a community of singaporeans

The language of our forefathers – are we missing something?

Posted by theonlinecitizen on February 28, 2007

By Zyberzitizen

It’s been decades since we were urged to “Speak Mandarin” by the government, instead of speaking our dialects. I’ve never agreed with this policy. This is because I find our dialects fascinating and beautiful. But more than that, my dialect reflect my ‘origin’. It’s a bridge to where my parents and my grandparents came from.

Teochew has a special place in my heart. I remember when I was just a child, Dad would tell us stories in this dialect. The many idioms and phrases and folk songs which are peculiar to the Teochews always made me smile – and even cry.

My uncles are the ones who have really ‘mastered’ the language. Mom calls theirs ‘Pure Teochew’, which to me can be quite indiscernible because they are “so cheem”. But that is why it fascinates me. There is a certain melody or flow to the language and sometimes you do not really have to understand the words to get what is being said.

It is the same with the other dialects in our country – be it Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, or Hainanese.

The “speak Mandarin” campaign

The “Speak Mandarin” campaign has sadly and unfortunately eroded the use of such dialects – especially among younger Singaporeans. There seems to be a lack of “rootedness” to their language. But is this important?

With language (dialects) comes your sense of identity, community, belongingness and uniqueness. Indeed, belonging to a particular dialect group allows you to keep in touch with its culture, customs and traditions.

These are the things which define who you are in the community.

And the dialect is the conduit, if you like, of these customs, culture and traditions. They are the oral history of a people. Such languages fill in the missing parts of written history of our people. And history too plays a part in rooting us, giving us a sense of identity.

There is no doubt that when you hear your own dialect being spoken, it is a markedly different feeling than hearing mandarin or English being spoken.

Separate dialects = segregation?

The question of course is: Does belonging to separate dialect groups prevent us from assimilating into “One People, One Nation, One Singapore”, which seems to be the government’s concern?

My answer would be no. We are already different and diverse – ethnically, culturally, individually. Also, we all have different life experiences. What we should be doing is to celebrate our diversity – whether it is language, or culture or traditions – instead of trying to “keep it out of sight and out of mind” in the hope that a “Speak Mandarin” campaign will create some sort of new “unity” among our different set of people under a new “one language”.

We can be diverse and be united at the same time.

Diversity is our strength – and it should not be seen as a ‘weak link’. “Sameness” does not necessarily mean “unity”. Indeed, “sameness” is uninspiring, it does not add to the vitality or vibrancy of life. Thus, I have always found it immensely regrettable that the government has embarked on the purposeful but artificial promotion of “one common language” – namely, Mandarin.And this has been done to devastating effect, in my opinion. TV programmes, radio shows, even Chinese cultural festivals are celebrated in mandarin instead of the diverse indigenous languages we have here in Singapore.

Mandarin’s economic value

It is argued that Mandarin is an economic necessity, in the same way that SM Goh recently promoted the learning of Arabic. With a booming China, Mandarin will no doubt become a very important language for global trade and business in the years to come.

But how many Singaporeans will be doing business with China?

Sure, there will be the businessmen who will need a decent capacity to speak and understand the language if they’re doing business in China or with China businessmen.

But how about your ordinary Singaporean? We are all not going to be doing business with China or with China businessmen, are we?

And is it a good thing to substitute our dialects for something else because of economic necessity?

There is a place for dialects

Do not get me wrong. I am not against the learning of Mandarin in our schools but I am of the opinion that Mandarin should not be artificially foisted on the general population at large either. I do believe that there is room for dialects in their various forms to be expressed and celebrated.

For example, we could have television programmes in the dialects of our people. This would, first of all, allow our older Singaporeans to know fully what is going on. Even my Mom has difficulty understanding the news in mandarin. I would guess that most older folks have no inkling about globalization.

Secondly, it would bring a certain refreshing dynamism and vibrancy to what is heard, seen and produced in many of our television channels. I have often wondered how reflective our programmes are in representing our diversity.

