03 September 2005

Mr Wang Speaks Mandarin

Some months ago, a new language school opened near Mr Wang's home. It offers Mandarin courses. There are courses for various different standards, such as conversational Mandarin, business Mandarin, and very advanced Mandarin for people who seek to be qualified translators.

For some time, Mr Wang has been toying with the idea of taking up a Mandarin course. Mr Wang can already speak Mandarin, of course. He can even write Mandarin (what little he remembers of it anyway, from AO-Level days). However Mr Wang would like to take his Mandarin to a Much Higher Standard.

Why? You see, Mr Wang is aware of the rising economic importance of China. China is just going to grow and grow in importance. Mr Wang is a lawyer, and he would like his Mandarin to be good enough for him to understand legal contracts drafted in Mandarin. If possible, Mr Wang would even like to be able to draft legal contracts in Mandarin one day.

Mr Wang thinks that having a strong command of the Chinese language can be a very valuable asset for a lawyer who regularly works on cross-border, international transactions. Why, that is exactly the kind of work which Mr Wang does.

Today, the Straits Times has a story about Singaporeans and the Chinese language. Let's take a look.

Sept 3, 2005
Who's afraid of Chinese poetry?

Film-maker Jack Neo says that older Chinese-educated Singaporeans represent the last traces of the country's 'true essence'. Not true, says Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who cites the emergence of a new generation that's discovering their heritage. Who's right? Li Xueying and Ong Hwee Hwee find out.

THERE was a time when Mr Philip Lim failed all his Chinese tests with distinction.

His Mandarin was fractured. He could write only a handful of Chinese characters such as wo (me), ni (you), and ta (him). He put up with snide remarks about being a 'fake' Chinese.

But he did not care. After all, to him, Chinese was a language that was neither hip nor useful. That was then.

Today, the 31-year-old businessman speaks Mandarin with a Beijing lilt, and can even read Chinese legal contracts.

It's all about business.

Mr Wang is smarter than Mr Lim. Mr Wang never failed his Chinese tests in school. However, Mr Lim is one up on Mr Wang. Today, Mr Lim can speak good Mandarin and read Chinese legal contracts, but Mr Wang cannot. Hrrrrumph. Mr Wang admits defeat.

Mr Wang and Mr Lim, however, share one thing in common. Their newfound interest in the Chinese language is motivated by economic imperatives. If China were an economic slum today, Mr Wang would rather take a Time Management course than a Mandarin course. Mr Lim probably feels the same way.

But what does PM Lee Hsien Loong think of people like Mr Wang and Mr Lim?
Mr Lim is among a 'new generation' of Chinese Singaporeans described by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who are rediscovering their Chinese heritage and identity.

Educated, bilingual and well-versed in Chinese culture, they are riding the wave of China's economic rise.

Singapore's Chinese ground, it seems, is entering a new chapter.

'Over the past year, I have noticed a new mood and confidence in the Chinese community,' said Mr Lee in his National Day Rally speech on Aug 21.

Speaking in Mandarin, he added: 'China's emergence has strengthened our confidence in the future of Chinese language and culture in Singapore. More generally, Chinese Singaporeans appreciate their Chinese heritage and identity more, and understand the importance of learning Chinese.'

I am not sure if I agree with Mr Lee. Although I do understand the importance of learning Chinese, I don't know whether I can honestly say that I appreciate Chinese heritage and identity more than I did before. Most likely I think that my level of appreciation has stayed about the same, all these past years.

As I have mentioned, my newfound interest in Mandarin is driven by economic considerations. If it were Indonesia, instead of China, that was booming today, I think that I would be interested in learning Bahasa Indonesia instead. I would probably employ an Indonesian maid and make her teach me Bahasa for at least 20 minutes each day.

I think I would bring tears of disappointment to some Chinese cultural diehards. I like Jackie Chan movies and I eat Chinese food more often than not. But I have no desire to learn the guzhen and definitely, I am more likely to get lost in the streets of Beijing than, say, in Sydney. The latter has street signs in English. See this next part of the article:
... others like Mr Sia Yong, 79, founder of Singa-Sino Friendship Association, agree it is 'a lost battle'.

