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Singlish, Once Again… September 29, 2011

Posted by The Truth in Im Allgemeinen.

Here’s a post which appeared as an opinion piece on the Catholic News. It was, however, so full of bombast that I had to reply to what seemed an article which was posted because the bombastic writing seemed to lend it depth which it didn’t have. Here it is: English vs Singlish as our Language. (EDIT: Catholic News removed the post. Thanks to Google, here’s a cached version.)

Since I don’t know whether my reply will be published or not (generally people don’t like polemic drenched in sarcasm), so here is my reply:

Bravo, bravo!

So bombastic was your argument that I was left nearly speechless, not knowing what to say. But then I remembered why I was here, which is to say the following:

your article is full of big words but is rather poor in content. Let’s see why.

Firstly what do you mean by ‘for the purpose of dialectic’? I assume that you must mean ‘argument from received opinion’, which would explain your dichotomous division of English into standard and non-standard. OK.

Second, what is linguistic etiquette? you mean the prescriptive rules of standard English which may assert status?  There is no such thing as linguistic etiquette. Your usage of the word ‘etiquette’ suggests that it is per se correct to use Standard English, which is not always the case. Try speaking Standard English to someone who only speaks a non-standard variety. In that case, you may have broken with your so-called ‘linguistic etiquette’.

Third, if Singapore does not give us the luxury of choice (which in fact it does), then how can you say that our indulgence in it will lead us to losing? Can you indulge in a non-existant luxury? Don’t you think that Singapore SHOULD give us the luxury of choice by making sure we know what Singlish is and what Standard English is and when to use both?

Fourth, what do you mean by ‘we are faced with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?’ You mean that we will not be able to understand Standard English, because Singlish has ‘polluted our thinking’? So what about, say, a dialect speaker from England? Would his English dialect too have polluted his thinking, making him unable to understand Standard English, and making him a loser?

You make a crass overgeneralization here, and since you are so fond of naming Latin forms of refutation, here’s yours: secundum quid. The refutation is as follows: Standard English  is utilized by America and England for communication. Therefore, only Standard English is spoken in America and England. Which is a fallacy.

by the way: Standard English in England is known as Received Pronunciation, and Standard English in America is yet another variety. You seem to see THE Standard English, which may be..?

Fifth, you say that “It is not a question of etymology but of prescriptive tendentiousness where for us it is a universal means of communication with the English-speaking world.” I’m afraid that your ideailzed Standard English speaker wouldn’t understand what you mean. Especially: what is prescriptive tendentiousness? you mean a prescriptive bias? Towards what? Who or what is exerting the bias? Singlish? Standard English?

I mean, perhaps I may have misunderstood you, considering that your brilliance in writing this article must have led many to misread some of your core points. I apologize for my audacity to challenge your authority. But still the questions come!

Sixth, how can a set of prescriptive rules with their minute variations, like “the noun being primary to the adjective” (which is, as a linguist [did I just out myself there?] a highly unsatisfactory description) indicate a deductive and inductive mindset?

Let’s take a stab at that. Deduction means that you deduce certain propositions from a general proposition. For example, if all men are mortal, then Socrates is mortal. Induction menas that you deduce from a multitude of particular propositions a general one. For example, if Socrates, Plato, Aristotle etc. are capable of laughing, then it is possible that all men are capable of laughing.

Nowhere do your so-called “minute variations” appear, and I am tempted to say that once again, I must have misunderstood your brilliance in argumentation. Would you care to show me where these variations may be and how exactly they indicate such a mindset?

Your last paragraph smacks of a false dichotomy (maybe the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has been getting to you.) You say that to survive, we should give up Singlish and instead all become Standard English speakers. Can’t you have both? It is the KNOWLEDGE that one should use the one under these circumstances and the other under those which makes the difference. Or perhaps you have seen a truth which none of us have?

Lastly: I didn’t know it was possible to semantically classify languages along the connotative/denotative division. I thought that ALL languages are connotative and denotative? Example: If someone says in Singlish that ‘my car spoil already’, he is DENOTING the status of his car, namely, out of service. If someone says in Standard English that ‘x is an idiot’, he is CONNOTING the notion that x is dumb, stupid, etc. Or is there yet another greater truth that you have seen and we haven’t?

O, please enlighten us!


Streit der Fakultäten – Philosophie vs. Jura September 7, 2011

Posted by The Truth in Im Allgemeinen.
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NB: This post has its roots in a discussion with a friend of mine. Thank you, Liesel.

Once upon a time, I posted about the problem of legality vs. morality. A discussion with a law student has reawakened this train of thought, especially enough for me to bring this blog out of dormancy.

The question is: Are morals objective? Is morality as a concept objective?

Many of you will be tempted to say yes. Morals are objective. For without a standard of what is right and wrong, what justifies the choices we make and the actions we do? But, I will attempt to argue that morals are not objective. First, we have to look at the definition of “objective”. What is “objective”?

Objective is something which truth-value does NOT vary under any circumstance. For example, the statement that “all bachelors are single” is objective. For under no circumstances will you find a bachelor that is married.

Now, in a second step, let’s transfer this definition of “objective” to morals. Are morals “objective” in the sense given? Obviously not. Morals are “objective” when they are codified by the law – but what does this mean? Let’s look at a law, e.g. Clause 377A. Is it “objective” that gay sex is immoral? No. Alex Au will testify to that. If gay sex was “objectively” immoral, then many gays would be spit upon on the streets in any society you see. Germany, Switzerland, the USA, the UK, and so on. Because if gay sex was “objectively” immoral, then gay sex is wrong. Period. Under any circumstances.

