Sunday, 3 January 2016

Rhodes to Eunoia: a conspiracy theory?

Update on 14th January 2016: Interesting comment here.

At Oriel College, Oxford University, a group of vociferous students, led by Mr Ntokozo Qwabe from South Africa, are agitating to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British colonialist that gave his name to Northern and Southern Rhodesia (presently roughly equivalent to Zambia and Zimbabwe)
Annie Teriba, a ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaigner, was known to have said, ‘There’s a violence to having to walk past the statue every day on the way to your lectures, there’s a violence to having to sit with paintings of former slave holders whilst writing your exams.’

(You can read more about Ms Teriba’s own violence-related misdemeanours
here.)
Commentators have compared this campaign to erase the past to ISIS tearing down statues and destroying other ancient artefacts.
All these brought to mind a conversation I had with an English friend, several decades ago, as I showed him around the Central Business District. He was amazed that we still used names like Shenton Way and Anderson Bridge.
I said Singaporeans were (are still?) comfortable with these names. We were confident enough in our own place in the world to acknowledge that we had benefitted from being a colony.
Besides, I said in jest, it will be absurd to rename “Shenton Way” as “Lee Way”.
In the intervening years I have noticed that many commercial and residential buildings have been given some really bizarre names, featuring a random usage of “la”, “le” or “de”. It indicated to me that there was some embarrassment about our Asian migrant past.
We were afflicted by the opposite to xenophobia (a fear of anything xenos, meaning ‘strange’ in Greek). We were being gripped by xenophilia: liking anything ‘foreign’, so long as this ‘foreign’ was not Chinese, Malay or Tamil ‘foreign’. Any other type of ‘foreign’ was ‘good’ and ‘progressive’.
Were the people behind this odd naming convention the same people who then led us into the current dependence on ‘foreign talent’?
Now I do not personally have anything against the appreciation of Greek culture, language, history, mythology, et cetera. In fact, I will be the first to cheer should the Ministry of Education were to say tomorrow, “Students who have the interest will now be allowed to study Greek and Latin at school.”

Here are some reasons.
Recent research has shown that teaching Latin and Greek to students who had “fallen behind their classmates” has given “a huge boost in deciphering English and even helping with maths and science”.
I can never get over how before the breaking of bread at church one morning, someone explained how the word “comPANy” or “comPANionship” comes from the word “pan” (or “pane”) meaning “bread”, indicating that company/companionship had something to do with “eating bread together”.
How cool was that! To just take an English word, any English word, ascertain its roots in Latin and/or Greek, and then get an (approximate) idea of its meaning. Little wonder that pupils in the above programme began to understand English so much better.
(We have a parallel in the Chinese language, of course, where an understanding of the root radicals helps us to establish quickly whether a character is an action word (with a “hand” radical), a plant (with a “grass” radical), or something to do with food (with the ‘mouth’ radical), exempli gratia.)
On the home front I have been taken aback by how a certain young man who everyone assumed would have a bright career in Maths or Physics has now been gripped by all things Greek (and I don’t just mean the olives) and Latin.
This was the young man who pronounced to the amusement of his primary school teachers, prior to his first Latin lesson, that Latin meant learning to say, “Let-us go-us there-us.” But it was Ancient Greek, which he started learning last year, that has captured his imagination to the point that he is now contemplating a degree in Classics.
So I understand how Greek can get quite addictive.
The furore about the proposed Eunoia Junior College is understandable. Typically Singaporeans only encounter Latin in our school mottos and even then, many of us cannot even decipher their original and various meanings. Basically there is nothing in the Singapore DNA that makes a Greek-based “Eunoia” an obvious choice.
Has anyone done ‘user experience’ research (or due diligence) to find out how Hokkien speakers would enunciate Eunoia?
From the press statements released, it appears that the powers-that-be are adopting the Wikipedia definition of the word. As serious researchers know: never rely on Wikipedia. Has some civil servant googled the word and convinced the committee that this was a good name?
If one is into conspiracy theory, one might think that this is a sinister sign of elitism – particularly if you look at the list of feeder schools: “If you (or your parents) can’t pronounce this, then don’t bother to apply (id est you do not belong)?” Rather like, “If you have to ask the price, then you can’t afford it.”

Maybe the name was chosen deliberately to exclude.
There is a time and place for everything, I used to tell my young man.
Context matters.
Can we not come up with a name more relevant to Singapore history and culture, the history of the feeder schools, or just an aspirational virtue like ‘righteousness’ or ‘honour’ in Chinese, Malay or Tamil?
Everything in context: Just as Rhodes was what he was, a man of his time and place.
Putting it in context, Mr Qwabe is a Rhodes scholar. Now how does one say "You should not bite the hand that feeds" in Greek?


1 comment:

Wasserstein said...

More to Rhodes. One just has to Google Rhodes and nwo. The rabbit hole beckons.