'It's sad when young Chinese Singaporeans are enthusiastic about their language only because there is money to be made from it.

'It's different from our generation, when we are genuinely passionate about our culture and heritage. In that sense, the better part of Chineseness is lost.'

Statistics seem to bear his observation out.
Well, I'm sorry, Mr Sia. But Mr Wang cannot tell a lie. How I feel about Mandarin is really how I feel about Mandarin.

"My Chinese, very good.
My Singlish, lagi best!"


Anonymous said...

Mr. Jiang would say to Mr. Wang, "There are a multitude of reasons to be interested in Chinese culture and your Chinese heritage.

"You belong to the world's most enduring and arguably its greatest civilisation. Its achievements have led the way for Mankind for millennia. The only reason why we are not (yet) living in a Chinese world is that the old emperors, unlike the warlike and agressive Europeans, had no interest in conquering the whole planet, even though they certainly had the capability to do so."

Mr. Jiang would say to Mr. Wang, "Oh, there is much for you to be proud of in China, and thus many reasons for you to take an interest in its culture... especially since it's your own, too."

Merv said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Beach-yi said...

WHy should anyone only identified by the skin colour as Chinese have to be proud of the progress China have made?

Strange. I would like to think we are somewhat more enlightened then to take pride in something that have almost nothing to do with us.

Anonymous said...

Surely what an individual chooses to take pride in is his / her own business? If "sufficient connection" is the definitive test for justified pride, then there would be a good case for saying that most people should not be proud of anything beyond their own personal achievements.

Your stand is most strange. At least China actively engages with its ethnic / cultural diaspora and considers it a part of itself. Now you ought to go out to all those pubs and football bars and tell those "unenlightened" folk there that they are daft for being proud of the achievements of their favourite teams.

Agagooga said...

Precisely. It is an individual's own business what they take pride in, yet many quarters are eager to force ethnically Chinese singaporeans to take pride in their skin colour, and to speak Mandarin.

zx said...

Are we not ethnically Chinese but culturally Singaporean? Just as Beijing residents would have a different culture from Tianjin residents, Singaporean Chinese would differ from their Malaysian Chinese counterparts culturally. So what are we supposed to embrace, exactly? (Interestingly, the most accurate Mandarin is spoken not by Pekingese, but by Tianjin residents.)

Beach-yi said...

Jiang Wei Said to Moi:" Surely what an individual chooses to take pride in is his / her own business"

What Jiang Wei said to Mr Wang:"Oh, there is much for you to be proud of in China, and thus many reasons for you to take an interest in its culture... especially since it's your own, too

Anthony said...

Hang on.

Does taking pride in Chinese culture exclude taking pride in Singaporean culture? I think not. I think the encouragement is simply to address a matter which the government failed to do properly in the past - incentivise the learning of Mandarin.

As a confessed potato, I admit to not having learnt mandarin well until fairly late in my life, though not later than many. I figured it was because I never knew that many interesting things about Chinese.

Is the increased love for Mandarin solely economic? I'm not entirely sure - the economic rise of China may have awakened a sort of dormant pride from its dysporia.

Anonymous said...

Oh, so I can't even try to encourage others to take pride in a culture? I'm not coercing them or vilifying them, I'm just engaging in a discussion, and advocating a position - which is the natural posture for any sort of exchange of ideas.

But I guess you don't believe in open discussion and free speech, then. Tsk tsk. No doubt only you are entitled to express an opinion.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Should the colour of one's skin compel one to take interest in any particular culture?

I know of a teenager who voluntarily takes Mandarin lessons and enjoys them a lot. She's also very interested in Chinese history etc. And recently she was trying to make arrangements to find a family in Beijing to live with for some months (like an immersion programme).

This teenager - she is a young white Australian. She developed her interest after her family moved to HK (her dad was posted there to work).

Similarly, Mr Wang thinks that it is quite theoretically possible for Mr Wang to develop a strong interest in any particular culture. For example, if I were posted to work in France for a year, I might well become interested in all things French. If I had married a Japanese wife, I might well have become interested in Japanese culture.

And if other kinds of circumstances arise, I might well become very interested in Chinese culture.

