Where’s the diplomacy?

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read this letter today from the Minister Mentor’s office in the Straits Times. I was just scanning the text casually, thinking it was yet another formal Gahmen reply, but my jaw dropped when I saw the sentence I highlighted below.

March 7, 2009

Foolish to advocate the learning of dialects

I REFER to yesterday’s article by Ms Jalelah Abu Baker (‘One generation – that’s all it takes ‘for a language to die”). It mentioned a quote from Dr Ng Bee Chin, acting head of Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Division of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies: ‘Although Singaporeans are still multilingual, 40 years ago, we were even more multilingual. Young children are not speaking some of these languages at all any more.’

To keep a language alive, it has to be used regularly. Using one language more frequently means less time for other languages. Hence, the more languages a person learns, the greater the difficulties of retaining them at a high level of fluency.

There are linguistically gifted individuals who can handle multiple languages, but Singapore’s experience over 50 years of implementing the bilingual education policy has shown that most people find it extremely difficult to cope with two languages when they are as diverse as English and Mandarin.

This is why we have discouraged the use of dialects. It interferes with the learning of Mandarin and English. Singaporeans have to master English. It is our common working language and the language which connects us with the world.

We also emphasised the learning of Mandarin, to make it the mother tongue for all Chinese Singaporeans, regardless of their dialect groups. This is the common language of the 1.3 billion people in China. To engage China, overseas Chinese and foreigners are learning Mandarin and not the dialects of the different Chinese provinces.

We have achieved progress with our bilingual education in the past few decades. Many Singaporeans are now fluent in both English and Mandarin. It would be stupid for any Singapore agency or NTU to advocate the learning of dialects, which must be at the expense of English and Mandarin.

That was the reason the Government stopped all dialect programmes on radio and television after 1979. Not to give conflicting signals, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew also stopped making speeches in Hokkien, which he had become fluent in after frequent use since 1961.

Chee Hong Tat
Principal Private Secretary
to the Minister Mentor

Where is the diplomacy in this letter? Where is the professionalism? How can you call tertiary educators “stupid” for trying to preserve our history and culture?

What makes you think the majority of Singaporeans are speaking good English and/or Mandarin after decades of wiping out dialects? What makes you think Singaporeans don’t want to hold on to their dialects?

Utterly disappointing. This is symptomatic of why our country has been largely stripped of its character, verve and color, leaving nothing but a sterile petri dish of un-opinionated individuals (except, of course, we “bloggers” whose opinions are not considered much in the public sphere, so says the state media).

We enjoy great economic success, but we have completely lost it at the cultural level – this letter is further proof. It is not wrong to advocate the strengths of English and the mother tongue, but it is wrong to assume that is the 100% correct approach.

Why do you think people leave Singapore and never want to come back? You teach them languages that are global, but you don’t let them hear and absorb languages that will keep them rooted. I use Hokkien with my friends, but does that mean I use it at work meetings? I enjoy Hokkien songs (in taxi cabs) but does that mean I can’t appreciate Bach or Jay Chou?

I would have expected more from a top level civil servant. Or was the letter simply transcribed from dictation from the man himself?

9 Replies to “Where’s the diplomacy?”

  1. Well said. It is the very essence that seperates us from the newly imported residents and allow us locals to communicate easily.

  2. MM Lee is infamous for voicing controversial statements in a blunt and undiplomatic manner. This is symptomatic of arrogant men in power who have an absolute conviction in the correctness of their views. Chee was probably just a mouthpiece for the old man’s words.

  3. This may be a sidetrack, but we are FAR from being a nation of conversant citizens. The vast majority of us can speak neither English nor Mandarin properly. Let’s not kid ourselves – most of the populace who pride themselves in ‘jiang hua yu’, who watch Ch8 dramas with pride, probably don’t even know what ‘fiscal policy’ is in Mandarin, nor can they give a short business presentation in the language. These are the same people who use ‘revert’ to mean ‘reply’, say ‘Please kindly…’ when all is required is either (‘please’ is the better choice), and say ‘We are close’, when they mean ‘closed’.

    We continue to be the laughing stock of foreigners because we have mastered neither language, and now we are told not to read or speak dialects. The culturally-rich nations are those who speak their own language and defend it fiercely – Japan, Italy, Germany to name a few. And even if you inherit someone else’s, like Brazil, look how they use it so beautifully and gave the world Bossa Nova. We, too, inherited English and Mandarin, and are shite at both.

  4. The ruling party is planting their own downfall with scholars n civil servants like Chee (bye to him). Their own hardwork/goodwill after independence is going to be rapidly diminish with hare brains like these running the country. Another ivory tower/ostrich case which we have been observing a lot lately. Very out of touch with reality. In the land of the blind, the one eye man is king.

  5. Er guys, I’m leaning more towards the belief that it was actually the old man who said it and Chee just transcribed it. That’s what a secretary does right?

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