A Language on the Tip of my Tongue

By Ming Zee Tee

After my grandmother’s funeral, we flood into the best restaurant within the vicinity of the crematorium – an old colonial building gutted out and refurbished, located in the historic Georgetown area of Penang. I sit next to Grand-auntie Foong, watching the Lazy Susan turn round with the peanuts and tea.

An chua bo tek pek eh ark?”[1] Auntie gesticulates to the waiting staff, slightly annoyed.

He shrugs. “Than kio eh si kanna chiak kahwin eh ark nia.”[2]

I look to Dad for a translation. But a born-and-bred Penang boy, who never let go of his Malaysian roots, he has lapsed back into his native Hokkien and speaks to them with ease. This world of plurilingualism makes sense to him, to everyone, but not to me.

This is because I grew up in Singapore. Singapore, where the official language remains British English, and where we read Shakespeare and Bronte at school. Singapore, where if you were ethnically Chinese, your mandatory second language was Mandarin, regardless of the dialect your parents actually spoke (in my case, Hokkien)[3]. Singapore, where talented students are offered the option of picking up a third language: either French, German, Spanish, or Japanese.

But let’s start from the beginning.

‘Laksa’ by Alisa Musatova

In Decolonising the Mind, Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o writes how the colonial experience produces “a society of bodiless heads and headless bodies”: for the educated colonial subject, the rift between their language of conceptualisation, thinking, and formal education (the colonial language) and the language of daily interaction in the home and community (the native language) creates two unrelated linguistic spheres in her, much like separating the mind from the body. There was often not the slightest relationship between the child’s written world – the language of her schooling – and the world of her immediate familial environment. This disharmony between forms of communication dissociates the child from her natural and social environment. This is the phenomenon of “colonial alienation”: the subject articulates her self-conception in the colonial language, reads literature and consumes its culture, distancing herself from her community’s reality and towards the coloniser’s.

Colonial alienation was an instrument in the coloniser’s toolkit, designed to dominate the subject’s mental universe in addition to their physical realities. Mere military conquest and political dictatorship was insufficient. To effectuate total control, the coloniser needed to penetrate how the subject perceived themselves and their relationship to the world, and shape it towards the Eurocentric view of history, geography, philosophy, and art. This was achieved through a dual process: deliberately undervaluing or destroying the colonial subject’s culture; and then elevating the culture of the coloniser. Sengalese author Cheikh Hamidou Kane writes of the gentle psychological violence of the classroom:

“[the] real power resided not at all in the cannons of the first morning but what followed the cannons…the new school had the nature of both the cannon and the magnet. From the cannon it took the efficiency of a fighting weapon. But better than the cannon it made the conquest permanent. The cannon forces the body and the school fascinates the soul.”[4]

Language, as both a method of communication and a carrier of culture, was the ultimate vehicle for this.

In the 1960s, the world’s postcolonial countries, newly independent, were intent on shaking off the yoke of this cultural conditioning. They took down statues and put up new ones, changed educational syllabuses, renamed streets and reinstated national languages. Writers such as Thiong’o turned to work entirely in their native language; others used “new Englishes”, or local variants of the coloniser’s language that reflect distinct cultural outlooks and usages. India allowed its states – which had differing ethnic identities – to designate their own state languages, while retaining English as the official language of the government and legal system. Malaysia instituted Bahasa Melayu (Malay) as a new national language, while vernacular schools and local dialects flourished alongside. The story of Singapore is slightly different.

Upon independence from Britain in 1963, roughly three-quarters of Singapore’s population were ethnic Chinese, one-sixth Malay, and 8% Indian. Singaporeans spoke a cacophony of tongues, reflective of our diverse origins: for instance, the Chinese population had immigrated over the centuries from various southern Chinese provinces, and variously spoke Hokkien (originating from Fujian), Hakka, Cantonese and Teochew (tracing back to Guangdong). The nation’s linguistic profile included 33 mother tongue groups, 20 of which were spoken by more than a thousand people. These dialects, while united by the written system of Mandarin, sound as different as Europe’s Romance languages: “have you eaten?” translates to “sek bao mei?” in Cantonese, “jiak ba beh?” in Hokkien, and “chi bao ma? (吃饱没?)” in Mandarin.

