Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Dance for All

The dialect debate is getting interesting in Singapore. On one hand you have the official stance, which promotes the idea that our primary identity is that of being Singaporean Chinese and the only language that we need to speak other than English is Mandarin. The other side of the debate says that we still need to keep our dialects because they are part of our heritge. 

I tend to agree with the later. Although I am all for learning Mandarin and promoting the use of the language and it's implications in interactions with Mainland China and Taiwan, I find the idea of the State trying to impose an cultural identity on people to be highly offensive and disturbing. I don't need a legal system to tell me that I am ethnically Chinese. Despite an upbrining in the West, I cannot escape the colour of my skin. Even if I only procreate with a woman of a differnt race, the Chinese genes will take sometime to wear out within my genetic stock.  

I take pride in being ethnic Chinese and I enjoy many aspects of Chinese culture and part of that culture is accepting that it's a not a monolithic block as some would suggests but many cultures moving about in a dynamic fashion. The same can be said of any culture. I am Chinese but I am also Cantonese and part of being Cantonese is being comfortable with the dialect. Without this dialect, I would not be able to relate to people like my grandmother. Although I do speak English with my Uncles, understanding the Cantonese dialect allows me to understand them better. 

But my attachment to dialects goes even further. It allows me to relate to people I'm most naturally inclined to deal with in a better way. Learning Mandarin opens doors to the entire Chinese market but opening up a market involves more than just being able to say a few words in the "National Language," (Guo Yi as Mandarin is often known as outside Singapore). Opening a market involves building relationships at the ground level and that involves getting to know people at their cultural heart. Hence knowing local dialects in places like China help. 

Lee Kuan Yew is correct when he says profficiency in Mandarin makes China more accessible. But his comparison between being fluent in  Mandarin and being open to a billion people in China but being fluent in say Cantonese limits one to 100 million people in Guangdong and Hong Kong reflects simple minded thinking which insults the intelligence that Mr Lee is known for. His statement reflects the thinking of a Citizen of Caucasia rather than that of an intellectual (collect name cards and social network site friends to become well connected). 

It's not how many people you know, its what you do with the people you know that counts. The Cantonese are a chauvanistic lot, pretty much like the French when it comes to language and being predominantly Cantonese, Hong Kong Businesses people tend to deal with the people from Guangdong Province rather than China as a whole entity. A good deal of Hong Kong business people speak Mandarin but prefer to deal with their fellow Cantonese speakers in Guangdong. Real relationships are built between people in Hong Kong and Guangdong and you get real economic results. On the superficial level, people in Hong Kong are limited to Guangdong province rather than the rest of China. However, if you look lower, they have real relationships with people and leverage on that those to develop them further a field in the rest of China. - China, like other big nations is not one country but many. The real economic record of Hong Kong Businesses in China is darn good. 

Compare that to Singapore. Yes, the Beijing Government has  fabulous relationship with the Singapore government. The Communist love the PAP for being able to develiver economic goodies while keeping political power. If only a gazillion Singapore's could flourish accross China. However, Singaporeans are not encouraged to develop real relations with people on the ground. Just follow the government and what do we get - Shouzhou Industrial Park that beacon of Sino-Singapore joint ventures (shhhh, the Chinese own majority share after Singapore pumped in endless billions). The record of Singapore business in China is not exactly something to shout about .... the only benefit for Singaporeans is that we got Kuan Yew flying up to Bejing to "Tell the Chinese" how its done. The Chinese as always listened politely and nodded extra hard to what he said, particularly when extra cash was thrown at them. Bravo, Mr Lee for leading another commercial success for the nation - too bad you ended up throwing so many resources at it that you actually wasted our money in the effort to prove yourself right.  

The man simply cannot accept that building lasting commercial ties with countries is hard work and it involves more than just him "telling" the world what to do. The rest of the world nodds politiely - why shouldn't they - Mr Lee comes bringing cash and a philosophy that he has to throw money at things he declares just to ensure that he's right. Too bad the Singaporean tax payer is politely screwed in the process but then again, who honestly gives a shit about the average Singaporean? 

Contrary to what he may think, the ability of the nation-state to direct culture rather than to provide for its infrastructure has proved pretty grim. If there's one thing that makes government planning and directing of the economy look like a success, its when the government directs culture. 

Can one think of an example where government direction has made a significant impact on culture creation? 

On the other hand I can name a few positive examples of culture succeeding when people are simply allowed to interact. In Singapore, I think Singlish stands as a good example. 

Another great example I like the Hakka. I love watching the Hakka, a traditional Maori War dance, usually played whenever a New Zealand sports team is about to play someone. You have Caucasians mixing freely with Polynisians, each performing the Hakka with a frightening intensity - believing in what everyone believes is their heritage. Now that's what I call real integration. 

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