Kevin Martens Wong reels off sentences in Kristang, which is among several minority languages in Singapore enjoying a new lease of life after a decades-long drive to encourage the use of English and Mandarin. “Teng bong, ozi nus prendeh sorti-sorti di tempu,” the linguist told his eager students in the 500-year-old mish-mash of Portuguese and Malay — a greeting and information that the class would be about the weather.
A former British colonial trading post that has long been a melting pot of different cultures, Singapore has an ethnically diverse population whose ancestors mostly came from across Asia, principally China, India and the Malay archipelago.
On independence in 1965, Singaporeans spoke an array of tongues.
English was common, but many used Chinese dialects, such as Hokkien, as well as Tamil from India, Malay and a smattering of more obscure languages.
The founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew made the study of English compulsory in schools as he positioned the country as a global commerce and finance hub, as well as one other “mother tongue”.
For local ethnic Chinese, who today make up the majority of Singapore’s population, it was usually Mandarin, as Lee had an eye on China’s rise as a world power, while it was Tamil or Malay for other citizens.
The policy initially ran into opposition from ethnic Chinese, most of whom trace their ancestry to southern China. Lee, who ruled Singapore for over three decades and died in 2015, described in his memoirs how he had to force the issue.
“To emphasise the importance of Mandarin, I stopped making speeches in Hokkien,” wrote Lee, who was ethnic Chinese, while most TV and radio broadcasts in Chinese dialects were also stopped.
Those restrictions still stand except in special cases, such as radio news broadcasts in Chinese dialects for senior citizens who struggle with Mandarin.
Non-Chinese tongues, such as Kristang — spoken by descendants of Portuguese colonisers who arrived in what is now Malaysia in the 16th century and married locals — also faded.
One thing that unexpectedly flourished was “Singlish”, a local patois that mixes English with words from the myriad tongues spoken in Singapore. It is still widely used, despite official efforts to discourage it.
In recent years however Singaporeans have started to take more of an interest in their ancestors’ languages.
As well as Kristang, efforts have been made by organisations promoting Chinese culture to keep Hokkien alive. It is the Chinese dialect that is most common in Singapore but it has become less widespread, particularly among the young.
Other minority languages enjoying renewed attention include Baba Malay, spoken by descendants of Chinese immigrants who married into the local Malay population, which mixes elements of Malay and a Chinese dialect and Boyanese, a language from a corner of Indonesia.
Reconnect with the past
Observers see a relaxation in attitudes towards the old languages in the city-state of 5.6 million, which has grown into one of the world’s wealthiest and most stable societies.
Most Singaporeans have already achieved an enviable level of English by international standards, lessening fears that focusing on other tongues will affect their English-speaking ability.
There has also been growing concern about losing touch with the past.
Young Singaporeans’ desire to revitalise the languages is a “form of root-tracing” while for the older generation it’s due to a sense of nostalgia, associate professor Tan Ying Ying, head of linguistics at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, told AFP.
“Linguists working in Australia, New Zealand and the US, have dedicated frameworks and systems to revitalise minority languages that are in danger of being extinct,” he said. — AFP