Monday, July 10, 2006

Language cleansing — the evils of the Speak Mandarin Campaign

"Singapura, oh Singapura
little P-R-C, dot in the sea...
Singapura, oh Singapura,
Huayu cool, good for you and me..."

There was something I saw when I came back to Singapore in Primary Five, some five or six years ago. I remember I was passing by the old teacher's lounge in Fairfield Primary when I happened to see a creased pink sticker on the doorway, which read roughly (to memory):

"Speak Mandarin! Don't speak dialects!"

Along with a motif of a face, with sound waves emanating from the mouth. I was ignorant of the situation at the time, though I knew it was a sticker that came from the government. I had heard rudiments of the Speak Mandarin Campaign. This was quite early in my return then, and I had been reading in the infamous newspaper of the #140 - the Straits Times - about how some minister was declaring "the importance of speaking good Mandarin". With this sticker came along a bad impression of the dialects, and I thought the dialects were a form of "broken Chinese", ie. "bad Mandarin". Mandarin, Putonghua and Chinese are often used as synonyms but in truth there are important distinctions. They are not equivalent, and such usage only leads to more marginalisation of the minorities.

At the time, my impression of a dialect was something related only on the level of accent, vocabulary and choice of construction, such as on the level of Cockney. In addition my impression was that Singlish was a form of "broken English", rather than a creole distinct from English. There is the exasperation at the fact some of us use it in situations that demand a more formal register, since Singlish reflects a familiar attitude between its speakers. For that , a distinction of good code-switching should be made, not complete discouragement. If such a misconception can be put upon a Primary Five student, think about the repercussions for people who have been hearing it since Primary One. It is language cleansing and linguicide; even democide to a degree.

Cultures naturally change, and so do languages. Yet when they are changed by design one should be wary. On one hand, certain forms of social engineering and guidance have always been around and is acceptable — kindness movements and charity campaigns have always been around, and not just in Singapore. However, it depends on where the attempted engineering is coming from — whether it is government-based or from an activist group, and in what capacity.

Singapore's Kindness Movement in particular is peculiar. It is run by a government agency with taxpayers' money, but encourages the most obvious things that some Singaporeans otherwise seem to lack. In contrast the other kindness movements of the world tend to be run by activist or private organisations, and usually are non-profit. There was the NKF before all the scandal broke out - its success at the amount of funds it can raise in a single night should not be overlooked. If an actual genuine charity had that money...well, who knows, eh? For this particular case, things like governent-run kindness movements are more harmless than not: either they are effective to some degree, or don't work at all and are a waste of money. There isn't a lot of potential for significant disaster that can't be reversed. This is besides the fact of course, that it can be just plain mortifying to receive a daily dose of the campaign in front of tourists, and of the kind of mortification that makes you cringe when you hear something extremely hackneyed.

Language campaigns like the Speak Mandarin Campaign are horrifically different. The Speak Good English Movement is also an evil to a lesser degree.

You see, the measures the nation's rulers are willing to use to enforce these language campaigns are much much more draconian than the kindness campaigns. The Speak Mandarin Campaign differs from the Kindness Movement in terms of how far they were willing to go to achieve an objective. The difference is terrifying.

One might say, of course I'm naturally against the Speak Mandarin Campaign when I have lived in the United States for half of my childhood, unable to converse in Mandarin or any other language besides English and perhaps some French. Fine then, I am perhaps slightly anglophonically biased, but I do not think that this bias is because of sour grapes, however. I will clarify that I am trying myself to pick up Mandarin and the written Chinese language, being a Chinese Singaporean. One should also note that I'm against the Speak Good English movement as well, even though my proficiency with English is that of the opposite of Mandarin's.

The vicious thing about these campaigns are their desire to eliminate entire dialects, arguably languages in their own right, or at least sublanguages, from common use in Singapore. Their capacity is also very strong — the nation's rulers are willing to use censorship in order to enforce language policies.

The first obvious problem with the Speak Mandarin Campaign is its undue emphasis on Mandarin, and ignoring many of the minority languages. I wonder how the others feel about the sheer and unnecessary dominance placed upon Mandarin compared to the other languages. Note that Chinese Singaporeans are a rather interesting paradox because despite being part of the largest ethnic group in the world, they always seem to feel like underdogs, or at least I do. They're in an an effort to compete against China of late, more specifically the People's Republic of China. They already have their own identity which places the PRC nationals as foreigners and completely distinct, or even perceived as inferior.

