Kuan Yew is so powerful that he can be right when he claims to be wrong.
Kuan Yew is language.
But for the record, Kuan Yew has never quite said that bilingualism was wrong. He thinks that Mandarin has been taught in the wrong manner, but this is in no way an admission that bilingualism was, at its core, wrong. What a great chance to aggrandize the legendary status of Kuan Yew though! He is now such a great leader that he is not afraid to say that he is wrong.
Kuan Yew, so full of wisdom as always, has denied Singapore of its unborn/undead Conrads and Nabokovs. “Nobody can master two languages at the same level,” he claims, citing his daughter. Perhaps not the same level, if it was ever really about mastering them at the same level, but how about mastering two languages nevertheless?
“It doesn’t matter what level [students] reach, they will like the language [if the lessons are engaging], it’s fun and later on in life they’ll use it,” Kuan Yew says about the teaching of Mandarin.
Why bilingualism, still? But let’s first ask ourselves, what bilingualism? For it is not simply a matter of learning two languages. Even if English as the first language is a given, there have always been only limited choices for one’s second language.
What is the state’s definition of a language learned? We have English as the first language, and we have Mandarin as one of the second languages. “Mother tongue,” they call it, with unabashed intimacy even if most mothers at one point in the past merely spoke dialects. But the supposed tongues of our mothers seem to come from a world so different that we have difficulty making them our own while the tongues that really belonged to our mothers were cut and banned from pubic broadcast. A seconded language rather than a second language. And yet, we have to submit to a stepmother tongue while gazing towards China, perhaps an ex-motherland. We are told we need to have a Stepmother Tongue for a disowned motherland. And despite all these familial but unfamiliar posturing, it is for the sake of business, we are also told. Speak the language of the Hans. Little Hans fearful of severance, embracing surrogate mothers, pleasing fathers.
And the first language is, for those who are brought up by people who speak no English, not the first language they speak; and for many others, it is in fact a second English to the Singlish that they have picked up. But Singlish is wrong, we are told. We have to learn Standard English, when there is no single standard for English. And it is the language of business too.
It would seem then that there we are handicaps when it comes to languages of persons. We only have languages of functions. Language is always reducible to a function, a prosthesis of bankrupt selves instead of being integral to these selves and enriching them. And languages are always borrowed, like the toolbox one might borrow from one’s neighbor. We can master English without being a master of English—in other words, without taking ownership of it, not to mention being one with it. Perhaps our bilingualism is nonlingualism. I have suspected for some time already, that I am semi-illiterate, if not fully so.
All for the greater good, surely. The state only needs businesmachines, not businessmen and certainly, certainly not people of language, people who can decide to be who they are. Except perhaps for the few who can be held up as evidence that Singapore has a really vibrant literary scene.
Was the state wrong in the implementation of how Mandarin was/is taught (and it is a banal point Kuan Yew is making since everyone knows that interesting lessons are better than boring ones) or is it still wrong (willfully?) in its primary approach to language?