But one may argue that the West has a decayed set of morals. Is it right to say so? Probably not – for one tends to project his world-view upon the entire world. Things which are wrong in one culture may be accepted in another, and that is what one misses.

So what, then, is morality?

I define morality as “behavioural rules which members of a collective agree upon, in order for the collective to further thrive as such.” In doing so, there is no such thing as “objective morality” per se. The Ancient Greeks believed that you should love those who love you, and harm those which give you trouble (λυποῦντα λύπει καὶ φιλοῦνθ᾽ ὑπερφίλει). Is that still true today? Patently, no. Morality only becomes “objective” when they are codified by laws. Since laws are definitory by nature, and since definitions are per se “objective”, they appear to display “morality” as “objective”. Why do such laws come into effect? Well, one could say that over time, this collective of individuals saw that a particular principle of action seemed to work, and therefore set it in law, to ensure that society further thrives as it was for them.

But wait! the lawyer will say. So do you mean that “convention is that men may incarcerate women, then you would accept that as moral conduct?” Well, here is the clincher: At that point in time and given the particular context, you must say that it was moral for the people then under those circumstances that women be incarcerated. Naturally, no one would say that today. I don’t subscribe to that belief too. But if you want to be descriptive, then you must say that that was moral, given the circumstances then.

Our lawyer could then say that you were immoral to make such statements. But that is an oversimplification (to be precise, secundum quid – the leaving out of qualifications.) Morals are always tied to a certain context. The problem is that we, as humans, are not subjects per se – in a sense we may be, but in our time on this world, we exist always in a given context – what we are, what we believe in are given in a certain context. We think that a particular action is good, which a person 300 years ago would have turned his nose on. Homosexual paedophilia? It was considered good practice in Antiquity! What about ‘eye for an eye’? It’s in the Old Testament!

It should suffice to show that morals are only “objective” when they are codified by law and shown to be universally valid, albeit in a given context. Is it, then, absurd to say that you believe in what is per se moral? Again, the answer is no. I have developed a weaker sense of what it means to be “objective”. As a subject in a given context, you must believe in what is “objectively” moral to even have a sense of direction in your life. If you truly subscribed to the fact that morals are only valid in a given context, then everything collapses into relativism, once the context changes – nothing is moral nor immoral. So what guides you then?

I would, personally, rather face the charge of inconsistency at this point than the possibility of being a totally amoral subject. If I am amoral, what is the meaning of life?

So what is the problem? The problem is that many people tend to equate morality with legality. What is legal is what is moral. Therefore, people who break the law are immoral. Wait a second! Is that true? Is it immoral to drink on the MRT, knowing that you will be caught and be fined? If consistency is so important to the lawyer, then it must be immoral. But what about the sick person who is thirsty? Should he be fined? Yes? No? Maybe?

I’m not disputing that people who break the law are mostly immoral. But the keyword is mostly. Because we grow up in a society, our views of what is moral tend strongly to converge. For example, it is wrong to kill. It is wrong to steal. Because you would not wish that upon yourself. But there are laws which are so banal to be laughable. It may be illegal to stage a demonstration – but is it immoral to? It may be immoral to people of a different age – but is it immoral to people today?

The key to all this is understanding what it means to be a subject within a given context with given values. Law is black and white – either it is right, or it is wrong, and law must assume an “objective” morality, without which it would have no standing. But understanding that this “objectivity” is only given due to the codification of morals, which take place at a certain time under certain circumstances, would help to separate the concepts “legality” and “morality”. What is “moral” may be “illegal”. A well-meaning German in WWII who decided to tell the SS that he didn’t see the Jew living his in cellar was moral, although it was very, very illegal to do so.

I Am Singaporean IX – “Making Rational Choices” May 3, 2011

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean Vol. III.
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Of late, there have been many calls to ‘make the rational choice’ while voting. But what is ‘the rational choice’? I think that all these pleas for ‘rational choice-making’ presuppose something which should not be taken for granted, which is why I am writing this article at such short notice. For those who can’t be bothered to read on, the correct plea should be to make an informed choice, not a rational one.

In saying so, I will probably draw flak – how can one not make a rational choice while voting? Are we not rational beings? The answer is yes – in no way are voters irrational, rabid animals which can only be restrained by a stronger irrational fear, as the PAP seems to believe. But, the way we vote is rational in a limited sense – the main drive of my argument is that we decide and act based on what we have experienced and what we know, therefore it makes no sense to assume that there is ‘the rational choice.’ (I will call this position ‘limited rationality’).

There are already many well-argued pieces circulating in the net showing that the PAP’s economic principles are essentially sound (see, for example, here and here.) So, let’s assume that they are. But will this let the populace make a “rational choice” at the ballot box? The answer is no. Firstly, let’s remember that all theories are only true until they are refuted. Secondly (and this is a point which the authors of these pieces and, more importantly, the PAP have missed), the fact that these policies are in force does not mean that the reality corresponds to them. Many replies have been written claiming that “you aren’t working, so you don’t know”, or “you’re just writing from the elite perspective”.

Reality, then, seems to be very different from theory. Which it is most of the time. Why does Singapore have the nickname “Singapore, Inc.”? Has anyone looked behind this name? It is because the PAP has made “the rational choice”, enforcing economic principles which are, in fact, theoretically sound and practically successful (if you use GDP as a marker for development). But what these principles have caused is the widening rift between rich and poor; the rising cost of life, and the polarization of society into haves and have-nots.

