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East or West, where do you stand? July 19, 2006

Posted by kentneo in General.
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Text by Kent Neo 

Whilst researching on the 4 royal plaques, came across accidentally on many web resources on the fall of China and its awakening. While Singapore has been favourably praised by Western visitors with terms like ‘Asia lights’, ‘everybody speaks English here’, and ‘its so clean’ etc, the Chinese-speaking countries view Singapore as an anamoly and backward in cultural sophisication due to the Chinese population’s superficial understanding of mainstream Chinese culture. In a rather chauvanistic manner, Taiwan’s prominent political figure and commentator derides Singaporeans as ’stupid’. I can understand what he is talking about having worked in China myself. I vividly remembered how I was criticized by a Beijing friend as having ‘no culture’ when a group of his friends were discussing Chinese poetry and history. I felt stupid, Li Ao was absolutely right. The Chinese speaking world just cannot fathom why Chinese Sngaporeans could not speak or write Chinese properly. It is only natural for them to think Singaporean Chinese are not very educated on this light as this is their usual gauge for sophisication – Chinese must speak and write Mandarin, even more so when they watch your Mandarin soaps for the past decade!

On a more objective comparison between the Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia, one would notice that there are more interests in Chinese heritage and culture across the causeway. Yet, these Malaysian Chinese perform equally well when put in an overseas context. Yes, we use alot of English in Singapore, but sometimes I feel that Singlish seems to be the norm nowadays. Most educated Chinese Singaporeans write in English, while majority speaks Mandarin. English is merely a working language to the majority Chinese Singaporeans. Singlish becomes the informal social language. The hybriding of local dialects with English is a natural choice as speaking in a manner like one would in a ‘Masters of the Seas’ manner would be rather alien to most Singaporeans. Even for Mandarin speakers in Singapore, the form of local Mandarin slang mixed with dialects appear a little strange to the mainstream Chinese speaking world. What is the conclusion? In a span of about 40 years since interpendence, we have created two dialects – Singlish and Singdarin. Given another 100 years, I am sure a new language would have evolved!

From this observation, it is clear that many of us are unwilling to part with our dialects. Our dialects are important as these are our actual mother tongues. Try tellng a French to use English as their first language and French as their second, see what will happen. Yet the problem in Sinapore is that we are not made up by one majority dialect group as in Taiwan, Hong Kong or provinces in China. In a tiny place like ours, we are alomst like a mini Southern China in terms of the eclectic mix of Chinese from the different provinces. We can witness this from our diverse heritage of Chinese architecture in Singapore. The elite ruling class in Singapore with their scholarly backgrounds speaks English. Meaning, if you want to be ‘Atas’, you had better speak English. Also, due to the displacement of Malay as the common language, English has become the common language for inter-racial communication. For me, there are no reasons to be pro-East or pro-West, I would be happy just to speak Cantonese, a language which was my first language learnt when I was young. However, in order to carry on daily communications with other people, knowing Chinese and English is a necessity. Triligualism is the best for all Singaporeans I think. I remembered that when I was working in Shanghai, the Shanghainese told me that during the colonial days, educated Shanghainese could speak English, Shanghainese and Mandarin. Now, that is truly cosmopolitan. It is my hope that Singaporeans would be proud of their multilingual abilities and yet bring them to a profienciency that can be appreciated by a global audience.

For more information on the history of language divide in the Chinese community, see
http://www.globalpublishing.com.sg/chinese/bookshop/g059_g061_4.html (in English)

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