Go with a smile!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Singapore and the English Speaking World

There has been some anxiety recently about our place in the English speaking world. There have been two articles which have attacked Singapore, and Singaporeans have responded to them.

It’s been well known for a while that Jim Sleeper is a very vocal opponent of NUS Yale, and he’s always been a demagogue in this regard. His views are not completely objective, and I suspect there is more than just a little political motivation in this regard. The latest article is pretty embarrassing to him, because he got a really vocal response from Singaporeans – and you know, it is not the response of freedom loving people, but rather the mindless and loony ravings of the brainwashed masses, especially if they don’t really agree with you.

In fact, some of the things he says is that Chinese people don’t treat the other races with respect. That is only true to a very limited extent. The fact is, if we treated the Malays with the same “respect” that Israeli Jews treat the Israeli Arabs, the Palestinian Arabs, or any other Arabs, there will be no peace in Southeast Asia. Chinese and Malays have been living side by side for more than 500 years and it is a mostly peaceful existence.

What is true, though, is that Chinese people don’t treat white people with a lot of respect. I’m sorry, but that’s true. I’m sorry, Jim Sleeper, for your post Mitt Romney white male angst.

Another article said that Singaporeans were the “least emotional” among the countries. Now, in all fairness, I would expect Singaporeans to score lowly on questions such as:

“Did you feel well rested yesterday?
Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?
Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?
Did you experience the following feelings during a lot of the day yesterday?
How about (enjoyment, physical pain, worry, sadness, stress, anger)?”

What I’m pretty sure about is that there would have been no article if they found out that the last place went to a place like Chad or Niger. Maybe it is a back-handed compliment that we find people wanting to knock us off a perch? It makes good copy to say that a nouveau riche country, preferably one with pretensions of being a great global city, isn’t really that happy after all.

But I suspect that there is a certain degree of unease at it all, at finally having to acknowledge that Singapore is, after all, a part of the English speaking world. And let’s face it, we are part of the English speaking world. Winston Churchill wrote a book called “A History of the English Speaking Peoples”. And I think what he had in mind were “real” English speakers, ie those of European ancestry. But the English speaking world is different, and I would argue that right now, there are two tiers of the English speaking world.

Suppose somebody like Lee Kuan Yew were to say that the Australians are “white trash”. There would be a massive uproar. But I think that Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Americans, Brits and the Irish can call each other twats and wankers with far lesser consequences. The fact is that there are two English speaking worlds. There are those countries that I have mentioned, and there are other countries like Jamaica, South Africa, Nigeria, India, the Philippines and of course Singapore. No doubt that the average person from these “second tier” of countries is not as proficient in the language as those in the “first tier”. But there are a sizable number of people in these countries who are native speakers of the language. I’ve been told before that I’m not a real speaker of English – I’ve had to correct some people in these points. This is as real as it gets. At least this is California, so people are not surprised when they see an Asian guy speaking it like they’ve been speaking it all their lives.

At the same time, you see that there is this presumption of exclusion. A lot of it is seen in how Singlish is described. People have variously called it a Pidgin, or a creole. But I think that it probably should be known as a dialect of English. Think about Liverpool English – spoken with lots of foreign words (from Celtic, Welsh or whatever), with a different accent, and sometimes even different grammar. How is that fundamentally different from what Singlish does? Then why is Liverpool classified as a “dialect” and Singlish is classified as – well nobody really knows what? That’s the difficulty that other English speaking peoples have in confronting us. There is this fundamental confusion of who we are. On one hand, we have a different culture, greatly influenced by Malaysia / China / India. On the other hand, we get so much of western influences – I’m likely to think of Singaporeans as mutant westerners. And since we speak the same language, nominally, it’s hard for them to think of us as 100% foreigners. What they see in us is western culture, reflected back at them as though through a hall of funny mirrors.

To a smaller extent, we are mutants of China, mutants of India, even mutants of Malaysia. I can meet an Indian and I can tell him so much about how much I know about his cuisine. But it feels surreal and strange. As though he were seeing something really familiar but very subtly mangled, like one of those nightmares you have at night where you see your house and very familiar surroundings, but with one or two extra secret passages you never knew about.

Predictably, Singaporeans have reacted with outrage, and to a certain extent, the reactions are positive in the sense that the outspokenness has to a large extent debunked the notion that Singaporeans do not have freedom of speech, nor do they know how to use it. The image that Singaporeans are mindless hordes of brainwashed people blindly accepting the prevalent norms dictated to them from above is if not thoroughly discredited, then in the very least called into question. The image of the Singaporean as a soulless and emotionless person is conflicted by the howls of outrage following that Gallup poll, even though there is a degree of truth that we, as a people are not prone to show our emotions outwardly.

You can see that there is a certain degree of unfamiliarity with Asia. There is this anxiety about the unknown. There is a great asymmetry of information here. It is not surprising, and much of this is cultural. I know more about France than I know about Indonesia. Asians don’t tell outsiders a lot about their cultures, and this is disconcerting to foreigners. To a certain extent, we are responsible for the image of the inscrutable orient. To a certain extent, this antipathy is generated by our attitudes towards the outside world at large. We are failing to build an image of ourselves to the world, we are failing to communicate to the world who we really are. We are very very far from completing our task of nation building. When I grew up to become an adult, one of the most important tasks I set for myself is to forge myself an identity as an individual. Then after that I think about extending it, because the identity that we forge ourselves as a tribe, or a city, or a nation is more or less an extension of who we think we are as people.

I am pleased to report that we have something. This is not a tabula rasa that Singapore was in the 80s and the 90s. But what we have is not enough. There has been another issue that was raised recently. Singapore’s MRT started announcing station names in English and Mandarin recently. This was fairly unusual: The Singaporean Chinese know all the English names of the MRT stations. So why have the Mandarin versions, when that might make the Malays and the Indians feel left out? Turns out that it’s for the benefit of our PRC friends. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if it’s for benefitting the new arrivals, I’m sure that the Malays and the Indians aren’t going to be happy. So that’s the thing – is Singapore supposed to be an English speaking country or not? Is this supposed to be a place where you just have to know how to speak English, or is it going to be alright if you don’t speak English but you can speak Mandarin?

Well, these are questions to ponder over when you’re reckoning with Singapore’s status as a English speaking nation.


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