A reason why the PAP defends their theories to the end and their ‘deafness to criticism’ (to quote Lim Swee Say) is that their policies are totally “rational”. Which is why Internet criticism has been deemed to be irrational barking (I’m not saying that there is no such thing on the Net). But the PAP has missed the point (which shows to some extent how out-of-touch they are). How many of our MPs have a rags-to-riches story to tell? The current PAP seems to be to be very homogenous – scholars, public servants, what have you. But this homogeneity breeds groupthink (i’m sorry, Minister Ng), and leads to the feeling that as the ruling elite, what is rational for me must be rational for everyone else. Go against me and suffer.

But, if Singapore is a democracy (which it is on paper), then the PAP has missed the point by such a wide margin that they deserve the criticism they have begotten. How governmental policies have affected the voting populace will definitely lead to different views on who to vote, and guess what? All of them are rational. Calling Singaporeans ‘daft’ will not help you, MM, because you seem to have taken what you see as rational and generalized it (by the by, it’s a logical fallacy called secundum quid.) It’s just that people have experienced different things which lead them to act differently. In themselves, both behaviours are rational and consistent.

The Opposition has sensed this and made it a large part of their rhetoric. The PAP doesn’t seem to realize how this is possible, leading them to fear-mongering and gerrymandering, appealing to irrationality to overcome the rational thinking of the voters. The upshot of all this is that the PAP has thereby proven how out-of-touch it has become with the populace. The authors who plead for a ‘rational choice’ seem to have an agenda – the “rational choice” seems to be the one who brings the country forward. But this is a gross oversimplification. What do you understand by ‘bringing the country forward’? More GDP? More equal distribution of wealth? Opportunities for all? Is the stress on ‘forward’ or on ‘country’? The oversimplification consists in all this, and more – it assumes that all Singaporeans have benefited (or suffered) equally under the PAP hegemony, therefore there is only one correct result.

There is one correct result if you remove all personal experience and confine everything to the textbooks. Which probably would apply until your final year in university, or, perhaps, Sec 4. But life is more complex than that, and people have forgotten that it is.

Thus, my plea: you should make the rational choice for yourself, or you should make an informed choice. The PAP has to see this, which is why I am all for a strong(er) Opposition presence in Parliament. Rationality is a phenomenon to be described; not something which has to be controlled.

I am Singaporean VIII – A Response to “Response to ‘A letter to my friends on the General Elections'” April 24, 2011

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean Vol. III.

The original letter may be found on Facebook, here. I will not quote at length, so read the letter(s) for the full lowdown.

First things first: I am neither pro- nor anti-PAP; HOWEVER, i am for a much stronger Opposition presence in Parliament. You see, unlike a particular Major-General, I think that the Opposition is insurance worth buying into. Those who tend to think in terms of black and white can call me anti-establishment; but that’s YOUR problem.

A response was posted in response to another letter circulating on Facebook. In this letter, Tan Joo Hymn closed as follows:

Learning from history so as not to repeat it

Maybe I’m more pessimistic, but with politicians with such a non-reflexive mindset, I am not sure we can make it through many more uncertainties and crises. There are more than enough examples of corporates being taken over or wound up, and historical examples of empires and dynasties falling into decay when their leaders stop listening to the public and insist on doing things their way.

Tan’s unapologetic support for the Opposition is similar to mine – namely, that every political system must be renewed, lest it begin to fall into decay:

it’s not a question of if, but when. At the last elections, 66% voted PAP. I do not think it will take that long for the 16% to erode given all that’s happened, even with the influx of new citizens and the constant redrawing of electoral boundaries. At some point, the balance will tip, and the “unimaginable” will happen.

To that end, she cites certain examples which are mostly refuted in the response written by Ben Leong. In the refutation of the first example, namely, “The PAP in the ’50s isn’t the PAP today”, Mr. Leong has so much to say of PM Lee:

I don’t pretend to know too much. The only know about the Minister Mentor from his books. It turns out however that  PM Lee was my Minister-in-charge while i was in the Service. From my limited interactions with him, I have no doubt that he is highly principled and intelligent. On diligence, well, it’s not uncommon to receive emails from him in the middle of the night. Personally, I really don’t begrudge his high pay. What I wonder is where he finds the time to spend it. Seriously, he’s quite a sweet man. Sometimes, I think he’s too nice guy to be politician. He might have done better as a prof.

Perhaps PM Lee really is a nice guy. Who’s to tell? But then again, PM Lee isn’t the PAP. As for the part on the Global Financial Crisis, I think he’s right – Singapore really didn’t suffer as much as other countries. Yet, nowhere in the original letter did I find “financial crisis”, a fact confirmed by Safari’s search engine. It seems that Ms. Tan isn’t arguing from that perspective. Maybe Mr. Leong is right in saying that “that’s the problem with public policy. You do things, you dun get no appreciation; you screw it up, the flak will come.”

Well, yes – that IS public policy. But a counterexample of this sort may be comparing apples with oranges. Ms. Tan seems to be arguing internally in our own country. While that may smack of a limited world-view, it also means that drawing comparisons with other countries need to be taken with a large pinch of salt. It seems that Ms. Tan portrays the problems as systemic, and you can’t show that the system works because one component of it is working – an example is not a proof.

