Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Dialect Debate

By any measure, Singapore’s ‘Speak Mandarin Campaign’ has succeeded. But, at what cost to the nation’s heritage? [First published in The Sunday Star on 5 October 2008]

MY mother-in-law is a great natural communicator. With her gregariousness and curiosity, she is capable of striking up a conversation with anyone, anywhere, and would be baffled to learn that there are specialist books that teach you how to do that.

“How do you talk to people? You just talk to them! What’s so difficult?”

She can do it in a great many languages, too. Born in Kuala Lumpur, her first language is Cantonese but she speaks Malay, Hokkien, and Hakka with considerable fluency.

She’s also fairly proficient in Teochew, Foochow, Hainanese, Mandarin and English, and speaks enough Tamil to order in a banana leaf restaurant and scold the waiters in their mother tongue if, say, the fish cutlet isn’t very fresh.

Indeed, it was her ability to communicate that found her love: it was while acting as a police interpreter for interrogations of surrendered Communist Terrorists during the Emergency that she met my father-in-law, a Singapore-born Malayan Special Branch officer of Foochow ethnicity but determinedly Anglophone upbringing.

My father-in-law eventually did learn some Cantonese and, after more than 50 years of marriage, their life together is a fascinating tapestry, weaving different cultures and languages and world views into a lasting, loving, and only occasionally grumpy union.

This might serve as a perfect metaphor for multi-ethnic, multi-lingual Singapore, except for the fact that stories like my mother-in-law’s would never be allowed on the republic’s television screens.

To be historically accurate, the characters in her saga would have to speak six different Chinese dialects, and this remains forbidden by Singapore’s broadcasting authorities as a consequence of the well-intentioned Speak Mandarin Campaign.

Singapore’s national language at the time of independence was Malay, and four official languages were enshrined: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil.

But with many ethnic Chinese speaking their dialects and not Mandarin, it was eventually decided that Mandarin needed to be promoted intensively to provide for social cohesion.

For Malaysians hooked on Cantonese TV serials, the most striking feature of Singapore’s Speak Mandarin Campaign is the ban on the use of dialect in television programming.

It’s a curious anomaly because Singapore is otherwise extremely good at reflecting the diversity of its cultural heritage.

In the course of my work I regularly deal with people in Singapore’s National Arts Council, National Heritage Board, and National Library Board, and I have found them to be dedicated to giving a nuanced, complex and inclusive picture of their nation’s past.

As a Malaysian, it saddens me to note time and time again that Singapore does a much better job of giving voice to its ethnic minorities than we do.

All the more reason, then, that it’s strange to see that the ancestral voices of Singapore’s ethnic Chinese immigrant communities are absent from the electronic mass media. You can hear Malay and Tamil voices but not Hokkien or Cantonese. It’s all Mandarin.

I have met Singaporeans who say quietly that it’s not good enough that you can hear dialect used in theatres and in cinemas and in ge tai performances: those forms have no mindshare, as the advertising people put it.

TV is where it’s at. Free-to-air television -- and radio -- are the real repositories and transmitters of mass culture, they argue: reliably omnipresent, seven days a week, only slightly less than 24 hours a day.

As both a mirror of society and a hammer with which to shape it, television is without peer. (I write for the stage and for film, so it saddens me to have to agree that the really important stuff is on TV.)

Singapore filmmakers, not bound by the same strictures as their broadcast brethren, are including a lot of dialect in their work. The cultural reality of their milieu seems to demand it.

I remember that a couple of years ago the National Museum of Singapore screened a dozen Singapore short films, and I was struck by the degree to which dialect featured. Sometimes, one film would use three different dialects. (Cantonese was used in two of the films, Teochew in two, and Hokkien in six.)

Judging by the comments of the filmmakers at one post-screening question and answer session I attended, Singapore auteurs want to reflect the linguistic diversity of society, and audiences approve.

One young audience member said how moved she was by Lau Chee Nien’s short Old Woman.

Identifying herself as Teochew, she voiced out how much it meant for her to hear her family’s dialect in a film. For a moment, I thought she might burst into tears.

I’ve never seen clearer proof of the power of language to connect a person with her heritage on a visceral level.

It will be interesting to see if Singapore will ever relax this policy; I suspect that a strong economic argument would have to be made, showing how the linguistic diversity of Chinese dialects would bring benefits to compensate for the possible loss of social cohesion among the ethnic Chinese population.

The immense box office success of Singapore films and stage shows that tap into Hokkien humour might be one such argument.

And one could also argue that the Speak Mandarin Campaign has already done its job. According to figures from the Department of Statistics website, between 1990 and 2005 the percentage of Chinese people speaking Mandarin at home jumped from 30.1% to 47.2%, while the use of Chinese dialects declined sharply from 50.3% to 23.9%. Essentially, Mandarin has won. Social change has already taken place, and there’d be little danger in relaxing the ban on dialect.

Perhaps, Singaporeans might one day be able to turn on the TV and watch stories about their grandmothers -- and mothers-in-law -- without yearning for the dialect freedom enjoyed across the Causeway.


chapchai said...

Very interesting. I too find dialects very enriching and it is a shame that they will soon be a thing of the past. Like your mother-in-law, I find it easy to strike up conversations with strangers in their dialects and it is amazing what you can learn from these. When my sisters and I go out they are no longer surprised to find me in earnest conversation with strangers. It is so easy to do. All you've got to do is smile, send out a greeting and voila! a conversation is underway.

xenobiologista said...

The idea that Mandarin is THE Chinese language is terribly artificial. I read somewhere that at the turn of the 20th century, when the Kuomintang government chose the official language of China, Cantonese beat Mandarin by one vote.

I was trying to find a source for this and found a funny but highly relevant comment on a bulletin board: "Finally there is only one real difference between a language and a dialect: An Army"

Then again...I'm a banana with a very limited grasp of both Mandarin and Cantonese. But people still respond better if you at least try a little bit, show some affinity with them.