More airtime for dialects in Singapore

The following article had been contributed by Goh Wei Hao


As I listened to my father speaking to a taxi driver in Hokkien – the dialect that surrounded my house growing up – I could not help but feel a sense of warmth and familiarity.

However, a pang of sadness soon followed because I realised that dialects in Singapore are probably going to die with my generation.

I was born in a time when the Speak Manadarin Campaign (SMC) had been launched for almost two decades (I will be turning 21 this year). The SMC is basically an initiative initially set up by the government to discourage the use of dialects as they believed that it was hindering Singaporeans from learning Mandarin.

This was also important back then as majority of the Singaporean Chinese were made up of immigrants who mostly integrated with others who spoke the same tongue because they either could not speak Mandarin or they still feel a sense of belonging to their hometown.

As a new state that was still in the infancy of our nation building, we could not allow for  such fledgling loyalty. For our country to progress as one, we needed all the Chinese to recognise themselves as Singaporean Chinese and one of the ways was to make everyone speak a common tongue.

To date, the SMC managed to achieve one of its goals: although our Mandarin is just as horrible, almost all of my friends today cannot speak their dialects, except for the vulgarities. This is because no one found it important to teach us, not our teachers and especially not our parents – the results-crazed Generation X – who were more focused on our mastery of Mandarin as it will be tested in our examinations.

However, I feel that the biggest factor that led to the ruination of dialects in Singapore is that they are banned from our free-to-air (FTA) channels (e.g. Channel 8, Channel 5, Channel Newsasia). 

This is because when I was younger, our Internet was dial-up and we did not have smartphones. Our greatest source of entertainment was the television. Admittedly, I was a television addict that spent all my time channel surfing. It sounds like a bad thing but I credit television programs as my greatest teacher, especially when it came to English. And look, I’m writing for Mothership today, so I guess they did not do such a bad job! I believe the same can be achieved for dialects if it was allowed back on air.

Why are dialects important? Well, in addition to allowing us to embrace our roots and to communicate with the older generation, dialects contribute to what little Singaporean identity we have. Where else in the world can you find so many different languages concentrated in such a small city?

Looking at the prevalence of dialects in the SG50 videos used to showcase our local culture, it is quite evident that the government is aware of this as well. My question then is, if you know that it is so definitive of Singapore, why is it still banned from television? 

Also, this is a different time. We Singaporean Chinese longer differentiate ourselves according to the dialect we speak. On the contrary, us youths today think almost nothing of it.

That is why today, instead of trying to play down its importance, we have a more daunting task of educating youths on the importance of dialects. A good first step is the reintroduction of dialects on our FTA channels  and not just the vulgarities or one or two punchlines like in Ah Boys to Men but to broadcast shows that have real and substantial conversation in dialects like the Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong dramas.

Hopefully in the future, my parents and I will be able to speak to my nieces and nephews in Hokkien.


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