The next part of the refutation deals with the “Usual Way Mistakes are Handled.” Five points are mentioned – Mas Selamat’s Great Escape, the floods in Orchard, YOG, HDB prices, and CPF. I have no argument with HDB prices, and with Mr. Leong’s description of the CPF problem, except for one little thing – yes, the money has to come from somewhere. But here’s a little problem – granted, the reserves will run out. But that’s assuming that the reserves remain static. Everyone knows that a sealed jug with a crack will eventually end up empty. But what if the jug is constantly being filled? Yes, it is true that people are generally living longer. And it is true that people will have to work longer. But work all their lives? Granted – it happens, and we shouldn’t coddle ourselves that it isn’t. But it shouldn’t be happening. That is what governments should be working towards (even if it’s asymptotic), rather than saying ‘it is what it is.’

For the remaining points, I think both Mr. Leong AND Ms. Tan have missed the point (the fact the Mr. Leong’s post answers Ms. Tan’s is a clue, and the fact that people still harp on them is the clincher.) The gripe isn’t about conducting post-mortems, but about politicians accepting responsibility (See Mr. Leong’s Criticism 4, where he argues that for the PAP, Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word.) Laudably, things are being done. But I have a bone to pick with the part on “principles of accountability.” Mr. Leong seems to assume that we live in what one could broadly call a guilt society, where wrongdoing is punished, and the punishment is exacted on the wrongdoer and only the wrongdoer.

Laws function like that. But does the populace? The population seems to have more of what one would call a shame society (for more, read The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict). The PAP could have saved itself a LOT of votes by taking responsibility, instead of attempting to shift the blame unto freak weather accidents (btw, Mr. Leong, “once every 50 years” means that a flood has a 0.02 probability of happening every year, not that a flood comes only once every 50 years). Maybe the elites see things differently, having been to Western institutions and having Western cultural values inculcated in the elite English-speaking schools. Maybe for them, the guilt society is what they have come to expect, whilst for the majority, the shame society predominates? Without saying that the one is better than the other, there is a discrepancy which needs to be dealt with.

Part 3 deals with U-Turns and the No-U-Turn-Syndrome. Mr. Leong argues from the perspective of limited rationality, i.e. you make decisions based on whatever information you have at the moment. I tend to believe he is right in this issue, and, so, the charge does not stand.

As for “Throwing Money at the Problem Regardless of Effect”, Mr. Leong’s argument boggles me. He only argues from case to case, not really addressing the issue which is common to them all, namely, that the Government seems to believe that money is the panacea to all problems. As for the rest, Ms. Tan doesn’t seem to be answered. Especially the part on the Rich-Poor-Divide.

There follows a long list of criticisms of the PAP which, if you read it carefully, seem to absolve the PAP of any systemic problems, only attacking the PAP’s PR machinery.

My recommendation? Read both letters with a large pinch of salt, and don’t let the argument and verbosity overwhelm you.

Make an informed choice!

I am Singaporean VII – “Net Happiness” September 24, 2010

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean Vol. III.

SM Goh has been spreading his brand of wisdom once again. In a statement which mrbrown calls “Yoda-like”, he said

“Unhappiness, those who are happier, in total there’s net happiness, there’s no such thing called total happiness, don’t believe in it. It’s whether we create net happiness in all this.” He added it is “very difficult to satisfy everybody” and in politics, trying to make everybody happy is “impossible”. They (sic!) key, said SM Goh is to “make the most number of people happy, the most number of times”. (source)

Prima facie, it sounds great. In fact, if you don’t reflect on what SM Goh says, you would think that it was pretty damned brilliant. But something smells fishy. It smells so fishy that it reeks of food poisoning if you consume it. And here’s why.

Basically, SM Goh has expounded the basics of utilitarian ethics as put forward by Bentham and Mill. To put it shortly, it’s about maximizing happiness, i.e., making as many people as possible happy. But here’s a big problem. Utilitarianism is probably practiced in most companies and perhaps by some countries in the way they run their countries. Like Singapore, obviously. If you look deeper, what SM Goh said are the fundamentals of utilitarian politics. If you make more people happy, then more people will vote for you. Politically, it is very sound.

But something is missing. What’s missing is that happiness can never be quantified in such a way, unless you are a politician standing for election. You are either happy or unhappy, and it normally doesn’t matter if others are happy (unless it concerns a friend, your life partner, or your family). What matters is that YOU are happy. But since here it is all about how many people in a particular population are happy, one must come to the conclusion that your happiness doesn’t matter. In fact, i’m actually quite impressed that SM Goh put it so clearly. What he said was one step short of saying that “your happiness doesn’t matter, as long as everyone else is happy,” which essentially means the same thing.

Which may also help to explain some conspiracy theories flying around in the Net. People say that the Gahmen has such lax immigration policies to ensure that it stays in power for all posterity. Makes sense now, right? Since it’s all about “net happiness”, when you notice that your people are becoming less happy, you just import more people from overseas which will definitely be happy. Net happiness, mah! I mean, if 90% of the population are happy, that’s good. But is 90% enough for you if you happen to be unhappy?

Thanks for making this conspiracy theory plausible, SM Goh.

The fact that it is so politically doesn’t mean that it is so for the individual. That must have become clear from what SM Goh said – my aim was just to make what he said even clearer. What outrages me is not that he meant that our individual happiness doesn’t matter – actually, it’s like that everywhere – but the audacity with which he said it, and the knowledge that people will nod their heads, say “Yessir, Yessir, three bags full” and go back to their everyday lives.

I am Singaporean VI – The Melting Pot September 21, 2010

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean Vol. III.
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As a teacher-to-be, coming across articles like these really makes me wonder about what being an educator is going to be like. If being a teacher is about “Moulding the Future of our Society”, then it is worth reading such articles and thinking about what we can do to make sure that the society we are supposed to be moulding is the one we actually want to mould.

