Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Singapore-Malaysia Ties: When Words Get In The Way

First published in Singapore's Straits Times on 4 November 2005

MALAYSIANS who find Singapore largely congenial and who have settled here - I'm talking about myself, yes, but also half a dozen others whose names I'd happily reveal if subpoenaed - find the whole subject of Singapore-Malaysia relations enormously tiresome when it comes up, say, at dinner parties.

My usual response is subtle.

In the manner of Roger Moore, I have become adept at communicating turbulent, complex emotions with my eyebrows: a mixture of melancholy, cunning, boredom, and that sensation of wanting to abandon one's espresso and flee.

Sometimes, this is sufficiently eloquent to get the subject changed to something less controversial, such as the Question of Palestine, or the nature of God, but sometimes, as my wife is fond of reminding me, eyebrows just aren't enough.

Actual speech must begin at this point, and therein, I submit, lies the whole problem.

My pet theory on Cross-Straits Tensions, which I will now divulge without my usual recompense of a bourgeois dinner, is that while the actual issues are no doubt inherently complex, things are made additionally irksome because the leaders of Singapore and Malaysia use language in very different ways, and each party finds the other's style alien and offensive.

(Before I continue, possibly invoking the wrath of various important people who have proper jobs, I should admit that I'm merely a playwright, and therefore have as much credibility in an Asian society as, say, a scoop of washing powder, or a sleeping dog. I do, however, spend a lot of time making mental notes on how people speak so that I can reproduce it in a play and earn a living thereby, so I'm not wholly unqualified to talk about this.)

Simply put, the problem is that Malaysian political speech is hardly ever straightforward and often playful, while Singaporean political speech is always direct and hardly ever ironic.

Even when they're all speaking English, they're effectively speaking different languages.

In Kuala Lumpur, someone reading or hearing an utterance of any sort by a Malaysian politician automatically and subconsciously adjusts it for context to arrive at its real significance. Nothing is assumed to mean exactly what it says.

To wit: If something were said while addressing an annual party conference, it would sound more ethnically chauvinist than the speaker might really be; if it were said in response to a question by a foreign journalist, it would sound more belligerent than the speaker actually feels; if it were said to a local journalist, it would sound more confident than circumstances might warrant.

If something is flatly denied, it's probably at least partially true, and everyone understands both that it's true and that it's necessary to deny it.

If an accusation isn't addressed at all, it's probably false, but is occasionally true. If an accusation is met with the threat of legal action, it's probably true, but is occasionally false.

A comment about religion is almost always understood to be about secular power struggles.

A seemingly irresponsible and outrageous remark is generally accepted as the product of a sardonic sense of humour that doesn't come across in print.

Delivery and tone of voice are so important: a gentle lilt leading up to the sting; a slow, damning drawl; a razor-sharp quip.

On certain occasions, of course, an irresponsible and outrageous remark can indicate a lack of preparedness, or, if it was said between 4 and 5pm, a low blood-sugar level on the part of the speaker. These things are understood.

Language in Malaysian political culture is a joyful, vibrant, colourful thing. The most inflammatory assertions and the most flamboyant metaphors are reserved for opponents and issues of consequence; if something is dealt with simply and directly, it can't be of any importance.

In short, a Malaysian listening to a Malaysian political figure - whether from the government or the opposition - knows instinctively to compensate for the hyperbole, to pay attention to understatement, to grasp the indirect reference, to discount the obviously rhetorical, and to revel in the ironies.

Malaysians simply do not take each other literally, and do not expect to be taken literally. Indeed, taking things too literally is a social gaffe: If inadvertent, it reveals a lack of sophistication; if deliberate, a lack of manners.

In Singapore, however, ambiguity and rhetorical flights of fancy have no place. The culture of official communication values precision, directness and economical delivery. So ministerial statements are always measured, unflashy, thought through; can you think of one that hasn't been?

Bombast is absent, as are whimsy and repartee. Everyone's been briefed; off-the-cuff remarks emerge in complete paragraphs.

Even the jokes of Singapore ministers are always carefully signalled as such in press reports, lest there be misunderstanding. Clarity is key; oratorical flourishes are suspect.

Singaporeans expect to be taken at face value, and in return, they take others at face value; they cannot conceive of having to not take someone at face value in order to communicate effectively.

Looking back at the past decade or so, it seems to me that when the important people of the two countries have talked about important things, a tragic disconnect has sometimes occurred.

In the most extreme, unfortunate cases, substantive disagreements have been needlessly worsened because Singaporeans have taken Malaysian statements as evidence of aggression, irrationality, and mendacity, while Malaysians have unfairly interpreted Singaporean speech as inflexibility, belligerence, and gracelessness.

All that's past, we're told. Relations, they say, have hit a new high, and everyone's talking again. But unless we learn to celebrate our different ways of speaking, by listening carefully and trying to interpret things the way another person from the speaker's country would, talking might turn out to be less of a solution than a problem.

And for those of us who have a deep affection for both nations, we would have to remain in strained silence, refusing to comment, distress written all over our eyebrows, plain for all to see.

Copyright © Huzir Sulaiman 2008. All rights reserved.


RitchieLow said...

Hi Huzir,

You write so well and insightful too. Do you have a book out I can get at ?

Huzir Sulaiman said...

Many thanks, ritchielow.

My book EIGHT PLAYS is published by Silverfish Books and is available from them.


Thinesh said...

Mighty fine book that is too, and shame its not been followed by another one! If I ever doubt that great contemporary literature exists in Malaysia, I remind myself of Eight Plays.

You know Huzir, I always wanted to know...the epiphany experienced by the writer in 'Notes on Life, Loe and Panting'...was that a satirical take on the famous epiphany fom James Joyce's 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man'? It came across as the way, keep up the writing, its great! And make sure your new and old plays ckeep coming to Malaysia!