Monday, April 16, 2007

ST Forum: Have more passion for Chinese language and cultural roots

This letter to the ST Forum was published yesterday (16 April 2007).

Have more passion for Chinese language and cultural roots

I CAME across a TV programme on the promotion of Tamil language on Vasantham Central on April 9.

Among one of the participants was a mother of three children who shared her experiences in providing a Tamil-speaking environment at home.

Right from the start, she insisted that her kids should learn English in school, but Tamil should be the only language spoken at home.

Initially, her husband had raised doubts about excluding English from the household, but she convinced him that this would not be a trade-off, given the prevalence of the English language in schools.

When her daughter tried to use English at home, she was ignored as if nobody at home understood the language.

This woman expressed pride in her youngest daughter's proficiency and passion for the Tamil language and in maintaining her cultural roots.

I was also touched by her confident remarks to Singaporean Tamils that 'if you do not respect your language, nobody else would'.

Sadly, I do not find similar sentiments expressed among Chinese Singaporeans, many of whom continue to show disdain for their cultural heritage, with some even proudly pronouncing that they have failed their Chinese language exams.

Meanwhile, being constantly 'hassled' by the task of getting their children to pass Chinese language tests, some parents have urged the Government to 'lower' the standards.

Of all communities in Singapore, it is among the Chinese, particularly the younger generation, that you find those who speak only English both at home and on the street.

It hurt me when a visiting English friend asked me whether Singaporeans see the West as an ideal after constantly seeing images of Western models and signs in English.

Is the educational system or the Eurocentric orientation of Singapore to be blamed for this current state of affairs?

I am not sure. But, I wish that more Chinese Singaporeans would share the same sentiments and practice of their fellow Tamil Singaporeans.

Given the continuous slide in the standard of the mother tongue, if I have children, I would seriously consider schooling them in Hong Kong, China or Taiwan in their formative years before bringing them back to Singapore for several years of secondary and early tertiary education, like what most foreign parents in Singapore are currently doing.

In this way, they would be truly bicultural and be respected as Asians.

Liew Kai Khiun

Sorry, Mr Liew, you are utterly wrong about the state of the Tamil language in Singapore. Like all other ethnic languages in Singapore, there is an ongoing language shift in Tamil families from Tamil to English. In fact, the language shift is greater for Tamil Singaporeans. According to Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam here,

This is our challenge. The Tamil community in Singapore is a small one, of 4-5% of the Singapore population. Compared to the Chinese or Malay languages, there are fewer natural, everyday opportunities for our young to use the Tamil language amongst their friends, on the MRT or in the shops, and in our neighbourhoods. Also, a far higher proportion of Tamil students speak English at home, compared to Malay and Chinese students.


Only a demagogue can spout untruths like "it is among the Chinese, particularly the younger generation, that you find those who speak only English both at home and on the street" and "I do not find similar sentiments expressed among Chinese Singaporeans, many of whom continue to show disdain for their cultural heritage, with some even proudly pronouncing that they have failed their Chinese language exams".


Letters from Chinese language reactionaries, like the one above, appear in the ST Forum every now and then. The letter goes usually like this: the standard of the Chinese language and culture is declining in Singapore and the government ought to do something about it; unlike Malay and Indian Singaporeans, the Chinese Singaporean community is regressing culturally as a result of the declining literacy standard in Chinese, even more so than Malay and Indian Singaporeans. There is always this issue of keeping in touch with their cultural roots and how they get more respect if they could maintain their proficiency in the language.

Of course, all this gets on my nerves and betrays the Taliban mentality and imagined persecution complex of the more conservative elements of the Chinese-speaking community in Singapore. It's like those people who do not like homosexuality and wish to impose their values on their fellow citizens. The Chinese language purists are like that - they cannot tolerate the presence of English-speaking Chinese Singaporeans, seeing them as cultural degenerates or inferiors. On the other hand, the English-speaking Singaporeans are astonishingly mild and meek, having imbibed at least in part that government-sanctioned narrow-minded singular intolerant point of view. (Never mind that most of our Ministers like Teo Chee Hean and Mah Bow Tan are not functionally literate in Chinese.)

For many years now, Singapore has had an education policy that promotes bilingualism. As everyone knows, the working language in Singapore in legal, commercial and official matters is largely English although our national language is Malay and the four official languages are English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil.

Needless to say, most people under the age of thirty have some knowledge of English. English is the lingua franca in Singapore given the diverse multi-ethnic and multi-lingual situation. Of course, given its importance in legal, commercial and official affairs, a mastery of English is valuable, in a practical sense, in Singapore. This is not to say that the other official languages are unimportant in Singapore but their use is largely confined to the academic and social spheres. One could get along quite fine in Singapore without ever being able to utter a single word of Chinese, Malay or Tamil, given the ubiquity of English usage in Singapore.

Of course, this shouldn't be taken as an endorsement of monolingualism in Singapore. If anything, I would encourage people to learn to speak and write as many languages as possible for practical reasons. After all, the world is largely non-English speaking and it is clear that there are advantages to knowing another language. Given that Singapore's economic destiny is tied with our surrounding Asian countries, it is important that we have Singaporeans who can speak Chinese, Malay, Thai, Vietnamese, etc.

The Chinese language purists are different. Their justification for their ethnic brethen to learn Chinese is that it is important to learn a language based on ethnic descent. No questions about it. They brook no argument that people's linguistic proficiency is largely a product of their linguistic environment or that it is difficult to achieve true bilingualism in two very different languages - Chinese and English - in a society in which one has far greater functionality.

English-speaking Chinese Singaporeans are their favourite targets for this sort of moralistic spiel since the former are usually not literate in Chinese and seen as less 'Asian', whatever that means, for not being able to communicate in Chinese. Of course, you don't see them railing against Chinese Thais or Chinese Filipinos for not being literate in Chinese and thus, un-Asian. Then, it does not take very long to realise that this talk about Asian-ness is really a euphemism for the Chinese-ness of Chinese Singaporeans.

So, let's call a spade a spade. These reactionaries are the Talibans and the PAS of the Chinese Singaporean community, seeking to impose their values on their fellow citizens in a multi-cultural pluralistic society of Singapore. We should and we must reject their narrow ethnocentrism.


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