When I was in a Singaporean kindergarten, I never seemed to wonder yet why such a far-away country like China could have such linguistic influence on my hometown, or know that Singapore's environment was unique. There was this children's book as I recall, expounding on mosques, temples and churches, and I thought the omnipresence of varied culture was like that everywhere else. Note I should make a distinction with "varied culture", in the sense of truly multicultural, rather than plural monoculturalism.

Naturally in the United States, religions that are not part of Christianity receive less attention. Going to the United States in fact made me feel more race-conscious. It was where my "English as a second language" assistant (which the school placed upon me in first and second grade, despite the fact I spoke fluent English and in fact I was losing my Chinese from then on) kept placing an emphasis that my ultimate origins were from the Orient, of China and Japan, and made me read books that dreadfully misinterpreted the cultures. India? Malay-Austronesian culture? Islam? Taiping Rebellion? Never covered, despite the fact I was Singaporean. Maybe they mentioned Islam once or twice in that book about the Crusades. I have never forgotten the bigotry of Cape Elizabeth and the United States. The United States is the place where it misperceived my race, distorted my identity and left me quite scarred. When I returned to Singapore I now had some of this race-consciousness with me.

Recalling this entire affair has made me realise that Singapore has already formed a large bulk of its own identity. There is no need for the government of Singapore to try to consciously shape it. Singapore is in fact very much unlike China and indeed very multicultural. Yet, the way the government goes about it, harping upon "racial harmony", is becoming hackneyed, oversimplified and misses key points. Being very unlike China, though with a majority Chinese population, Singapore is paradoxically becoming very much like China already by the efforts of its own government. The government's efforts at social engineering is what is in fact making us less multicultural and more and more like the repressive state known as the People's Republic of China.

The four languages for four races policy in itself is flawed and majoritarian. All the Eurasians and naturalised Caucasians are labelled with one label, despite wherever their diverse ancestries might hail from. The minority Indians are marginalised, because the Indian Indo-European languages of Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi and other such languages are very much neglected in Singapore. Often they are forced to take up another identity in Tamil, which is different from their mother tongue. And then you have the Chinese peoples, who are forced to majoritarianise themselves into Mandarin. The Malays themselves have many dialects and trace their ancestry to all over the archipelago; I assume only a small percentage descended from the original pre-1819 villagers, though yes they are more likely to speak standardised Malay (which is politically divided into Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia, but these are mutually intelligible and linguistically classified as the same language).

The second problem with the language campaigns is the sheer amount of censorship and government power the rulers of Singapore are willing to use to enforce their vision. Television programmes in dialects are not allowed, unless it is a premium channel from overseas screened by StarHub, of which there are only a few. Neither are programmes in Singlish, despite the fact that it's not the same as broken English, but a creole. Things in Indian languages other than Tamil? Guess not.

This language cleansing affair must stop, the Speak Mandarin Campaign in particular, but as well as for the other Indian languages as well as the government-based opposition towards Singlish. It is destroying our heritage and culture, rather than preserving it or encouraging "knowledge of our roots", as the ministers keep saying. The dialects are themselves a wealth of culture, which Mandarin cannot replace. I am told of a time where before independence, everyone spoke each other's languages: Malay was the language of the street, and everyone spoke each other's dialects. It is almost possible to (over)simplify Singaporeans to two criteria: they will either know Malay (pre-independence generation), or know English (post-independence). If they don't speak either, well, it's likely they weren't educated locally. This is of course, an oversimplification to portray an identity.

Goh Chok Tong said in 1991 that the Speak Mandarin Campaign will help to "unify the community". But this is the problem. The Chinese community doesn't need to be unified. Singaporeans need to be unified, if they aren't united by nature already. You do not unify a community by purging it of its own diversity. In Singapore, Chinese often understood each other by dialects alone — they didn't when they first came ashore during the Straits Settlements. They then learned Malay, and later on, English. That is Singaporean culture.

In the Workers' Party rallies during this year's elections you might recall, dialects were often used, or dialect jokes. These dialects often help the speakers spread a closer message to people than if speaking in Mandarin alone. Perhaps the People's Action Party is deficient in this and do not want to cede an electoral advantage.

