Monday, November 02, 2009

Singapore & the 'Inferiority Complex'...新加坡与新国语言政策...シンガポールとシンガポールの言語政策....

This post is going to be about Singapore and its inferiority complex. Hahaha..
I was going through blogs in recent weeks when i came across a few blogs written by young English-educated Singaporean Chinese. I also went on via links to this Singapore online site called 'The Online Citizen' whereby there are posts on Singaporean social, economic, and political issues as well as commentary left by Singaporean readers on their views regarding these issues. One common strain that i discovered was the inherent inferiority complex that many Singaporean (Chinese) suffered and how they view themselves and their country in such a negative and under-deserving light. I mean, read any Singaporean blog written by a certain section of Singaporean society and you can see how negative they view their own country, an extension of their own inferiority complex. These are usually people whom are ethnic Chinese, English educated with a good command of English, from an upper to upper-middle class segment of society, poor Mandarin/dialect capabilities, and probably with a foreign education background too. Their blogs and views on the The Online Citizen are 80% and more negative on Singapore and Singaporeans in general as a populace and you can hardly see any positive things they would say about their country, a country which is one of THE richest nations in the world in terms of GDP per capita, clean, efficient, with a high living standard but yet read any Singaporean blog from an elite intellectual background and inevitably its 80% and above negative. The only position mentions would be about family or food.

Quite frankly, this is a case of what I call 'Elitism' and 'Inferiority Complex'. Singaporeans with a good command of English and from a higher education level tend to have an elitism complex as well as inferiority complex. They look down on their own country and even worse, on their own people, with common terms like 'third world mentality' 'third world manner's' 'third world..bla bla bla' to describe something they dislike about their country. Although i do agree with criticism about the government as its extremely dictatorial, and there's really a case of 'third world freedom of speech, gay rights, and media freedom' to be argued for in the case of Singapore, i tend to find many of these Singaporeans overly critical of the country and their people when there's much to be proud of.

I believe this has to do with the unconscious elitism and inferiority complex which many Singaporeans have in that they feel the West or Japan will ALWAYS be better than their own nation, never mind the economy, transportation, healthcare,etc in Singapore. It's a feeling which is worse when i've read singaporeans describing 'typical singaporean behavior' and looking down on their on, typically the less-educated or more dialect-speaking/mandarin speaking singaporeans. Singapore, like Malaysia, suffers from an 'internalised white-worship' mentality whereby everything Western is considered somehow better, the education in the West is better, the social manners in the West is better, the bla in the West is better..without any warrant.

One post in the 'The Online Citizen' and the comments it elicited really riled was concerning Singapore's language policy which mandates that each major race learn compulsory 'Mother tongue' as a separate subject in school (as the Singaporean education syllabus is completely English) which means ethnic Chinese learn Mandarin, Indians learn Tamil, Malays learn Malay and so on. The particular post by the writer went on and on about how Mandarin wasn't her mother tongue, how the government was 'forcing an alien language down her throat'(*rolls eyes*, yes Mandarin is an 'alien language' but English, the language of Singapore's former colonial masters is not? Not a word of criticism on English usage) how her mother tongue was really a chinese dialect like teochew, fookchew, hokkien, cantonese,etc and how they should get rid of this policy and allow dialects in school and like 80% of the readers meaning 70-80 comments completely supported her even 'blaming' compulsory Mandarin education for 'destroying dialects' in Singapore.
BULL CRAP. This is another problem with the elite English-educated Chinese Singaporeans. Like my native Malaysia, there's always been a stratification of languages, although much less pronounced now than in the pre-2000s days when it was VERY obvious.

Basically, put simply, those whom speak and write good English are right at the top of the social/economic ladder in society, followed by the Mandarin-speaking people, and then followed by the dialect-speaking (meaning they use Hokkien,Teochew, Fookchew, Hakka,etc more) with poor command of English right at the bottom. That's the perception anyway. English is connected with social mobility and class, being of an upper class. This is supposedly the same as in India as well where English newspapers, government interviews, tv programs, etc are given an 'elite class treatment' whilst the media which has actually more readership such as Hindi, Tamil, Telugu,etc language media is given a second class priority in the public perception. This has caused such a huge elite upwardly mobile segment of Singaporean society to look down on dialect and Mandarin and recently, with the global trend in indigenous culture promotion, to just despise Mandarin and promote dialects.

