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.