"Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the Sultan of Johor are seen in a blue Proton Saga... "When asked whether there is any tension with the sultan, Dr Mahathir said: “No, I don’t see anything because I went to see him and he drove me to the airport. I don’t want to comment on the sultans because if I say anything that is not good then it’s not nice because he is the sultan”"

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"I hope that when I die, people say about me, 'Boy, that guy sure owed me a lot of money.'" - Jack Handey


An exchange with My Facebook Spouse (MFS) on sedition, culture and language:

Me: "No wonder Singapore doesn't really have a culture (it is the most culturally bland country I have ever seen...and I have visited >20)."

The reason our government has to construct identity so proactively is because it keeps destroying it - anti-Singlish campaigns, destroying old buildings, pissing off the creative class (e.g. censorship, repression, anti-gay laws), encouraging materialism etc.

MFS: the whole "young country argument" is not a very valid one, we cannot just date the start of the development of our culture to 1965, or 1959 for that matter, nor can we say that just because we are a multi-racial society, the culture's that come forth somehow negate each other into oblivion. A majority of the people in Singapore are descended from immigrants who had their own unique cultures that stretch back for the longest time - tapered perhaps by modern social and economic developments and the changing realities of life.

the reason we don't have a culture is because it is not allowed to flourish as well as it should - a strong emphasis on science, engineering, mathematics over arts, humanities, dance, drama and architecture. A general inability to think out of the box, fostered by a rigid education system. A social set up that stresses monetary practicality over existentialist purpose, and a political climate that discourages the free wheeling development of culture - breakdancing at the esplanade underpass, OB markers for political discourse, bureaucratic hurdles and mindsets when it comes to bucking the trend, the linguistic development of local communication, and an emphasis on up keeping and maintaining the social status and order.

Our model of cultural development is more state led than anything else - social campaigns that encourage the change of behaviors, mostly driven from an economic perspective, a dearth of the creative class to free and controversial expression, and an education system that trains us to keep up to the status quo (which inevitably is an ever changing MOE syllabus) that discourages thinking, creative analysis, or artistic development. Also, the people are in some ways to blame as well, as there is little ability to appreciate, stomach or extend the reach of high culture.

Its complicated, in some ways, the people are to blame, in other ways, the government is to blame. Culture I think is in many ways the way people chose to live their life, their expressions of creativity - whether in writing, painting, photography, dance, drama, etc, the fundamental beliefs held by the populace and the institutions that either encourage, discourage or abhor such developments.

I think in Singapore, the goal is to create a society of docile, hardworking, highly obedient serfs to the cogs of Singapore INC - upkeep our attractiveness to foreign investors, and keep driving the increase to our GDP per capita, especially in "an increasingly competitive world" - and anything that detracts from that vision of an economy with a 1984 working class- like counter-culture hippies, non-comformists, the nails that stick out to try new things contrary to the state led efforts of development and the promotion of what it believes to be the "right culture and values" is simply forbidden.

Perhaps that's why they get uncomfortable with Royston Tan's 15, as it documents a part of our society and culture that does not fit into the perspective of investment stability. Or that drama and plays at times which tend to lean onto politically contentious issues are censured, and in an environment like that, those that can affect our culture go abroad to find their own cultural havens in Europe or the US.

The theory of individualism, is still, at best, an uncomfortable one within the nationalistic narrative of "asian values"

i think the current gahmen's political philosophy has shifted to becoming more libertarian in nature - that is, pretty much anything goes, so long as nothing threatens their grip on power, that it does not stand in the way or detracts from economic growth, or that it is not in the "public interest" for it to happen. In the latter two, both are quite vague, and usually driven by political agendas more than anything else.

Thus, the creative class, which seeks to extend the relative consciousness of the people and make them aware, to think, to actualize a deeper understanding of the world that governs their lives is perhaps a threat to the beneficial state's version of history, culture and the plan and path for what is right and what remains wrong.

Its like if you chose to put on a play about how awesome national education is, GREEN LIGHT. But a play on how there should be more opposition in parliament, not likely. Or local movies that reflect the social hierarchy and nature of society (i not stupid, money no enough) its more than likely to receive a go ahead - but if it documents the lives of sex workers, gays or migrant workers or other groups pushing for change - then the "political agenda" reason is used to stopper them because of "public interest" concerns.