The dialects also cast more spotlight on the other languages, because with them the various communities see at most a plurality, rather than a Chinese majority. We do not need a racial majority after all - we need diversity. Elimination of these dialects is a sign of a downfall of an identity I have come to love. The PAP has accused various opposition members of Chinese chauvinism and racism, but in truth, who are the the true racists? Unification is given as an excuse to suppress dissent and reign everyone under the yoke of conformity, just like the People's Republic of China's attempts to annex everyone into "56 nationalities under one union", conform people into Putonghua and Simplified script.

To rigidly define "four races" as part of a culture is reminiscent of the People's Republic of China, where they say they are "multicultural" although Han Chinese hegemony is everywhere. This policy is part of many government policies that is turning Singapore frightfully into a little version of the People's Republic of China. Welcome to xiaoxiao Zhonghua Renmin "Gongheguo". You might as well discard "Singapura".

Some various statistics from Wikipedia articles on the Demographics of Singapore and the Speak Mandarin Campaign already hint at what damage has been done:

In 1990, 23.7% of people spoke Mandarin as the most frequent language at home. In 2000, this increased to 35%. The dialects have dropped from 39.6% to 23.8%. Many of my peers do not know dialects at all, and as my generation emerges the use of dialects will start to disappear. If this doesn't stop the PAP will get its "unified Chinese community", but discard all meaningful diversity. Note, the 1990 figures are already 10 years after the start of the campaign. In 1980, only 27% of the population knew Mandarin, so I estimate that in fact the toll taken upon the dialects is far greater than the statistics shown. One notices that with the language statistics there is really no majority, but one might have a majority with no meaningful diversity if this language atrophy continues.

The third problem is the gap with the older generation. Large groups of students and youth (including me) are unable to communicate with their grandparents effectively because of the sheer attempt at eliminating the dialects. The older generations will continue to speak them, because to speak a person's specific dialect shows familiarity and intimacy with such a person. The younger generations on the other hand, will not learn the dialects. This has a horrific consequence, in terms of further widening the generation gap profoundly. The Speak Mandarin Campaign arrogantly assumes that with its "replacement programme", the older generation will suddenly and automatically drop languages they have been speaking for years and suddenly communicate everything in a new language. Standard Mandarin, by virtue of being standardised, is especially less intimate than the familiar tone of the dialects. The Speak Mandarin Campaign ostensibly aims to unite Singaporeans, but it only amounts to bigoted hegemony and dysnomy.

There is nothing wrong with the encouragement of learning Mandarin, but to say at the same time speaking dialects is bad is horrific, and it is furthermore atrocious to enforce this at the end of the censorship gun barrel. Why is it that we don't instead have campaigns encouraging all the languages they are able to take, if only the fundamental and basic things at first? Perhaps by the time the original generation becomes senior citizens, we would truly have a richly multilingual population, where senior citizens would be valued for their vast knowledge (knowledge that one cannot merely mug for or pick up from a textbook), rather than be treated as a burden.

Yet the Speak Mandairn Campaign wants to conform us all to strict repression, one that is reminiscent of the Chinese Communist Party that isn't. If anything we need campaigns to encourage more people to take up each other's languages, especially the minority ones, whether Tamil, Hindi, or Malay. They say that we must learn Mandarin because of the emerging powerhouse of the [People's Republic of] China, but if anything Malay is our national language and is even more business-practical.

Indonesia and Malaysia are much closer neighbours, and fellow founding members of ASEAN, and account for a larger amount of our trade than China does. How many transactions take place across the Straits daily to keep Singapore well-fed? How many such transactions are there with China? Also, Malaysia has double the per-capita income of the PRC; Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia are virtually similar. If anything we need a "Speak Malay Campaign".

Language campaigns can be good a thing, as long as they fall within the scope of things like Kindness Movements. They should not use censorship or attempt to eliminate other languages.


At Sun Jul 16, 09:06:00 AM GMT-5, Blogger The Fascist said...

I am afraid that you reflect my views entirely. I've always distrusted the Speak Mandarin Campaign for a few fundamental reasons. I believe them to be the reason of the death of dialects.

At Sat Sep 16, 07:23:00 AM GMT-5, Anonymous YCK said...

I chanced upon your blog rather late by the way of your comment in Mr Wang Bakes Good Karma.

This is a rather thoughtful piece. I am sad that the Speak Mandarin Campaign wrought as much damage as it did. It was obviously overlooked that Chinese "dialects" carry with them distinct and rich regional cultures compared to the transplanted Mandarin uprooted from the northern cultural milieu. The result is a generation of uncultured "rootless" Chinese who speaks Mandarin. Their children will truly have Mandarin for a mother tongue. I am of the view that the damage is irreparable, but at least your blog may revive an awarness that something is amiss.

