28 November 2009

By the People, For the People

As our time living abroad comes to a close, it seems appropriate to reflect on the differences between Lagos and Singapore. But what most travelers do not realize is just how much Nigeria and Singapore have in common. The countries' histories and cultural make-ups seem all too parallel. And if you visit both countries today, you may wonder how one could have done so much and the other done so little.

Nigeria and Singapore were both occupied not only by the British, but the Portuguese. Lagos is actually Portuguese for "lagoons" and Portuguese influence in cuisine and architecture is still found in Singapore’s homeland of ‘ole, Malaysia. While the past Portuguese influence in both countries is present but scant, the British influence permeates, most obviously in language. English is the lingua franca, with most using the local creole (Singlish and Nigerian pidgin) to communicate.

Nigeria and Singapore both claim a mixed cultural backdrop: Nigeria’s dominant tribes being Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba; Singapore’s ethnic mixes consisting of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and Eurasian. Both are key port cities, boasting prime locations for stop-offs and drop-offs. And their equatorial climates encourage rampant growth of just about anything that is planted.

But most surprising is both Nigeria and Singapore parted from the British empire the same year (1963). In the almost 50 years since independence, Singapore has grown to cosmopolitan acclaim, provides high standards of living for a large percentage of its population, and boasts some of the toughest schools and brightest professionals worldwide. Nigeria, on the other hand, still struggles to provide for even its richest inhabitants and has been riddled with corruption, civil war, and poverty.

So why has Singapore thrived and Nigeria dived? After all, Nigeria has oil (and lots of it) and Singapore boasts no resources of its own. Many may claim greed the culprit…after all, how often in history have we seen countries swimming in the coveted resources of the day only to fall victim to thievery and social decay? Others may think it’s cultural work ethic or unresolved tribal conflicts.

For me, I believe it goes beyond this, yet all being symptoms of the bigger culprit at hand. While Singapore evolved, Nigeria was created. As a well-respected friend and brilliant theorist wrote, “our superconductor world is at odds with centuries of native tribal and religious conflict. Consequently, when the pressure is on to ‘make it happen’– get that infrastructure up and running, stop the tribal infighting, hold free elections, and join our United Nations – the emerging nations are like high school football teams playing against the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. It is not that nations can’t make it happen; it is that their nation-building process has yet to evolve and may not evolve for 100 years.”

You see, Singapore was given the chance to evolve as it should, to face troubles in its own time and way, to create a country when the time was right. From the beginning, Nigeria’s nation-building process was forced. Three major tribal groups were shoved into one country for no other reason than convenience. Its borders were drawn by Europeans living far away from the reality at hand. And, as with many African nations, particular tribal groups were given favor by the colonialists and granted the power to rule over all tribes. For too long, Nigeria was denied the right to develop on its own time line, in its own way.

While Singapore had a hand in its own creation, Nigerians still struggle in a country that was created neither by the people nor for the people.

*The picutre of Lagos is courtesy of outhere.de

26 November 2009


In light of my recent posts and the comments that followed, I'd like to feature a Web site that could be humorous or insightful, depending on how you look at it:


23 November 2009

Lost in Translation

My trouble started at the Southeast Asian Civilizations Museum. As part of their ChinaFest event, they offered free activities for adults and kids alike: Chinese Quiz Show, Chinese Opera performance, and ancient Chinese bowling. But what I anticipated most was the calligraphy station. Finally, I would find out my Chinese name! It sounds a bit silly, I know. But I feel a certain disconnect with a language when there is no spoken or written counterpart for my own name.

At the station, there was a binder for Western name translations. Eagerly I flipped through, found Sarah (with an "h"), and showed it to the calligrapher. So proud I was of my Chinese name – “sha la” (莎拉) – that I showed off my new-found nomenclature to a Chinese–Singaporean friend. “You know that means ‘salad,’” he said.

One of my annoyances as a student of Chinese is the seeming bastardization of the language when it comes to many foreign translations. Not that I was expecting my name to mean "beautiful woman" or " princess." But at least something like "wife of Abraham" or "mother of nations." For example, Hong Kong actually means “fragrant harbor;” Beijing means "north capitol"; Nanyang (Singapore's name of ole) means "south sea"; and my favorite, xiang shui – perfume (literally meaning fragrant water).