The question is: Does Singaporean education teach students all about the world and nothing about themselves?

On paper, Singaporean education is great. Our universities are in the Top 200 in the Times Higher Education list. We win Olympiads all the time. When it comes to knowing a basic inventory of facts, Singaporean education is just about the best you can get. And that is a fact. And many people swear to the system. A friend of mine thinks I’m crazy when I say that I want my children to be educated overseas, because “Singaporean education is so good.”

So what’s missing?

Well, Singapore is a true melting pot. In the past, as is today, and as will be tomorrow, many cultures came together into one. It has been lauded as one of Singapore’s big selling points – an eclectic fusion of Orient and Occident, a quaint East-meets-West mixture which happens to work. But have we taken this metaphor and looked at it from another perspective? Many cultures came together under the band of meritocracy – may the best rule, and may they rule with wisdom. And since they are the best, they are paid the best money one can get too. This is the fire which managed to melt, or should i say meld East and West into a functioning whole.

And since we are such fans of meritocracy, society has been geared in that direction too. This melting pot which is Singapore has had certain repercussions, which the post I have linked to above shows. It seems that in developing the concept of meritocracy, what “The Best” is was artificially defined. And in artificially defining something, you create an artificial standard to compare everything against. In doing so, everything else becomes irrelevant. It creates a strong tendency towards conformity, which is the negative result of the melting pot. The individual loses his/her uniqueness and becomes part of this stew of uniformity. In school, you are told to study hard, you are told what you have to study, without any care as to what you actually think.

I’m not saying that that is per se wrong – this works naturally for math, the natural sciences, and even for the languages. But for subjects where you have to think, where critical thought and analysis is important – does this method work? The method seems to work because we have an artificial standard of what’s deemed as good. The method definitely works in Singapore. For GP, you just have to memorise these points, write this way, and Nothing Bad Can Happen to You. In fact, when you put your personal style into writing, you sometimes get penalised. Individuality is not really encouraged, because there is a tried-and-tested formula for becoming good. Why would any sane person abandon that?

(And, by the by, an artificial standard of what is Good is also very easy to objectify. Just look at the obsession with grades, and the thought that cramming is the panacea for all your examination woes.)

But in the midst of all that, something has gone missing. I think learning what it is to be a person has gone missing in Singaporean education. People assume that a sense of identity is a coming-of-age thing, that it will come with the times. And for the most part, that really is true. But this article is a case in point. I think that the melting pot has left little room for the individual to develop, since all differences have been swept away, and everyone is chasing after this artificial Good. True, you can decide what you want to do for your CCA. You can also decide your subject combination. You can choose your job. You can choose who to marry. You can decide this, and decide that. But how many choose to walk down the road which everyone else happens to be walking? How many choose to have an opinion? How many choose to believe in something? How many are doing what they are doing out of conviction? How many choose to be just a part of our uniform stew?

That having an individual opinion is sometimes seen as trouble-making is a symptom of this problem. That people know a lot, but don’t have a view on them is also a symptom of this problem. It’s all about working hard in Singapore. But after that, what’s left? Yet, working hard and sticking to that same old success formula is so ingrained into our society that it is hard to see how concrete change can come about. We should be asking questions if “The Good” we are striving to be was misconstrued. We should be asking “What is Good for Me? What Should I Be?” And these are questions which should be asked, not only during the formative years of adolesence, but also constantly throughout one’s adult life. And these are questions which don’t have a textbook answer. And the asking of such questions should be cultivated in our youth, when they are ready for it.

We shouldn’t be doing what we are doing now – filling their lives with so much work, so much obsession with chasing after this artificial good that they don’t have time to stop and reflect. Nor will forcing them to reflect help – because then, it will be more work, and what’s worse, their reflections may be graded. The melting pot comes into play again. As educators, one should ask if we want to produce smart people or if we want  to produce wise people.

8: Auntie…erm, Miss… September 14, 2010

Posted by The Truth in What Were They Thinking?!.

Whoa! Finally, a readworthy article on the State’s Times! I would like to commend the State’s Times on raising people’s awareness on General Idiocy in Singapore. Really, it’s very important…considering that there are enough idiots in the world, it makes sense to train the spotlight on one once in a while, isn’t it?

I would really like to start bashing, but first, let me rebutt each argument point by point:

  • “Proper terms of address for people” has been oversimplified. The proper way to address a particular person depends on context in the broadest sense of the word. Many factors count towards properly addressing someone, e.g., if you are in a familiar context, you wouldn’t address a friend (unless ironically) as “Mr./Mrs./Ms. X”. If you are in an unfamiliar context, there again differences. You would address someone as “Mr./Mrs./Ms. X” if you are in a working, white-collar context and you want to remain professional, i.e., you are either distancing yourself socially from your conversation partner, or you are addressing someone of a different social ranking. Using “Uncle” and “Auntie” has the effect of creating immediate rapport, since the very words uncle and auntie imply a certain close relationship between both conversation partners, while remaining respectful by constantly placing the addressed person in a socially higher rank.
  • Building on that, I can easily refute the 2nd paragraph. There, it is said that: “Very often, at places like wet markets, hawker centres and heartland shops, one can hear the shop or stall owners addressing men and women who appear to be in their 40s as “uncle” and “auntie”. It is ridiculous to see even middle-aged and elderly people address these men and women that way.” Given that the context always determines what the proper way of addressing someone is, I do not see what is ridiculous in this at all. Although it may seem semantically strange, it is actually a very meaningful way of addressing someone. A shopkeeper wants people to buy their wares. So, naturally, the simplest way to approach a customer with respect would be to address him using a term which would naturally place the customer on a higher social ranking. And having rapport also helps you to convince your customer, no?
  • Which brings me to the third paragraph. How it is neither respectful nor right is not clear to me. Maybe i’m dense, but didn’t i just argue that “Uncle” and “Auntie” are a) terms of respectful address and b) very appropriate given the contexts in which they are used?
  • And so I come to your suggestion. Replacing “Uncle” and “Auntie” with “Mr./Miss/Mrs.” etc will destroy your very argument, since you so wilfully neglected to see the context in which such linguistic phenomena are situated. Let’s say you go to Best Denki and a salesperson addressed you with “Sir”/”Madam”. Well and good. Now, let’s say you go to your local mama shop and demand to be addressed as “Sir/Madam.” You’ll either be laughed out of, or kicked out of the shop. The terms “Sir/Madam” and “Mr./Miss/Mrs.” are respectful, but in no way are they markers of attempting to strike up rapport with your conversation partner. In fact, in a Singaporean context (outside the office), such terms serve to distance speaker from recipient, and shows a general ignorance/refusal to accept the conversational context one finds oneself in. At the very least, it is incorrect usage, if you have a bad day, it’s downright disrespectful. (And yes, as special lexical items, they have their places in Singapore Standard English! No person, no matter how polished their English may be, will go to a coffeeshop and order “A coffee sweetened with condensed milk and two hardboiled eggs, if you will, Sir.”)

Your letter, therefore, should have landed directly in the Editor’s shredder. The very fact that he deigned to publish it means that he probably thought it was Nation-Building to Educate the People About Idiocy. Did you pause to ask yourself why these words are used as terms for addressing someone in Singapore? No. Did you probe deeper into the phenomenon? Nope. Do you have a skewed view of reality? Maybe. Did someone address you as “Auntie”, and you happen to be around 40 years of age? I don’t know. Are you an overzealous English teacher? You should have known better – or didn’t you learn this at University? Do you see things in black-and-white? Definitely. Are you, by some freak of nature, from the Victorian Era and don’t know how you got to this sweltering tropical island? Hmm.

Well, Victorian or not, you certainly get my facepalm. Eat this, Auntie…Miss!

I am Singaporean V – Singlish, again September 9, 2010

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean Vol. III.

The Speak Good Singlish movement is back!

Singapore’s Auntie Killer MP, Vivien Balakrishnan, kicked off this year’s movement by “correcting” a “No Outside Food” sign. The correct form of English, so says our Auntie Killer, is “No food from elsewhere, please.” But is it, in the first place, correct?

A sign which has words on it is supposed to deliver the information it is to deliver in the most efficient way, i.e., with the least words. Signage also has a certain linguistic function – pragmatically, signage attempts to effect a certain change of behaviour in the one reading the sign. For example, if you see a “STOP” sign whilst driving, you prepare to stop your car at the next junction. If you are walking along a construction site and see the sign “DANGER!” you are expected to pay attention as you walk aroud, so that a cinder block doesn’t crack open your skull (worst case scenario.) In MRT trains, we see signs saying “NO DURIANS”, “NO EATING AND DRINKING”, etc. It is clear what these signs mean – pragmatically, they are imperatives forbidding a particular action.

Is there a “please?” in any of these signs? No, because “please” is something which affects the meaning of the sign in a very important way – if “please” is left out, the imperative come across in its strong form – no durians in the trains, period. With a “please”, then it comes across as a request – and knowing that people can, and will twist the meanings of certain statements to their own benefit, one can be sure that sooner or later, people will start bringing durians with them on the MRT. (Not that I have anything against that, but my girlfriend probably does.) In the same sense, a sign saying “No Outside Food” means that No Food That Thou Hast Begotten Elsewhere Shalt Be Here Consumed. And what about “No Food from Elsewhere, please”? It probably still has the imperative component of “DO NOT BRING FOOD PURCHASED ELSEWHERE INTO THIS EATERY”, but saying “please”, while making it nice and friendly, tends to weaken this imperative component. People think that it’s impolite (but not forbidden!) to bring food from elsewhere in. Especially if it’s on signage.

So “please” has no place in signage. But “please” has a place in oral communication. Let’s say that someone does bring in food purchased elsewhere into the restaurant, thereby ignoring the sign. Any requests by restaurant staff not to bring in the food/to leave/not to consume it will be marked by “please”. Here, “please” is a marker of politeness which is expected in the service industry, and thus has its place in everyday usage. I daresay that this politeness marker is so important in the service industry that it is used even if there is a threat component in what is being said: “Please leave now, before I call the police.” Vivian has mixed up spoken and written communication, as have many others before and as will many others after him.

What makes the mistake so serious is that Vivian, like many others, has conflated spoken and written communication. It is true that you “write as you speak”. But, and most importantly, let’s not forget that Singlish is spoken but hardly written (and, if written, only under very special circumstances, like literature), whereas Singapore Standard English is mainly written but not so much spoken. (I mean, even the crème de la crème of society uses Singlish.)  Also, it should be noted that Singlish and Singapore Standard English, more than being medially different,  also fulfill very different functions – Singlish is used in different contexts as compared to Singapore Standard English.