I have some points I would like to raise so that your future work addressing similar issues will only be better:

1. The Malays are not a homogeneous group as you thought. Refer to this link to Wikipedia for deatils. The CIMO classification is obviously for administrative convenience.

2. Though I am no linguist, there may be ground to argue that Chinese "dialects", though sharing a writing system, are in fact full-fledged mutually unintelligible languages (consisting of seven families in all). This also puts into proper perspective the real scale of the damage done.

3. I am suspicious of your suggestion that the campaign has anything to do with unity. The suspicion grew from discussion with some friends concluding that it was an attempt at homogenizing the population. The Chinese were known to be clannish, but look at the standing of the clans in the community now. This could make them easier to rule and in another generation they may be hardly moved by the dialect rally speeches of the opposition parties.

4. Here is a link to Perry Tong's blog on this. As more heads are better than one, I hope this will facilitate exchange of ideas.

All that said please keep all the insightful pieces of writing coming.

At Sat Sep 16, 03:15:00 PM GMT-5, Blogger John Riemann Soong said...

I don't know what has happened in the "clans of the Chinese community", probably because I don't know any of the Chinese languages. Do enlighten me.

What I'm frustrated at, is that the only Chinese culture I was therefore exposed to (and very familiar with) was the "culture" the government presented to me through channel 8, my schools' "cultural programmes", my friends, and maybe staying in the classroom during the MT period of primary school.

That is culture yes, and in fact, the culture of Beijing is extensively rich as presented to us - through guqin, drama serials and whatever operas, music, stories and values given to us.

But just imagine the cultural wealth we would have if the dialects had not been suppressed! It is a pity, from the point of a Chinese Singaporean TCK who does not even know the Chinese language(s).

Mmm, yes the Malays are not homogeneous. Usually I confine the ethnic Malays to the residents of Malaysia (just over 60% Malay) and Indonesia (not all of whom is Malay), and generally classify the ethnic Filipinos as part of the greater Malayo-Polynesian core. (Just I would say the would say the Anglo-Saxons are not "German", though they are fairly recently genetically related - circa 400+ AD - to the Germans in both language and ethnicicty.) That part I knew when I wrote this article.

What I did discover between now and then though (actually more like a week and a half ago) is the Malay dialects ...

At Sat Sep 16, 03:15:00 PM GMT-5, Blogger John Riemann Soong said...

It is also interesting, because you also forced me to check Wikipedia on the article on ethnic Filipinos - quite interesting, there were over 130,000 Filipinos in Singapore during 2003.

That's a very large ethnic group - I mean, why the C/M/I/O classification? If we were to take our entire population, we have Filipinos (who perhaps serve as foreign workers as well as maids) comprimising over 3% of our population.

There are also many Caucasians in Singapore who do not see themselves as expatriates but of Singaporean identity - I was only exposed to this when I read the blogs of people of Caucasian descent, who are marginalised and treated differently. Sometimes they are treated better, but that in itself is disheartening, because they think themselves as Singaporeans, but we Singaporeans have not accepted them as part of us.

At Sun Sep 17, 01:16:00 AM GMT-5, Anonymous YCK said...

I am not surprised that a great number of younger Chinese Singaporeans are little aware of the Clan Associations. I understand that they are civil organizations founded by immigrant Chinese to ensure the welfare of new immigrants were looked after. They are often defined by region, language or even surnames. You could refer to the website of Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations (SFCCA) the umbrella organization for these clans. However, be warned that it is in Chinese and thus quite a challenge for me to decipher.

My personal observation informs me that the young do not really identify with Clan Associations and are not interested in what they do. It could owing to decreasing relevance of the original functions of these organizations given the presence of an effective and strong government.

A Taiwanese Hakka organization 台灣客家文經發展協會 (approximately translated as Taiwanese Hakka Culture Economic Development Association) commented on the difficulty of these organizations in attracting younger members. It noted that since the 1980s, the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations (SFCCA) has become proactive in attracting the younger English-speaking generation. There were admittedly problems with renewal, though it was reported that by 1995 the problem has been overcome. But there is little evidence from my own observations to corroborate this.

