“Given an environment where English is the lingua franca and working language, it has already not been easy to maintain Singaporean’s Mandarin standards at the level it is today” (PM Lee Defends Bilingual Policy, Miss Andrea Ong).
At the 75th anniversary of Chung Cheng High School Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of the importance of bilingualism, and how Singaporeans should “stay rooted in their mother tongue and culture, have good values and do not forget their roots”. This notion – of staying connected to a culture which is ostensibly tied to one’s ethnicity – has been used consistently to justify the learning of our “mother tongues”. As a student in a Special Assistance Plan school we were warned not to become 香蕉人(“banana person”): to be a yellow-skinned Chinese who can only converse in English, the language of the white Caucasians.
Yet, what are these “roots” we speak of? Am I not rooted in … Singapore?
Already I hear frustrated groans from the Han Chinese community, that this young bloke is an ignoramus. They might be right about my detachment. I have never set foot on China (besides a school trip to Hainan). I do not know which village or province my ancestors were from (my grandparents first lived on Pulau Ubin before moving to mainland Singapore), and have no interest in finding out. My understanding of the “Chinese traditions” PM Lee alludes to stretches no further than the rites and rituals my family observes, and I am not sure if I will pass these practices on. I am also clueless as to what the collective “Chinese identity” entails. The Chinese language? Confucianism? Chinese pop culture? What does it mean to be a 炎黄子孙 (descendants of legendary ancestors), to be part of the 中华民族 (the Chinese race)?
And surely we have to concede that general fluency in the Chinese language has declined over the years. PM Lee, nevertheless, is insistent that “it is not appropriate to compare today’s social and linguistic environment with that in the 1950s”. More students are taking the Higher Chinese subject, and Singaporeans have taken part in programmes by the Committee to Promote Chinese Language Learning every year, he was keen to add.
Quantitatively he may be right. According to the census the proportion of persons who spoke Mandarin most frequently at home inched up from 35 per cent in 2000 to 35.6 per cent in 2010, while the statistic for Chinese dialects decreased from 23.8 to 14.3 per cent over the same period. Yet such information reveals little about the quality of Chinese language education in schools, or more importantly the student’s mastery of a difficult language. It says nothing about the level of interest too. When I took my Higher Chinese examination it was a purely written assessment, with no way of gauging listening or oral skills.
I scored an A1 for the examinations, but with little preparation I will barely make it through a dialogue session or business presentation organised in Mandarin today.
Call me pragmatic, but should we not view our present “mother tongues” through economic lenses, especially in the schools? In other words commercial reasons made English our lingua franca, so why should we not impress upon students that mastering one more language – perhaps one which is also conveniently spoken at home – is practical and beneficial? That China, India, and the South East Asian nations are emerging economies Singaporeans should be looking hungrily to? In fact in this vein we might view dialects less derisorily too. Just ask a Singaporean business person who has used Cantonese to do trade in booming Hong Kong.
It would be presumptuous of me to claim that such pragmatism should be the only reason to be bilingual. And reductive too. The government and the Ministry of Education should be cognisant of different motivations of students, to diversify its justifications for the “mother tongues”, and therefore tailor parts of the school curriculum. To focus more on oral conversations, to go through technical business or scientific terms for instance.
Merely saying that the purpose of the “mother tongue” is to stay rooted per se is counterproductive, because some of us do not identify with this narrative. Blind insistence on this association would only drive students further away from the learning of the language.