Thursday, August 09, 2012

Regardless of language

As Singaporeans recite the National Pledge today in celebration of its 47th National Day, I am reminded of the phrase in the pledge "regardless of language...". Much has been made of our Table Tennis trio of Feng Tianwei, Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu being foreign imports and therefore not representative of the country's sporting abilities. One the the factors often cited about this ambivalence toward the trio is their inability to speak English, or even try to to learn to speak English. Is the ability to speak English a distinguishing attribute of a Singaporean? If you asked my father, he might spit at you. But no, he was just too gentle and even tempered a person to ever do that. But there would probably be many other Chinese who would - spit at you, or at least on the ground in front of you, i.e.

English was the language of the colonialists. It had no place in a local's linguistic heritage as opposed to the foreign devils. My father brought up all his children in Singapore, put them through the Singapore education system. He sent them to English language schools because he was a pragmatic person. You couldn't possibly advance in your lives if you didn't know how to speak English, he reasoned. Yet all his life, he never spoke nor learnt to speak English. He was born in China, spent his youth in Hong Kong, then came to Singapore shortly thereafter. He spoke Cantonese, could understand Mandarin but not speak it. He also spoke and understood a smattering of Malay. His penmanship (in Chinese AND English - he signed his English name beautifully) was of the first order. If we define being a Singaporean as one who can speak English or makes an attempt to do so, then my father was not a Singaporean. Perhaps he tried to learn it, I am not sure. He conversed with his children, and everyone else, in Cantonese and no other language.

Yet it would be absurd to say that he was not a Singaporean. He appreciated the government under Lee Kuan Yew and never waivered in giving them his support at every GE. I am not embarrassed to say this. Lee Kuan Yew was good for Singapore. It gave him a peaceful and safe environment in which he could practise his religion, make friends across races, earn a living and bring up his children. He started off living in an attap house, and gradually owned a HDB flat. And so it was for that generation of 'imports' - people who migrated to these shores for one reason or another, sunk roots and never thought of anywhere else as home.

We are their descendants and woe to us if we call our fathers, or their fathers, foreigners because they never learnt to speak English.

Happy Birthday, Singapore!


Anonymous said...

unfortunately, English hegemony is growing in Singapore. and we are fast becoming a monolingual society.


Anonymous said...

speaking English is just one of the attributes but actually there are many Singaporeans who don't speak or speak well. At the end of the day, it is about how well one is integrated in. Does a Singaporean eat nothing except dumplings, noodles and Chinese food all the time? Does a Singaporean eat only Northern Indian or Indian vegetarian food? Food is another way we can see whether a new citizen has genuinely integrated. As long standing Singaporeans, we grew up being comfortable with mee goreng, indian rojak and bak chor mee (religious and medical dietary restriction aside)etc regardless of race. I would like to see new citizens and PRs eating more Singaporean, at least show us that you are making the effort. In fact, more and more PRs and new citizens are already doing so but more of you please.