On your comment on the inculcation on Beijing culture, I do agree that significant amount of resources have been sunked into this by the relevant authorities. However, I would like to stress that there is a difference between low and high cultures. The former may be seen as vulgar but is often what the latter is rooted in. It is an uphill task to teach high culture in a top down approach. Had the government been more realistic, a bottom up approach would have been chosen. But that would only be feasible if the low cultures carried by the original migrant stock were retained.

I found this site Radio Cantonese by By Egene Chua et al. which reported on the re-ethnicfication of the Chinese community since 1979 relevant to your piece. An interesting observation was that “dialects” were casted by the government as vulgar, divisive, burden on the young to learn with no economic value. These premises though widely accepted, are of course questionable. For instance, high culture also exist in each "dialect" and some may rival the Beiging high culture in depth and breadth. Furthermore, given the prominace of Cantonese (HK) and Hokkien speaking (ROC) economies, these two languages at least cannot be totally worthless economically.

Egene Chua et al. darkly noted that pupils were used as agents to change the language environment of their homes:

“Grandparents are forced to take up either English or Mandarin, or grandchildren are forced to pick up dialects to bridge the language barrier. Yet, communication will not be the same. The wisdom of the older generation is not passed down and cultural elements lost due to the communication breakdown between generations.” But unlike me, they hold out hope that a Contonese revival is possible.

On your last comment, I believe that the best that could be done is to allow any colonial era attitudes to fade away. But I must add that it would help if the official four races in Singapore orthodoxy is abandoned. If the social engineering such as re-ethnicfication the Chinese represents the wider policy towards ethinic issues in Singapore, it shows that there is no celebration of diversity. It will needed to speed up our acceptance of these new Singaporeans and it may be impossible to legislate into existence.

At Sun Sep 24, 08:58:00 PM GMT-5, Anonymous YCK said...

Sorry for the numerous typos above :b

Here is an article worth pondering on: Multiculturalism in Singapore: an instrument of social control by Chua Beng Huat.

At Mon Sep 25, 10:43:00 PM GMT-5, Blogger John Riemann Soong said...

Ah, the lack of identification does not surprise me at all. Sometimes I do think it is the mass media's focus, given that there are still very needy people out there in Singapore and the various non-Beijing cultures are under fire.

However, I am still slightly unoriented in how the SMC /should/ have affected the clans if it did what it was ostensibly supposed to do.

Every time I find a site that laments the effects of the SMC and tries to talk about their own culture I am slightly overwhelmed with all the new information because as a non-Chinese speaker (at least not yet) it is hard for me to identify with any group - my mother's side is Hainanese and my father's side is Cantonese, but I suppose most of my peers no longer identify themselves within a specific group eithr.

I mean, it probably should overwhelm people - that we have been blind to a rich source of culture within our homeland for years because of the suppression that the SMC tries to achieve.

At Wed Sep 27, 01:34:00 AM GMT-5, Anonymous YCK said...

I see a lack of identification a lot. A Hainanese friend and Cantonese friend hardly speak those languages, while my siblings are hard pressed to utter complete sentences in Hokkien. And they do not sense they have lost anything.

I suppose that SMC cannot be solely to blame for the decline of the clans. I could speculate what some other factors could be:

1. They are no longer serving the function of securing welfare of subgroups of Chinese as the state has taken the job.
2. They are not really connecting new immigrants to old immigrants and to China back home as the volume of immigration is lower and people no longer identify China as the motherland.
3. Urbanization and the housing policy homogenized the population assimilating subgroups that existed.

You may suggest anything else I could have overlooked. But I am still of the view that SMC by diplacing the "dialects" is crucial to the assimilation/homogenization process, arguably also needed for nation-building in the light of the CMIO mutiracialism. Intermarriages between the subgroups that normally leads to some fusion cultures or dispalcement of languages by their oppposite members is deadly in combination with SMC. (Please note that I do not object to intermarriages.) Both sides get replaced by Mandarin. Clans can no longer depend on the language-groups they traditionally served for new blood as the young do not identify with clans through them anymore. Their salvation is to reinvent themselves for some new roles to play in a society where all Chinese are Chinese. They must be doing it for they still persist.

Though I must admit that given time cultures and languages of minorities will be eroded, changed and even superceded, what is achieved in Singapore is not nature taking her course but social-engineering. This could be another thing to be added to a list of things including the stop at two family planning policy, all of which the government went too far in promoting. But the stark difference is that there was no overwhelming international consensus that SMC was the way of the future (as the stop at two was suppose to solve global overpopulation).