I actually like Chinese art a lot. Then again I also like many kinds of art, eg the European masters.

Should I be interested in Chinese culture purely because of the colour of my skin?

Serenity commented that "many young singaporeans love Chinese for what it was meant to be- a window to a whole new world". I actually agree that a love for Chinese language/culture can be a window to a whole new world.

But I also think that many things could possibly be a window to a whole new world. For example, a love for Thai or Indonesian or Korean language/culture. Or a love for art.

Interesting point for me is that people like Mr Lim (mentioned in the ST article) and myself want to learn Mandarin for business/career reasons, and PM Lee thinks that this demonstrates Chinese cultural pride. I doubt if this is true. If I knew seven languages - Chinese, Thai, Spanish, French etc - would you say that I take pride in Chinese, Thai, Spanish and French culture?

Anonymous said...

liddat i also can say geylang got different culture from bt batok culture which is different from katong culture and unique from clementi culture. Hahahaha!!!

imo there is no such thing as a singaporean culture or identity, yet. ANy genuine s'pore culture is being suppressed or frowned upon by the authorities e.g. singlish. What is officially approved is most often manufactured by gahmen propaganda in their attempt to unite citizens.

Singlish is

Anonymous said...

Well, suit yourself, really. For me, being ethnically Chinese connects me to Chinese history / culture in a way that gives me an incentive to take an interest in it.

Perhaps in the same way that some may take interest in researching their family trees, taking pride in the achivements of their ancestors, etc., I identify with China on a similarly personal level. It's far from a unique phenomenon - many Europeans take pride in their culture and history simply via ethnic identification..cf. Brits rambling on about how they "beat the French at Agincourt", etc.

It's probably because Singaporeans have been so culturally displaced that they find it difficult to do something that comes quite naturally to most other peoples. The average British person, for eg., would consider it a rather truistic proposition that he should be proud of his culture and history.

Again, for me this cultural displacement is a further incentive for taking an interest in China - said displacement is the result of government policy and cultural micro-management. I feel obliged to not allow myself to be micro-managed quite so easily.

Beach-yi said...

Hahahaha...Serenity, try telling what you just said to the Tibetians.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

But I find it very difficult to identify with China Chinese. To share some personal experiences:

I studied at NUS when Singapore had just embarked on its "welcome foreign talent" phase. I stayed at a university hostel for four years. During this time, my neighbours; I came in contact with many Malaysians; many Singaporeans; a significant number of India Indians; a significant number of China Chinese; and every year, a small number of exchange students from different places - Canada, Swedes, Americans, Japanese etc.

Quite easily I would say that the PRC Chinese were, for me, the most difficult people to identify with. Firstly, they were clannish. Skin colour does not make them see Singaporean Chinese as one of them. In contrast, many other foreign students were very keen and happy to mix with Singaporeans (of any race) - the Indians in particular took very active part in sports, cultural activities, student committees etc etc.

Secondly, the PRC Chinese had boorish manners and it is very difficult sharing communal facilities with them (eg they use the kitchen but refuse to clean up after that) - but let's not go into that.

I've visited Beijing on holiday. I actually enjoyed it very much. But I enjoyed it in the same way that I might have enjoyed a trip to exotic Egypt or ancient Greece. There is a lot of history; a lot of culture; a lot of interesting places to see etc. But I have no sense of belonging. The PRC mindset is so different from mine (or Singaporeans) that I think the average Singaporean has a much better chance identifying with the culture of our neighbouring countries (Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia).

I mean - you visit the Summer Palace and the tour guide says, "This emperor had 200 concubines, that emperor had 800 concubines. The dragon statue over here is for fengshui effect and protects against evil spirits." Well, it IS very interesting but I don't see how it is relevant to my life??

Anonymous said...

beach-yi: So, your agenda is actually political, hmmm?

I don't think anyone here has ever attempted to mount a defence of the current Chinese communist government's policies. Don't try and muddle cultural issues with politics. No one's interested in that here.

