is what he said exactly, with the offending portion in bold or underlined:

“…… After all, every parents desires the best for their child. And this is especially so for the Chinese majors who probably have not gotten anything that I just said in English. 所谓望子成龙,望女成凤 (hoping sons can grow to be dragons; and daughter grow to be phoenixes). [soft booing from audiences] I can speak Mandarin too…….”

To many older Chinese-educated Singaporeans, these words reflects a long-held belief that there is a deep-seated prejudice by English-educated Singaporeans towards them. While such views may no longer be relevant or true among the youths of Singapore today, the spontaneity of Mr Woo’s remarks reveals a similar bias held by him towards those highly proficient in Mandarin, and is possibly gaining more traction and shared by many of his peers.

The language ideology that his remarks represents is that proficient Mandarin (or Mother tongue) speakers are necessarily “sub-par” in their English and hence in some sense “disabled”. On the other hand, the reverse does not hold true for proficient English speakers, or perhaps that it is somehow “alright” for proficient English speakers to be seen as lacking in their mother tongue. Such a perception can perhaps also be gleaned through Mr. Woo’s one-line use of Chinese proverbs, and then declares somewhat triumphantly “I can speak Mandarin too”.

I think a more crucial take-away from this episode is this, although bilingualism is welcomed and embraced by all as a national policy, the ideology held by young Singaporean on the ground may actually be working against them from truly being the balanced bilinguals that they can be. This is the same sort of ideology that plague Singlish speakers as being “less sophisticated”, and is potentially a divisive force in society. While diglossia is a well-documented phenomenon in many societies, such prejudiced views should not be allowed to perpetuate. As the home language of Singapore families gradually skew towards English, I hope more young Singaporeans can engage in a dialogue on this topic, and be made aware of their own prejudices.


Darren Woo had since apologized for his words in his speech on 26th July via his facebook post,

“Upon reflecting on my words and speech on stage, I post and bare here the result of those reflections. To be completely honest, I’ve been deeply troubled with what I said on stage, knowing that what was meant to be an attempt to reach out and include all divisions of HSS in my written speech backfired and instead made the Chinese division a joke in my spoken speech. I understand that as a valedictorian, I should speak for all HSS and my words today clearly did not reflect that. It was an error on my part and I am deeply sorry and regretful for what I have said and done. It was completely unintentional and I do hope the Chinese graduates, parents and teachers would accept my deepest regrets and apologies. 我知錯了。”

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