"Uniting China to Speak Mandarin, the One Official Language: Easier Said Than Done" (NYT) reported in 2005 that only 53% of PRC population speaks Putonghua according to a survey done in 2004. And only in 2001 was it decreed in a law that "Mandarin be used in all mass media, government offices and schools, and bars the "overuse" of dialects in movies and broadcasting." As you can see we are way ahead of China that has Putonghua as a national language since 1913!

As for HK we know that under the British there was no rush to supplant Cantonese. Though the importance of Putonghua has grown since her return to China in 1997, nothing approaching the draconian ban of Cantonese has been implemented. See Anita Poon for her review.

ROC for the years under KMT has not lost Tai yu (similar to Hokkien in Singapore) and has since then seen a resurgence of the language with hope of a biligual education system emerging according to Hsiau A-Chin.

Compared to all these places Singapore is unique. Only Singapore sees a need to eradicte languages to promote another. Young Mandarin speaking Chinese looks back as strangers at the cultural and language heritage of their parents. It is no wonder young Singaporeans are lost after being thrust the artificial identity. But be assured that if this is allowed to run its course, in one more generation the awkwardness will cease and all will seem well again. As for those in still touch with their Chinese languages, they could still strive to keep them and their cultures alive barring anymore social engineering around the corner.

Nice to have these discussions with you. I learnt a great deal from them :)

At Wed Oct 18, 04:19:00 AM GMT-5, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Singapore IS unique, in that there is English as the dominant language of communication.

You don't have that situation in the PRC, ROC, and even HK.

Truth be told, the dialects of Singapore are, for all practical purposes, on their way out, regardless of the Speak Mandarin Campaign. They will have just been replaced by English in the next couple of generations. Frankly, all home languages are on their way out in Singapore, even Mandarin. The only thing saving it is the influx of new immigrants from China.

In the grand scheme of things, the Speak Mandarin Campaign is absolutely the right strategic choice. You save what you have a chance to save by hitching language policy to a large, stable, standardized, and current repository. In this case, it is China. The alternative view provided by you is to hitch Singapore to Malaysia. Fine. Same idea.

You yourself are the perfect example of what I am talking about: you don't speak Mandarin, but you also don't speak dialect. You speak English. You have no home culture be it based on dialect or Mandarin so I don't know what you are complaining about. Certainly it is noble to envision a "diverse" "new" "Singaporean" culture of high pluralism, but realistically, this is untenable due to Singapore being a "lightweight." The altnernatives are, one dominant (either by population or by geography) culture, a "rootless" English-based post-colonial transplant culture, or, what the language policy strives for: a handful and manageable number of coherent internal identities. It's the best choice in my opinion.

At Wed Oct 18, 04:47:00 PM GMT-5, Blogger John Riemann Soong said...

"You yourself are the perfect example of what I am talking about: you don't speak Mandarin, but you also don't speak dialect. You speak English. You have no home culture be it based on dialect or Mandarin so I don't know what you are complaining about."

Ah, but there I think you have made the mistake of misassumption! I speak English, but I also speak French. Is it my "home culture"? Well, it seems a bit restrictive to say, "well that's not your home culture, because you are Chinese by race". But who is to say my race determines my culture? (It sure influences, yes.)

Why do I lament? Because though I have an American accent and currently live in the United States, I have strong cultural attachments to Singapore. There is a culture I see there that cannot be replaced anywhere else. In fact I think that Singapore's problems are easier to fix than the United States' - hence guess I'm a culturally greedy person who wants to have his cake and eat it too by combining both.

I want to relearn Chinese, and the dialects - because the dialects are also key linguistic clues to reconstructing the phonology of Old Chinese - an important part of history. Some of the dialects are older than modern Mandarin, which emerged during the Qing Dynasty. For example, the entire Beijing/Peking dichotomy is due to a sound shift that occurred after the 16th century.

And China? Only 53% of its population speak Mandarin as YCK pointed out above - and fewer probably speak it as a native tongue. That leaves over a half a billion people to contend with that speak some sort of Chinese dialect.

And may I remind you, the Chinese languages are a dialect continuum, spread out over a vast area. In some cases they have diverged and because of history the distinctions are more discrete - but in some areas they are not. The "Mandarin" called "Mandarin" by governments and teachers is in fact Standard Mandarin, because there are other dialects within the Mandarin language family.

