Sunday, August 26, 2012

Some thoughts on Mandarin as a 2nd language: Singapore the hybrid nation

April 6, 2011 at 12:48am
Since the 1970s, the Singapore Govt - the PAP - has made it compulsory for all students to learn a 2nd language according to their ethnicity - meaning, all Chinese people must learn Mandarin as a 2nd language. To emphasize the importance - the Mandarin (and English) exams had been double weighted for score marks.

I think the Singapore Government's excessive emphasis on Mandarin is misplaced. We aren't living in China. We are thousands of miles away and situated in the heart of the Malay Archipelago.

Singaporean Chinese should really be encouraged to speak Malay not Mandarin. Students should definitely be allowed to choose Malay over Mandarin as a 2nd language. At the moment, all ethnic Chinese students are forced to study Mandarin.

Speaking Malay and learning to blend with the Malay culture is vital for Singapore's national and economic security. We can't be this sore thumb - a Chinese bastion - sticking out, a distinct separate entity. Its hard enough that 70% of our population are ethnic Chinese and non-Muslim. We can't change our skin color nor our religion but by speaking Malay, understanding their culture we have a better chance of living in harmony with our Malay regional neighbors and hopefully influencing their culture to become more like us.

Regional Envy
Singapore faces a serious problem regarding with our neighbors. Both Malaysia and Indonesia harbor very negative views of Singapore.It combines the worse associations - race, revenue, and religion. Our population is 70% Chinese and we're a lot richer than them. The fact that we can achieve so much despite our lack their vast natural resources only causes greater resentment and causes all sorts of silly conspiracy theories to flourish.

Somehow our neighbors neglect to see that our relatively uncorrupt political, civil and administrative bureaucracy coupled with its old style British efficiency make us a haven for businesses to flourish. International companies seek to establish their headquarters in Singapore for this reason. Plus, we all speak the international language, the new "Roman Latin", English.

If there was one thing the PAP did right, and there were many things, it was to (carry on the British Colonial legacy and) establish English as the main language in Singapore. All our official correspondence is in English, our legal courts are conducted in English, Our Parliament debates are in English, the bulk of our education is conducted in English. It is no easy feat, as English would be the 2nd or 3rd language for most Singaporeans; more people fail their English language exams than their Mandarin tests. But as a trade language, English is beyond compare. You go anywhere in the world from Finland, Brazil, Holland, Argentina, Russia, China, and even France :D and you can find more people there that speak English (as opposed to another 2nd language), the European Parliament has recently chosen English as its main language for keeping records.

English really is the new "Latin" language. In ancient history when Rome ruled most of the world (except Russia/China), it established its  language, Latin, as the first international language. Thus, the recording of species and fauna is still done in that ancient language. Most European languages also derive their structure from ancient Latin.

It is true that Mandarin is necessary if you intend to focus on trade in China. But somehow the Australians, Americans can somehow get by (of course not without difficulty) in trading with the mainland Chinese. Maybe its because more Chinese are eager to learn English than there are English men :D

Mandarin is a very hard language to master. You've got to memorize over three thousand individual characters... Its an ancient language that lacks an alphabet (a huge stumbling block or should we say slapping offence) - its more similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs than it is to English. Seriously!! If you want to put it cruelly all that cute calligraphy is just a few steps away from a caveman's pictorial drawing. Pardon the ungracious remark.

But yes, of course China is going to be the powerhouse of the 21st century so "wo men yao zhang hua yi". That's what all the experts said after they realized that their earlier prediction about Russia or Japan being the next dominant superpower failed to materialize. :D

I doubt that China is going to be as all powerful as Alexander's the Great Empire, the Romans, the British Colonial Empire or even the American "informal" empire. Why? The Chinese culture is too exclusive, too distinct, parochial, too much inward looking - just like the Japanese for example.

But things may change - Korea was once known as the hermit kingdom too.

Does everyone (I mean all the Chinese people in Singapore) need to know Mandarin? Is it really necessary for "All Chinese to speak Chinese?"

I notice a growing trend among ethnic Chinese people in Singapore to converse in Mandarin when they are grouped together. And I wonder how the minority races - the Indians, Malays feel about it. Of course the same could be said about Tamils, Indians, Malays conversing in their own "mother" tongue. But the Chinese people, being the more numerous racial group should exercise a greater degree of sensitivity.

