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Valar Qringaomis

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Hindi in Independent Singapore

"When Singapore gained independence in 1965, the constitution recognised four official languages — English and three languages representing each of the main 'races' in Singapore (i.e. Mandarin for the Chinese, Malay for the Malays and Tamil for Indians). The inclusion of Tamil and the exclusion of Hindi as the official language representing Indians was the outcome of specific demographic and political factors. Tamil speakers constituted the overwhelming majority of the Indian population in Singapore at the time of independence. Moreover, the politicisation of labour preceding Singapore's independence had also seen stewardship of the Indian community pass into the hands of those associated with Tamil labour and who were exposed to Tamil vernacular education. This "effectively placed community education in the hands of Tamil school masters [who were] fascinated by the Dravidian movement in India."' The popularity of that movement amongst Tamils, with its pro-Tamil and anti-Hindi agenda, also influenced the decision to reject Hindi as the representative language for Indians in Singapore.

The exclusion of Hindi as an official language had repercussions in language education. The bilingual policy, which was adopted in the national curriculum in 1966, required the study of two languages. English was advocated for due to economic reasons, along with one other official language to provide a 'cultural ballast‘ for the different races. However, the notion that the language representing the racial group necessarily provided a ‘cultural ballast‘ was questionable. Most Hindi speakers could not understand, speak or write Tamil. Worse still, the bilingual policy imposed a strain on children from these Hindi-speaking homes, who were now required to learn two Foreign languages. This in turn affected interest in learning their ‘mother tongue’. Glenda Michelle Singh informs us that:

... right up to 1965, Indian students were permitted to offer Hindi at ‘O’ arid ‘A’ level... After Independence in 1965 Hindi could not be offered as a subject in schools. Consequently, interest in studying it declined.”

To reduce their distress, the state permitted Indian students whose ‘mother tongue’ was not Tamil to study any of the three second languages on offer. Although students from Hindi-speaking homes could take up Malay — considered to be “easier to pick up than Tamil or Mandarin" and useful for inter-ethnic communication — or Mandarin — considered economically more useful than either Tamil or Malay — the policy did not address concerns that the national curriculum did not provide an avenue for these children to learn their own ‘mother tongue‘. Consequently, from the 1960s to the 1980s, children from Hindi-speaking homes could only learn their ‘mother tongue‘ through community-run schools. But there was little motivation to study Hindi given the negligible value of learning their ‘mother tongue‘ For educational and career advancement and the limited communicative domains for the language in Singapore. The only reason for youngsters to learn Hindi was emotional, to converse with monolingual elders in the Hindi-speaking community or for entertainment (i.e. to understand Hindi movies). Most youngsters could sustain such a level of understanding in the ‘mother tongue’ without attending formal classes. Consequently, community-based language institutions saw declining numbers. As early as the 1970s, the Netaji Hindi High School closed due to a lack of interest and support. While the DAV Hindi School persevered, students attending its Hindi class in the 1970s usually numbered less than 40, and attrition rates were high. Classes were run only once a week with a mix of children and adults from the Hindi—speaking community and adults from the Malay community (who had an interest in the language because of the popularity of Hindi cinema}. By the 1980s, Hindi language proficiency in the Hindi-speaking community had depreciated considerably. While statistics specific to Hindi are not available, Gopinathan posits that the percentage of Indians literate in ‘other’ (non-Tamil) Indian languages declined from 5.2% in 1970 to 1.7% in 1980.“ The Hindi language effectively stood at the brink of 'death’ in Singapore by the mid—1980s. Indeed, besides Hindi-speaking homes, the only domains where Hindi was spoken were the few institutions run by northern Indians, such as the Arya Samaj and the DAV School, the North Indian Hindu Association and the Shri Lakshrninarayan Temple.

The 1990s saw a remarkable turnaround in the position of the Hindi language in Singapore. The relaxation of migration controls for educated personnel provided a lifeline. Seen as necessary to maintain and renew Singapore‘s competitive edge following growing out-migration of talented Singaporeans and as an antidote to concerns of an ageing population, the migration of ‘foreign talent‘ was encouraged from the late 1980s. Chinese and Indian professionals were preferred due to the perception that they could easily assimilate with co-ethnic counterparts in Singapore. Consequently, a new group of first-generation Indian migrant professionals emerged. These migrants were, ethno—linguistically, more heterogeneous than the erstwhile Indian diaspora in Singapore, and many were literate in Hindi.

Even more than the migration of professionals, the position of Hindi strengthened because sustained lobbying by the non-Tamil-speaking Indian communities for the inclusion of their ‘mother tongue’ in the educational curriculum succeeded. Their arguments were twofold: a) that studying their ‘mother tongue‘ would enable children from these communities to understand their culture better; and b) that non-Tamil ‘Indian’ students were having difficulty in coping with Tamil, Chinese or Malay as a second language.” It was the latter argument that proved decisive. A high-level task force investigating Indian underachievement in education confirmed the following:

The second language grades obtained by non-Tamil Indian students, who are unable to take their mother tongue for the purpose, have weakened their overall performance in primary school examinations. The Indian pass rate in second language at ‘O’ levels, at 85% in 1990, also falls short of the Chinese pass rate of 94%. This is despite the Indian pass rate in Tamil [TL2] being on par with Chinese students‘ performance, and reflects the special weakness of non-Tamil Indian students in the second language.

