A session of "The Lesson" hosted at Toa Payoh. (Photo- Terry Xu)

Is the barrier of language to full participation in democracy being addressed in society?

by Alfian Sa’at

Last Wednesday I attended ‘The Lesson’, Drama Box’s thought provoking participatory performance on deliberative democracy. I had signed up for the Chinese session, and promptly received a thoughtful email asking if I had clicked on the wrong session by mistake. But I assured the sender that I did intend to attend the Chinese session, and would bring a friend along to help me translate the proceedings.

What motivated me was curiosity. I wanted to observe how a particular speech community would make decisions, and whether these decisions would be influenced by certain cultural value systems.

In ‘The Lesson’, seven sites were designated as potential sites for an MRT station. The audience had to choose which site they were most willing to ‘let go’.

During one segment, audience members were asked to argue for the preservation of one of the sites. A lady stood in front of the columbarium (a mock-up) and mentioned that her attachment was difficult to rationalise but guided by this strong feeling that she could not bear to let her ancestors ‘die a second time’. A primary school student said something to the effect of: if they could not respect their elders, how could they expect their own children to respect them in the future? This garnered appreciative applause, probably because of how precocious it sounded from the mouth of babes.

And yet for me, the columbarium was one of the sites that I was ready to say goodbye to. And I had to check myself—was it because as a Muslim, where burial is mandatory, my attachments would be towards cemeteries rather than columbariums? So I decided to mentally replace it with a cemetery instead. And still…

The ‘logic’ in my head went like this: which site served which community, and which community was the most vulnerable? The marsh served endangered birds. The halfway house, recovering drug addicts. The flea market, low income peddlers. The cinema, migrant workers. The rental flats and the wet market, the elderly and the poor. And the columbarium? It served, primarily, the dead. And as such, it could be relocated with the least disruption to those it served. (Of course places for the dead also serve the living, but I was eager to overlook this point.)

So was there a ‘cultural’ explanation for how our thinking diverged? And then it struck me: my ethnographic gaze was making me assume certain things about the Chinese-speaking audience—that they were probably more conservative, or more ready to defend tradition. In other words, I would be able to find ‘cultural explanations’ for social phenomena if I were to deliberately put on ‘cultural lenses’ to seek them. And why this lazy tendency to attach progressive and liberal ideas only to the English-speaking? This was my first lesson.

After a while, I told my friend not to translate word for word, and to summarise instead. And thus I gave myself over to the familiar yet unfamiliar susurrations of Mandarin (ask someone to approximate the sounds of Mandarin and you’ll probably get some variation of sher-sher-sher). It was an exercise in humility. All around I could see faces absorbed in the action, and here I was listening to everything, muffled, as if from another room.

At one point, one of the facilitators, who recognised that I did not speak Chinese, asked me in English if I had anything to say. I declined to say anything, somewhat mortified that for me to speak in English would be to draw undue attention to myself and to disrupt the flow of the evening. And yet there were many things jostling around in my head.

At that point it made me think of those of us, who considered ourselves pretty well-read, or even well-educated, but who found ourselves smiling apologetically, or forced to play dumb, so to speak, because we have entered a language environment strange to us, or to which we are strangers. And yet what I was experiencing was probably only a fraction of the frustration, and even humiliation, felt by those who one day woke up with their tongues stuck in time.

My friend was my only guide that night to what was happening—he decoded the signs on each site, condensed the streams of discussion, explained to me the voting procedure. And yet even with all that intent translation there were finer points that I missed out. I realised after the fact that more than 50% of the audience had to vote for a site for the vote to take effect. If I had known this, I would have voted differently.

For all our talk about participatory democracy, how much are we addressing how language can become a barrier to full participation? In a multilingual society like ours, what provisions have we made to ensure that everyone receives equal information, and that everyone has a voice? This was my second lesson.

Looking back, I definitely think that I would have struggled less if I had attended ‘The Lesson’ in English. But that was my third lesson: I learnt so much more by choosing to enter a space where I could leave my privileges—in this case, my English-language literacy—at the door.

This article was first published as a status update at Alfian’s Facebook page.