From village to village the language is communicable - but from dozens of villages away, it gets increasingly difficult, until you hit the next province or two rivers over. Yet from village to village they all can communicate. They are all interlinked.

In the Romance languages - before the Reunification of Italy - there was a dialect continuum running from Portugal, to Spain to the South of France, all the way to Romania. The books say "learn Spanish!", "learn Italian!" and so forth ... and they seem like distinct languages - but there is no clear boundary. Should language policy dictate, "Be understood! Speak Latin!" ? Today the continuum still exists but in a less spectacular form.

What does this have to do with Singapore? To me Singapore has a unique identity and a valuable culture that the government does not seem to appreciate. They want to have individuals be attached to their homes and forge a national identity - but they don't understand, we already have that! It's just not what they had aimed for.

Firstly, the dialects are on their way out specifically because of the Speak Mandarin Campaign. I would not have minded the government promoting the SMC without encouraging the destruction of other Chinese languages. To me, I am trying to save Singapore's culture - and perhaps maximise and build upon it - not create a "diverse new" artsy-dartsy/biomedical-transport-tourism hub.

Secondly, I disdain the idea that an English-based "transplant culture" is in any way "rootless". ("Rootless cosmopolitan" by the way
was a frequent accusation made by Stalin against the Jews during his pogroms. Those Jewish diaspora communities, definitely abandoning their roots when they created their own dialect of German known as Yiddish, yup yup.) We have after all, Singlish. As much as the government wants to emphasise rugged individualism, the part I feel attached to Singapore is a communalism and a camaraderie I cannot seem to find anywhere else. To me, the issue of culture is not so much as, "it's better to have four manageable distinct cultures than one monoculture or having a chaotic plethora of cultures" as you seem to argue. It's not so much as using English, as the conscious destruction of a language.

Language is linked to culture - destroying a language destroys culture; however, having the same language does not mean having the same culture. Speaking a different language does not mean having a different culture either. I may not speak a language my friend does, but I am culturally empathic towards him, as a friend, countryman, etc. If his language is persecuted, though I do not speak it, I will be vehement against such practices.

Thirdly, I think that "oh we can't have so many cultures, Singapore is lightweight" is a nonsensical argument. Singapore's size is always the excuse for being ruthless and cruel towards certain communities. It is the excuse why we can't have civil rights, or a more participatory democracy. If it already exists, how is it untenable? Why must we enforce other people's mother tongues by race?

I like the bilingual policy. I just do not think academic second language, should be determined by race, especially when it is a language hegemony that fails to represent the other 47% of Chinese! (This is after 50 years of Putonghua, mind you.)

Why should "manageability" be a problem? How does one judge coherency? Is it ethical to require that of a language?

If one fears about too many minority languages to account for in schools, fine. Then use hegemony languages for academic use - but censorship is not required. Or perhaps you fear that there will be no hegemony language if the dialects are allowed to be broadcast, which is quite an assumption.

After all, if more people speak other mother tongues other than Mandarin, that will give much needed attention to other official languages in need of attention, such as Malay and Tamil.

Why is the ang moh allowed to take French as his mother tongue but not an ethnic Chinese? Is that not bigotry? Is a home culture by nature, or by nurture?

I am trying to save Singapore's culture because that is who I am. I worry about foreign workers not appreciating the existing culture and being seemingly totally oblivious to things - but yet I realise they can add a lot of things to ours. I assert I have a home culture. I am after all, a third culture person - very attached to two cultures but neither fully integrated in both.

At Fri Oct 20, 05:01:00 AM GMT-5, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, several things.

I understand all the historical and geographical complexity of Chinese dialects. I understand the link between language and culture and the desire to protect them both. But, I also try to be realistic.

The Mandarin survey is deceptive. Yes, perhaps only 51% of the people speak it today, but what is the profile laid out over age? I'll bet you the people who don't speak it well are older. In fact, language is a funny thing. It goes in generations. Mandarin is nearly universal among the younger generation and within 10-20 years there will be a significant phase transition which has been set in motion decades ago. Look at Taiwan for insight into the distinct roles of Mandarin vs. dialect.

In China itself at least, the need for a common language of communication means Mandarin will be the mother tongue of more and more people, especially if their parents speak different dialects -- there is nothing the government did to cause that. This is the price you pay as a mobile and fluid modern society. Yes, dialects will be preserved in regions as colloquial forms or second languages, but they will definitely lose ground. In China, they will survive. In Singapore, unlikely -- at least not all of them. This is what I mean by being realistic.

