Alumnus, alumna & alumni

Many people do not realise that the word ‘alumni’ is plural. The singular form for a male is ‘alumnus’ and female, ‘alumna’.


Even a Malaysian knows…

A Malaysian-born Permanent Resident of Chinese descent with whom I chatted last afternoon in church was puzzled that Mandarin was considered the ‘mother tongue’ of Chinese Singaporeans.

It is the ‘pu tong hua’, the common language, of the Chinese people; it is the second language that is learnt and spoken by the majority of Singaporeans, but it is not and never was, our mother tongue.

She said matter-of-factly that the notion smacks of propaganda. I could not help but say ‘amen’.


The administrators of the Ministry of Education Singapore’s Facebook Page blocked me two nights ago. They were apparently upset that I called them dullards for committing solecism after solecism in their feeds and even worse, I had apparently committed blasphemy against the holy spirit of Lee Kuan Yew by calling the current Minister of Parliament for Education, a Mr Ng, an inarticulate buffoon.

The civil service in Singapore is NOT a politically neutral space.

Improve your toddler’s vocabulary

First, it is more important to instil a passion for reading, and its corollary, the English language; than to ensure that a toddler learns more English words for the sake of his knowing more English words.

Second, it is more important for the parent to speak English that is grammatically sound and phonetically accurate, to his child, every day; than to speak in slang, e.g. Singlish, and to use standard English only during ‘teaching’ sessions. Children learn by imitation and even adults learn a new language more effectively by immersing themselves in a culture or society that uses that language. But if the people around them speak the language poorly, that is what the adult learner will pick up. It is therefore not surprising that Singaporeans in general do not speak, and write, English well. English language teachers in the primary schools are not setting the right ‘linguistic’ example by their poor speech habits.

Third, it is more effective for the parent to insert a ‘difficult’ word every now and then in his conversations with the child than to set a specific session for the learning of new words. I do this often with my children and they will tell me that they do not understand this word or that word and it becomes a teaching moment on the spot.

That said, I am neither discouraging the use of Singlish in my case nor claiming that slang is a sub-standard form of English. No, Singlish is a non-standard variant of English, not sub-standard. It is all right for Singaporeans to speak our unique slang among family members and friends. The problem is, we are also parents, and we want to teach our children standard English. The best way to do so is to avoid using non-standard forms in the home at all times. Children will have their classmates with whom to get acquainted with their local slang.

English pronunciation

When I was a schoolboy in the 1980s, emphases were made during English lessons on learning the spellings of words by heart and applying the parts of speech in grammar exercises and writing compositions.

One crucial aspect was left out: accurate pronunciation. It resulted in an entire generation of Singaporeans who could read English and possibly write it well enough to be understood but who could not speak it.

Time and again, I have encountered Singaporeans who pronounce their words with stresses on the wrong syllables. Many continue to speak English in the same way they speak the other three official languages of Singapore; syllable-timed, i.e. in staccato-fashion.

English is a stress-timed language and many of our intelligibility problems, especially when communicating with native anglophones, are easily solved if we were to have learnt phonetics.

I cringe every time I speak to my children’s English language teachers. Many of them do not and probably cannot pronounce their words accurately.

It is a shame on the part of our education system that I have to correct my children’s mispronunciations regularly.

Tiger parenthood

The cheek of many of us to live our unfulfilled dreams through our children who in the first place did not ask to be born.

We think we can demand that our children take up unnecessary classes, which are not really for ‘their own good’ but for our vanity: from piano to violin to martial arts to drama lessons, all for the glory of us.

Worse, we think that we are able to control their destinies and plan for them that eventual medical or legal degree and claim that it is but for their future, their sakes.

Oh, the travails of tiger parenthood.

Singaporeans and books

I am not sure if the public libraries are accurate indicators of the reading habits of the Singaporean populace.

Possible avenues to conduct research on the issue are the online book sellers and websites such as Amazon on top of the established bookshops in this country such as Kinokuniya.

What about electronic books and the internet? Singaporeans may or may not be reading traditional books but that could be due to their reading electronic ones.

That said, I have noticed how parents who bring their young children to the public library, at least in the neighbourhood which I live; do not borrow books for themselves. My regular visits to the library with my children always include my having to borrow two to four books for myself.