In fact, the only person who I can think of who has recently attempted such a defence of the Chinese government's policies is someone not unfamiliar to us:

"If I have to shoot 200,000 students to save China from another 100 years of disorder, so be it"

- an ever-humble Lee Kuan Yew's take on the Tiananmen Massacre

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang

First, I would say give the PRC Chinese a bit of a break. They're just starting to emerge from almost a century of economic and cultural desolation. For a people who survived the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, perhaps they deserve a little understanding re: dirty dishes in the kitchen.

Also, I would venture to suggest that the PRC students you met in NUS do not exactly represent the cream of PRC Chinese society. NUS doesn't exactly have the best reputation in the world (no offence, I studied there too), the PRC students there would probably have been from less than upper class backgrounds.

The PRC students with social backgrounds equivalent to those of the average (i.e. rather privileged) NUS law student would probably be studying elsewhere, in Harvard, New York, Oxbridge or Hong Kong. I have the privilege of having a number of PRC friends (most from Beijing or Shanghai), and they are without exception lovely people, and frightfully intelligent and highly cultured.

Second, what makes you think the PRC has a monopoly on Chinese culture and history? Chinese culture and history go far beyond the PRC. E.g. Taiwan is at serious loggerheads with the PRC, yet most Taiwanese take pride in their Chinese heritage. Hong Kong is very different from the mainland PRC, yet Hong Kongers are fiercely proud of being Chinese.

The PRC and the society it has created have been around for only 50 years or so, while Chinese civilisation has a history stretching back for millennia, and Chinese culture and civilisation will still be thriving long after the communist government becomes a thing of the past.

zx said...

pacific202: Precisely. Which is why I find it really sad that we're not appreciating our Singaporean culture or whatever little there is of it. Our "kiasu" personality is a part of our culture, is it not?

My school often has exchange students visit for a day or more, and I recently hosted a few PRC students - they were warm, friendly and in all very wonderful people. As there is in any society, there will always be people who are the black sheep. There are "arrogant Singaporeans" versus nicer Singaporeans. There are rude Chinese and courteous Chinese. I suppose what's important here is not to stereotype or generalise because of their nationality.

Jiang Wei: Surprisingly, don't you think the government is in fact suggesting that China has a monopoly on Chinese culture through their current actions? Chinese culture itself is evolving - the traditional culture is likewise being eroded by modernisation. Traditional Chinese opera and workmanship is being eschewed in favour of the better-paying jobs.

serenity: I appreciate Chinese culture quite a lot (In fact that's why I'm still studying Chinese and struggling because my grasp of the language isn't that good) but I've never thought it should simply be because you are Chinese. Wouldn't it be better, in fact, to love your own culture not simply because it is part of your skin colour but because it is wonderful in and of itself?

Anonymous said...

er beach-yi, they are called Tibetans, not Tibetians.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...


I think most Singaporeans are past the point where they are automatically fascinated with all things western. In my view, such fascination actually shows a basic lack of security.

Actually, in my view, if a young Chinese Singaporean feels a strong need to identify with Chinese culture, I think that may, in some cases at least, also show a basic lack of security.

I believe that a more confident, assured person would behave more like Mr Wang. I mean - I eat what I like to eat; I read what I like to read; I listen to the kind of music I like to listen etc etc.

I don't pause to tell myself, "Gee, the colour of my skin looks like this - therefore I should eat Chinese food, read Chinese books and listen to Chinese food."

My example of PRC students is precisely that - just an example - but the point is quite true, I think. Singapore Chinese businessmen working in China stick out like a sore thumb; certainly, the PRC Chinese don't automatically accept them as one of their own just because of skin colour. In fact, fiascos as major as our Suzhou investment have been attributed to the huge cultural & mindset differences between Singaporeans (mainly Chinese) and PRC Chinese. Funny thing is you never quite seem to hear of cultural differences causing such big problems when Singaporeans do business with, say, the Thais or the Malaysians or the Americans or the English or the Indians or anyone else.

And really, I do not see any special point in exploring a culture that I do not feel an affinity. While my paternal grandfather was from China, my paternal grandmother was actually from Sarawak, with a huge dose of distinctive Nonya culture. That Nonya heritage kinda died out, in my family, when my grandma passed on - but I really feel no inclination to go educate myself today about the Nonya customs or traditions. Do you think I should?

singaporean said...

