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’.


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?


Confessions of a monolingual Singaporean Baba

As a chubby yellow-skinned man of hobbit-like height with an eggish head of straight black hair and a pair of beady eyes squinting through black horn-rimmed spectacles that perch on a greasy flat nose, I look quintessentially Chinese and in this country, C.E. 2015, can be mistaken for a Chinaman.


I am a fourth-generation Singaporean with Straits-born ancestors on my paternal grandmother’s side. It is a difference to which the simplistic ‘Chinese’ label on my birth certificate and identification card cannot allude.

It makes it incredible, considering my racial privilege in this country, when I speak of my fair share of discrimination.

From the time I could speak, it was English that left my dummy-sucking lips. It was the sole language spoken in the home and the medium through which we listened to the radio, watched television and read the daily broadsheet.

My parents spoke to us in English. Papa recited to us the Authorised Version of the English Bible, also known as the King James Bible. Mama read aloud with me on her lap my favourite board book of Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes.

Papa could speak only English and Bahasa Melayu Baba, a Malay-language creole that consists of traditional Malay and Chinese Hokkien elements. It was therefore a matter of course that Mama communicated with Papa in only English, her knowledge of Mandarin notwithstanding, with bits of Malay thrown in for everyday terms like ‘makan’ (eat), ‘kenching’ (pee), ‘berak’ (defecate), ‘duit’ (money), ‘sayur’ (vegetables) and ‘jalan-jalan’ (go for a walk) among several others.

My paternal grandfather spoke to Papa and his siblings in only English. Grandmother, Baba Malay. It wasn’t surprising because both Grandpa and Grandma were adopted by British colonials when they were children; Grandma took the name of Archer and Grandpa sent to Raffles school for his secondary education.

No, they were not rich: not every Peranakan family is rich like the Lees. If it were not for their adopted parents, Grandpa and Grandma would not have gone to school. They were poor. It did not help at all that Grandpa chose to be a watercolour artist (and only much later a part-time lecturer at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts).

My ‘mother tongue’ when defined as the language one has spoken since birth is not Mandarin but English and when defined as  the language relating to one’s ethnicity is also not Mandarin but Bahasa Melayu Baba, Cantonese and Hokkien.

However, it became Mandarin due to the lumping of the Baba-Nyonya with the pure Chinese to facilitate the administration of Lee Kuan Yew’s bilingual education policy.

School life in the 1980s was different from my children’s. Although English was the language of instruction, many of us spoke our ‘mother tongues’ among ourselves. My Chinese classmates communicated in Mandarin among themselves and the Malays Bahasa Melayu. I think it was only my Tamil classmates who spoke English, along with Tamil, among themselves.

I felt left out. I struggled to communicate and to connect and build friendships with my Chinese classmates. There were a few, of course, but only a few. I felt at ease with my non-Chinese friends as we had no other option but to use the common English tongue to speak to one another. Many presumed I was a Caucasian wannabe, as though all Caucasians, *roll eyes*, spoke English. I had begun to question my identity. Who or what was I? My Mother Tongue teachers were equally befuddled. How could a boy who look Chinese be somehow less Chinese than the rest of them? Why did my parents speak only English at home? Didn’t they know Mandarin? These questions appear strange to the millennial generation today because it is now common for young educated Chinese parents to speak more English than Mandarin in the home. Not in those days. I wanted to belong but because I could not I wanted to hide away. I wished I was Eurasian. I thus lived in my own world of make-believe, a fantasy land where I was of a mixed Anglo-Chinese ancestry.

Innocent puzzlement became insinuations and vitriol in secondary school. The sino-chauvinistic few, there seemed to be always some in every school and office, called me a disgrace to the Chinese race and a traitor. How is it possible for a Chinese not to know Mandarin? Or for that matter, knowledgeable of Chinese culture? Was I one of those elitist ‘Engrish’-educated brats?

Even though I picked up basic conversational Mandarin eventually, not from my army stint but after I got married and had to communicate with my parents-in-law who spoke only Hokkien and Mandarin; I am still hopeless when it comes to reading and writing.

If I could turn back the clock, I would insist on learning Bahasa Melayu as my mother tongue. It is the national language of our country and the region for probably centuries before the British came.