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Why We Need To Re-Assert Dialects, More Than Ever

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singaporedialect map

Return us our dialects. Free the use of our dialects. Otherwise, our roots would be lost.

Force feeding Mandarin is negative and regressive since it does not reflect a child’s or his family’s and relatives’ true ethnic cultural heritage. Why would an average ethnic Chinese Singaporean even need to or want to excel in a ‘foreign’ northern dialect, at the expense of his or her own family’s dialect(s), if all he or she ever intend to do is visit China a couple of times for holiday, if at all? It’s not logical, nor rational or defensible.

Leave the excelling to those who deal with China on a govt, business, work, or commercial basis.  For them, the incentives are evident, but not so for most ethnic Chinese Singaporeans here. Would you spend an inordinate amount of time and resources to learn and master French, German, Dutch etc, just because you may want to visit these countries for holiday one day? Ditto, for Mandarin. But note, I am not advocating that Mandarin should be removed from the schools’ curriculum, it can be taught but revert it to its former status of being optional for the O and A levels exam. But, at the same time, return dialects to their rightful places as ethnic Chinese Singaporeans’ true mother tongues that link us directly to our roots and heritage.

Passing Mandarin exams is no measure of ones academic abilities for higher education or abilities in other spheres of studies. By all means, let those who can excel in it, who love it, be nurtured in it all the way to tertiary level, if there is a demand for it. But, there is no reason to penalize the vast majority who find the learning of Mandarin tough-going.  


Singaporeans are not Chinese nationals and we generally do not need or depend on a ‘Putonghua’ (literally, ‘common language’) of Mandarin, as in China, to live and work here in Singapore. Here, our ‘putonghua’ it is Singlish and English. So where is the logic or pragmatism to force feed Mandarin? Chinese nationals here in our midst should be learning to speak English/Singlish as it is spoken here or pick up the local dialects, bazaar Malay, patois, if they want to integrate into our society. That is to be expected.


With what rationale can the govt justify that local ethnic Chinese must be effectively bi-lingual in English and Mandarin? While it is a fact that if you visit China for heritage reasons, to reconnect with your roots – i.e. to visit your ancestors’ home and any relatives in China – then being well versed and proficient in your own dialects would be expected of you by your host and kith and kin in that part of China, and therefore indispensable if not essential, in order for you to establish any meaningful, lasting and intimate contacts and dialogue with your forefathers’ group there.


It makes little sense to force the learning of Mandarin when even the Chinese nationals themselves realized the value of English and other esp. European languages, and learning them, in order to communicate and do business with the rest of the world. It is a pipe dream to expect the world to adopt Mandarin as the lingua franca to replace English! Objectively speaking, not in a hundred years, not even in two hundred, IMO. Firstly, there is the practical side of learning Mandarin whether spoken or written. There would be some who can manage it certainly, but the vast majority (90%, my guess) couldn’t, wouldn’t and needn’t.


Mastering the written Chinese script is where the task is onerous and insurmountable for the vast majority 90%. And the signal and abysmal almost four decades-long failure of Singapore’s education ‘experiment’  in force feeding the learning of Mandarin in schools has proved this point beyond any reasonable doubt. The average students quite simply have little motivation to learn it for it lacks utility and application in their daily lives. It does not help at all that the written script is not easy to master and the learning process, frustrating, esp. when students have to contend with the competing demand for attention and work of other subjects and activities on the curriculum. It is due to a flawed reasoning of the govt, in particular, LKY’s, that we are trapped in this anachronistic vision that to survive the Chinese ‘century’ ethnic Chinese Singaporeans not only must know Mandarin, but also have to be good at it.


Curiously, the Singapore govt had in fact been given an early lesson by the Chinese that in the Chinese world, business is dog-eat-dog business, your ethnic origin can only get you so far. I am referring to the Singapore-China Suzhou industrial project where the wily provincial Chinese set up a competing zone just next door, learning from the experience of Singapore at Suzhou at Singapore’s expense and competing with it on an uneven playing field that’s loaded against the Singaporean Suzhou managers!

When it comes to making their million yuans there is apparently no love lost between the Chinese entrepreneurs and industrialists and their main customers, the Chinese people themselves. It would seem that even the prospect of a bullet in the back of the head is no deterrent to the commission of horrendous and unscrupulous criminal acts like wholesale introduction of hazardous chemicals into food items and serious industrial pollution of both air and water. That is primeval Chinese ‘industriousness’ in action for you, and the western world is perhaps sitting back and watching the spectacle as it unfolds, and still unfolding, taking notes and doing their sums.

The Chinese ‘century’ has already begun somewhat and there is certainly no sign of it being inevitable that the world must eat, sleep and sh*t Mandarin in order to survive! If anything, quite the opposite is becoming true, with China coming out to befriend the rest of the world in order to realize and satisfy her own national aspirations and the dreams of her citizens!

China is purportedly the factory to the world yet according to hard facts and figures China actually accounts for no more than 20-30% of global manufactured goods. And who in his right mind would manufacture or produce high tech or cutting edge products in China given the propensity of the entrepreneurial Chinese to indulge in industrial espionage or to copy your ideas? Western corporations too aware of the risk, have been largely using cheap Chinese labour and costs to fatten their profits making conventional products like shoes, clothing, toys, common electronic consumer products, etc just as they have been doing it in Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and other third world countries. Even then, from my own experience, foreign brands products made in China tend to suffer a perceptible drop in quality standard when compared to pre-China manufacture of the same products. A conscious and deliberate incomplete transfer of technology and know-how by the brand owners, or the use of sub-standard manufacturing processes or materials, and by whom? One can never tell for sure. Certainly, China as a production/manufacturing base is attractive to foreign big and multi-national companies of mass manufacture consumer products, but the advantage is not necessarily passed on to the world’s consumers in terms of price and final quality.   


China herself depends on the rest of the world for many of the raw materials such as oil, metals, technologies, infrastructures and even food to feed her factories and people. China now may have millions of millionaires and many billionaires, but guess what, many of the rich Chinese are leaving China for other freer countries and societies to live, invest and splurge their new found wealth. They are buying up branded European goods. They are buying up properties across the world. What does that tell us? The Chinese people hanker after and depend on the ‘spoils’ and goodies originating from outside of its borders as symbols, emblems and embellishment of prestige and self-esteem!

And you certainly don’t expect the western world to stand idly by without developing some form of strategy to contain China’s ambition to dominate the world in whatever sense, if she indeed had such ambitions. Why do you think the US and Singapore govt have an agreement for the US to deploy littoral COMBAT ships here at our Naval Base? And there is already one such warships here. Does it make sense for the govt to force Singaporeans to learn Mandarin while acting in concert with another party, the US, to check Chinese influence?


In such a situation, there is no way she can call the shot, linguistically. In any case, I don’t see China having much ambition in this direction. Pointless, actually for her to even want to try. Only faux ‘visionaries’ like LKY like to think in this manner. But actually Lee’s intention was borne out of political self interest and the ultimate motive of  controlling ethnic Chinese Singaporeans by destroying their ethnic dialect glue and spirit. It was LKY’s divide and rule strategy when he felt beseiged by the local ethnic Chinese challenge to his absolute rule and power. It has got little to do with enhancing the unity of dialect groups, quite the opposite.    


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