But as in the case of my name, often it is sounds not meanings that are mimicked. Take a look at Singapore's MRT map and you'll see how this beautiful language can be twisted around. While Lakeside station (hu – lake, pan – bank) and Little India (xiao – little, yin du – India) actually mean what they say, Sembawang (san ba wang) and Dhoby Ghaut (dou mei ge) only sound like their English counterparts with little regard for meaning. It’s a bit like spelling out a concept in sign language versus actually using an already available all-encompassing sign.

And so on the basis of sound similarity (and to assist foreigners with recognizing their own native-words-turned-Chinese), my name becomes “salad.” The irony? Sha la really doesn’t sound that much like Sarah, now does it.

17 November 2009

Is Singlish a Sin?

As an English speaking visitor to Singapore, don’t expect to understand everything that is said. Though most Singaporeans do speak English, the Chinese-esque grammar combined with tones and pronunciation unfamiliar to the Western ear can make communicating a bit tricky. But is Singapore English, known as Singlish, a sin? According to the Singapore government it is.

For 6 years, Singapore has tried to play language police through its Speak Good English movement. Web pages, blogs, and teaching and vocational materials promote “standard” English as the preferred form. But as a student of language and culture, this particular topic strikes too close to home. The official stance of the movement is “to encourage Singaporeans to speak grammatically correct English that is universally understood.” Being universally understood is important; after all, what is the point of communicating in the same language if you can’t actually communicate. But "grammatically correct"? I'm not buying it.

In my experience trying to understand and be understood in Singapore, it was never the grammar that stood in the way. I quickly caught on to the shortened affirmatives (like “can” instead of “yes, you can”), and since Singlish mirrors the simpler Chinese grammar it’s actually easier to understand than the convoluted and repetitive “standard” English grammar. More so, different accents, pronunciations, and idioms were the cause of communication troubles. So why the big movement for speaking grammatically correct?

Singlish has a stigma: the uneducated, the working class, the foreigners who come to work there for a pittance all speak perfect Singlish. As I see it, wiping out Singlish is not a matter of being universally understood; it is a political and socio-economic statement put forth by the government. It elevates the educated to “preferred” and reduces the uneducated to unacceptable. It brands the upper echelon as “standard” and the working class as deviant. It blatantly states who and what practices the government finds acceptable and unacceptable.

Much like the English-Only movement in the United States, which often ostracises or in extreme cases punishes people speaking Spanish in vocational or educational settings, in Singapore Singlish has been dubbed a sin by the powers that be.

14 November 2009

China Talk in China Town

On my recent visit to the Chinatown Heritage Centre, a particular display caught my eye. It described Chinatown as the opium den center of the city where high-end clientelle as well as "coolies" frequented for their daily fix. "Coolies"??? This was a term I hadn't heard before.

For those just as clueless as me, "coolie" is actually in the American-English dictionary: "
an unskilled laborer or porter usually in or from the Far East hired for low or subsistence wages." For those more vocabularily inclined, what you may not know is its origin – a loan word from the Chinese kǔlì (苦力), which literally means "bitter; hardship" and "strength." With 75% of Singapore's residents hailing from Asia's most populace country, it's no surprise that Chinese (in its various forms and dialects) dominates the linguistic cultural backdrop.

Though English is for many the lingua franca of Singapore, various dialects of Chinese (mostly Hakka, Hokkien, and Mandarin) are spoken at home and to friends of the same linguistic network. Code-switching (using both English and Chinese) is frequent and no-switching (no English, Chinese-only) is not uncommon. From business cards, to retail signs, to advertisements, Chinese holds its own in this English speaking "international" city.

But it isn't just the "China Talk" here that hints at Singapore's dominant cultural population; just listen to the English
(endearingly called Singlish) spoken by Chinese, Indians, and Malay alike. Singlish cadence is staccato and short, with syllables deliberately separated and sounding a bit abrupt to the American ear. Not only is the cadence short, but the actually sentence constructions are, too, mirroring the concise uncomplicated Chinese phraseology.