I find it horrifying to say the least that these people whom already have poor to no dialect speaking skills are now rebelling against compulsory Mandarin education and promotion (A govt 'Speak Mandarin Campaign' which started in the early 1980s to promote Mandarin in place of dialects) and saying how it isn't their mother tongue. What is going to happen if the language policy of the Singaporean govt is done away with (one of the areas where i actually support it 100%) would be to result in Singaporean Chinese speaking poor Mandarin, equally poor, if not worse, dialect, and 100% English. This is already happening EVEN with the compulsory mandarin education currently. I mean, all the Singaporeans I've met, whom happen to fit into the elite english-educated foreign educated segment i just mentioned above, have horrible Mandarin skills and quite good English skills. They cannot really speak dialect as well given the elite group speak English at home, at work, in school, socially interacting with friends,etc that I find it resolutely ridiculous that some in this segment now would like Mandarin removed as a compulsory subject. One can only wonder with dialect being much less useful than Mandarin, which is actually a very useful language spoken by 1.3 billion Chinese plus the 35 million plus residing overseas in countries like America, Canada, Malaysia, and Philippines (there is even over 500,000 Chinese workers now living in Africa!) one can see what the result would be if dialects were introduced as compulsory. First off, it wouldn't work practically as it'd mean different teachers and materials and exams needed, given there's so many dialects, and also it'd mean different dialect groups would be unable to communicate with each other thus fracturing the Chinese community in Singapore.

Mandarin was introduced as the de facto unifying language in the early 20th century precisely to unite the Chinese Han race as different dialects were being spoken and people in the north could not communicate with the southerners and even southerners couldn't communicate with each other. (re: Cantonese with Teochews with Hokkiens with Hakkas,etc you get the idea.) But once again, the inferiority complex of these Singaporeans rear its ugly head and they decide they don't want anything to do with Mandarin. It's so silly given how much Singaporeans love to lament on their 'poor' English skills when its such a highly Anglicised and Westernised nation, one of the most Westernised in fact in Asia. They'd rather critcise and rebel against their cousin language of Mandarin, being within the 'family' than criticise the real culprit of what has destroyed dialect in Singapore (if you really must blame a language) which is ENGLISH. It is the English language and the accompanying inferiority complex mentality of the 60s/70s/80s/90s/00s which Singaporeans had/have which resulted in English occupying and completely kicking out dialect usage, first from the public sphere in the workplace, then progressively socially such that English has become for decades the language of choice when socialising amongst fellow Chinese friends, and then into the private sphere of the family, being used within the family. I read somewhere that a survey by the Education Ministry of Singapore ( i think) in 2009 indicated over 60% of all primary school aged children from ethnic Chinese backgrounds now use English as their spoken 'mother tongue' at home, meaning not only is the unifying Chinese language of Mandarin (or if you're one of those elitist Westernised Singaporeans, you'd at least call it a 'cousin language') or even chinese dialect not in use, a completely 'outsider language' of English is now the mother tongue of the majority of the next generation of Singaporeans.

As a fervently proud ethnic Chinese and proud Asian of both East Asian and S.East Asian descent(always has been, always will be...which is why i even majored in Asian Studies within my Arts degree in uni when it wasn't a popular major for Asians..) i find this EXTREMELY UNACCEPTABLE AND DISTURBING. But of course, no one in the Singaporean English blogosphere nor these influential online news sites are debating on the poor Mandarin levels of Singaporean Chinese, which as an ethnic race, all Chinese should understand. ( Believe me, with the Chinese population currently around the world, spanning from Malaysia, Australia, to Africa and the Middle East, Mandarin is VERY VERY USEFUL..even for my daily life here in Oz, i find so many Chinese people in Sydney and its very useful to understand mandarin, you just get more with an extra language and also dialects would prevent interaction between Chinese people meaning an outsiders language would be needed (English) for the different groups to interact (which is currently happening in Singapore and will get worse should Mandarin be removed and dialects introduced as the mandatory mother tongue subject). It's funny how some Singaporeans criticise about the 'poor english levels' in Singapore when it is the Mandarin levels and dialect levels which warrant debate and the status of English within society should be re-evaluated instead.