Thirdly, I would argue that it would also bring an immediate sense of “Singaporean-ness” to our people. There is nothing like hearing another of your “kinsman” speaking the same language. Haven’t we all felt this when we travel overseas and meet with fellow Singaporeans who speak the same way or the same language we do? I was in Europe once and met a fellow teochew Singaporean who was also there on holiday. Conversing with him in our common dialect was indeed emotional. It brought back feelings of kinship and identity which no amount of Singapore Shares ever will.

And is this not what we are trying to do – to create a sense of ‘rootedness’ for Singaporeans? Surely there is no better way to do this than by openly and proudly celebrating and allowing the expression of our ethnic languages – and the culture, traditions and customs that come with them as well?

Chinese New Year 2007

There is a certain sense of “lack” during this Chinese New Year as I observed my relatives celebrate the New Year of the Pig or boar, if you like. I am not sure if Singaporeans out there also felt the same way. A lack of erm….authenticity, even festivity, about the New Year celebration and its associated meaning.

Are we missing something?

A friend recently remarked to me that Chinese New Year is getting to be rather ‘empty’ in Singapore. “There is no meaning nowadays. Everyone is worried about keeping their jobs, the GST, their children’s future, cost of living. What’s so special about Chinese New year now? Kids even speak either mandarin or English. What has happened to our dialects? The traditions and customs? What is Chinese New Year going to be like in the future with so many foreigners here? Even Chingay also must have foreigners performing for us.”

I can understand how he feels.

None of my younger nieces and nephews greeted their grandmother in dialect. It was either in Mandarin or English, which their grandma didn’t understand.

Another friend, who was doing her masters degree in London, expressed similar feelings. “It was strange. I felt more Chinese in London than when I am in Singapore. Chinese New Year there seem to be more festive and meaningful than it is in Singapore. Even with just a small group of Chinese friends there, we felt more kinship than we do when we’re back here.”

Being proud of our heritage

While we spend time, effort and money in trying to integrate and assimilate our foreign friends into our Singaporean society, we should perhaps also spend equal or even greater amount of time, effort and money in making sure that we have a Singaporean identity too. In fact we do have a Singaporean identity. We just need to be proud of it and preserve it and celebrate it.

And I would suggest that we start with us being proud of who we are, where we came from and the roots of our existence. Take pride in our heritage. Rootedness begins with the sense of familiarity – of family, places, of culture, tradition and customs, of kinship and brotherhood or sisterhood. Rootedness is not borne out of the next spanking shopping centre or an artificial language imported and enforced. Rootedness certainly is not and will not be established with the state giving out economic shares or “progress packages”. Or even providing us with luxurious HDB flats.

Be proud of our dialects – the dialects which our forefathers, grandparents and parents were brought up in, the languages which keeps them, even today, connected to each other. The dialects which gives them a sense of identity, of kinship.

And I dream and hope for the day when I hear – once again – the dialects of my forefathers being proudly expressed once again – even on television programmes.

Is it a coincidence that our lack of identity coincides with the erosion of our ethnic dialects?

Imagine this: Imagine our schools teaching the young simple phrases of dialects which our forefathers used when they toiled under the sun, with the sweat on their backs in manual labour.

Now, isn’t that something worth keeping and passing down to our next generation?

Update: Students learn dialect to communicate with elderly (May 6, 2007)


Leading picture from Sources Of History

Read also Singapore’s history here.


22 Responses to “The language of our forefathers – are we missing something?”

  1. Joshy said

    preserving our dialects would be quite a tough thing. Take for example me, i would love to speak my language well but after a trip back to Swatow,woahh my Teochew is considered a half bucket of water over there. And i am considered one of those who try to learn Teochew, i shudder to think how our dialects will erode away with the next and future generations not thinking much about dialects.

    one thing the authorities could do is to allow the taiwanese shows to be able to be shown as dual sound,instead of being only in mandarin.

  2. Benjamin said

    Personally, I believe people who felt strongly to rehabilitate dialects to the mainstream should take up the mantle and help dialects to “fa1 yang2 guang1 da4” Mandarin should and deserve to be number one, whereas dialects can be number 2. Does learning dialects mean erosion of Mandarin, I don’t think so, from my experiences in China and Taiwan. For e.g. Sichuanese can speak Sichuanese dialect and Mandarin. I don’t see why we can’t cope either. Perhaps, the various dialect clan associations and people who think alike should do more to bring dialects back.