Yet the Singapore government retained English as the official language of education, governance and business. In a nod to ethnic identity, a policy of mandatory bilingualism was instituted in the school system: if you were Malay, you studied Bahasa Melayu; if Indian, then Tamil; if Chinese, then Standard Mandarin. The choice of English was a ruthlessly instrumental one: the incumbent government wished to woo Western investment with a labour force fluent in English, and position Singapore as the country amiable to foreign capital amidst a sea of Southeast Asian nationalism. Similarly, Mandarin was a pragmatic choice, foreshadowing the rise of China as an economic and political behemoth.

The problem? Only 2% of Singaporean Chinese actually spoke Mandarin.[5]

Thus in 1979, the government launched a fierce program of linguistic engineering. With the slogan “多说华语,少说方言” (“Speak more Mandarin, speak less dialect”), the Speak Mandarin Campaign was designed to stamp out non-standard vernaculars and unite different Chinese groups under a common language. Students who spoke otherwise were fined and made to write out “I will not speak dialects” hundreds of times. Radio stations had – and still have – gag orders on broadcasting dialect talk shows and music. The TV Programme Code stipulates that “all Chinese programmes [. . .] must be in Mandarin”, and that “sub-standard Mandarin (characterised by poor syntax or use of vocabulary, poorly pronounced Mandarin or mixed with many dialect terms)” are prohibited. Public signs communicate in the four state-sanctioned languages only. In his 1981 public address, Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew was determined that “nobody should use dialects… wise parents will never let their children speak dialect at all”, and that “Chinese Singaporeans below the age of forty who speak dialect will be the last in queue [in receiving help from governmental departments]”.

By the 1970s, attendance in English-medium schools had leaped from 50% to 90%; numbers in vernacular institutions correspondingly plummeted. The forced merging of Nanyang University (Singapore’s only Chinese-language private university, founded by the chairman of the Singapore Hokkien Association) with the University of Singapore conclusively ended an era of vernacular education. Today, only 12% of Singaporeans speak a Chinese dialect at home, compared to 80% a generation ago.

What happens when linguistic alienation is enforced twofold on a population: first by the coloniser, and then by the newly independent government? In their colonial policies, the British had sought to monopolise public discourse in Singapore by making English the official language. This was aimed at countering the influence of the Chinese political and business community. In an uncanny parallel, the Singapore government reproduced these models of intellectual control by subordinating vernacular languages to Standard Mandarin and English. Although their goals were different – they were a government oriented towards national economic advancement, rather than resource plunder – their means of social hegemony were the same.

And so cultural knock-ons follow.

None of the languages I speak are my own.

On most days, this doesn’t faze me. What is ‘ownership’ of a language? How can I identify with what I never had? For those like me, two generations removed from the experience of colonial subjection, Thiong’o’s disharmony is less harsh: my friends and parents speak English, my diet of media is democratized, and the memories of a thing lost are not my own.

But as I sit at the dinner table of my grandmother’s wake, the gap looms large, and I wonder what was lost in the chasm between our languages. If I’d known Hokkien, what jokes could she have told? What stories would she have shared? Could it have smoothened the corners of our relationship?

I turn to Grand-auntie Foong, questions on the tip of my tongue. But I cannot speak, the food has arrived, and she is ladling out soup for everyone.

Jiak! Jiak! If not it’ll get cold.”

I nod; this at least I understand.

[1] “How come there’s no special duck dish?” in Hokkien

[2] “That dish is only for wedding dinners”, in Hokkien.

[3] A dialect is a spoken vernacular code without a standardized written system. A language is the standardized code used in spoken and written form.

[4] Cheikh Hamidou Kane, L’aventure Ambigue

[5] In fact, Mandarin was a dialect spoken by people from northern China, whereas most Singaporean Chinese were diaspora from southern China.

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