Letter from Singapore

Boon Kiat Yeow
Asia Sentinel

Searching for soul in an international city

A young Malaysian, Boon Kiat Yeow recently finished a stint teaching Chinese language to Singaporean secondary schoolchildren. He now lives in Malaysia, where he is a trilingual translator and writer.

I have just ended a one- year stopover in Singapore. Having worked there and personally witnessed the Lion City’s prosperity, I ended up feeling a need to find a missing piece to the puzzle of the place, wondering where the there is, as the turn of-the (20th) century American poet Gertrude Stein said of her native city. Like its invented Merlion, Singapore is neither one thing nor another.

English is the working language and the first language in all schools in Singapore. I personally have no objection regarding the importance of English and I am very fond of the language. When I was working there, I had been struggling to speak good English when everybody was speaking the clipped, fast-paced, slangy version, called Singlish.

Speaking good Mandarin wasn’t easy either, for not many Singaporean Chinese understand deep Mandarin. I was often confused by the conversations surrounding me, which I found to be English and Mandarin mixed together. Most of the speakers, whose native language was unknown to me, continually replaced Mandarin words when they were speaking English; when they were speaking Mandarin, they added English to better express themselves, if not to boast to others that they could speak English so that they would not be seen as new immigrants from China.

Today’s Singapore is one of the most competitive economies in the world and it strives constantly to be one of the greatest global cities, with its gleaming towers and its economic and technological accomplishments. It’s a very good place to work in and attracts expatriates from all over the globe. Despite the attractions it has shown to the world, however, when I observed the language usage of the people and noticed that mother tongues were losing their roots and giving way to Singlish, I started to feel very deeply that it was a city without a mother tongue. Mother tongue is one’s soul and it is often why certain races are respected.

After my stopover, I now have more respect for the Chinese from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as Japanese and Koreans. Although their English proficiency is quite low as compared with that of Singaporeans, their love and effort to preserve their traditional culture is something hardly seen among Singaporeans.

East Asians are generally very proud of their mother tongues. When they fully master their mother languages, they connect themselves with their cultural roots and develop holistically as a successor of their culture and language or dialect. Their souls are enriched and strengthened by their culture. When I talk to my East Asian friends, I really admire them very much because I could feel that they have their own cultural soul.

Going back to my university days in Taiwan, I could remember clearly how Taipei displayed its soul even in small streets and old bookstores; contrarily, I could not sense anything pertaining to cultural soul, no matter how magnificent and shining the skyscrapers and shopping malls were in Singapore.

Singapore’s prosperity and economic progress could not change my feeling that it was a city without a mother tongue or a cultural soul. Perhaps this was the reason why many talented expatriates both from the East and the West come and go, for there is no position that suits them best in terms of cultural soul in Singapore, which belongs neither to East nor West.


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