For example, speaking Singapore Standard English to your friends (unless they too speak only this form of English) would be considered being aloof, etc. Using Standard English where it isn’t appropraite smacks of elitism. On the other hand, using Singlish during your job interview is the quickest way not to get the job. One must differentiate between the two, formally and functionally. Vivien’s oversight consists in bringing the two together, saying that we should give up our oral patois to follow the written language, in assuming that one language is “pragmatically more significant” than the other. Well, you can’t compare apples with oranges. If you use context to judge pragmatic significance, you will see that Singlish and Standard English serve very different functions in Singapore. The functions are so diffferent that the only way you can declare one form to be “pragmatically more significant” than the other is if you have artificially defined what is “better.” And, i think that this “better” has to do with staying relevant with the world.

But is this “better” also better for the country? In this pop-linguistic analysis, I have tried to show that Singlish and Standard English fulfill two very different sets of functions. In that sense, you can only declare one to be better than the other in the presence of an artificially defined “better.” Singlish probably has the function of creating identity. Standard English has the function of staying globally relevant. You can’t ignore either of them. Perhaps it is time for some introspection. What is important for Singapore is a sense of identity, a sense which is becoming quickly diluted by more and more foreign talent (which may not necessarily be talent), as well as being relevant globally. If language and identity form such a strong link, then why are we encouraged to discard our language and take up another? Why should we discard our identity, only to have our leaders complain that Singaporeans have no sense of national identity? If staying relevant as a country is so important to our Auntie Killer, then perhaps he should start looking at how to stay relevant as a country.

You can, for example, teach students to recognise the functional difference between Singlish and Singaporean Standard English and to use them appropraitely. I think knowing when to use what is much better than trying to eradicate one for the other. And much easier too.

I am Singaporean IV – Never Good Enough July 5, 2010

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean Vol. III.

Long time no see! Our Labour Chief’s shenanigans (linguistically and, well, politically) have brought me out from my cave of learning. So what did he say? As quoted by CNA, he said…

“If you’re the best today, strive to be better. If you’re better today, strive to be ‘betterer’ and if you’re ‘betterer’ today, strive to be ‘betterest’ so that over time, Singapore’s service standards can just keep getting better, ‘betterer’ and ‘betterest’.”

So, Singaporeans are never good enough. Of course, no one will ever be good enough. It’s very easy to see it with an analogy. Say you work hard and earn 2 grand a month. Of course it’s not enough, you work harder and try to make 3 grand, etc. Progress functions on not being good enough. Right?

Well, yes. But what is it that makes Lim Swee Say’s comment sound so wrong?

What is wrong is the very reason why he should not be a politician. Lim Swee Say is a straight-talker – he shoots off his mouth without sending his thoughts through Central Processing. What he has said ia something which everyone actually knows, i.e., that one can always be better, but never wants to hear in cleartext, since it reduces happiness.

Especially if it is said by an authority figure like our Labour Chief. Because what he says is probably what our Gahmen wants to tell us.

Why? Let me venture a guess. It’s because this good, better, best thing has no longer anything to do with the development of the individual. All it has to do with is bringing in the moolah (see the analogy above.) That means that this so-called “Heartware” is missing. When everything is about dollars and cents, you can be damn sure that your personal worth is going to be measured in dollars and cents. So those of you who want personal development but not in the sense of growing your (or the country’s) financial portfolio, Fuck Off. You guys are parasites and the scum of the society.

Probably the official stand which should never ever be put in clear text as well.

Now, seeking for personal development in the sense of wisdom, knowledge etc is very good. In that sense, Never Being Good Enough is actually very good for you. That kind of self-knowledge is what keeps science, philosophy and literature alive. Everyone wants to be a better person. But who wants to be a better cash cow? So, once again, here, it’s not about your personal development, you fool. In a Singaporean sense, personal development can be termed “skills upgrading”. Which means, in Singaporetalk, making yourself more useful to society.

It sounds great. But is it good for the person? You see, when society starts to chase Wealth as her only God, the individual becomes devalued. You don’t use society, society uses you. Your happiness never counts, the society’s happiness counts. The only worth you have in society’s eyes is that of how useful you are materially to society.

Are you a businessman? Welcome to Singapore! Are you a table-tennis player from China? Welcome too! Are you an entrepreneur? Welcome! Biomedical scientist? Sure! Are you poorly-educated, unwilling to integrate but are willing to produce babies and work here for a good pay? Yes! In short, Can We Milk You For Cash/Prestige/Survival?

Historian? Uh-uh (you may find out the dark truth, so you are not only useless, but dangerous). Author? Will anyone read your books? Philosopher? No! DANGER! How about filmmaker? Well, depends on what films you intend to make. Linguistic researcher? Singapore’s not a zoo! These jobs are not so materially useful to our little island economy, but they are useful in that they make people think and they contribute to what constitutes Heart Ware, namely, identity.

Fortunately, Singaporean identity is bigger than the identity of The Party, which tends to see itself as being equivalent to Singapore. And, it should be clear that the Party, which seems to be obsessed with numbers, has no place for you, the person wanting to be a simple good human. Because you are reducible to digits and numbers. And here comes the shocker: Digits and numbers have no inherent meaning. The Party thinks that they have a meaning, because “much” is understood as “good”, “more” is easily understood as “better”, etc.

On the other hand, “happiness” is a term overflowing with meaning. If you put your mind to it, you could write books about Happiness. Can you write a 2,000 word essay about digits and numbers and what they mean in the everyday world? Two worlds collide and are perhaps, for now, co-existing in a precarious balance. Want more meaning? Then maybe the digits have to lose some ground.