Singapore is small in population. There is not a steady supply of speakers for every microlanguage. You've got maybe a few hundred thousand of each Chinese dialect plus a hundred thousand here or ten thousand there of your various Malay and Indian langauge speakers. Singapore is also small in size. So unless you lock yourself up in an enclave of a few blocks, chances are your language environment will be complex and you will resort to a common language anyway outside your home or immediate neighborhood. Well what have we? Obviously English. So the same role that Mandarin plays in China, English will play in Singapore in that circumstance. Say goodbye to the long-term viability of all of your multitide of dialects. English is still taking over, even with the presumably larger cohort of Mandarin speakers post Mandarin policy implementation. Such are the market forces at play.

Hegemony language in school? Well it's clearly English. Nobody is censoring the ethnic home languages, Mandarin being among them, but they aren't doing so well. Clearly, saving non-English languages is going to be a project requiring government to intervene in school and society and devote resources to, and Singapore is doing just that, as many countries do these days. And if the government is managing mother tongue education, then it is fair to ask what is manageable, and what is the best way to save non-English languages. Is it better to devote resources to teach a few mother tongues, or to teach 10 or 20? Or do we lop off the minor ones and teach the most popular ones?

It is in this context that the Mandarin Campaign makes great sense, not to mention the side effect of being a useful language to learn anyway. As for the indignancy of feeling Mandarin is somehow foreign and not mother tongue or "rootless" (your implications, not mine): I find it amusing. Mandarin is the mother tongue of many ethnic Chinese in Singapore now. English, also, for others. So you've got your southern Chinese grandpas and grandmas; to them both are foreign, so why is the English transplant culture not rootless but the Mandarin transplant culture rootless? You've got Singlish but you've also got Singapore Mandarin. Is that so bad?

Finally, let's not forget about the primary purpose of language: to communicate with as many people as possible. If one is nostalgic about Hokkien culture or Hakka culture or Cantonese culture, one goes to visit the respective regions in China. The dialect-linked culture will simply be there longer than in Singapore any way you cut it. And according to you, the culture won't die as long as the dialect still exists somewhere, even if you don't speak it.

At Mon Feb 12, 06:36:00 AM GMT-5, Blogger Charl said...

Thanks for this! I am a researcher from a university in Singapore, and I'm researching on the effects of national discourse on the perception of Chinese dialects in Singapore. I am exceedingly happy to read what you have written and especially the comments of others. They seem to affirm my thesis, which for a researcher, is a fantastic thing. Thanks again.

At Mon Feb 12, 05:39:00 PM GMT-5, Blogger le radical galoisien said...

Does researchprudence require you not to release your stance at this time, or would you share at least part of your findings with us? ;-)

At Wed Feb 14, 07:00:00 AM GMT-5, Blogger Charl said...

Well, I'm still in the process of doing the research, so I am thinking I shouldn't spoil the suspense. ;D [just in case someone "steals" my idea and published it before I do, if you understand] :D I may come back by the end of the year to share my findings if they don't turn out to be too boring. :) I may even use some information from this blog to argue my points! If that's all right with you, of course. :)

At Sat Apr 30, 02:04:00 PM GMT-5, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Evil Speak Mandarin campaign also spreads to Malaysia especially the southern states. Non-Mandarin speaker and non-Mandarin educated chinese (english and malay educated) were demonized, humilated and harrassed publicly by Mandarin speakers and Chinese educated students. The worst was in the decade of 1990's. Those in chinese schools considered chinese who went to english and malay medium schools are traitors or not chinese enough.

At Sun Aug 14, 02:31:00 PM GMT-5, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speak Mandarin Campaign = Anti-Peranakan (baba nyoya) movement. The Malacca peranakan became the main target of demonization in SMC. Those chinese who doesn't know mandarin faces job discrimination. Majority of jobs in Chinese owned companies in Singapore and malaysia have mandarin language requirement for chinese applicants. I got rejected right away when the interviewer find out my proficiency in mandarin is poor. On the other hand Indian and malay applicants who doesn't know mandarin were hired.

At Wed Sep 21, 09:44:00 AM GMT-5, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was because of SMC that the majority of the non-Chinese especially South-East Asians now claim that the ethnic Chinese in ASEAN wanted to invade South-East Asia for People's Republic of China.


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