Saturday, 2 October 2010

Linguistic Hegemony: Cockles and Muscles

(A shorter, less controversial version of this was published in the Straits Times online section on 11th October. I had assumed that the Editor was not going to run it. Apologies for the overlaps.)

The English-Singlish debate has thrown up a vociferous group defending the use of Singlish, largely because they see Singlish as being tied up with a Singapore identity. (I tried to explain how being a good Singaporean should not preclude us from learning to speak good English in a letter to the press.)

This group seems to be made up of people who are able to speak (or at least write) excellent English when they choose to.

There is a deafening silence, at least in the English cyber-media (and understandably so), from the Singlish-speaking group who could most benefit from learning to speak good English.

If I were a Marxian sociologist (not the same as being a Marxist, nota bene) I would say that this ‘good English’ group own the “means of production” and the ‘Singlish’ group do not.

In original Marxist philosophy the bourgeoisie own the “means of production” – land, tools and other resources – unavailable to the proletariat who merely provide the labour.

In Singapore today we can equate “means of production” to access to, or monopoly of, a good standard of English, and with it, ideas, knowledge, jobs, money and therefore, power.

By championing Singlish the ‘linguistic bourgeoisie’ are ensuring that the ‘linguistic proletariat’ continue to be ignorant of how they and their children are being deprived of these “means of production”.

I have spent enough time working on the factory floor to know that parents in this ‘linguistic proletariat’ are unlikely to march up to the school principal to flex their collective muscle and demand that their children are taught English grammar so that they could speak and write proper English.

It is therefore a form of hegemony when the ‘linguistic bourgeoisie’ act to ensure that the social mobility of the ‘linguistic proletariat’ is, henceforth, effectively curtailed.

Outside of economic gain there is another issue related to the grasp of ample language skills: we need good language skills to think through complex ideas.

The tools of language, like the keys on a piano, are all there. Just as good music would evoke a response, a good leader could put words together in such a way that listeners could go, “Wow! I’ve never thought of it that way.”

Good use of language could stir listeners to action. Think of famous speeches like "I have a dream" and "We shall fight [them] on the beaches", etc.

In his recent National Day Rally speech did the Singapore PM choose to inspire?

Instead he chose to dwell on bread-and-butter issues, using anecdotes and case studies to engage, explain and communicate.

Perhaps he had discerned that his audience were unlikely to have the vital language skills to be inspired by clever rhetoric. He has learned that they much prefer to talk cockles and chilli*.

Years of languishing in a linguistic torpor have guaranteed that enough people remain merely useful and utterly apathetic. So apathetic that there is no real fear of uprising.

But alas! these same people cannot be stirred to action either.

Think about it. (And if you do, I am almost certain you won’t be thinking in Singlish.)

*In a 2006 speech the PM used the phrase "mee siam mai hum" which translates into "a spicy local noodle dish without cockles" to illustrate a point. It was then noted that "mee siam" is never served with "hum" (cockles). So did he mean "mee siam mai hiam" where "hiam" refers to "chilli"? What's the point of ordering a spicy noodle dish without the spice? Whatever the defence for this mistake was given, the suspicion remained that this PM has not eaten at hawker centres as most Singaporeans do, suggesting that he was (is?) completely out of touch with the electorate.

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