Speaking in fragments or removing subjects or even verbs is also commonplace in Singlish exchanges. When you answer in the affirmative, a simple verb often suffices ("can," "have," "take" instead of "yes, you can" etc.). This is taken directly from Chinese grammatical structure, which doesn't really have a word for "yes." Also, Singlish sentences often conclude with a lingering "laaaah" or "maaaaah." Similarly, "ma" is the Chinese interrogative indicator placed at the end of questions; while, "le" is placed at the end of many statements as an intensifier or to indicate a completed action.

Both in phonology and cadence as well as construction, the Singaporean English
is no doubt influenced by its Chinese counterparts.

***As an aside, the photo above was featured on
Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. What Mr. Bourdain may not know is that this sign is a perfect example of the linguistic fusion apparent all over Singapore. Not only does its name appear in Chinese and English, but also pinyin. "Tian tian" is the roman alphabet pronunciation of the two symbols which appear above it. Tian tian (天天) actually means "every day" in Chinese.

11 November 2009

A China Town, No Doubt

Though Singapore claims a healthy mix of cultures and backgrounds (Chinese, Malay, Tamil, Eurasian), the Chinese heritage is by far the most pronounced and has affected Singaporean culture in both big and subtle ways. From food, to tradition, to speech, Singapore is a China Town, no doubt.

To give a bit a of background, the major influx of Chinese immigrants to Malaysia occurred during the 15th and 16th centuries. Formerly being part of Malaysia, Singapore also welcomed these Chinese traders and travelers well before its independence in 1965. In fact, many a Singaporean claim not a Malay but Peranakan heritage – a mix of Malay and Chinese ethnicity and tradition. This insurgence of Chinese culture that started centuries ago today remains strong in Singaporean daily living.

Chop sticks and angular soup spoons are staples in Hawker Centers and Food Courts (though I've been told to only use chopsticks when given a bowl; forks are used for plates). Hawker Centers' menu displays are written in Chinese and pinyin (the roman alphabet version of Chinese pronunciations) and with less frequency in English. And of course the cuisine itself, though some is uniquely Singaporean, includes the basic rice or noodle and soup mixtures we've come to know as "typical" Chinese.

The Chinese language dominates conversation as well. As much (or even more so) than English, I hear gossiping, business, and pleasantries exchanged in different Chinese dialects. On more than one occasion, I've needed to "find" an English speaker to help out with purchases and requests. And perhaps most revealing are the signs in Little India...there are more written in Chinese than in Tamil! Even Little India's grocery store has an automated machine saying "ni hao" ("hello" in Chinese) as you enter.

Though Chinese is by no means a necessity here and Western foods abound, visitors will leave knowing Singapore is a China Town, no doubt.

08 November 2009

Baba-Nyonya Pride

I'm not so sure our Indian friend from my previous blog would vie much better in Malaysia. While Chinese–Singaporeans prefer to deal with their own in business relationships, Chinese–Malaysian (known endearingly as Baba–Nyonya) are among the most successful businessmen and Malaysia's richest residents. As evidenced by Melaka's Baba–Nyonya house-turned-museum, its sheer size and international flare on display leaves little doubt of Baba–Nyonyas' influence, affluence, and stories of success.

Malaysia's population has been influenced by and integrated with other cultures for centur
ies. From the Jawi (Tamil–Muslim Malay) to the Chitty (Tamil–Hinu Malay), mixed heritage is a reality for many living in Malaysia. But it is quite obvious which Peranakan group lays claim as the "true" people (or at least the most prominent) of Malaysia, even more so than native Malays – the Baba–Nyonya. Literally translated as "Grandfather–Grandmother," Baba–Nyonya tradition dominates much of Malaysian and Singaporean culture. Identifiable by their batik sarong kebaya (the nyonya's attire of choice) and famous for their multi-cultural cuisine (fusioned flavors which include coconut milk, pandan leaf, and lemon grass to name a few), Baba–Nyonya heritage is easily identifiable and loudly pronounced.

And prideful they are! Even here in Singapore, the local television network broadcasts a weekly comedy that spotlights, plays with, and exaggerates the uniqueness and stereotypes that come with Baba–Nyonya pride. Sayang Sayang (meaning "dear" or "love" in Malay) follows one Peranakan family as they compete for the family business, challenge each others' "Nyonya" skills in a kueh chang-making contest, don traditional Baba–Nyonya batik, and even publish a Peranakan dictionary (Chinese Peranakan of course).

