The Oedipal Fantasy of Father Figures (A Slice of Satire)

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?

14 Responses

  1. You say there is no single standard English.

    That’s true if we’re talking about spoken English where there are many variants which, in my opinion, add colour and make it interesting. Singlish is one such variation.

    Written English on the other hand, is pretty much standardized in form and grammar. Although Scotsmen, Australians, South state Americans, or people with other native languages may speak very differently, they are still expected to follow a certain standard in writing. There may still be variations, but these are relatively minor, so there is really no such excuse for poor written English. Although I understand that there are other excuses, such as English being far from your mother language, etc. I find it sad if “variation” is used to defend bad grammar.

    • I do think there people are capable of weak language use, be it English or any other language. There will always be people who are able to use English with sophistication and confidence, and, even amongst native speakers, there will always be those who are not very proficient in the language. Nevertheless, there also exists a rather significant area where things are not clear-cut, where whether a form (and if we can call it a “form”, it is not peculiar to a particular individual person but is used by many) of English is deemed acceptable or not.

      Variation should not be used to defend bad English in general. For instance. if I read a novel, I certainly do not wish to be exposed to bad English (unless bad English is used deliberately to make a point). But I would respect variation and I would respect even those who are unable to speak a certain form of English that is considered standard. I also think that most people are not capable to flawless (and I mean flawless) English, although it seems to me that when non-native speakers like Singaporeans do not speak perfect English (if it exists), it is attributed to the fact that they are not native and whereas people do not often pay attention to the mistakes of non-native speakers.

      If there are many Singaporeans who do not seem to be able to write in proper English (as compared to perfect English) despite their education, we have to consider what has gone wrong. Perhaps it is the adamant denial of spontaneous variations. Perhaps it is the way people are taught to learn a first language the way some would a second or third language. Personally, I prefer the showing of possibilities to the implementations of rules.

      • Yea. Well, I teach at a local university and I often see examples of poor written English among my students and even among colleagues. It’s even to the point that when I see well written smoothly flowing sentences, it is very likely cut and paste from another source.

        Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that everybody must write perfect English and that you’re stupid if you don’t. Not at all. It’s just that I cringe when people try to make wrong seem right by bringing up the argument that different native speakers speak differently, because I find that very much beside the point.

        For the same reason, I don’t see Singlish as a problem at all. People can usually master both a spoken “dialect” as well as correct written grammar. One doesn’t exclude the other.

        I would agree with you about showing possibilities and I think reading literature could be the way to go. People who read tend to develop good language skills.

        • I’m not so sure about reading anymore. Because this is Singapore, people might just “read” because it supposedly improves their command of English and helps them get better grades in exams. Things tend to lose their genuine value when they are reduced to mere practical functions.

      • Btw, I really like your blog, especially your satiric masterpieces 🙂

  2. […] education: To Bi or not to Bi – Molitics: The Oedipal Fantasy of Father Figures (A Slice of Satire) – Today In Singapore: A Daughter’s […]

  3. You fellows in the alternative medium has fallen boat line and sinker into the test of LKY.
    He wanted to give you something to write about, and was testing the power of the internet, but mouthing something and seeing it morph into the hottest topic on planet Singapore.
    In a matter of 5-10 days, this Chinese teaching thing is the hottest topic. Everyone from Mr Brown to Mr Wong are talking nonstop about it.

    Clever little fox this Harry.

    • It is difficult to talk or not to talk about it. The difference is in the way one talks about it, if one chooses to.

  4. […] “It would seem then [that] we are handicaps when it comes to languages of persons. We only have languages of functions… a prosthesis of bankrupt selves instead of being integral to these selves and enriching them… Perhaps our bilingualism is nonlingualism.” Molly Meek […]

  5. Thank you for writing. Your blog is a fun read.

    Would you accept that English as a “first” language did contribute significantly, even fundamentally, towards Singapore’s material success? And that, all things considered, this success did rather more good than evil?

    Even though the case is somewhat weaker, I would even make a similar argument about how we now focus on the “stepmother tongue,” as you so aptly called it.

    For my hypothetical children, I would want ample material comforts, besides developing the capacity for critical thinking and empathy, among ten thousand other things. Which would I hold the government most responsible (in terms of creating/facilitating the correct macro environment) for delivering? Well, it would be the material comfort stuff, based on providing a stable environmet for economic growth. I would be quite happy to take care of the being human part without the government’s help.

    Just curious.

    This train of thought hasn’t, by the way, led me to vote one way or another.

    • I can’t be sure if English as a first language contributed significantly. I would know if we had another Singapore without English as the first language with which to compare. But it is a little paradoxical. On the one hand, we keep saying that English as the first language has help us in economic terms. On the other hand, we also keep saying that our English is dysfunctional and we keep having anxieties about our inability to communicate in standard English (which sounds like a very basic skill). If English has helped us, surely we must be sufficiently competent in it? (I don’t actually know and my concern is really a little different.)

      What you say about a government providing (creating?) an environment for economic growth is an issue that is quite common in Singapore’s public discourse. In one sense, most governments in the world try to do so. And I believe any current political party in Singapore will try to do so. The difference lies in te methods, the price a government is willing to pay, the sacrifices it is willing to make, and the sacrifices it demands the people to make that is different. Each method has its price and might vary in effectiveness. (Are we willing to compromise one thing or another and how far?) We want economic growth and there are different ways of creating an environment suitable for it. Some, for instance, might think that suppressing what is often known as workers’ rights to go on strike, etc is an important sacrifice. Others might not think so. Some might use it as an excuse to suppress your rights, others might not.

      I don’t know about children. For myself, it is most tragic when I try to be human (though we might have different definitions of what this means) only to have my human spirit suffocated and I certainly will not support any government that places impediments to being human. Though, of course, I am by no means accusing any government of doing so.

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