And oh, by the way, Mr Lim, “best” is a superlative. “Better” is a comparative. I think what you really wanted to say was “better than best.” THAT is grammatical correctness. You get an A for your linguistic creativity, although i strongly suggest you leave that word out in your next GP essay.

I am Singaporean III – The Importance of a Good Memory January 28, 2010

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean Vol. III.

Elections are coming!

In spite of what our politicians are telling you, the signs are clear (as is the incongruence in what different politicians from the same party tell us):

But at the same time, since all this talk is a pretty sure sign that the elections are around the corner, it would be appropraite to call to mind everything that has transpired in the past PAP term.  Did we have to Pay And Pay more? Did we Stay Together, and Move Ahead? (You can refer to the PAP’s 2006 manifesto here.) More importantly, dare we give the PAP carte blanche for another 5 years?

One huge thing which went wrong was this “Stay Together, Move Ahead” thing. It certainly doesn’t seem that Singapore has stayed together and moved ahead. The richer are richer, and the poorer are poorer than ever. 36% of our population aren’t Singaporeans, and companies, which are focused on profit and survival, are hiring these foreigners en masse, simply because they ask for less money. Richer foreigners, those who can afford a roof over their heads, are artificially inflating the HDB market, so that Singaporeans feel that they are rapidly becoming 2nd class citizens in their own country. Instead of staying together, we have drifted apart. As for moving ahead – a lot of people are getting ahead in Singapore, but are many Singaporeans getting ahead?

Secondly, we have to consider how responsible our Gahmen has been when times have been tough. Have they been responsible? Have they admitted their mistakes to the people? MM’s admission that the bilingual policy was a mistake only turned out to be a mistake in implementation, not in theory (see my other post on this topic), not the catastrophe MM makes it out to be, and I am pretty sure too that yet another change in implementation (teaching Chinese in English..?!), the way MM sees it anyway, will be a turn for the worse. But leaving that aside, what about the other shenanigans? Did our Dear Leaders show that they were ready to take responsibility, or were they only responsible for progress?

In Singapore, they say that “talk is cheap”, but when it comes to the failings of the system, our Gahmen loves to use talk, instead of action – the status quo, so it is thought, has worked up to now – so why tweak it? Thus, apologies from the Gahmen are hardly forthcoming – bad things are normally accompanied by exhortations to “accept it and move on.” Pragmatically, that is the right way to look at things – i don’t deny that – but for a Gahmen to say that would mean that this particular government is either really inept when it comes to governing or that it has nothing to fear from the population. What the population has to do is to forgive, but not forget. True, we have to work ourselves out of this problem, but we should NEVER EVER forget what has happened, nor should we let ourselves be blinded by handouts and promises of lift upgrading. Having a good memory is the only way you can effect change – it’s like remembering that the last time you ate something bad, you had a really bad tummyache, and so you avoid stuff which smells bad. You don’t continue buying food which smells bad, because it is a lot cheaper, or because the mama shop around the corner stocks it, when you could go to NTUC for non-bad-smelling food.

So yes, were they responsible?

  • Mas Selamat’s Great Escape was swept swiftly under the rug, and Lee Junior said “we should move on.” Lee Senior accused the population of “complacency”, i.e. it’s not our fault, it’s YOURS for being complacent, but we are willing to work with you and solve the problem.
  • The financial crisis was blamed on “global circumstances” (which is partly true), but the massive losses by GIC and Temasek were never explained. Instead, Ho Ching took a sabbatical (maybe to take some heat off her), an ang mor put on the board, only to have him leave due to “strategic differences”. So essentially, the status quo remains.
  • Our Law Minister told us (without proof nor logic) that foreigners don’t make our lives more difficult, or more inaffordable. But then, PM Lee said that “the Government actually has no control over HDB resale prices”, thus absolving the Gahmen of all blame.
  • Remember the old “Stop at Two” policy? Now, the Gahmen is trying to plug the leaks – by importing foreigners. It seems that the Gahmen has no sense of how to deal with its population – it wants a fast and effective solution, but a solution which may not be tenable in the long run (unless the various political conspiracies online are to be believed). The distrust against citizens (“if we give you welfare, you will become lazy”) shows how much the Government is reliant on its citizenry, but also how much the Government believes that they are better than the citizens. The benevolent dictator has forgotten what it means to be benevolent.

The same dubious kinds of “talk” are also present in the above signs that the elections are coming. Not speculating on when the elections are coming means that you can actually forget that the elections are coming, so you will be surprised by a nice Gahmen handout and you will vote for them. Lee Junior’s intellectual theft can be explained as integrating the thoughts of others into their own, thus making the PAP seem more progressive than before. As for Lee Senior’s promises and threats…you have to ask yourself whether they will come to fruition.

So, how do we make sure that we have better leaders who will take care of us? An Opposition is good, because, in the words of PM Lee, in the course of “fixing” each other, the population benefits. A strengthened, more outspoken Opposition can act as a conscience against the ruling party, as a form of checks and balances. The impotence of our current opposition politicians is not based on personal incompetence, but on the fact that no one has their backs. Strengthen the Opposition, and you strengthen the possibility that Gahmen failings and problems are actually discussed (and not mentioned and applauded) in Parliament, and that all parties, PAP and Opposition, will turn a more acute ear to the common man, if only to garner more support. Want to get rid of insensitive elitists? Then you have to change the balance of power.

But to do that, you need a really good memory to dredge up everything that has transpired in the last 5 years. Make an informed decision!