I think the development of culture in Singapore would be so much more free wheeling and easy going, but there definitely is some elements of stifling it if it does not adhere to the political-philosophic guidelines of the ruling party. And perhaps that's why we hear the oft repeated argument that a western styled liberal government won't work in singapore - just rehash it and it becomes "a western styled liberal culture won't work in singapore"

i think its very hard to kill a language, especially when the vast majority of the population speaks it. I think the roots are in the bilinguial policy - designed obviously for economic reasons to engage both east and west. As someone who has studied the linguistic aspects of psychology, and the cognitive/neurochemical aspects, I can say that it is VERY difficult for the average person to speak two languages fluently. Of course there are the experts and the linguists and the translators, but a majority of the population in Singapore basically speaks bad english and bad chinese, or else good in one language and bad in the other. Maybe not in RJC, but its definitely something very consistent in my life across society and groups of people.

Singlish, I think is the perfect vehicle of communications that banks on the simplest aspects of dialects and languages - i.e: lowest transaction costs when communicating, plus it helps to bridge the gap between people of different ethnic backgrounds i.e: everyone knows what "wah lau, chee bye, sia lah, bagus," and the liberal sprinkling of other languages means when its colluded into one sentence. Its hard to argue that most people would not understand a sentence like "eh! wah lau, why you so like that one ah?" - it works just fine for pretty much anyone. gahmen wants to rid us with it because we are not able to "converse fluently with westerners" as a result. Unfortunately, I've yet to find an American friend who can understand singlish - besides the ones that currently work or have lived in singapore for a couple of years - they just don't get it. And singlish, is "detrimental" to the original economic focus for the bilingual policy - that is to bridge east and west. Instead of speaking great english to one side and great chinese to the other end of the world, we are bridging both with bad english, bad chinese and linguistic shortcuts... and it does not bode well for "economic competitiveness" - and so the campaigns to speak good english... and the campaigns to use it not lose it come forth. Its kinda sad actually. I think Singlish is the one thing that really binds Singaporeans across the world.

I was at Chicago's O'Hare airport a few days ago, and at Gate 16, they have the Singapore to Chicago flight back via United Airines. And I tell you, it is comforting just to be able to sit there and hear folks speak in a familiar accent, language and words - to the utter incomprehensibility of the surrounding Americans.

Everytime I meet up with a Singaporeans in New York/Boston, its a pleasure to just speak singlish - "eh how's life ah" / "wah xiong leh" / "weather si bei leng ah" / "let's go jia roti" that kind of thing.

i think the gahmen should just stay outside of regulating culture. just let people do what they want to do, and as long as they aren't doing crazy shit like sacrificing babies based on cultural reasons (an example given by my professor in political philosophy) we should just let people do whatever they want to do to make them happy.

Me: That it is very hard for most people to speak two languages fluently is a proposition I tend to believe, though I have been shouted down by naysayers. Perhaps a good place to try to falsify this proposition is India, but I don't know how fluent they are in English and their native Indian tongue.

Can you enlighten me about the cognitive/neurochemical aspects?

MFS: brudder, brain chemistry is quite difficult! actually, i'd say besides game theory, it might be the hardest thing i've learnt in college - and i thought that psych classes would be easy, until it went to hell with neurobiology.

the thing with languages is that we have a LAP - Noam Chomsky theorized about this Language Acquisition Period, that is within the first 24 -36 months of birth, up to five years. As long as a child is exposed to a variety of languages - and babies can distinguish between R & L sounds in the womb or something, and the difference between french and spanish or german and dutch at 6 months is a major factor in picking up language. After the age is past, it gets extremely difficult to gain second language mastery

my friends who are philosophy-neuroscience-psychology majors explain that even with intensive training, it is usually very difficult for the average adult to pick up mastery of second language - to the point where linguists and psychologists are working together now to design programs to see if they can improve on this seemingly natural defect of our humanity

the idea in India is that a vast majority of the population speaks their native languages of what I think would be the indo-tibetian branch of linguistics, and India was a formerly a British colony, so there is a good sprinking of English through the continent - including Pakistan and Afghanistan and Bangladesh to. The idea is that the people who speak both fluently are exposed to the languages during the LAP, and so pick it up seemlessly.

i believe the theory holds for my friends who grew up in households that spoke english, hokkien and chinese - fluent in all three, or friends who grew up in europe and were exposed to four languages growing up, and are reasonably fluent in all of them.

