Home » Uncategorized » Dear Mr Heng, what has being nurtured in our own dialect got to do with learning Mandarin in school?

Dear Mr Heng, what has being nurtured in our own dialect got to do with learning Mandarin in school?

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I am sure Mr Heng, the MOE minister, meant well when he fielded those questions on the ban on Chinese dialects.

But I find it disconcerting and mighty strange that he had equated the use of dialects which is the means by which ethnic Chinese Singaporeans access their heritage, roots and ethnic origins, with the formal teaching and learning of a second language (Mandarin) in MOE schools. IMHO, the conflation of the two is neither proper nor logical. Let me explain.

All ethnic Chinese Singaporeans are born to parents who belong to one of several dialect groups here. There isn’t any ‘formal’ schooling or training (as in formal lessons conducted in a classroom) wherein our children are taught to speak the dialect of his or her parents, grandparents, and elders. Rather, it is quite literally by word of mouth that from birth we are inducted, nurtured, taught and ‘immersed’ by our parents into the cultural mores, values and habits of our respective dialect groups. Meaning, this comes about very naturally especially and particularly between mother and child (hence, the real origin of the term ‘mother tongue’ to describe this intimate nurturing relationship. Regrettably the term has been quite brazenly hijacked by the MOE to describe the compulsory learning of Mandarin by all ethnic-Chinese Singaporeans).

In other words, dialects are the very essence of the conduit for the vital flow and direct transmission of our ancestors’ unique cultures, values, social and traditional mores, to descendants, in particular the younger generations. By extension and implication, the loss of the use of our dialects can therefore lead to an inexorable and irreversible dilution and eventual loss of our ethnic roots and cultural ballast over time. And on a timeline, after 30 years of govt sanctioned prohibition, I would say we are really almost on the precipice’s edge of dialects’ extinction – it is going the way of the dinosaurs.

So the corollary (i.e. consequence and conclusion) must be that without a living and functional use of dialects, it is almost impossible for our ancestors to ‘speak’ to us through our elders in the most intimate way possible.

At the rate of the de-culturisation of ethnic Chinese dialect groups that is taking place in Singapore, the virtual extinction of dialects and dialect groups as a means of identification and recognition of our origins and birthrights, appears to be a foregone conclusion, unless something is done quickly to halt and reverse its otherwise inexorable going over the brink of the abyss of no-return.

To paraphrase what the late Dr Goh Keng Swee had warned in a speech he made as the Education Minister then: that without the anchors, moorings and ballast from a person’s cultural heritage and background, he or she would be doomed to transform into an ‘anomie’.

This is the definition of ‘anomie’ as given on an online dictionary:


Pronounciation [an-uh-mee]

noun Sociology .

a state or condition of individuals or society characterized by a breakdown or absence of social norms and values, as in the case of uprooted people.

Over time, the effects of dilution through disuse and ‘enforced neglect’ have eroded and weakened the bonds among members of the dialect groups. For example, the prime users of dialects, almost exclusively the communities’ elders, who are almost entirely dependent on dialects to function, communicate and interact effectively with the younger generations, would eventually pass on into eternity without having the opportunity to properly impart by word of mouth to younger members the accrued values and wisdom of the dialect groups because of the language barrier put up by fiat of govt.

The local colour, spirit and vibrancy of ethnic Chinese Singaporeans, brought over from mainland China dating from the founding days of Singapore by Raffles, would eventually too be lost forever. That would be a great pity. It would be the closing of a very sad chapter in the history of this country indeed.

But there is one thing we all know and would remember well and it is that dialects have been offered by the govt as the sacrificial lambs on its altar to the mighty GDP god.


Using Mandarin To Transmit Dialect Groups’ Values?

Can one possibly be vicariously immersed in and partake of one’s rich dialect culture and heritage through the intermediary of another dialect, namely, Mandarin? The very idea itself is a highfalutin absurdity, a very bad joke. And, believe it or not, like it or not, this is precisely the implied claim of the govt that it can be done! IMO, the senior Lee, who started it all with the Speak Mandarin Campaign was perhaps least ‘qualified’, ethnic-wise, to understand, feel for or appreciate the downstream consequences of his policy, being peranakan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peranakan#Language ).

In this context, can someone confirm or otherwise enlighten, whether the present Education Minister, Mr Heng, is himself, also a peranakan? I ask this because of the rather casual manner that Mr Heng appeared to have brushed aside the recent requests of ethnic Chinese Singaporeans specifically for the reinstatement of a modicum of some dialects TV programmes on the free-to-air channels for the sake of the elderly in their twilight years. Read below:

“Learning dialects, he added, is something for people to consider later, when the foundation for those two languages has been built. He was speaking to reporters after a Mandarin dialogue organised by Lianhe Zaobao at Singapore Press Holdings’ News Centre.”  



 Mr Heng, how much later do you think it would take the average Singaporean student to become effectively bi-lingual in English and Mandarin? Another 30 years, perhaps? By then do you think there would still be enough viable local dialect groups and speakers around? But I am confident presently at this juncture, that nobody is even suggesting any formal ‘lessons’ in dialects for students which you alluded to rather bewilderingly. I am sure what many are suggesting is merely for the loosening  by some degree of the presently very tight straight jacket control in the use of local dialects, by allowing some dialect entertainment on free-to-air TV, i.e. strictly for entertainment. And by the way, there are already plenty of dialect programmes being beamed over Starhub and Singtel pay-TV. Furthermore, free-to-air channels are also virtually chockfull of Korean, Japanese, Thai, Iranian, Beijinese, some Indian languages, French, and other European language programmes and shows etc; a number of them are being broadcast in dual-sound or English subtitled with the original language left intact!

It is a monstrous irony that in the midst of this very veritable cacophonic polyglot’s paradise on TV, Chinese dialects shows and programmes continue to be singled out and painstakingly avoided, remaining largely ostracized and banished from the govt airways. Let’s call a spade a spade! What irreparable damage (in fact, more like what relevance?) can a regular sprinkling of dialect shows, especially old dialect movies for the sake of our elders, say, broadcast once or twice a week on the ‘okto’ ART TV channel (which is already regularly featuring shows in foreign languages) possibly do to the govt’s Speak Mandarin campaign against the backdrop of a whole slew of foreign entertainment already on general offer on national TV channels? Singapore is after all a global city, according to the govt.  And let’s not forget the regular dialect programmes on pay-TV? Are they somehow special and would not be able to inflict any damaging influence on the ‘Mandarin-only’ govt prescription, simply because viewers have to pay (read, profits for govt-link TV media; for the well-to-do only) for access? Isn’t this poppycock? The govt’s willingness to turn a blind eye to this dichotomy and double-standard, which sticks out like a sore thumb, makes it an ass in this respect in the eyes of the public.

In conclusion, let me say this: At the heart of the problem really is that the relentless ‘Mandarin-only’ fixation of the govt has descended from an ostensibly pragmatic language learning policy into DOGMATISM (link here), stuck in time, inflexible, immovable and fossilized, and it continues to be pursued for its own sake, due to the unthinking and unquestioning group think complex so prevalent in govt up to the present time.



  1. […] Side Parting: What Are You Saying? 你讲什么? Ler Kong Si Mi? – Thetwophilo’s Blog : Dear Mr Heng, what has being nurtured in our own dialect got to do with learning Mandarin in school? – Miyagi.sg: Cheaper Better […]

  2. […] *Article first appeared on https://thetwophilo.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/dear-mr-heng-what-has-being-nurtured-in-our-own-dialect-… […]

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