It’s a matter of speaking

It was September 2, 9:30 p.m.

At the Workers’ Party rally, Mr Low Thia Khiang of the Workers’ Party took to the stage. When he announced that he would be speaking in Teochew, the crowd lost it. With 141,000 YouTube views. his speech is the most viewed out of all the speeches made that night.

It is no surprise that Mr Low has held the ward of Hougang SMC for 20 years. Hougang is known for having a high percentage of Teochew-speaking Chinese voters, and his command of the dialect has consistently impressed voters enough to consistently vote his way.

Sadly, it may not be long before dialects fade away in Singapore. As Prof Ng Bee Chin, a linguistics professor at Nanyang Technological University, said in 2009, “It only takes one generation for a language to die out.”

A Brief History Of Chinese Dialects in Singapore

In 1979, the Singapore Government introduced the Speak Mandarin Campaign. This campaign was the start of a clear drop in the usage of spoken dialects.

Language Spoken at Home Among Chinese Resident Population in Singapore
Predominant Household Language 1957 (%) 1980 (%) 2000 (%) 2010 (%)
English 1.8 11.6 23 33
Mandarin 0.1 10.2 35 47
non-Mandarin 97 81.4 30.7 19.2
Source: Singapore Department of Statistics, Social Statistics Section.

The predominant usage of dialects at home saw a huge drop from 81% in 1980 to just 19% in 2010. This can be attributed to several factors.

First, Media Development Authority (MDA) regulations since the 1980s have stipulated that all Chinese TV programmes and radio shows must be in Mandarin. Even foreign shows produced in dialect, like Hong Kong and Taiwanese shows, were dubbed in Mandarin Chinese.

In addition, the Speak Mandarin campaign has also been heavily promoted by the Government in many forms of media including print, TV, and radio.

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But wait – most first-generation Chinese Singaporeans did not come from northern Beijing, where Mandarin is predominantly spoken.

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Instead, many came from Southern Chinese provinces like Fujian (Hokkien-speaking), Guangdong (Teochew and Cantonese-speaking), and Hainan (Hainanese-speaking). Thus, those dialects are their mother tongue, not Mandarin. Instead, it’s more accurate to say that Mandarin is, to many Chinese Singaporeans, a bridging language for Chinese people of different dialects to communicate.

Imagine, as an English speaker, moving to Spain and trying to understand an American TV show dubbed in Spanish – that’s how many of our forefathers must have felt at the time.

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Of course, Mandarin Chinese provides an important linkage between Chinese Singaporeans of various dialect groups and also functions as the gateway to Chinese culture. No one is saying we should stop Chinese education in schools.

However, dialect programmes and media should not be entirely shut down as they are today. Doing so only deprives the younger generation of a chance to learn and pick up a language that will allow us to communicate to the older generation and to Chinese people of other regions like Guangdong and Fujian.

Dialects In Rallies Today

In just the first two days of election campaigning, many candidates have used dialects to deliver their messages.

In their speeches, Dr Chee Soon Juan brandished Teochew, Hokkien, and Cantonese, and Mr Png Eng Huat spoke for more than three minutes entirely in Hokkien.

All these speeches were very well-received by the crowds.

Even Mdm Indranee Rajah spoke partially in Cantonese (video starts at 2:20).

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Could it be that because Mr Low Thia Khiang has proven so successful using dialect in his rally speeches, everyone is now doing it?

Maybe.

It may also be why new PAP candidate Mr Chee Hong Tat, who wrote in 2009 that it would be “stupid” for any Singapore agency to advocate the learning of dialects, spoke in Hokkien during his candidate introduction in August, and even wholeheartedly serenaded his residents with a Hokkien song.

He recently told the media in 2015, “The idea of learning dialects, I think as a private initiative, you want to learn it from friends, you want to learn it from clan associations, I think that’s fine.”

But for the younger generation, it is becoming increasingly difficult to pick up dialects. This is especially true for people with younger parents who grew up when dialects were already banned from TV and radio programmes.

The moral of the story 

And that’s why, although I am not Teochew, I learned one thing from Mr Low’s speech. And it may well explain why several candidates are trying to deliver their rally speeches in dialect – and I’m sure we will see many more such speeches in the days to come.

Because let’s face it – dialects may not be spoken as frequently in Singapore as they were many decades ago.

But for those Singaporeans who still speak them, dialect is a part of their heritage.

It’s a part of their culture.

It’s a part of who they are.

It’s why they connect so deeply with people who can still speak to them in the dialect they grew up in. And often times, it’s that special connection that translates to votes at the polling station.

And that’s why we will see this year’s trend of Singapore politicians delivering speeches in dialect continue.

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Featured Image via Workers’ Party YouTube Channel.
With references to Wikipedia, Change.Org, Media Development Authority Singapore, and Singapore Department of Statistics.