Two days after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong launched the 35th anniversary celebration of the Speak Mandarin Campaign in early July, Lianhe Zaobao published a commentary that rained on his parade. Zaobao, which is staunchly pro-Govt, had uncharacteristically criticised the Speak Mandarin campaign saying the campaign and the bilingual policy had exacted a very high price from the people as it had “turned the use of Mandarin and dialects into “a zero-sum game” with dialects being the victim.
The Government’s policy had also created a divide between the dialect-speaking pioneer generation and their mainly English-speaking grandchildren, leading to a loss of traditional Chinese values and sense of identity and the hastening the Westernisation of society, said the Zaobao editorial which also pointed out the falling standards of the Chinese language here.
The Prime Minister’s Office sent a strong letter rebutting Zaobao’s editorial without conceding that its policy had hurt dialects and communication with the elderly and standards of Chinese language. PMO even audaciously claimed that without that draconian policy there would be a generation of Singaporeans who cannot understand, speak or write the language. And it stubbornly, defiantly even, insisted that its policy remains relevant today as most people cannot master English, Mandarin and dialects at the same time! These claims, in my opinion, as an older generation Chinese, is untrue, without basis and a gross exaggeration by the PMO to defend its Speak Mandarin-Forgo Dialects campaign at all costs.
The PMO’s die-die-must-defend attitude smacks of deliberate ignorance and a refusal to acknowledge reality and the citizens’ needs. Firstly, the Mother Tongue for the Chinese refers historically to our dialects and not to Mandarin. Removing dialects from the Chinese is akin to removing our cultural roots and heritage. We also have scientific studies that prove that children have an innate ability to learn multi-languages when young and we have research that has shown that knowing dialects can aid in the learning of Mandarin. More importantly we have living proof.
Our older generation from age 40s onwards know that the PMO’s argument against dialects is fallacious and hollow as many of the older educated Chinese here grew up able to speak English, Mandarin and dialects and even some Malay unlike majority of the younger Singaporean Chinese who only know English and Mandarin. Adding to the irony , it appears that the well-educated older generation tend to speak and write better English and Chinese compared to many of the younger generation in their 20s and 30s who have problems grasping the basics of grammar, syntax, tenses and accurate pronunciation and enunciation.
In its rebuttal letter, the PMO also trotted out a frayed argument when it said its “pragmatic policy” (speak mandarin – forgo dialects) has worked well compared to Hongkong’s experience with three languages (English, Mandarin and Cantonese). Was it even right for the PMO to compare our country with Hongkong which is predominately Chinese and who have been speaking Cantonese as the lingua franca for centuries. It is a language which the HK people are proud of and it is what gives them a strong sense of identity. Moreover, many HK people are able to speak Mandarin and English pretty well these days.
The PMO should have compared Singapore with Malaysia instead of Hongkong. Malaysia, like Singapore is multi-racial and multi-cultural. For the record, Malaysian Chinese are able to speak English, Mandarin, dialects and Malay without the insurmountable difficulties touted by our government.
Like Malaysians, older Singaporean Chinese had comfortably used a combination of languages to communicate with our friends and family way before the bilingual policy was introduced in 1979. When growing up, as with other older gen Singaporeans, I spoke English/Mandarin/various dialects/Malay/Singlish with my friends, English and dialect with my father, Mandarin and dialect with my mum and dialects with my older relatives.
So are we better or worse off with the Speak Mandarin – Forgo Dialects campaign?
Today, many of our young Singaporeans are unable to speak any dialect except perhaps for some common jargon like Shiok and cuss words like KNN. Thankfully, we still have Singlish which incorporates the use of some dialect words or else dialects may really become obsolete in Singapore’s not-too-distant future.
It is tragic that dialects were politicised and neutralised when the PAP came into power. It is regrettable that till today, PM Lee is stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the flaws in the Speak Mandarin-Forgo Dialects policy and the very real need to make more space for dialects to flourish. One wonders why? Are they afraid a review will amount to an admission of error on the Government’s part or that it might undermine their power base somehow? What exactly are they afraid of?
We live in a different era now and have reached a point where English is the lingua franca in our country and Mandarin is also spoken by most if not all local Chinese. Allowing dialects to be aired on local media and encouraging the young to learn some dialects isn’t going to threaten our society nor the learning of Mandarin. Learning to speak dialects doesn’t mean we will stop speaking Mandarin just as reading a book about two male penguins hatching an egg isn’t going to turn us gay.
Ironically, we hear a great deal of dialects being used by the PAP candidates and their entourage when they campaign for votes during the General Elections and when they go on house to house visits to sell their party. The PAP-Government knows full well the power of dialects in communication, especially with the older generation, so why do they continue to deprive younger Singaporeans of this ability?
It frustrates many of us that our dogmatic government appears frozen in an outdated paradigm and is unable to evolve to meet changing societal needs. If only it has the heart and honesty to soulsearch and to review its policies for the betterment of the people. A leader who is unable to humble himself to learn from past mistakes to make changes will only hold back and even stymie the growth of the nation and the citizens. We do not want that to happen to our country.
This article was first published at jentrifiedcitizen.wordpress.com
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on 5th July at the launch of the Speak Mandarin Campaign, now in its 35th year that Singapore's language policy remains sound, and it is "not pragmatic" to give Chinese dialects wider use, or to expect young Singaporeans to master them on top of English and Mandarin.