24 August 2004

Language as War

The Speak Mandarin Campaign Edition

Random Errata (i.e. it helps to think all these are random!)

1. Had to conduct an interview in Mandarin with an artist last week. I, apparently tried to speak with such careful diction and the proper neo-Beijing accent (overcompensation for marginally passing the subject in school) that my interviewee added 6 years to my age.

I just sound too sensitive or refined when speaking Mandarin. And OLD.

I'm going to speak less Mandarin from now on.

2. I watched the National Day rally speech by the newly-crowned Prime Minister. He speaks Mandarin much better than his predecessor, which is a blessing to my ears.

I timed his speeches.
The speech in Malay took 15 minutes.
Speech in Mandarin took 25 minutes.
There was no speech in Indian Tamil, but it will be a 5 minute broadcast by a cabinet member at a later date.

It's a good deal, considering that the "offical race demographics" taught in Singapore schools have the Chinese as 70%, Malays as 10%, Indians at 8%, and "others" making up the rest.

Now, the CIA World Factbook - which has more accurate (i.e. less faked) statistics than what our newspapers and schools teach - puts the Chinese population as 76%. Now you know how meritocratic our immigration policy is - there's a good reason why hundred of thousands of nationals from China have been given Singapore citizenship or permanent residence over the past decade.

3. There's a really fun programme on Channel U called 北京你好吗, which translates to "Bejing, how are you?" or "Greetings, Beijing" (or Peking, whichever romanisation tickles your fancy). Being the Mandarin chauvinists Channel U are, the title in English is "Beijing Ni Hao Ma".

But I digress. This entertainment programme aims to promote Chinese culture and Mandarin language, and does so by sponsoring Chinese Singaporean celebrities who can't speak much Mandarin on an immersion tour to China.

There, it's a matter of teaching the celebrity useful Mandarin phrases, making sure they use the language instead of English, and deducting cash bonuses the more mistakes are made. (I wonder why the celebrity contestants really need cash prizes...)

It's all in good, clean fun. Yes, some Chinese people can't speak Mandarin, but instead of kvetching about this deplorable state, why not inject lots of humour as we laugh with and at stage and TV actor Adrian Pang as he heroically mangles (unintentionally, of course) Mandarin?

It's harmless fun, unless you consider that the producers who have absolutely no guts to make alternate and equally arbitrary versions like:

a. A humourous programme about teaching English to Chinese Singaporean celebrities who can't speak much English. I mean, the population of Singaporean Chinese actors who can't speak English far outnumbers the population of Singaporean Chinese actors who can't speak Mandarin...

b. A humourous programme about teaching Malay Singaporeans to speak Mandarin.

Realistically speaking, they'd be accused of insensitivity and language-Nazism if they tried to pull off (a), and racial insensivitiy if they tried to pull off (b).

Let me rephrase: are you sure this Beijing Ni Hao Ma programme is harmless fun? What makes it harmless and fun now, when it clearly won't be considered so if the variables were tweaked just slightly? Do the Chinese population and Mandarin language hold some special position in Singapore?

4. Anyone who still thinks the race/language policy of our government is coherent and rational should read this. But our government is of the view that if the system it creates doesn't fit an individual, that individual is the one to blame.

No comments: