02 May 2015

The Apotheosis of Lee Kuan Yew V

To boldly go...

It is possible to typify the leadership of early Singapore and the PAP as a triumvirate consisting of Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, and S Rajaratnam. The first was a political man of action who wielded charisma, power, and authority to get people to comply with the national plan. The second was the technocrat who made sure every aspect of the plan was sound. The third was the ideologue, the voice of wisdom put a human touch to the plan.

Star Trek's holy trinity
In this way, the PAP early leadership serves the same archetypical functions that J Michael Straczynski sees Kirk, Spock, and Bones fulfilling in the Star Trek narrative: the Warrior, the Priest, the Doctor.

It is fitting to note that the sidelining of S Rajaratnam (and the subsequent over-emphasis on rule by law and pragmatism in the republic) may be traced to the early repudiation of his model of a race-blind Singaporean Singapore.

Language, identity, and education

Almost 50 years since the victory of the Chinese cultural elite, the greatest challenge to its policies of bilingualism and Sinification (and endorsement of S Rajaratnam’s model of multiculturalism) hails from Singapore’s post-independence generations, who have presented themselves as victims of ideologically-motivated policies crafted by doctrinaire elites from the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture (and its successors) that neither further education or promote culture.

Coming of age in a Singapore where English is the sole medium of instruction in schools and the lingua franca of an increasingly multicultural workplace1, English-educated Chinese Singaporeans have called on MOE’s mandarins to reform its allegedly unrealistic Mandarin school syllabus and testing.

Over the decades, if not from the start, the Chinese cultural elites at the Ministry of Education had viewed the teaching of Mandarin not as an educational project but an ideological and cultural project. Issues of pedagogy, testing, and educational outcomes are of secondary importance for the elites.2 The demographic shift towards homes using English as the main language means that increasingly, these issues are taking on primary importance outside the world of the mandarins. The stresses created by the high standards of the Mandarin syllabus and its testing, the insistence that the Mandarin language is an alienable part of their identity and culture, and disproportionate punishment for poor test scores3 have created a cognitive dissonance that has emboldened them to challenge the mandarins at the Ministry of Education.

If learning Mandarin is to promote a Chinese culture and identity, why insist Mandarin be tested as a purely academic subject at standards comparable to the monophone societies of Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China? If so many Chinese in Singapore and even in China had never been Mandarin speakers in the first place, why is “Mandarin” the conduit to “Chinese” culture? In multicultural Singapore, where Mandarin is not the lingua franca nor the language of instruction4, how should children be best taught the subject, and what should be a realistic standard of literacy and testing?

It is also a very much youthful demographic that has begun to reclaim non-Mandarin Chinese languages (classified, stigmatised, and proscribed as “dialects” in the PRC, ROC, and Singapore) and the Peranakan creole as their rightful heritage, accusing the Chinese cultural elites of eradicating Singapore’s non-Mandarin Chinese and hybrid cultures—in blatant opposition to the diktats on legitimate Chinese culture and identity laid down by the elite.

The Chinese cultural elite does not appear to have capitulated. Since very tentative reforms to pre-school and early primary teaching were announced in 2011, Singapore’s minister for education has had to make several public assurances to the Chinese cultural elites (at a teachers’ union anniversary dinner, in a townhall session brokered by the Mandarin press, etc.) that he had no intention of watering down the standards of Mandarin, that any reforms would purely pedagogical, and would preserve the status of the Mandarin language. Singapore’s mandarins insist periodically that ‘dialects’ possess no literary tradition (and hence no cultural worth), or that ‘dialects’ are entirely vernacular entities, possessing no written script.

By fiercely defending the status quo and opposing significant education reforms beyond early primary school, MOE’s mandarins risk signalling to the public that they are more ideologically committed ideologues than educators, more interested in waging a cultural war than delivering effective education.

Sinification’s non-Chinese victims

Yet the greatest victims of Singapore’s Chinese-led bilingual and multicultural policies are its non-Chinese population. Despite being an official language of Singapore, Tamil has never been spoken by a wide majority of Singapore’s Indian population.5 Yet the sinification of Singapore and the introduction of ‘bilingualism’ in the context of preserving Chinese cultural identify meant that other races too were expected to adopt the policy as well. Mapping the language-dialect schema from the sinocentric bilingualism policy, Tamil was promoted as the ‘mother tongue’ and cultural identifier of Indians in Singapore6, a language that would have been foreign and seen as a separate language from its Gujarati, Hindustani, Punjabi, and Bengali speakers. This meant that 40% of Indian students were forced to acquire a foreign language and told it was their ‘mother tongue’, their proficiency tested at native standards, their relatively poor acquisition stigmatised as poor literacy, if not low intellect.

Continuing immigration from the Indian subcontinent since independence and the resulting shifts in demographics have made the imposition of the pro-Mandarin, anti-dialect model untenable in Singapore’s Indian community. In 1990, state schools allowed non-Tamil Singaporeans to offer Gujarati, Hindustain, Punjabi, and Bengali as their second languages and examination subjects, while failing to fund or provide facilities, teachers, and even teacher training for these classes.

That said, non-Tamil languages continue to suffer stigmatisation in Singapore while Tamil educators in the Ministry of Education developed a purist, High Tamil language that would be unrecognisable in Jaffna, and understood with great difficulty in Ceylon. The Cultural Medallion prize, like all other literary campaigns, contests, and projects promoted by the state’s cultural apparatus, only accepts and rewards works written and delivered in Tamil. The damage to culture is telling: Singapore has not produced a major non-Tamil writer or a major non-Tamil literary work since independence. Because there is no encouragement, support, or recognition for cultural and literary endeavours outside the Tamil language, there is no impetus for non-Tamil Indians in Singapore to embark on a literary career, and no draw for non-Tamil Indian artists to contribute to Singapore’s literary scene.

An eventual readjustment in terms of Indian cultural policy is doubtful, given the following observations: English is fast becoming the main language in Indian homes with Tamil regarded as an academic subject, while the Indians see themselves as preserving traditional values far better than the Chinese, despite declining use of Tamil and other Indian languages at home.7

1 According to the Singapore’s population census report, Chinese Singaporeans speaking English as their main language at home have increased steadily, with the year 2010 marking the tipping point where more than half of any single age group reported English as the language used at home.
2 The disjuncture between the orthography and speech of the Chinese language and the privileging of written over vernacular speech is well-known, as is the long, difficult road to literacy (mainly written) by “native” Mandarin speakers even in the PRC. The “time-tested” pedagogy remains the promotion of repetition and rote learning, though the initial reforms of 2012 attempt to ameliorate this.
3 Not merely an academic subject, a pass in Mandarin for Chinese Singaporeans is required for university admission.
4 According to the MOE, time spent on “Mother Tongue” instruction stands at 20% of total curriculum time in primary school and 15% at higher levels. Since the 1980s, English has been the sole language of instruction in state-run schools in Singapore.
5 At its independence, the percentage of Indians of Tamil origin in Singapore was 65%. Only 60% of Indian households used Tamil as their main language at home; English and “non-Tamil Indian languages” made up the numbers.
6 For a further discussion on Indian language policy as a tool of a radical Tamil cultural elite emulating and mirroring their Chinese colleagues at the Ministry of Education, see Schiffman, HF. 2000. “Tongue-Tied in Singapore: A Language Policy for Tamil?”
7 Riney, Timothy. 1998. “Toward more homogeneous bilingualisms: Shift phenomena in Singapore.” Multilingua 17:1-23.

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