Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Why Limit Learning?

Well, the great dialect wars are uppon us again. Minister Mentor Lee, the world's first banna (Yellow on the outside but White on the inside) got himself on the front page, urging Chinese Singaporean parents to speak to their kids in Mandarin. He's found that Singaporeans are using less Mandarin and he's most upset that people have talked about promoting their dialects. The message is clear - "Chinese, as defined by me, speak Mandarin and nothing else."

As always, Mr Lee has made some powerful points. Speaking Mandarin opens one up to the world's next super power - China. Let's make no mistake here - China is on the up and up. With it's billion plus population, China has market clout and even though it's yet to overtake the current superpower - the USA - the Chinese matter. Let's not forget that one of Hillary Clinton's first task as Secratery of State was to get the Chinese to "Continue Buying Our Bonds" - diplomatic parlance for "We need your money." 

China is obviously important and understanding the culture of China is important. As any anthropologist will tell you - "Language is Culture," and since Mandarin is the language of China, everyone is learning Mandarin. If Singaporean Chinese are not keen to learn it, the "other" races in Singapore are and even Westerners want to learn Mandarin. One of my old friends in Germany took Chinese as a third language. In London the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) prides itself in the number of Westerners learning Chinese.

While Mr Lee is correct about the importance of learning Chinese, his obsession with getting Singaporeans to forget their dialects is silly. He asserts that the human brain does not have "1000" gigs to understand both Mandarin and a dialect as well as English and perhaps another forgin language like say Malay or an Indian or European lanague. As far as he is concerned, a good Chinese trying to live in the modern world should speak only Mandarin and English. In simple parlance - Mandarin Good - Dialect Bad. 

Let's be honest here, Mr Lee's obsession with dialects and the Mandarin versus dialect issue has nothing to do with losing out in the modern world and the great China market. It has everything to do with Mr Lee's paranoia of "Real" Chinese culture. Mr Lee comes from Singapore's "English" educated community and grew up determined to speak "English" like and Englishman as opposed to "Singlish" - the bastardised version of the Queen's own tounge. Mr Lee reveled in being known as "Harry" and it was only when he entered politics and realised that his own kind did not start revolutions, that he decided that it was in his interest to learn Chinese - both Mandarin and Hokkien. Mr Lee was and remains a shrewed politician. The man was quick to see that the "Chinese Educated" he so despised (es) actually caused revolutions rather than talked about it. These were the people who would bring him to power. 

So, he learned Mandarin and Hokkien, got them onto his side and made life so miserable for the rulling colonial power that they left and gave the place up to him. He then realised that the Chinese educated that brought him to power could also depose of him and so he made it a point to get rid of the culture that made these people. Race would be redefined - hence Indians in Singapore means Tamil just as Chinese means Mandarin. 

Many Singaporeans will argue that this has brought unity to Singapore. I don't believe it was a necessary step. Human interactions have a way of redefining culture without the State's efforts. As long as the State can keep the peace, humans will find a way of mixing and matching of culture. Britishness and what it means to be British is a good example. If you look at London, you will not find a land of bowler hats. Curry, a traditional Indian dish is now a traditional one. How did it happen? People from the Indian subcontinent moved to the UK and although there have been tensions between communities, Britishness has been redefined and the UK has benefited from this cultural vibrancy. 

I agree that some measures implemented by the Singapore government were necessary. Racial quotas in HDB estates has prevented the development of ethnic ghettos that you find in many Western cities. Forcing communities to work together created a common culture. 

Then again, how much of a racial problem did Singapore have to begin with. "Kampong" or "Village" life saw races mixing together and developing a culture of cooperation that cut across racial lines in quite a few cases. Contrary to what Mr Lee argues, I find my generation of Singaporeans less unified and more chauvanistic than I do from people in my parents generation. Yes, the kids my age and bellow are less likely to make racial slurs than the people from my parent's generation. But the older generation seems to work together better. Why? They're able to speak more languages and dialects. It's not uncommon for Tamil Indians of a certain age to be able to speak Mandarin and several Chinese dialects fluently. Why is that? Is the Tamil community more gifted than the Chinese one? Sure, the language that people spoke was not as "pure" as the one in the mother land - but then again, language purity is not what its cracked up to be.

For example, my speech patterns change when I speak English to Singaporeans and to my friends from the UK. Why? It's the same language but cultural meanings change and in the modern world you need to be able to cross cultural barriers without thinking about it. It is true of English and it is true of Chinese and any other language.

People who aquire more languages are better able to understand more cultures and develop more relationships. If you are culturally confident in your culture, you become more self-reliant. I take Yong Koon, my former father-in-law as a good example. His English is broken, but he gets by. He speaks some Malay, Mandarin, Hokkien, Teo Chew and Cantonese. As such, he's developed business relations with people from all these communities. He is "self-reliant," and not waiting for the government to pluck him up.

However, the moment you lose your identity and have a new one thrust upon you, you start to think differently. This is precisely what Mr Lee wanted for Singapore. People lose their sense of identity - he gives them one and then they become beholden to him. I suppose if you have to be beholden to anyone, Mr Lee is one of the best people to be beholden to. He's brought Singapore miraculous things. However, he's in his 80s and while he's in good health, he's not immortal.  

Languages are so simple. You learn them most effectively by practice. I grew up in a mono-lingual household. My mother takes pride in the way we grew up proficient in English and from time to time, my mother does make a few caustic remarks about my 'non-English' speaking friends. Although my father's first language is Cantonese (he speaks the refined version - so much so that he's considered a local in Hong Kong), its never been a priority to pass on the language. As such, I speak Cantonese exceedingly badly and I'm the only one from my generation who speaks it. 

But then my mother moved to Germany and married a German. While she tries to fly the flag for the English language, she's learnt to speak German - as she says, "Gramatically Wrong" but "fluently wrong." 

As for me, I still speak both Mandarin and Cantonese very badly. Then I started dating girls who were more comfortable in Mandarin than English. So, I spoke it more often and as a result, I've become more confident in speaking Mandarin. Yes, I am at my best in English but I actually enjoy being in situations where I have to speak Cantonese and on occasion Mandarin. When I'm with Caucasians, I enjoy being with Europeans and being able to converse in German or once in a while Spanish. I don't have a love to learn languages, or at least I don't love them enough to go out of my way to take a course, but just being able to say a few words to someone in their language is a pleasure. It makes me feel that I am not limited as a person. 

Why set limits on learning? Yes it is important to  be able to speak Mandarin but why does it have to be a Mandarin or Dialect - why not both Mandarin and Dialect? To assume that you need to know "Only" Mandarin to understand China is a total misunderstanding of China and Chinese culture. China is a huge nation and while Chinese has a common writen script, it has a linguistic diversity greater than Europe with its many nations - hence it is many cultures not one culture. If you look at the companies that succeed in China, it is those who take their time, build relations and understanding of culture. In big countries (which is non-city-states), culture is often diverse and understanding of culture means going down to the ground and understanding culture at its most basic. 

All languages have dialects. Where possible one should learn these dialects in addition to the main language. I like to think I speak English - both the British (Hampshire) and Singapore versions. I speak basic Mandarin and Cantonese because a part of my environment requires it of me. I speak basic German because that is also a portion of my environment. How can you go to a country and not learn the basics of the language? If you live in a country for a good few years and don't pick up a basic understanding of the local language, you are not living in that country - you are living in a ballon. 

Mr Lee whines about how our "English-Speaking" environment has grown at the expense of Mandarin. That's ironic - he's made it so. Brits, Australians and Americans have utterly no need to learn anything about the local culture because we're all English speaking. I hear its got something to do with attracting foreign investment. By contrast, Hong Kong has a culture where the expats need to learn a bit of Cantonese to survive. As such, there is a greater integration in Hong Kong - they're confident about they're culture. 

Isn't it ironic that Mr Lee who prides himself in having brought Singapore up by providing education is now busy trying to create a limitation of the mind in his quest to remove any ressurgance of the people who put him into power all those years ago. 


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