Though Peranakan refers to people of any mixed ethnic origin, Peranakan pride means Baba–Nyonya on the Indochinese Penninsula.

***The first picture above is courtesy of Singapore's Peranakan Museum. The second picture displays
kueh chang, Nyonya rice dumplings.

05 November 2009

Hierarchy of Business

As an "outsider" living abroad, it's difficult to know and often even harder to understand the rules of engagement for your host country. It might be the business card ritual that catches you off guard (a necessity at meetings, with the 2-hand exchange being as important to the meeting as the business at hand). Or it could be rules for treating someone to a meal (still haven't figured that one out). But what I didn't expect were the rules of hierarchy...rules that at home aren't as pronounced as here in Asia.

This unofficial (or maybe it's official) caste system of the high-wage, low-wage variety first came to my attention at my place of residence. One of the restaurant staff, who was working as an intern, had to return to the Philippines. He couldn't find a job; they were only hiring Singaporeans because of the economic downturn he told me. Made sense, but this guy was a hard worker and seemed more capable than some of the full-time Singaporean staff! It seems there is a certain respect and advantages that simply come with a Singaporean passport.

And for the non-Singaporeans who do get hired, often the less-than-desirable jobs with less-than-desirable pay are what awaits them. My husband recalls looking out his window from the 26-floor and seeing at eye-level Indian construction workers building a nearby skyscraper. When he commented that he wouldn't want that job, a co-worked replied that you wouldn't find a Singaporean doing that work. Live-in help from the Philippines, Malaysia, or Indonesia don't fare much better. Though perks are included (like room, board, and trips home), the standard wage is about USD 300 per month.

Even among the Singaporean "elite" a business hierarchy exists. Our residents cafe not only serves as a breakfast nook but with the same frequency as a venue for businessmen vying for contracts. As such, I often overhear tid-bits of the dealings. Recently, I witnessed an Indian man being let down easy by an Australian business contact. His Chinese clients, the Australian said, "they like to do business with Chinese...you might have a better chance in Malaysia." The conversation ended with the Australian suggesting Indian contacts might also be a better option for his non-Chinese companion.

In the Singapore workforce, being Chinese–Singaporean is more than advantageous...it's predestinous!

02 November 2009

A Buddhist Christmas?

And I thought Americans started Christmas early...

For the past 3 weeks, more and more Christmas decorations have appeared on our neighborhood's main thoroughfare (which also happens to be
shopping district). Orchard Road runs 1.5 miles long before turning into Tanglin Road for another half mile...and Christmas decorations span the entire length! Complete with Santa Village, ornaments, lights, a 5-story Christmas tree, and snowmen (I guess there is such thing as snow in Singapore), this is by far the largest and most glamorous effort I've ever seen to 'Tis the Season!

But this over-indulgence in Christmas flare strikes me as a bit odd. Aside from the obvious early arrival of holiday cheer, last time I checked Singapore's population was half Buddhist. With Christianity accounting for only 15%, why would Singapore go to such lengths to celebrate (or at least decorate for) this Christian holiday? The answer: well, it's plastered alongside, above, and around the decorations on Orchard Road...money.

Enter the holiday season and enter the consumerism frenzy. Maybe not for its own citizens, but Singapore is an international city with a reputation for good shopping. And there's no better time than Christmastime to make up for losses during an economically-challenged year. This money-making mindset which dominates Singapore is not only evident by what you see on Orchard Road, but also by what you don't see elsewhere. According to some locals, Singapore invests in things that make money often to the detriment of non-money making ventures. The art scene is a perfect example.

Trying to find Singaporean art (or any decent collection for that matter) is like looking for a Christmas tree in Mecca. The Singapore Art Museum has an obvious paucity of local artists, and its permanent collection leaves much to be desired. In fact, if you want to see good art go to the hotels (a huge money maker in this tourist town). The Conrad, Regent, and Ritz–Carlton take pride in their art collections no doubt in response to their patrons tastes. Ranging from SE Asian masters to Chihuly, Frank Stella, and even Andy Warhol, these hotels put Singapore's national art efforts to shame with the Ritz–Carlton alone housing 4,200 pieces.

In Singapore, the old saying certainly rings true: money makes the world go round. And while art museums may yield little profit, hotels and "Christ"-mas mean money!