“I can speak Mandarin too” heralds a new trend (Sunday ZB)
– By Yap Pheng Hui
In his valedictorian speech, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) student Darren Woo mocked Chinese majors for their poor command of English and even proclaimed he could “speak Mandarin too”. This incident is not just a slap in the face for our decades-old bilingual education policy, but also reflects a changing sense of identity among young Singaporeans, which suggests that our mother tongue policy is due for some fresh scrutiny and new challenges.
While Mr Woo has acknowledged his mistake and apologised to all NTU Chinese majors, parents and teachers offended by his remarks, the irony of the incident is not lost on older Singaporeans. The Nanyang University (Nantah) – the forerunner of NTU – was the first privately-run Chinese university in Southeast Asia and it was, in those days, a sanctuary celebrating the cultural identity of overseas Chinese communities. Granted, NTU is an institution of a different nature now, but to have an ignorant NTU student making fun of the Chinese language on the very grounds of the former Nantah – it only goes to show the failings of our humanities education.
Interestingly, among the letters on this episode which Zaobao has received, there was nothing from Nantah graduates or former students of Chinese-medium schools. Does that mean the perennial marginalisation of the Chinese language no longer has an effect on these disheartened Singaporeans? Perhaps, these older Singaporeans, who went through a period where many were labelled “Chinese chauvinists”, have resigned themselves to the fate of their language, so much so that they are no longer outraged at mocking remarks like Mr Woo’s.
Language is integral to a person’s sense of identity and although Chinese-medium schools are now a thing of the past, Mandarin has in fact been elevated from just being a “second language” to being the official “mother tongue” uniting all Chinese across dialects. This artificial positioning of the language has continued for decades and produced a generation of bilingual Singaporeans who identify with Mandarin. On 9 May 2010, more than 2,400 Chinese Singaporeans, many of whom were young parents, launched a petition in Hong Lim Park to oppose the move by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to reduce the weightage of the mother tongue in the Primary School Leaving Examination. It was not until the Prime Minister called a press conference to reiterate that the mother tongue is a cornerstone of our education system that the matter finally drew to a close.
However, things may be different with the next generation. According to an MOE survey on primary one pupils, the proportion of Chinese pupils speaking English at home went up from about 10 per cent in 1980 to about 59 per cent in 2009, while those who use Mandarin rose from less than 30 per cent in 1980 to about 70 per cent in 1989 and 1990, before falling to about 40 per cent in 2009. As for those who speak dialects at home, their proportion fell sharply from more than 60 per cent in 1980 to about 1 per cent in 2009. In other words, a new generation who see English as the language of their identity will become the majority over the next decade, thus completing the “anglicisation” of our society, from the elite right down to the grassroots.
As it is, there are already academics writing in the English press about how English is increasingly becoming the “mother tongue” of young Chinese Singaporeans. In the eyes of these young people, Chinese is a foreign language they have no emotional attachment to, and also an impediment to their progression to the next level of education. In time to come, we can expect tremendous political pressure for change in the language policy. At the moment, upon failing in their attempt to oppose the mother tongue policy, the most parents can do is to vote with their feet by migrating to English-speaking countries such as Australia, Canada and the US. But years later, we may well see a new generation of “anglicised” Singaporeans fighting for their so-called “mother tongue” in Hong Lim Park.
The “I can speak Mandarin too” episode is a real-life preview of what is to come. By asserting that one can speak Mandarin “too” shows that Chinese is already being thought of as the “other” language. Is it possible for Malay students to be found saying “we can speak Malay too” in English, in the same self-satisfied tone? Perhaps thinking about the answer to that question will help one appreciate what is happening to this generation of Chinese Singaporeans, who see English as their mother tongue and Chinese as a foreign language which they feel no cultural or emotional attachment to. Given the dominance of English in our society, the number of people who subscribe to such a psyche will continue to rise, and there will come to a point where the Government finds it hard to turn a blind eye to their language demands.
But of course, this is not the sole doing of young Chinese Singaporeans like Mr Woo. Parents also had a part in this. It was parents who believed that mastering English was the only way to a comfortable life, so they stopped sending their children to Chinese-medium schools and even started to speak English, however broken, to their young children. In doing so, English began to take over, changing the child’s sense of identity. And in the education system, where the mother tongue is supposed to be a cornerstone, the only subject taught in the mother tongue is the mother tongue itself. Time devoted to the subject is limited, as are the students’ exposure to the language and grasp of vocabulary. Knowledge of the mother tongue is not a prerequisite for work either. In light of these, those who lack the aptitude to learn Mandarin can only follow what is taught blindly, to the point where even just being able to “speak Mandarin too” is enough reason to be proud.
There are two possible consequences when a Chinese majority dissociates its sense of identity from its own language and culture. One is that the anglicised generation of Chinese Singaporeans will only be able to identify themselves as Chinese based on their appearance and skin colour. This is different from the students of English-medium schools in the early days, as they could speak dialects, which gave them a conduit to Chinese culture and identity even if they did not speak Mandarin.
The other consequence is the formation of a new Singaporean identity, where Chinese Singaporeans are fine with knowing Mandarin – or not. All this while, the Singaporean identity, which does not discriminate between races, has co-existed and synergised with the respective identities unique to each and every race. Should an anglicised society take over, it is feared that Singapore’s character as an Asian country will be disrupted, and that will mean a total transformation of its social fabric. Culture and identity take a long time to form, and it is certainly unnatural to try creating a new identity out of a severely disconnected one. Perhaps calling it the Chinese language – which was how we used to call it – rather than “mother tongue”, could help obviate an unnecessarily complicated situation in the future.
(The writer is a ZB commentator.)