In 1990, the Ministry of Education, as part of wider reforms in second language study, recognised five non-Tamil Indian languages (i.e. Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Urdu and Gujarati) at 'O' level, and extended recognition for these subjects in 1991, at 'AO' levels in ‘1992 and at ‘N’ level and at PSLE level in 1994. However, unlike Singapore's official languages, the government provided limited support for education in these languages (i.e. school premises could be used for lessons, but provision for education in these languages would be dependent on financial support and the initiative of the respective communities). Moreover, unlike the four official languages, government campaigns and official media would neither use nor promote these languages.

Since this momentous decision, the number of students learning Hindi in Singapore has risen dramatically. Prior to recognition in the curriculum, less than 50 students were studying the language. By 2000, the number crossed to over 3000 students, and in 2015, the number taking Hindi as part of the national curriculum exceeded 6500 (from K1 to ‘A’ levels). This figure does not include students learning Hindi at International Schools. Indeed, the number of students taking Hindi is now more than double the combined total of all the other non-Tamil Indian language (i.e. Punjabi, Bengali, Urdu and Gujarati) students in Singapore schools. Hindi language is also offered at the tertiary level, and since its introduction, it has drawn more students than any other Indian language offered by the Centre of Language Studies at the National University of Singapore.

Several factors account for the sharp increase in the number of students learning Hindi. This is not just because of migrant professionals from the ‘Hindi heartland’, who comprise a minority of those emigrating from India, but rather due to the dominant position of Hindi in India. This has resulted in a diverse group — not constrained to those who originate from Hindi-speaking regions in India — encouraging their children to learn the language. While it may be that their children have taken up Hindi because their 'mother tongue’ is not available in the curriculum (e.g. Marathi, Sindhi, Kannada, Malayalee, Telugu, etc), the turn to Hindi is also reflective of their incipient position in Singapore. Since many new migrants view Singapore as a temporary stop, and may consider returning to India, their choice of language is influenced by the position of Hindi in India, where as the federal union official language, it is compulsory to learn Hindi in primary school. Consequently, even when the option of learning their ‘mother tongue’ is available (i.e. Tamil, Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali and Urdu), many have chosen to learn Hindi as a second language.

Beyond changes in the curriculum, the position of Hindi in Singapore has been buttressed by the popularity of transnational Hindi media. The number of cinemas screening Hindi films has increased, a return to strength after the decline in the 1980s when the advent of video cassette recorders led to the closure of several halls. Their success is intrinsically connected to the tremendous growth of the Indian immigrant population, for whom watching a Hindi movie at the cinema remains a cherished social activity. A Hindi-speaking informant captures the current popularity of Hindi cinema-going in Singapore through a personal anecdote:

ln September 2009, my wife and l decided to watch a Hindi movie at Jade Cineplex. As we nuzzled through the crowd of Indian migrant professionals to buy our tickets, we found that not only was the screening at 8pm fully booked, so was the next show at 11.45. Desperately we tried to locate another cinema hall that was screening that movie and discovered that many others cinema that traditionally never showed [sic.] Hindi movies were screening [the movie]. We managed to get tickets for the midnight show at another Cineplex, but even that show was packed so that by that time of our arrival, we were let! only with front row seats. After another such incident, we have reconciled to paying extra for advance tickets.

The advent of cable TV in Singapore has added another layer of Hindi entertainment available in Singapore. Whereas Hindi-speakers from the 1960s to the 1980s could only watch the once-weekly Hindi movie on the national channel dedicated to Indians, viewers can now subscribe to more than 10 Hindi channels via cable TV. A Hindi radio station, Masti 96.3 FM, has, since 2007, been airing at a 3-hour primetime slot on Singapore's dedicated international language radio channel. In the popular culture scene, Singapore has, since the 2000s, been a choice location for Hindi cinema award ceremonies and other Hindi cultural productions, including dramatic performances and musicals, which nearly always draw packed audiences. Hindi songs are now common fayre (sic) in top discotheques. Several estates on the eastern coastline of Singapore now have large Hindi-speaking populations, and these have become domains where the language is heavily utilised. A similar scenario is evident in certain knowledge-based industries, such as the information technology sector. Possibly the most telling reflection of the position of Hindi in contemporary Singapore is the fact that even in shared public spaces — be it at hawker centres, shopping malls, playgrounds or schools — finding Indians conversing in Hindi is no longer cause for surprise."

--- 'Rising from the Ashes': The Development of Hindi in Independent Singapore in 50 Years of Indian Community in Singapore / Rajesh Rai
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