The national language of Singapore is Malay for historical reasons but the official languages are English, Chinese (Mandarin), Malay and Tamil. Each carries equal weight under our constitution. English is widely used as the lingua franca amongst the different communities. It is also the language of administration.
Even though the four official languages are given equal weight, one of them is accorded the “national language” status. The Malay language is the national language whereas English is the main working language.
To illustrate the official language status. If someone goes to a government agency and insists on speaking in Tamil, he has to be entertained. The staff will have to oblige him by looking for a Tamil speaking colleague to serve him. Same with the other official languages. But if it’s not one of our four languages, the staff need not entertain him.
I’ve just received an official correspondence from the Ministry of Finance dated 2/7/12 on ‘GST Voucher’ $110 U-Save written in English on front page and a short summary in three other official languages on the back page.
Every Singaporean is brought up speaking at least two languages – English and one of the four official languages. It’s part of our decades old bilingual policy. For that, I’m grateful to this government for promoting such a policy. I can read and understand some Chinese (Mandarin) which has enriched my life. I am able to see the world through two windows instead of one even though my Chinese is at second language proficiency. Not many could do that. In many countries esp the Americans and British, they do not speak a second language.
Language is a sensitive issue. It’s also part of a community and a person’s heritage. To understand and penetrate deep into a community, one must be able to speak and understand the language of the community. The fluency of the language will surely enable the person to fully understand that community’s particular nuances and cultural aspects.
There are idioms, proverbs or tales of that particular community which can’t be totally translated! For example “kurang ajar” in Malay loses it’s significance when translated to English as “little or deficient teaching.” But if use it on a Malay, the impact is clear. It’s the same with other languages.
I feel that if Malay is accorded with National language status, then it should be treated as such. Not only our National Anthem is sung in Malay on National Day or on other official occasions, it is also the language of command in the armed forces. It should be much more than that.
I remember when I was in primary school, I had to attend one weekly lesson of non-examination national language (Malay) appreciation class. As a child, I lived next to the Malay kampung at Kaki Bukit. When my ‘cikgu’, a soft spoken, pious and mild mannered Malay teacher with a thin mustache conducted simple conversational Malay lessons, I was impressed with the more refined form of Bahasa Malay.
It’s quite different from the spoken Malay I heard from my neighbors. The ‘saya’ and ‘awak’ rarely heard or spoken by my neighbors. The first few lessons were simple vocabulary of identifying common items such as table, chair, school, house, to walk, run, sit, sleep etc.
All the sudden when I reached primary four, no more Malay class. I still do not know the reason. Throughout my life till now, I just pick up conversational Malay along the way especially at my work place.
When I joined SPF, I had to really learn all the Malay commands in order to march well. We may lose out to our counterparts in terms of combat fitness, but we always pride ourselves having a tradition of excellence on drills and marching on the parade square. When we as a platoon or squad bang/stamp our right foot simultaneously at the end of a command, it’s one clear ‘click’ sound from the ‘horse shoes’ underneath our boots. Yes, our drill boots came with metal ‘horse shoes’ underneath for that precise marching on the parade square. Those boys in green wouldn’t give you the ‘one click sound’ but full of cracking shit sound as if you are having a diarrhea in the ‘jamban’. That’s what we meant by discipline to the perfection on the Padang which reflects our highest ethical conduct and uncorruptibility when discharging our duties without fear or favor after the six month training.
‘Bergerak bergerak ber tiga tiga dari kiri cepat jalan!’ is a typical Malay command instructing the squad to move fast or quick march in threes and to take dressing on the left. We are trained only to respond to the former. No one in the armed forces will react to the latter (English).
Our motto is ‘Setia Dan Bakti.’ Our counterpart’s motto is ‘Yang Pertama Dan Utama’. Loyalty and Commitment vs First and Foremost. Those Malay slogans encapsulate the essence of our national identity of the highest ideals. There must be a reason why they were not written in English or any other official languages. Our state medals and awards such as ‘Pingat Bakti Masyarakat’ or ‘Public Service Medal’ carries the title of PBM are in Malay.
You will notice that our PMs all speak Malay. Our future PM is also very fluent in Bahasa Indonesian. During the Tsunami disaster where he co-ordinated the massive aid and assistance rendered to Acheh, he communicated direct to his counterparts in their own native language without the need for interpreter. Now that’s impressive. Remember after that episode highlighted in the press (about Chan’s fluent Malay), there were calls for the learning of Malay as a third language for our more talented students. We have forgotten that once upon a time, all civil servants must pass basic standard Malay for upgrading / promotion consideration.
Unfortunately, it quickly died off. It’s heard no more. I feel that it’s important to re-introduce basic Malay as a third language or a non-examination subject in our schools. Due to our unique geographical position, we should have a basic grasp of the Malay language. It’s the 4th widely spoken language with about 300 million speakers in the world esp in SEA.
Whenever I order my favourite nasi padang or mee soto in Malay, the makcik is so pleased. Obviously I’m different from those PRCs. It conveys a sense of social acceptance and identity. That’s what we mean by social assimilation and integration. It costs nothing.
If we ‘die die’ or ‘mati mati’ must accept 25,000 immigrants a year as new citizens to boost up our economy and GDP, the very least they should do is to be able to sing our National Anthem and acquire some basic Malay knowledge. It’s really a disgrace or embarrassment to our country if citizens can’t even sing our own National Anthem. As Singaporeans, we are taught in school at a young age the meaning of our national flag symbols, national pledge and anthem. It’s part of our national identity and shared consciousness.
Shouldn’t all new citizens comply with this basic pre-requisite? Isn’t it pure logic and common sense? Need we argue on it’s merits or compromise on it?
In their over enthusiasm to induct more immigrants, those policy makers do not seem to take this vital intangible attribute of nation building into account. I will bet to my last dollar that most of the new citizens esp those PRCs do not have any inkling of our national anthem and language. After they have become part of us, then only the government started to pump in taxpayers’ millions for community programmes to foster their greater ‘integration!’ Alamak!
Is it not putting the horse before the cart?
What a ludicrous langgar policy?
No other country except uniquely Singapore where a new citizen need not pass the basic national language fluency test? Is it not eroding our national identity and heritage? Where is the first commitment from them? Do we have to wait for their next generation or third generation to assimilate whilst we pump in even more taxpayers’ millions to
artificially and hopefully integrate them? Is it so simple? Can money buy such intangible values? This world would be much simpler if money can solve all our social problems.
It is not only getting tiresome but also pathetic to keep harping to those in charge of our nation’s destiny about the hard truths and the grime reality that the true blue Singaporeans truly feel about. They only know how to ‘tolak’ and blame it on our ‘rising xenophobia!’ Is that so? Like I say, the Malay saying, ‘Tepuk dada, tanya selera!’ will lose it’s uniqueness once it’s translated to English.
still the National Language of Singapore? Or has it’s status quo been gradually dissipated? I’m quite confused actually.