Subtitles have often been used to draw together linguistic communities….
Photograph by Khánh Hmoong
Today I am visiting a hospital. When I enter the wards, I return to another world of voices. At the nurse’s station: Tagalog, Burmese, or Indonesian-accented Malay. In the volunteer’s room, I meet my co-workers. We strategise for the day in English. And then we walk the wards, the three of us. My companions are a Chinese-Singaporean woman who speaks English, some Malay, and a few words of the Chinese dialects Hokkien and Cantonese, and a woman from India, who speaks English, Gujarati, and Urdu. I’m a Caucasian—for want of a better word—man who speaks English, some Mandarin, and a few words of Malay. The patients we talk to are mostly older, with linguistic worlds far more complex than the rationalised bilingualism of my students. In choosing languages of address, it’s a little like the childhood game of scissors, paper, stone. I speak in Mandarin to Chinese patients, and they reply not to me but to my Chinese co-worker, who looks back at me in incomprehension. She speaks in Malay to older Chinese and Malay patients, and they reply in Malay not to her but to the third of us, the Indian woman who wears a tudung that marks her out as Muslim and, by a process of mistaken association, Malay. We shuffle languages together, translate, with the patient often taking the lead. Speech pours into the cracks between us. It is not the pain of the body that is worst, but the pain of the heart: xin tong, 心痛, sim tia, sam tung, sakit hati. And then, for a moment, the heart does not hurt any more. We’re like children, passing this fragile bubble of languages from one to another. Singaporean playwright Kuo Pao Kun wrote about the loss of language as cultural loss, but here it seems different, as though linguistic incompetence, incomprehension, and the process of mutual translation forces us back to the body, to the heart.
As my reference to Kuo suggests, writers of poetry and prose fiction in Singapore have tried over a long century to represent this shifting polylingual environment. The soundscape of the city-state as a colonial entrepôt featured a medley of languages and overlapping linguistic communities, stitched together by English both as an elite language of governance and a pidgin, and the much more widespread use of a simplified form of Malay—Pasar Melayu or Bazaar Malay—as a lingua franca. Modernist rationalisation through education, mass literacy, and language policies began in the colonial period and continued after self-rule in 1959 and full independence in 1965. At present, all Singaporeans study at English-medium schools, but Ministry of Education policy aims for them also to be bilingual in a mother tongue designated according to race, which may not necessarily be the language they speak at home. There are four official languages: Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, and English. Some heritage languages of small communities, such as Malayalam or Punjabi, receive sanction from the state, while so-called Chinese “dialects” such as Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, and Hainanese are disavowed. Other languages, such as Javanese, Baba Malay, and Kristang, have almost vanished. But on the MRT, I often recognise others: Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, German, and Spanish. Languages are also not distinct. Much has been written about Singlish, Singapore’s unique English-based creole, but the term hides a multitude of registers from a formal “Singapore English”, through creolised messages on Facebook and WhatsApp, to a pidgin used between habitual non-English speakers. English/Singlish shades quickly into other languages: at times, with elderly family members, I am not sure whether I am speaking Mandarin with an extensive English vocabulary, or English with a Mandarin-derived sentence structure. And at many family gatherings four languages are being spoken, with no one individual being fully fluent in more than two: incomprehension is bridged by continual informal acts of translation.
In literary media which privilege the oral over the chirographic, representation of the polylingual environment is, superficially at least, easy enough. In Singapore film, subtitles have often been used to draw together linguistic communities. Boo Junfeng’s award-winning film about the death penalty, Apprentice, for instance, is entirely in Malay and English, with the languages at times merging into each other in character’s conversations, but subtitles enabling comprehension for non-Malay speakers. Theatre has been more inventive. Kuo Pao Kun’s multilingual play Mama Looking for Her Cat famously refused the use of subtitles and surtitles, asking audiences to struggle with their own partial comprehension of minoritised languages, and to focus on actors’ expressions and gestures. Kuo’s play also illustrated the pain caused by everyday processes of informal translation. In one key scene a mother dictates a letter to her son who is studying abroad in Hokkien. They are translated by a chorus of children into English and Mandarin, but stripped of emotional and cultural connotations in the process. We are left with the bare bones of language, and complex emotions are transformed into clichés.
In the 1990s in the theatre, Singlish was often simply used for comic effect. In the last decade, in particular, younger playwrights such as Faith Ng have made a much more nuanced use of the full emotional registers of Singapore’s language continuum.