This singaporean speaks Beijing pitch perfect Mandarin, and is somewhat ashamed of it. I was schooled to speak Mandarin this way and have trouble sounding local, and have trouble being understood by some other Singaporeans, and even managed to fool some PRC'ers into thinking I am from PRC. Other than passing Chinese exams with ease, being strong in the Chinese language has brought me this many benefits: none.

Perhaps you can tell from my writing ability, I really wish I spent far more time learning the English language. Reading Mr Wang's poems only deepen this singaporean's regret of neglecting Shakespeare to take up Chinese literature in his secondary school days.

And since this singaporean has no formal use for the language since O levels, after a whole decade of neglect, I am not sure if I can claim I know the language well. PRC classmates in uni are reluctant to speak Mandarin to me, partly because I have a limited vocabulary in Mandarin (as opposed to English), and partly because they left China in the first place to learn English. The neglect is only getting worse. The last time this singaporean can speak Mandarin freely without potentially being insensitive to a non-Mandarin speaking classmate/colleague/student/wife was secondary school.

And that is why this singaporean advocate that young people and their parents not be overly blinded by the "rise of China". The advantage you gain by speaking "their language" and knowing "their culture" is only minimal. Ultimately, business is about dollars and cents, not language or skin colour, like the Singaporean who boldly went East Timor to do business, and initially could communicate only by punching numbers onto a calculator.

The path Mr Wang chose is definitely better than the path this singaporean chose: It is infinitely better to be excellent in English only and then pick up some Mandarin along the way - the only enemy to overcome is the Chinese exam requirements which are being lifted anyway, than to be mediocrely bilingual.

If you really want to impress people in parties with language tricks, learn Hindi or Spanish. No PRC'er is going to appreciate you for speaking Mandarin - they EXPECT you to do so. Learn enough so that you wont get cheated. As fluent as the old man and son in Mandarin, pay attention to TV pictures when they visit China - the interpreter is always by their side. There is no easier way to gain respect in China, than to speak English. What benefit is there to be mistaken for just another average PRC peasant?

Anonymous said...

Now now, enough with the mischaracterisation. I don't think any of us said that we feel a need to identify with Chinese culture because of skin colour.

What we did say was that we regard Chinese culture as part of our heritage and we appreciate it for its objective virtues as well. This comes very naturally to us, we don't have to prompt ourselves to do this on the basis of our skin colour (contrary to your mischaracterisations) because it's natural for an individual to take an interest in his heritage, ancestry, etc. Well, assuming that you're not too caught up in the rat race to be aware of things beyond your career.

This doesn't seem to have registered, so again I emphasise that it is perfectly natural behaviour for an individual to take an interest in his heritage. You don't question a Brit, or American or Frenchman, etc for taking pride in their cultures, do you? So why this particular pathological wariness of all things Chinese?

That's another facet of the oft-bemoaned fact that Singaporeans have no sense of identity - govt attempts at forced Westernisation and forcibly creating a national identity that excludes identification with anything outside Singapore (probably an attempt to monopolise citizens' loyalty) has effectively severed citizens from their cultural roots.

This doesn't seem to have registered, so again I emphasise that the PRC does not hold a monopoly over Chinese culture, for the reasons already stated.

Incidentally, my father is Nonya, too, and that tradition is far from dead in my family. I take an interest in Nonya and Malay culture too. But even Nonyas are ultimately Chinese too, so I feel a greater affinity for Chinese culture than I do for Malay / Southeast Asian culture.

Anonymous said...

As I said, "Skin colour" connotates a lot of notions about racial supremacy and superficiality that I feel do not have anything to do with wanting to find out more about one's culture. I would prefer to put my stand as "I have a passion for Chinese culture because I am Chinese. Chineseness isn't about skin colour, it's about a whole heritage which I as a modern Singaporean want to learn about".

I can kind of understand what you are saying, Mr Wang, but wouldn't that mean that no one should bother to find out about their roots? With the passing of each generation, all practices no longer relevant should be forgotten, and there should be no such thing as "tradition". Because in our daily lives, it is seldom necessary to remember what people did many generations ago, and how they did it.