It's like attacking your cousin (Mandarin) whilst not being able to speak your own mother dialect (dialect) whilst being completely comfortable with speaking an outsider's language (English). Inferiority Complex at its worse. And the worse thing is when these elitist English-educated Chinese complain about Singaporean's English level and education system, it has still managed to produce thousands of Singaporeans whom successfully are able to enter and graduate from foreign universities and with Singaporeans making up a disproportionate number of students in Ivy League universities in America (relative to Singapore's small population size). Like seriously, obviously somethings been done right for them to even get into these places in the first place, right? But nooo, inferiority complex mandates that they complain about that aspect of Singapore as well...quite frankly, its like one of those people who go online heaping praise upon praise on North Korea and Communism in general whilst being in the comforts of their freedom of using the internet, their freedom of speech and freedom of movement within the comforts of a capitalist, democratic society, no???

And also the term of 'heartlander' which is used in Singapore is also a reflection of the elitism mentality of many young yuppie English educated Singaporean Chinese by creating this non-existent category of people in Singapore to refer to those ppl living in the suburbs, dialect/mandarin speaking, and supposedly socially bckward and conservative in silly, as if Singapore is not small enough to have a 'heartland'?? So many of these socially English speaking ppl live or their families/friends' live in the 'heartlands' anyways to make this social distinction moot, but of course, they create this term to differentiate themselves from everyone else, with the 'everyone else' being more backwards...

It's not just a Singapore problem, sadly. I find it much more serious in Singapore though. In Hong Kong and Japan, there has also been a problem of 'Western White-Worship' and 'Inferiority Complex' as well despite their wealthy status. For instance, advertisements and magazines in Japan disproportionately feature white or mixed European-Japanese models and white men assumedly get the girls more in nightclubs compared to Asian men. In Hong Kong as well, white and English is also (or once was) put on a high pedastal as well.

However, both Japan and Hong Kong always had and have strong native popular cultures and pride to counter this inferiority complex but yet Singapore does not. This is why I find the problem of elitism and 'white worship' much more worrisome in Singapore and afflicting Singaporeans much more than Japanese or Hong Kongers whom actually have improved alot in the past decade with much more pride for their native culture and people. For instance, you are hard-pressed to find Japanese or Hong Kong ppl having a general perception that their people 'lack social manners' or are 'backwards' as opposed to many Singaporeans.

I do agree that Singapore and particularly its government has much 'third world' aspects such as lack of freedom of speech, media freedom, gay rights,etc for a First World(it is 1st world, despite these elitist claims of it being really third-world) .

However, I also think whats really shameful and 'third world' about Singapore is not its general citizenry or the nation itself, but those with elitist (generally) English-speaking Singaporeans whom have a 'third world' inferiority complex about their own nation, the nation which gave them so much material wealth as well as opportunities both abroad and at home to distastefully look down on their own nation and its people which provided them what they have today.

Thats whats truly 'third world' and deplorable about Singapore.

A society where the English educated elites unconsciously look down on those with poorer English skills whilst slamming their own unifying tongue of Mandarin whilst at the same time being completely at home with using their former colonial master's language.

A society where the future generation will all have as their true 'mother tongues' that of a truly 'outsider's' language, English.

A society which has become so Westernised that much attention is focused on the 'poor English' standards of Singaporeans whilst at the same time having no qualms on further eroding the already shamefully poor Mandarin levels of many Singaporeans and at the exact same time giving half-hearted support for dialect education.

A people whom have no pride in a nation which, despite having plenty of flaws, and a flawed government, has also managed to turn itself from a resourceless tiny island into one of the richest nations on earth within 30 years.

That's what's truly 'third world' about certain Singaporeans and that's the true shame of Singapore. And all this coming from a foreigner, me....Any thoughts, anyone?

