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Saturday, June 04, 2011

The inarticulate Singaporean

Singaporeans are by and large inarticulate.

I think that the culture in Singapore is simply not conducive towards mastering languages. You don't master Chinese because the standard of Chinese is not high: mastering this language is not required because it is not a working language. And even though I am not great at this language, I have my doubts about its efficacy as a working language: I don't think it's precise enough, and that's probably the reason why scientific papers are written in English.

People also tend to refrain from being too good at English because you can get mocked for doing so. Because of our colonial heritage, and having westerners talk down to us using their superior command of English, we tend to associate having a good command of English with exaggerated verbosity. There are a lot of unsavoury connotations associated with being good at English. Even our Singlish is our way of subverting the white man’s language, but on our terms.

They either confuse expediency with efficiency, which means that if you bother to express yourself clearly you are expending effort that is better off spent somewhere else. Being too clear about things is not that crucial with how things are being run.

Furthermore there has always been a political element to this. We don’t want to have to mention things too clearly, and we don’t want to have to discuss things too much. For those who wield authority, and take a dislike to who you are and what you have done, it’s not worth the trouble of an argument to mete out the desired punishment. There is this fear, which is admittedly very real, that if you were allowed to talk things through, the power of the centralized authority would be eroded.

Children are almost never allowed to talk back to their parents in Chinese culture, although there always will be the more enlightened parents who prefer to discuss things over. They were expected to do as they were told. So in a way, yes, Chinese people become very intelligent at stuff like schoolwork. But when it comes to thinking out of the box and dealing with very different situations, all the mindsets are different.

Everybody has shared assumptions about things. Sometimes this is good, because everybody is behooved to just watch and understand first before opening their mouths to criticise. Very often the system does work, and the criticism is due to some imperfect understanding. And things are usually smoothed over when people just keep quiet and bear with the status quo, which most of the time is preferable to having a small squabble spiral out of control over nothing.

But over time silence always favours the oppressor at the expense of the oppressed. And of course it has always been in the interest of people in authority that people don’t always think very deeply, clearly or precisely about issues, so that it becomes so much easier to pull the wool over their eyes.

Also important are the problems that get swept under the carpet. Woody Allen films are always about people who talk about their own problems too much. Lee Ang’s films, especially his first 3 movies, the “father” trilogy, are about people who talk about their problems too little.

But strikingly for Singaporeans, they seem to have even bigger problems than the Chinese. I see that in TV drama serials, people always end up abusing alcohol or letting out primal rages. But not really talking out why they are really really angry. There’s not very much insight into their characters. There’s this impression that the gentleman at the bar drowning away his sorrows is fairly inarticulate, bulldozing his way through life blindly, then bashing his head against the wall when meeting an obstacle.

Somebody wrote in a comment online, "some people are just not meant to be articulate. They may be good at maths but are not good at expressing themselves." I don't agree. I watched and observed the way that Americans talked, and it did wonders for the way that I was able to bring ideas across. I will never be very good, especially when it comes to talking, but when you see the array of techniques they employ to bring their point across - anecdotes, crude metaphors, slang. Singaporeans just don't have this range. And I will hesitate to try talking to people about ideas that are philosophical because I will always be met with this "you think too much".

I wasn't always good at writing. I had a terrible GP tutor in junior college. But then I met a fairly competent freshman writing teacher, and even as she was tough, I learnt so much from her that the difference in my writing standards was like day and night. Maybe I already had the talent and all she had to do was nudge me in the right direction. Or maybe she had to tell me some things I hadn't heard before.

Whatever it is, it was just a few 1 hour a week, one on one sessions. Just looking at what I wrote, and pointing out all the problems. This was not the Sidney Poiter life changing heroic teacher things. It was just somebody telling me something I hadn't heard before. And after that experience, for which I was grateful, I was wondering, "why do I have to travel halfway around the world for this?"


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