Friday, December 20, 2013, 09:55
Asia Weekly: Singapore minds its heritage language
By Jaime Koh in Singapore

Asia Weekly: Singapore minds its heritage language

The Singapore Chinese Chambers of Commerce & Industry holds regular classes in order to promote Chinese culture, including traditional calligraphy.

Asia Weekly: Singapore minds its heritage language

Thomas Chua, president, Singapore Chinese Chambers of Commerce & Industry.

Given Singapore’s rise as a major commercial hub and financial centre, English rules the roost but generations of ethnic Chinese who make up more than 70 percent of the population have kept alive their language and culture.

Mandarin is one of the four official languages in the city-state and many Chinese Singaporeans still converse in Mandarin, although there might well be many young people who are more fluent in English than in their mother tongue.

Even though younger Singaporeans may not be as strongly attached to their heritage as the previous generations, the majority of Chinese Singaporeans are still able to speak Mandarin.

“The Singaporean Chinese population has evolved into fourth, fifth, sixth generation, so the generational changes are already quite drastic,” notes Zhou Min, a professor of sociology at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

“In the US, by the second generation, 70 percent of the children of immigrants have lost their heritage language. But in Singapore, it’s amazing because … even the sixth and seventh generations still managed to retain their heritage language,” she says.

The high rates of retention are due to a range of government policies and strong roles of clan associations in Singapore in promoting Chinese language and culture.

Between the 1970s and 1990s, the Singapore government instituted a series of policies that aided the promotion and retention of Chinese language and culture.

These include the introduction of the annual Speak Mandarin Campaign; the introduction of “Confucian ethics” as part of religious knowledge education in schools (later rescinded); and the creation of Special Assistance Plan schools in which Mandarin was given the status of a first language on par with English, instead of being a second language as in most other public schools.

Some observers saw the promotion of the Chinese language and culture in the 1980s and 1990s as being linked to the rise of China and the lure of its massive market.

This is a happy boost for some.

“Thanks to China’s growth, the influence of the Chinese language and culture can still be maintained in Singapore,” says Perng Peck Seng, deputy secretary general of the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations (SFCCA).

“Definitely there is the pragmatic part (of retaining heritage language), because China is an economic superpower. Having fluency in Chinese language and culture would enable you to do better in the business world in the Singapore case,” says Zhou, who is also the newly appointed director of the Chinese Heritage Centre at NTU.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat recently urged more people to take up grants to write Chinese books and plays, and said arts groups could also foster greater appreciation of the language through their productions.

Official largesse is not the sole force helping to retain and promote Chinese language and culture. Leading organizations such as the Singapore Chinese Chambers of Commerce & Industry (SCCCI), the SFCCA and the various clan associations have been active in doing so as well.

The NTU’s Chinese Heritage Centre, for instance, was set up in 1995 with help from the SCCCI wit. The center’s mission is to promote awareness and understanding of Chinese culture and tradition in Singapore and the world through exhibitions, collection of academic resources, seminars, conferences and publications.

Now an independent entity, the center remains committed to its vision of being the leading resource on the study of Chinese outside China.

“What we want to do at the Heritage Centre is to try to work hard to retain the heritage language and also the traditions and culture, the good parts of it, that could enrich our culture and experience,” says Zhou.

Over the past ten years, various initiatives have been launched to boost the status of Chinese language and culture in Singapore. Among them is the Chinese Language and Culture Fund.

A collaboration between the SFCCA and the SCCCI, the fund was set up with the aim of promoting research in Chinese language and culture projects through funding.

The fund is open to applications from all Singapore-registered societies, companies, cultural and educational organizations for activities that raise the standards of Chinese language and promote Chinese culture.

But Singapore’s efforts at promoting Chinese language and culture predate the rise of China.

Thomas Chua, president of the SCCCI, highlights the formation of the Nanyang University, known as Nantah, in the 1950s as one such example. The Nanyang University was Singapore’s only Chinese-language tertiary educational institute then, set up to be the stalwart of Chinese language and culture.

Its establishment was strongly supported by the local Chinese community who donated funds for its building. The Hokkien Huay Kuan, one of Singapore’s major clan associations, donated the land on which the university was built.

Many of the clan associations in Singapore, despite their falling membership, continue to maintain their traditions of celebrating major festivals such as Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, and hosting ancestral worship rites and rituals.

These customs are an integral part of Chinese culture that have to be maintained, say these associations.

Some Chinese leaders are concerned about the next generation’s eagerness to pursue the objective of language and culture retention.

“We do worry whether we (at the clan associations) would have successors,” says SFCCA’s Perng, who is also a leader in several local clan associations. “It is a perennial worry.”

But he remains optimistic.

“Many of the clan associations have been working very hard to start youth groups, which in turn organized different activities for the youngsters. We want to let the younger generation know that the clan associations are not just a social club for old people,” he says.

Perng also points out that many people are interested in Chinese language and culture, and actively integrate that interest in their lives.

“The young people have their lives to lead. They have to think about school, and after that, work and family. There are so many demands for their time, and we cannot expect them to come and take up leadership position at the clans immediately,” notes Perng.

But he is sanguine that the time will come for the younger generation to step up.

“We are now sowing the seeds with all these programs we have. Now we’ll just have to wait for the right time to harvest,” he adds.

SCCCI’s Chua says a paradigm shift may be needed in the retention of culture and language. As for ethnic Chinese who may not be fluent in the language but are interested in other aspects of culture, he says they should not be regarded as the periphery.

“They do not need to be able to speak Mandarin to carry on the tradition and culture. We have to be more flexible in our attitude. Singapore is after all a cosmopolitan and multicultural society,” Chua says, adding that the SCCCI, for example, is looking to include more English-speaking Chinese people in its fold.

“As long as he or she can contribute to the SCCCI and society at large, we should welcome them. Maybe by bringing them in, we may have done something good in turn: They would be able to pick up the language in time,” Chua adds.

To expect all ethnic Chinese to be fluent in the language and customs the previous generations have known may be unrealistic.

“Making demands on them to speak fluent heritage language is, to me, unfair,” Zhou says.

“Different times have different demands on languages and skills, so things are evolving and changing. Even when we talk about Chinese language and heritage, it’s not frozen in time.”

Zhou believes young people are capable of creating a “new type of culture” that will contribute to their Chinese heritage.

“The important thing about maintenance is not just how much you know, how fluent you speak the language. But it’s how much you appreciate your heritage.”

“One needs to be proficient in English in order to function in this fast-growing and globalized world,” she says. “As you are picking up and using English as the dominant language, there will be loss of interest in the heritage language.”

Her view is echoed by Chua of the SCCCI.

“Many people lament that even though Singapore is a Chinese majority society, the retention and standards of Chinese language and culture is not very high,” he says, attributing this to the dominance of English as the lingua franca.

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