29 November 2012

Listening in to SMRT's station announcements

Xenophobia, creeping sinicisation, misplaced political correctness, or pure sedition?

The uproar following SMRT's recent move to begin train station announcements in Mandarin seems to be overshadowed by the mishandling by SMRT and NTUC of the recent bus driver strike.

In inimitable Illusio fashion, we of course are more fascinated by last week's news - not just because we have something to say that hasn't already been said by other commentators, but because we believe this issue is more important and urgent to Singapore society than a straightforward industrial action.

Several explanations have been volunteered by commentators to explain how an innocuous decision would lead to widespread condemnation. We examine these explanations in their discursive context of Singapore as an ideological community whose cohesion and coherence can only be maintained through a struggle of positions and positions-taking by different interest groups in a struggle over the right to define what is legitimately Singaporean.

Xenophobia or creeping sinicisation?

The theory goes that the Singapore government under Papalee, Goh Chok Tong, and Minilee have been biased towards encouraging migration of Chinese nationals from the PRC in order to maintain its racial quota for Chinese Singaporeans to form not less than 70% of the total population of the island.

Culturally though, Singaporean Chinese haven't been the ones to demand Singapore be covered in signs and announcements in Mandarin. The popular suspicion is this scheme is an attempt to pander to monolingual migrant workers and immigrants from China.

Since on one hand, they are not eager or willing to participate in public life in any other language than Mandarin (and are perceived to be more exclusive in their interactions with ethnic Chinese than Chinese Singaporeans), and on the other, the Singapore government values their presence, it would rather bend over backwards to accommodate them - whatever other races in Singapore might say about the obvious and indefensible favouritism shown by SMRT.

This line of reasoning ends with the charge of creeping sinicisation, and the corresponding counter-charge of xenophobia. The issue is not about the language used but a resentment against the perceived blatant race-based favouritism of the PAP government's immigration policies from the past decades, and the knee-jerk reaction of some Singaporeans to slander any criticisms of PAP's immigration policies as xenophobia.

We at Illusio believe it would be far more productive to argue the pros and cons of Singapore's immigration policy and its perceived policy failures on their own merit, rather than to pick on any issue as an allegory or proxy for a debate over immigration.

Misplaced political correctness or pure sedition?

It's no wonder then the eventual responses by Gerard Ee (the LTA chairman) and SMRT's essentially pleaded misplaced political correctness. It's evident from their long silence and eventual choice of defense that the LTA and SMRT were unprepared for the uproar, with the implication that these decisionmakers are out of touch with a significant proportion of Singaporeans.

But let's take a look. Gerard Ee and SMRT claims that the new station announcements were offered in Mandarin in good faith. There was commuter feedback, a desire to offer 'service improvements', and seriously, there are "quite a number of Chinese who do not speak English well and refer to places by their Chinese names." SMRT does not intend in the near future to provide train station announcements in Malay or Tamil - Singapore's other 2 official languages - because "most station names, when pronounced in English, sound similar to that in Malay and Tamil." But hey, they're sorry if their best intentions were seen as racist when all they wanted to do was to be politically correct!

We'd like to pause to point out the ridiculous stupidity or cunning mendaciousness of this defense.

Take for example Lynette Sng, the customer relations officer from SMRT.

In her PR release, she spouts gems like "During our review, it was clear to us that most station names, when pronounced in English, sound similar to that in Malay and Tamil" and "Stations names in Mandarin, however, sound different [like] Somerset, 索美塞 (Suo Mei Sai)"

Pre-existing station names are not in English. They are in a multiplicity of languages - some of which aren't even Singapore's official languages! The reason why "most station names in English sound similar to that in Malay and Tamil" is because we have adopted the Malay and Tamil (and Hindi) names for these stations. Not because they're in English, you know.

I may forgive a bear of little brain for mistaking 'verandah', 'bungalow', 'shampoo', or 'jungle' for English words. I find it beyond belief that the aggregate collective intelligence of an organisation like the SMRT can come to the conclusion that Dhoby Ghaut is an English name that happens to sound like its Tamil name. And by the way, it's HINDI. NOT TAMIL. And just so we know that the collective aggregate of the intelligence of SMRT is a flatlined zero, Lynette Sng and her esteemed colleagues miss the point that "索美塞 (Suo Mei Sai)" is a Mandarin transliteration of Somerset. To Mandarin ears, SUO MEI SAI sounds exactly the same as Somerset. That's why it's called a transliteration.

If you believe Gerard Ee and Lynette Sng, up to this month, for the entire existence of Singapore's MRT system, Singaporeans have been content to think of and refer to places in their original names, whether it be in Hindi (Dhoby Ghaut), Malay (Bedok, Kembangan, Kallang, Aljunied, Eunos, Tampines, Pasir Ris, Potong Pasir, Serangoon, Tanah Merah, Rochor, Bukit Batok, Kranji, Marsiling, Paya Lebar, Bugis), Teochew and Hokkien (Hougang which everyone pronounces as "Aw Gang" anyway, Lim Chu Kang, Toa Payoh, Choa Chu Kang, Yew Tee, Boon Keng, Joo Koon, Sengkang), Cantonese (Bishan), Mandarin (Simei) or a happy, neutral compromise of English (Redhill, City Hall, Raffles Place, Marina Bay), or an even happier compromise of a foreign language (French for Esplanade, Arabic for Khatib, Kurdish for Kovan, Spanish for Buona Vista). And now, they've made up their minds and want to hear EVERYTHING in Mandarin.

If you believe Gerard Ee and Lynette Sng, it would seem that Singaporeans who have been content to live with a geography that's multiracial, multicultural, and multilingual, who have no problems referring to and thinking of places in languages other than their own, who celebrate Singapore's diversity in the most everyday act of their lives, have suddenly decided not to do so. And that SMRT and LTA are either fine with that or want to encourage this further.

In a wider context, it has taken decades for a Singapore prone to deadly racial riots to develop a sizable proportion of citizens who are multicultural enough to accept, respect, and use place names in their original languages instead of insisting that every place be imposed a name in their own preferred language, who refer to places in their original names even talking with people of their own race.

To this evidently uninfluential group of happy, multicultural Singaporeans, the LTA and SMRT's decision to force station announcements in Mandarin doesn't come across as an honest mistake erring on the side of political correctness. On the contrary, it sounds like an attempt to harm the racial harmony of the Singapore they imagine themselves living in -- pure sedition, in other words.

To an even smaller group, it might even sound like a regression to the bad old days of the early 1980s, where Singapore chafed under a resurgent tide of Chinese chauvinism. Those days, zealots went around insisting that if you're Chinese, any word coming out of your mouth had better be Mandarin unless you're speaking to a Malay or Indian. There's a reason they were dealt with. That may well be the reason for the seething rage of many young Singaporeans in response to SMRT's ill-advised stunt.

LTA and SMRT had better rethink their train station announcement policy. It's not only misguided and wrong; it may well destroy the harmony between the races in Singapore.


singaporean said...

neat article...

btw i think the name buona vista is italian, not spanish

Anonymous said...

To SMRT, here's a transliteration. Fa qiu!