I think our relationship with our two (Malay/Muslim) neighbors - Malaysia and Indonesia is vastly more important than our relationship with China. Singapore can't think of itself as a "sunny island set in the sea". Our extreme close proximity to our two much larger neighbors should have sunk that notion a generation ago. Its highlighted each time Malaysia threatens to cut off our water supply or when Indonesia refuses to sell us more of their sand or when the two of them commence joint military exercises on Singapore's National Day like they did back in 1990. The idea that we can safely ignore our troublesome neighbors is irresponsible.

If we continue to emphasis our Chinese-ness, and pay frequent homage to China, surely our Malay neighbors might regard us as province of China. In fact, there has been some unpleasant comparisons comparing Singapore with Israel. God help us if we ever reach the same abysmal level as Israel's relationships with its (Muslim) neighbors. Israel has fought four major wars and numerous battles since its inception but can't achieve peace with its hostile neighbors. So pardon the French, Singapore is seriously fucked if Indonesia and Malaysia treat us as a Chinese version of Israel.

Our two humongous neighbors could close their borders to us, refuse to sell their food to us, restrict all travel, including international shipping to our nation. Malaysia and Indonesia could attempt to restrict the Straits of Malacca to our shipping... Singapore would be like a mouse caught between two Elephants.

Of course, sure, we could fight. But we'd better have a damn rock gold plated solid casus belli otherwise we'd end up an international pariah like Israel.

Heck we'd  probably win if we allow the maids to carry our young NS soldiers' backpacks when we attack KL and Jakarta :D

But even if we win wars. So what? We still have to deal with two hostile nations with vastly larger populations and land mass than us and who will be bidding their time to stab us the moment our backs are turned. And even if they didn't declare war, they could  find a million small chicken-shit ways to make life for us hell and what can we do about it???

For this reason, national security, Singapore really needs to do its utmost to convince them we are not a Chinese colony. Putting an end to the "Chinese speak Mandarin" campaign" would be a great start. If half of our Chinese population could speak Bahasa, I think that would make some progress.

At the moment, foreign policy wise, it seems we are trying our best to placate their leadership. Its easy to try and ingratiate ourselves with a few members of their elite. But the problem is that the leaders of Malaysia and Indonesia are ineffectual and their people generally hate them. We could pour billions of dollars in loans, aid, consulting fees to benefit the ruling elite, but it could all come crashing down in a revolution. And then all of a sudden we're the bad guy because we sided with the arsehole in charge.

Of course just speaking the same language does not guarantee acceptance. The massive violent anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia in 1997 show that more needs to be done.

So then how do we influence them to like us or to think like us? How can we help make Indonesians and Malaysians Governments less corrupt, respectful of property rights (of foreigners), crime free, etc...

I don't pretend to know the answer to this vexing issue. But I guess for a start we could help train and educate their people to think the way we think. Offer scholarship to their best and brightest to study here (we currently do this for mainland Chinese students). We could open Universities, training centers, technical institutes and offer a way out for students who have no other choices than to attend the Madrases for their education.

By doing so, we could be training their next Prime Minister and a whole new generation who might have the same work and social ethic.

But if we can do this - the synergy we would achieve from this friendship would be truly awesome. Not just on the issue of National Defense, on a vast array of economically and social issues, Singapore would benefit tremendously.

Imagine what could be achieved if Singaporeans could live in Johor (safely) and commute swiftly and efficiently to Singapore city? Imagine if Indonesia ceded islands like Batam to us - a 100 year lease. Imagine if we could help the Indonesians manage and administer their tremendous raw resources effectively?

Lastly, the idea of Chinese people speaking Malay instead of Mandarin isn't radical. At one time, the Peranakans dominated Singapore's culture. They were Chinese people who had settled in the fledging Straits Settlements and had created a hybrid culture - a fusion of the Chinese and Malay culture. They spoke Malay and not Mandarin. In many ways they influenced Malay culture. Surely, the Peranakan legacy is Singapore's heritage.

We have to try and get away from this racial divide that separates us. We aren't Chinese Singaporeans, Malay Singaporeans, Indian Singaporeans, Eurasian Singaporeans -

We are Singaporeans.

( I wrote this draft essay while watching the mainland Chinese and Indian national workers trying to communicate to each other in broken English whilst fixing my apartment windows)

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