PS: The above reflects my own thoughts on the subject and is not meant to offend any Singaporeans and be an attack on anyone, even if you happen to fall within the elitist English-speaking category of Singaporeans whom I refer to above. It's just to simply point out my observations and thoughts on the matter and, hopefully, change minds and spirits in that process, not to offend anyone!


gina said...

The thing I regret most is probably didn't take up Mandarin properly. I was sent to Kebangsaan School. I missed many goodies in Mandarin - their songs, their poems, rich Chinese history, etc. A boy once told me, it's too bad I don't know how to read Mandarin, otherwise he would write me love letters.

We should be proud of having a heritage backdate thousands of years ago.

That is why I always make it a point to speak to the children in my house in our dialect. In future, nobody would know how to speak dialect anymore as they think English is the superior language. Same third world mentality trapped in colonized minds.

hcpen said...

gina: I agree, its great you make a point of speaking dialect with the young/little ones. Its essential to do that if not, truly the future generation of malaysian chinese will be like singaporean chinese, all english speaking people living in the first world but being trapped within a third world english-speaking mentality.

fufu said...

but i think the dialects will soon disappear in malaysia... my hokkien, hakka and cantonese are getting sucks >< how am i going to speak with my kids? anyway i think i will let them master english and mandarin...japanese and german as second language =p

hcpen said...

fufu: sounds great! yeah, kids with a foundation in mandarin will find it just alittle easier to learn japanese and english skills make learning german just that much easier. sounds cool..u should speak more dialect if possible, especially something like hakka, which is dying much faster than hokkien and cantonese which are still quite popular.

YTSL said...

Hi hcpen --

My biggest fear with regards to language for Malaysians (and Singaporeans) is how it can seem like people can speak many languages but none really well (i.e., with a truly extensive vocabulary, grammatically correctly, etc.). :S

hcpen said...

YTSL: Agree, but one of the advantages of being Malaysian is that we pick up many languages/dialects to a working day-to-day level which is good enough for me. Its too difficult to be good in all the languages and also having working level knowledge is good enough for me as I think something like Cantonese (which many Malaysians know) is very useful when you live in or travel to HK despite having only a day-to-day working knowledge of it:-)

tortilla chips said...

Thank you for the very insightful post. I'm Chinese Singaporean, and I agree completely.

I was brought up in a Mandarin-speaking family, in a 3 room HDB flat in the "heartlands". I never spoke a word of English until 8, and even then it was flakey at best. I went to a "neighbourhood" primary school, so it was alright because most people spoke Mandarin anyway.

The reality of elitism hit me only in secondary school. I attended Nanyang Girls' High and RJC, choke full of posh Chinese kids who could not speak a word of their own language (quite the opposite from me). Fitting in was impossible if you didn't speak English. Mandarin was seen as "cheena" and "uncool", while my classmates struggled to reproduce American/British mannerisms (hardly natural at all, if you ask me!) Some of my friends were indeed very proud of their poor Mandarin skills. It's a phenomenon that baffles me till this day.

I'm living in the UK now, and ironically I've never been more proud of my culture. Over here people don't attach labels. Everyone celebrates individuality, instead of repressing it in favour of practices more "westernised", "developed" or "civilised". Perhaps this is the one aspect of Western culture that Singaporeans need to learn.

Tan Wee Cheng said...

I agree with many of the points you have raised; However, you may wish to take note that many of the Singaporeans who blog about political issues are anti-establishment. The SG govt is so overwhelming in mainstream media that its critics become accordingly very bitter online, sometimes so bitter that they lose their perspective and objectivity. They would criticise anything that is government-linked, including its language policies.

Whilst many of the phenomena you have raised on the regard some of the elite have for the Chinese language is true, there are also many among the elite who do not subscribe to such views.

I personally feel that there has been a revival of Chinese in Singapore in the past decade, linked to the rise of China as an economic power. The online complaints you have read are the pathetic last words of a meaningless cause that is totally detached from the reality of a rising China.

The Singapore mosaic is, like that of many countries, complex and multi-faceted, and I do not think the anti-Chinese crowd you encountered online constitutes even the elite of Singapore in general.