It is not surprising that Singaporeans may very well not be reading as much as in the past if the appalling command of English demonstrated on Facebook is anything to go by.

Social media might be informal public spaces but I have yet to meet a person who can write decently, not do so even on Facebook. I suspect that those who claim to write or speak ‘properly’ only in formal situations do so because only then could they prepare adequately, using software applications to proof-read their scripts. 

There are some who claim that they do not have much time to visit public libraries. Is that really the case? We always have time to do the things to which we give priority.

I am willing to concede that reading is a bourgeois pastime, an activity that the genuinely poor would forgo in order to have more time to earn a living.

But for the rest of us who do not have to work two jobs, do we not have at least the weekends every week to spend time as we please? We can kill two birds with one stone by borrowing books also for ourselves when we bring our young children to the public library.

School? Schooling is the best time in one’s life to be reading as much as possible. The school and public libraries were my haunts when I was a schoolboy.

I am surprised that people can carve time out of their ‘busy’ lives to lift weights three to five times a week in the gym, jog at the reservoir every night, watch English football, pick up strangers in the clubs, or watch a film in the cinema, etc., but do not have an hour or two to spend at the public library or bookshop.

Hmm. We should be honest with ourselves and admit that we either do not like to read or prefer other things to books during our free time. 

Battle to speak Mandarin?

The Battle to speak Mandarin‘ (opinion piece in The Straits Times)

There is no doubt that Modern Standard Mandarin as the pu tong hua, the common language, of the Han Chinese in the mainland and the Diaspora; is a language of growing importance in the twenty-first century and that pragmatism calls for the person who wants to be relevant in this century to be able to speak and read, if not write, the language.

BUT to claim that this common language of the Han Chinese is the ‘mother tongue‘ by default, of every Singaporean of Han Chinese descent, is fallacious.

One’s mother tongue as defined by most academic linguists, would be the language one has learnt and spoken from birth. It is one’s native and first language. English is therefore my first and native language because I learnt it from birth and it is the language with which I have a masterly command. It has been the first language in my paternal family for two generations.

My late grandfather learnt and spoke English as a child in his adoptive British family. He also studied it as a school boy in an English-medium primary school and then Raffles Institution in then-British Singapore. He had been speaking English with his children and then grandchildren ever since until his death.

My late Nyonya grandmother also lived with her adoptive British family and as a result learnt the English language, on top of her native tongue, Bahasa Melayu Baba, with which she spoke to her children. Bahasa Melayu Baba is a Malay creole of the Peranakan people.

My father as a result learnt and spoke two languages from birth, English and Bahasa Melayu Baba. He married my mother, a Hinghwa, and because he did not know Mandarin spoke with her in English. I have never been exposed to Mandarin until I entered kindergarten at the age of five.

If ‘mother tongue’ were to be defined as my ethnic language, as a fourth-generation Singaporean Han Chinese of Peranakan-Hinghwa descent, my mother tongues would be Bahasa Melayu Baba and Hinghwa.

Why would it be the pu tong hua of Modern Standard Mandarin?

It also irritates me every time a fellow Singaporean of Han Chinese ethnicity accuses me of wanting to be a white man. Please do not be stupid and ignorantly so. Not every white man has English as his native language, let alone speak it: think of the Dutch, Spaniard, Norwegian, Danish, German, Swedish, Russian, Swiss, etc. I am a mono-literate anglophone because English is my mother tongue, full stop.

The same people would lift their noses at my speaking Mandarin poorly, calling me a ‘disgrace’ to the Chinese people: if one is Chinese, as their made-up adage goes, one should speak the language. But they would not say the same of a Singaporean of another ethnicity who chooses to learn Mandarin instead of their ethnic tongue as their second language in school. These Singaporeans are apparently not a disgrace to their ethnic tribe but are intelligent and wise for wanting to learn Mandarin.

Face-palm. Racial chauvinism?

Singaporeans should have the freedom to decide for themselves whether they want to learn a second language or not, and if so, to choose the language they wish to learn. It may be pragmatic to learn Mandarin due to China’s rising prominence in international politics but allow us to bear the costs of our own funeral if we choose otherwise.

We are a first-world society in the twenty-first century, are we not?