  3. Hi Joshy and Ben,

    Personally, I am disappointed that even the clans associations doesn’t seem to be doing much to promote the dialects. I say this without actually having met or spoke with them. I could be wrong.

    I agree that allowing dialects to be spoken and heard on national tv ( as opposed to actually promoting them) will not erode the speaking of mandarin. I do believe that there is room for both.

    As we move ahead in globalisation, it is important that we retain what is ours and be proud of them – dialects being one of these things.


  4. Kevin said

    The speak Mandarin thingy is just away for the minority dialect group to cut off the influences of the majority dialect group in Singapore.

    Back then, leaders and businessmen of major dialect groups run the economy of Singapore. Deals were cut based on trust and dialect group affiliation. The people fromthe minority dialect group cannot effectively Govern or break into the circle.

    No that the dialect groups lost it’s hold….there is almost no future for the average since new elite groups are created.

    Just look back in history and you see it happenening all the time.

  5. ah b said

    hello there,speak mandarin,i’ve remember some old man told me many many years ago why the govt starts the campaign speak mandarin is something related to mm lky, he is not happy with us at that time when all of us speaks dialects ,they says that when they lky became pm of $ingapore,people in china(hakka)talks somethings bad about lky’s father dailect(originaly they were from china hakka)thats why he starts this campaign SPEAKS MANDRAIN AND KICKS OUT ALL OUR DIALECT TO PREVENT THEM FROM LAUGHING HIS ROYAL FAMILY,TRUE OR FULSE?

  6. I think we should try in our own small way to keep our dialects alive.

    Doesn’t have to wait for a national campaign does it? Lobby the clan associations, conduct classes and courses for interested people.First priority should go to social workers as they are quite hampered if they do not speak dialect.

  7. Nisha said

    This doesn’t just apply to the Chinese. The Indians are facing similar problems. As we know, Tamil is the main Indian language here, since majority of Indians here are Tamil. However, we’ve got other Indian communities, ie, Malayalees, Telugus, Punjabis, Sindhis, Bengalis. I can’t speak for the latter three communities but for the Malayalees and to a certain extent, Telugus, even we’re losing touch with our mother tongues. I’m Malayalee but i speak better Tamil (for the simple reason that i was exposed to Tamil in school.)I agree with CelluloidReality though. We don’t need national campaigns.What we need is pride and an interest in learning about our cultures.

  8. Hi CR, Nisha,

    It’s kind of sad, isn’t it? The vibrancy and diversity that the govt keeps talking about are being eroded. What is put in their places are artificial, money-making foreign “cultures” disguised as our own.

    I am particularly upset about the Chingay Parade. It has been turned into a farce and a tourist attraction to make money.

    Nisha, thanks for the insight into the Indian community. I didn’t know they are facing the same situation. Something is seriously wrong.


  9. Ned Stark said

    Singapore Society has been engineered so much so that everything is now in the hands of the top few. The irony is that their attempts to “create” more vibrance has failed (Crazy Horse, Speaker’s Corner). Unforunately as they say, they are a worrying government (perhaps worrying because of perceived threats to their authority?) and so Singaporeans can either continue waiting for someone to do something or take it upon themselves to do something.

  10. Ned Stark said

    RE Clans, Tao NAn, being a Hokkien Huay Kuan kind of school, has a rule banning the use of dialect.

  11. Ned Stark,

    One good example of how enclaves of vibrant night + street life spring up by themselves is Holland Village. It did not take any concerted campaign to create a zone that is “hip and happening”, but rather it sort of evolved over time to include all things that you would not necessarily fine in an engineered
    “hip zone”.

    And it’s the conscious real-ness of the Holland Dr market, the wooden mosque, the fruits market sharing the same street as Wala Wala and the bar strip, that ends in a row of 3-room HDB flats. That to me is diversity that comes together through natural interaction and self-evolution.