I guess to me, Chinese culture is worth preserving because there are lots of lessons to be learnt from our culture. For example, "Romance of the Three Kingdoms", is an extremely long and heavy epic to get through, but one learns a lot about politics and power and wisdom of leaders through it.

The pros of not remembering "roots" are that one feels lighter, and more carefree. The cons are that you do not get to partake in the thousands of years of accumulated knowledge of your culture.

It's a little like you writing a book for your son about all the lessons you learn each day, and when the time comes, your son says he'd rather not look at the book and start afresh.

I regret the animosity between Singaporean Chinese and PRC Chinese. Basically, Chinese as a race, judge people based on the money they have and their social standing. Sg Chinese have more in common with mainland Chinese than they realise. Once again let's not forget that China went through a cultural revolution in which all books were burnt, and presently Chinese do not represent the lofty ideals of Confucianism and Taoism. So I find it a little ironic that you say you feel no affinity for China, because of their behaviour, and that thus learning Chinese culture is not necessary. Had the Chinese not been forced to relinquish their culture, many of them would be honest and hardworking and at least some PRC Chinese we meet would embody the traits we expect of the motherland of Confucianis, Taoism, and basically all Chinese culture. What you have here is an entire people who have forgotten the wisdom in their culture.


Was the Suzhou venture really a fiasco? I'm just a student so perhaps I'm idealistic, but in some ways I view it as a success because Singapore really increased its exposure in China through the venture, and the Chinese have a favourable impression of Singapore brands. So perhaps the venture paved the way for future SG businessmen who want to tap China's markets. As I said, this is just a simplistic observation I made based on a short holiday in China.

- Serenity.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Just to clarify that I'm not allergic to Chinese culture. Just do not feel particularly strongly about it, either way.

Question of roots, roots, roots. Point is, how far do you go? Example - black Americans. If you go far enough, you should say that they should be interested in African culture and traditions and religion - that is where they all originated long ago; their forefathers were then caught and brought to America as slaves.

But would you really be surprised that the vast majority of most black Americans would feel very little connection to Africa?

I guess it's a question of how far you want to go. You can call it "cultural displacement" if you like. The point is, if you are truly culturally displaced, if you are truly separated from a certain culture - why should you bother to "find your way back"?

I guess it's a bit like one of those drama serials you see on TV. The plot goes like this - mother and baby are separated. Baby is raised by loving adoptive parents. 25 years later, the baby is a young man and he finds out the identity of his biological mother.

What is the young man to do then? Views may differ, but to me, I always think it's rather pointless to reestablish any meanngful contact. Young man has his own life; now this complete stranger appears and says, "I'm your mama, please love me."


I kinda think that love is futile in this kind of situation. For that matter, hate or anger is also futile. Everyone has been having their own lives for the past 25 years, let's just continue to move on.

Wayne said...

I think there should be a shift of debate from racial issues to a more important issue, that is one of an inclusive society.

If Singapore is to be an inclusive society as our PM suggests, the polity must be able to hold diverse views and opinons. People, no matter their skin colors, political and social belief, their racial and language backgrounds and belief, should be able to celebrate their identity in Singapore as SINGAPOREANS. If that doesn't happen, would people leave for the West to desire real "inclusiveness" or to China/India/Malaysia to desire "real" roots? Ultimately, is the beautiful sky of Singapore able to include lightning as well as different shades of rainbows in it?

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with Mr Wang analogy of using a parent/child relationship to represent his dis-interest in Chinese culture. Firstly, in America, the blacks are distanced by their own native African culture due to supressing western culture. It's like the black were unable to keep in touch with their own parents due to long distance and a powerful step-father, keeping a watchful eyes on them. Mr Wang lived in Singapore, a country that has always proud of its inclusive society. Inclusive, yes, but selective also. Chinese language and culture has longed been regarded as a difficult communication language due to it poor economic value in the 70s, 80s and to a certain extent, 90s until now. Being born chinese, of course, we will always be regarded as chinese no matter where we goes. But years of government brainwash and indirect measure led to many chinese to believed, or support the idea that english is a more viable language, because it is a global language and the most powerful country in the world, US, is speaking it as well. It also helps that there is great commercial value in it to master the language. Chinese culture and language is always around us in Singapore, but it is basically up to us to make an effort to keep in touch in it. It like we have 2 fathers in Singapore, one is a step-father, and another one, is our real father. Our step-father is english speaking, and is therefore, considered more powerful and rich, and best for our future to keep faith with it. Whereas our poor father is chinese... heck, what the use of it?