with Singapore, I think, a majority of families either speak only dialect at home, or only chinese at home, or only english at home, and that's perhaps why we see this strong correlation between the languages spoken by both parents, especially within the context of a nuclear family, and their proficiency across both english and mandarin.

sometimes, the kids are lucky and mom speaks chinese and dad speaks english, so they grow up to be reasonably good at both. But for the most part in my life in Singapore - my friend's parents (and I do know quite a lot of people) either speak dialect, chinese or english as the sole means of communication at home.

perhaps this explains the disparity that many english speaking households tend to send their kids to english schools - "it just make sense" and maybe the same reasoning applies to chinese speaking families too. The home environment at a very early age reinforces language acquisition - that's why I have friends at ACS who went through 12 years with me and their english is still not very good, yet I also have chinese high friends who went to ACJC who went from an E8 to a B3 in Eng

for the biochemical basis of language, if i am not wrong, the xposure to language formulates the development in the language part of the brain (somewhere in the middle on the right side if I remember correctly - parietal lobe perhaps?) and shapes its development accordingly. Memory is also suited and developed as the result of being exposed to language. The theory is that with English you need to know the more formal rules of the language in order to construct it, the base roman characters themselves being easily acquired. But for Chinese, you need a prodigious memory for the recognition of characters and their sounds, and less so on the syntax and grammar. Plus different languages engage different parts of the brain, english is more left brained (if i'm not wrong) and chinese is more right brained (because it tends to be more visual in the recognition of characters) so if you grew up developing language acquisition and cognitive development on one side of the brain, its going to be much harder, though not impossible to develop it on the other half of the brain at a later stage. This neuro-chemical basis of language also ties a lot into developmental psychology - because obviously the percentage the brain is increasing in size at its fastest from the age of infancy to about five years old

i think when people discount being unable to pick up a language based on things like "attitude" or "lousy teacher" or "not being smart enough" - these are just folk explainations that do not comprehensively take into account the complexity of the linguistic nature of the language itself, the nature of the person, perhaps a little bit on the attitude part, but things like age, and cognitive capacity also matter. I have an extraordinarily smart friend at college who like picked up five languages during her time here. But can't even differentiate for shit [she's fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew and English]! Some are predisposed to be great at language (howard gardner's theory of mutiple intelligences) and some just aren't! And we need to consider the upbringing and background of people too - if you were brought up learning, speaking and writing latin, it is arguably easier for you to pick up spanish, french, german, english since they all have common latin roots. But to go from English to learning Sanskrit or Chinese or Japanese or Thai - that's really difficult for a lot of people.

Language is complicated, and if anything, the bridge between the languages spoken, written and used in the East and the West are about as different as they can get linguistically, grammatically, how they are recognized and written and how they just engage different aspects of the brain in understanding, interpreting and 'making sense' of the overall structure and nature of the language.

the trend of forming sentences in english and then translating it into chinese is not unheard amongst my friends here who are picking up other languages too, so they form sentences in english, then translate it to french or german or swahili and "it just sounds weird" as a result. So I don't know much about language, but I am for sure as certain that the constant chinese cultural explaination to not knowing the language - the argument of "bad attitude" - doesn't comprehensively take so many other factors into the background.

also, eastern societies need to advance their notion in general that language is linked to a culture and a race of people. Like if you're chinese, you NEED to speak chinese to KNOW your culture. Fair argument. But even Barack Obama's energy advisor - Steven Chu, can't speak a drop of chinese, claiming that his parents always spoke to him in English when he was growing up, so never had a need to learn the language. As a nobel prize winner, he probably could pick up the language without too much issue, but it also goes to show that family upbringing is an important factor in language acquisition as well.

hopefully the idea that skin color has to be connected to languages spoken will gradually be eroded as time goes by. though I am not hopeful. And the idea of Chinese as a unique homogenous language is perhaps a myth too in my opinion. Surely, the characters are generally standarized either trditional or simplified, but their pronunciations across China are so different! Perhaps the same way in America between the Bawhstun Akhsent and the Saufern Ackcent even though its pretty much the same characters, grammar, syntax and all.

same words, but everyone speaks differently, what works in Brooklyn may not work in El Paso, and what works in Harbin may not work in Canton either. Language is very complicated. Its so basic that we don't think that much about it, but it sure as hell is complicated
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