    Engineered vibrancy, creativity and all that nonsense is mere lip service paid to ensure that there is something nice to announce to the world, not knowing that the world is laughing right back at us.

    Read today’s ST. I am flabbergasted that even a visit to the headquarters of Yahoo can make the headlines. What happened to the other issues in the world?

    It’s groundhog day all over again.

  12. Funny how that I felt more proud being Chinese in Australia, where I found myself watching more dialect programmes and learning more about it. I go to Coles to grab some groceries, and I hear Singlish in the next aisle, and that makes me feel more proud to be Singaporean than any national campaign could.

    The sheer number of fellow Singaporean students having a few beers in Bentley, Perth on weeknights and their Subarus, make me feel more at home.

    Strange but true.

  13. Hi Ned,

    Really? They have a rule banning the use of dialects? That’s kinda strange, isn’t it? Especially for a Hokkien Huay Kwan kind of school, as you say.


  14. Hi CR,

    I concur with you totally. I was in the states a year ago – actually off the coast of Miami in the Bahamas. I didn’t meet any singaporeans there but met a korean and a japanese. The strange thing was that just being fellow Asians made us feel some sort of kinship.

    I have this image of us singaporeans in my head. We are like the nerd in school – with all the A1s and distinctions in our academic studies, shirt neatly buttoned up, every strand of hair in its place, spectacles on our noses and our faces buried in our books most of the time. We would be aghast at the very thought of having even a spot of dirt on our shoes.

    We are losing out on the other experiences of life – the chaos, the arguments, the openness, the exchanges, the diversity of the human experience.

    It was David Lim, former 2nd finance minister, who once said that we needed to be messy (or words to that effect). Maybe he was the more liberal one in our govt. But sadly perhaps, he served only one term and left.

  15. Ned Stark said

    Celluloid Reality,

    I believe the visit made headlines due to the fact that Mr Lee Hsieng Loong made mention of the fact that some workers had seen large bonuses and thus the talk about income stagnating was not the full picture.

  16. Ned,

    And the hot air continues to make it’s presence felt on the State’s Times.. hehe.

  17. Required said

    Ned my boy, it’s very politely called – ahem – POR LAM PAH”, you know 😉
    Shameful and sad that an dialectical majority is not in hold of political power – just like ROC for long as long the Chiangs gave away power…

    Ned Stark Says:
    May 9th, 2007 at 10:09 pm
    RE Clans, Tao NAn, being a Hokkien Huay Kuan kind of school, has a rule banning the use of dialect.

  18. Dumb & talent-less Hua-ren SOS (Son of Singapore) said

    One question abugs: Just who’s the Smart Alec who started giving children Hanyu Pinyin names while retaining the dialectical transliteration of surnames (on their birth papers, IDs, etc)?

    You’re either Goh Chok Tong or Wu Zhuodong but NOT Goh Zhuodong!

    It seems Singaporeans born in late 1970s or from the 80s onwards have almost all been registered in this 5354 manner.

    What’s the matter? Not enough dialect speakers at the Registry or at home or among relatives & clansmen who could give accurate-enough transliterations so those who became parents from 1980s onwards just opted for the easy way out by pronouncing their child’s names in Pekinese?

    Ancestors of all of southern descent must be seething down there in eternal anger down…

    “Hua-ren, huayu.”
    “Let’s speak Mandarin.”

  19. Lloyd said

    Sorry to hear of such a ban.

    Whatever, long live Wee Cho Yaw – for his resilience! And resistance;D

    Ned Stark Says:
    May 9th, 2007 at 10:09 pm
    RE Clans, Tao NAn, being a Hokkien Huay Kuan kind of school, has a rule banning the use of dialect.

  20. acquisitioned said

    long live goh keng swee – DA BEST!

    thats y he so treasure by china – n china treasure him oso

  21. John said

    One does mature into the appreciation of one’s mother tongue as I have found. Even after decades of being far from home, I have never forgotten to “tune in” to those who speak Teochew! And funny thing, I have come to want to “relearn” it too so that I will be able to speak it well again.
    If you know of anyone who is willing to teach me, please point him or her my way!

  22. Ace said

    As a hainanese, I support

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