If Mr Wang fails to appreciate Chinese language or culture, perhaps he just belongs to one of the many who were led to believe in this kind of thinking. If one day, Russian is rising to become the next super-power, perhaps the language policy will be changed also to include Russian as one of the "2nd" language. I sure many of them, perhaps Mr Wang also, will wants his son to be a Russian.

Of course, embracing a new culture or language always open a new window to the world. I agreed with Mr Wang completely. But embracing a new culture when we are not even sure of our identity? My girlfriend, who is a french, sometiems complained to me that Singaporean Chinese are rootless. Most of them she know hardly speak the language. Although she developed a strong interest in Chinese language (and can speak chinese fairly well now), she always tell people that she is a french, first and foremost. It is a sad but true fact that chinese here don't share the same sentiment. To say that our most embraced culture is English/western is hyprocrisy covered with loads and loads of money.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

I think your last sentence is revealing. You imagine that if a Chinese Singaporean does not enthusiastically embrace Chinese culture, then he must be enthusiastically embracing English/western culture.

Actually, I think many young Chinese Singaporeans (below 40) are quite comfortable just the way they are, neither enthusiastically embracing Chinese culture nor enthusiastically embracing Western culture. If I had to describe them in terms of culture, I'd say that they are simply happy being Singaporean.

They may speak some English; some Mandarin; some Singlish;

they may not have any "Chinese" religion; they could be Christians or atheists;

they may like Jackie Cheung as much as Coldplay;

they might watch Jue Dui Superstar as enthusiastically as American Idol or Singapore Idol;

if you asked them to state their values, the younger ones might recite to you the Shared Values designed by PM Lee's civil servants;

if you asked them "Did you read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms in school?", they would probably say no;

but if you asked them "Have you read Romeo and Juliet in school?", they would also probably say no;

and if you asked them, "Well, what HAVE you read in school?", they might say, "Ho Minfong's Rice Without Rain, and Catherine Lim's Or Else the Lightning God";

if you asked them, what is your favourite fruit, it is quite possible that they will say "durian", a fruit that is neither Chinese nor Western;

on birthdays, they may get an angpow (Chinese style) AND at the same time have a birthday cake with candles and song (Western style);

and if you plonked them for six months in the middle of Taipei or Beijing, they would have to do as much adjusting and adapting as they would have to do, if you plonked them for six months in the middle of New York or London.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Oh yes, in response to your comment - if indeed Russia was becoming the next economic superstar and there are real advantages in knowing the Russian language, I would encourage my children to learn Russian.

Same goes for any other school subject really. Eg if life sciences were really going to be the next big thing, they should certainly study biology, chemistry etc, if that is where their interest lies.

singaporean said...

I was once told that I am a "Chinese who doesnt know Chinese", even though I get excellent grades in Higher Chinese. The person who accused me so was my aunt, whom I have met maybe two or three times in my lifetime, and the reason she said so was because I dont speak much Teochew. Tough for me to learn Teochew when it is not spoken at home, because my mother does not know a single bit of Teochew, and my father didnt bother to teach. We spoke Cantonese at home, and that was because that's the common tongue of my parents. I believe my mother is closer to Hakka (she of some rare dialect ancestry that even she didnt learn). Of course, I speak no Hakka because my father doesnt speak much Hakka.

The tragedy of the Singaporean Chinese Chauvinist is that, they claim rootedness and cultural superiority out of pure ignorance. The spoken Mandarin is really just a Beijing dialect that was chosen as the national standard less than one hundred years ago. I believe Cantonese was a very close frontrunner, and the deciding vote was cast by a Cantonese speaker because he thought Mandarin was "beautiful" or something to that effect.

