31 March 2004

Linguistic legacy of Singapore leaders

I propose that 50 years from now, historians will point to the coining of new words as the most important contribution of our leaders to their nation and the world. We have already redefined artiste to mean artist, and bohemian to describe the very bourgeois and poser-esque Holland Village. And that's not coining precious phrases like Confucian ethics and Asian democracy.

Artiste, in most dictionaries, refers to
1. musical or theatrical entertainers, like music-hall artistes or circus artistes
2. More generally, a person with artistic pretensions

Bohemian: lifestyle associated with liberal, penniless, and new artists or literary circles.

Bourgeois: mostly yuppies hang out at Holland V to imbibe expensive coffee and masticate gourmet food that real bohemians can't afford. These yuppies also hold artistic pretensions while posing at the Holland V bistros.

Today, our former Minister for Education, Teo Chee Hean, continues this rich legacy of linguistic deviation by coining a new use for an old word. The headlines have it: Public servants must think more like insurgents.

It's like watching a comedy in English, performed by Japanese actors who aren't quite sure what the N-word means...

Our poor minister clearly wants to say that the Civil Service needs to "take risks", "think out of the box", to be "less risk-averse", etc. It's just puzzling why his speechwriters chose the word "insurgent". Or mis-use the word and blame Gary Hamel for it.

Insurgent, according to the Webster
1. Person who rebels against civil authority or established government
2. One who acts contrary to policies and decisions of their own political party.

Onelook has it even better:
3. a member of an irregular armed force that fights a stronger force by sabotage and harassment

How should we make sense of the headline?
I can't choose between the following interpretations:

A. Teo welcomes insurgents because the government is afraid of mavericks. (linguistic faux pas theory)
B. Teo urges civil servants to take arms and rise up in revolution. (Webster, sense 1)
C. Teo urges civil servants to sabotage Singapore. (Onelook)
D. Teo admits that Singapore civil servants are members of the PAP. (Webster, sense 2)

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