Image source: OhMyChannel

by Wong Chee Ming

Talking about the sad case of Singapore’s ‘national language’, this is what happened today:

I was going to a nasi lemak place to ta-pau lunch, when I saw an old Chinese man trying to order dishes for his lunch.

As the lady behind the counter was asking him “what do you want?”, he seemed to be hard of hearing or struggling with his English, so I intervened to find out whether what he was pointing at was mutton or beef.

Only halfway as I was trying to help translate, did it suddenly occur to him that “mutton” is “kambing”, and then he broke into Malay! He might be mumbling somewhat, but he could communicate in simple Malay, such as “ma(h)u chili”.

This makes me wonder what happened to those good old days, when the older generation of Singaporeans, regardless of ethnicity, would all be communicating with at least some form of bazaar Malay, and some Malay or Tamil Singaporeans could even speak Hokkien.

Alas, today, we must either agree to communicate in English, or nothing at all. Just yesterday, there was this ST article where theatre practitioners interviewed were talking about the state of “mother-tongue theatre”, with some of them lamenting how it is in a sorry state.

Now I cannot help wondering if, apart from the hegemony of English, it is also precisely an obsessive CMIO mindset that leads to further decline of theatre segregated in silos.

Perhaps multilingual theatre could have flourished so much more, if people were not desperately trying to hang on to isolated legitimacy within those silos?

All one needed to do was to process the multilingual reality that was already part of our life, and you might be able to witness our real-life office or hawker centre re-enacted on stage.

But of course we were also fast losing our diversity due to political intervention such as the Speak Mandarin Campaign.

I hope people realise that even the idea of “mother-tongue theatre” is a construct that may automatically exclude other possibilities, say whatever patois we speak, Singlish or otherwise, even Chinese dialects which should otherwise have rightly been the authentic Mother Tongues.

If you ask me, our cross-cultural interaction in cosmopolitan Singapore could have been so much richer, had we not been so conditioned by this politically sanctioned obsession with the official status of Mandarin, Malay and Tamil as our racialised ‘mother tongues’. Whatever happened to the early spirit back in the 1950s, when say Nanyang University students, for all their Sinocentrism we associate with them today, could be actively learning Malay?

In a transcript of a recent talk by Prof Wang Gungwu entitled “What Does it Mean to be Ethnically Chinese in Singapore?”, he made a point about Singapore being the only country where “the majority accepted that they live in a plural society”.

It is an important point to bear in mind. But if that seems to suggest the extent of sacrifice that the Chinese majority has made, well, I wonder what other possibilities could actually have been allowed to blossom in postcolonial Singapore.

Every now and then these days, I would see non-Chinese coming to me and greeting in all innocence “Ni Hao”. It is a friendly gesture of course. But I am contemplating on preparing a response next time that may go like: “Ni hao. Apa khabar? By the way, you know, Mandarin is not my mother tongue…”

This was first published on Mr Wong’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission

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