The written Chinese we use in Singapore has an even shorter life, relatively recently adopted. You can see, due to political reasons, that simplified Chinese is not used in Hong Kong or Taiwan. Not all of spoken Cantonese, for example, can be mapped to a Chinese character, and some Chinese characters has to be "invented" for this purpose.

Most Hong Kongers are not Guangdong natives and their ancestors, maybe even their parents spoke some Shandong or Shanghai dialect.

I assure you that when most of our ancestors left China, they neither spoke Mandarin nor write in simpified Chinese. This whole "Chinese must know Chinese" nonsense is all a result of government campaigning. There is nothing old about the Chinese language that we use today. Most Chinese literate Singaporeans will have trouble reading the traditional formal Chinese literature or Wen Yan Wen written a hundred years ago. The only easily accessible thread we still maintain with old China is the poetry, and I wonder how many of these Chinese chauvinist can compose a Tang poetry.

Oh and lastly, do you know of any french who doesnt complain about Singapore weather, Singapore bread, Singaporean working hours or even the type of french the belgians speak? My french ex-colleague liked to joke that the Russian has a president whose name sounds like a prostitute in french. Funny, nobody he didnt mention the french speaking former Canadian PM whose name was widely spelt as Cretin initially.

There are two other languages that are rising up rapidly: Hindi and Spanish. I dont see any effort in working these two languages into our school syllabus.

To say we must embrace Chinese because of our skin colour is bigotry heaped with loads and loads of ignorance.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Some interesting observations there, Singaporean. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

First and foremost, I never claim chinese is a much superior culture. I don know where u get the idea from. Although I feel that a chinese should know chinese, it is basically the same feeling of a french should know french, english should know english etc. Stamping chauvinism on it is really unnecessary.

Plus, the word, chinese, can also be used either to describe our race. Whether it is Cantonese, Hakka or Teochew, we are all considered part of the chinese race. Of coures, if u want to go to exterimism in pursuing our own dialect roots, perhaps you should also consider our ancestor's ancestor. People in the south are regarded as "Shanyue", an un-civilised tribe that were untouched by Chinese civilisation in the Eastern Han Dynasty. So our ancestor (those that were staying there during that era) are not even considered as chinese during that period. Hey, even people from the middle kingdom can be considered as "not chinese" also because they were from different states during the Zhou Dynasty before Emperor Qin unite China. You mention the fact that not many chinese can understand Wen Yan Wen, but how many chinese since the Ming Dynasty can understand Jia Gu Wen as well? Chinese is a language that is forever changing. The common mandarin we use now is known as Bai Hua, and it is just part of the effort to spread use of the language to the more illiterate people.

Do i know any french that doesnt complain? No, of course... but do u know of any people that NEVER complained as well?

Funny you also mention that u wonder how many chinese chauvinist can compose Tang Poetry. Funny because you used the word chauvinist. So i suppose my english teachers in JC who were encouraging us to compose poetry in shakespearean english are not chauvinist? And for your info, I really cannot compose Tang poetry.

Chinese is just part of our heritage and culture, which I feel we should preserve it, especially by us Chinese. It doesnt sound nice to ask the English or Malay to preserve for us, right? Of course, in a free country, it all about personal choice and liking. I dont think we should embrace chinese because of our skin colour. It is more of interest and paassion.

hugewhaleshark said...

I am late in this discussion, but taken to its logical conclusion, a French person cannot criticise a Singaporean Chinese for not "speaking the language" any more than she can criticise a Polish / Irish / Italian / African American for not speaking the language of their forefathers. The French person does not realise that there a Singaporean Chinese is not a China Chinese, and has developed an independent culture which is unique unto itself. Singaporeans should find the self-confidence to accept that.

at82 said...

Came across an interesting article about the chinese language issue in Zaobao. It talks about how Chinese eduacated feel about the language and culture. Coming from a family where both of my parents are chinese educated, I can see their point of view. Most are not some Chinese chauvinists as some painted them to be. My parents encourage me to master my English while making sure that I remain proficient in Chinese. From what I see the chinese educated just hope that the culture they love can survive in S'pore that's all...