Sinicizing Names, Cynicizing Singaporeans

Posted: November 20, 2012 in Commentary
Tags: , , , ,

As I took a ride on the East line the other day, something different struck my ears. Apparently, all the station names were announced in Chinese. At the time, I did not think that this was not a translation of the stations’ name, it was more the pronunciation that was changed. At first I thought it was a one off as I did not hear them the next time , but my friend shared an article about this from this website Apparently there were translations of the station names and it was not limited to the East West line. This exercise was due to a ‘review of public feedback and suggestions for station names to be announced in Mandarin’. In the article, Mr Gerard Ee also announced that “There are quite a number of Chinese who do not speak English well and refer to places by their Chinese names,”  

Firstly in the very long list of possible recommendations that commuters would give ‘announce station names in Chinese’ would probably be near the bottom. Among some at the top: Reduce the overwhelming congestion, reduce train fares, cut down on salaries of top executives, reduce number of train breakdowns, replace those scary slamming ticket doors are among some I can think off the top of my head. One wonders whether the other problems are being addressed.

This reminds me of something an MP said some time ago which caused a furore: that some of the Malay and Indian staffs could not converse in English well enough so we can accept broken English. However, it seems that Mandarin must be pronounced with a perfect accent lest ‘commuters’ be confused.

It seems hard to believe that any Singaporean would need the MRT names be sinicized to know the stations. Even Malaysians (Chinese or otherwise) would have no problem understanding these places. The only group that ‘needs’ these changes are the mainland Chinese. I can almost imagine that some would accuse my objections of being xenophobic and proof that “recently-arrived Chinese nationals are arguably subjected to more and harsher discrimination and racism than Singaporean Malays or Indians.” However, if SMRT were concerned about foreigners navigating through the MRTs, then would they not to have taken Tagalog, Thai or Bengali into consideration? So this hardly addresses the needs of all the ‘commuters’, this is meant to benefit a very specific group of commuters.

One can take my objections to be petty as well, that it these are mere station names and that announcing the names in all four languages would be considered as mentioned by the report. However if we look across the Eastern half, do we really need to translate Pasir Ris, Tampines, Tanak Merah, Bedok, Kembangan, Eunos, Paya Lebar, Aljunied, Kallang or Bugis into Malay? Or even into Tamil or English? Sure we can have announcements in all four languages, but why do we need to transliterate the station names as well. This is a fruitless exercise just to cover up the fact that these names were sinicized to make the migrant Chinese groups feel welcome.

This whole episode prompts some disconcerting thoughts. Firstly is that the translation of the station names reaches right into the heartlands. This suggests that the people this would be outreaching to are not just tourists, but residents. This in turn suggests that the migration policy that many Singaporeans detest is not going to change, despite promises to the contrary. Governments can say all kinds of rhetoric, but often it is the ‘facts on the ground’ which give intentions away.

Secondly this case also highlights the lack of attention paid to the locals who are not fluent in English or Mandarin. What about Singaporeans fluent mainly in dialect, Malay or Tamil? Why were their feedback not taken into consideration? Perhaps it was overlooked, so this is mine (not meant to be representative): You should have the announcements in the 4 official languages, but please leave the names alone.

Finally the last quote by ‘another commuter’ in the report would speak to a lot of the frustrations of Singaporeans, that ‘the announcements could also teach Singaporeans how to say the names of MRT stations in Mandarin.’ Why would one need to do that? Pretty much all of us who have lived here all our lives KNOW where they are whatever language they are in be it Bedok, or Ang Mo Kio or City Hall. Why not instead those who don’t know learn how to speak as it is pronounced here like everyone else? I wonder what were the reaction to be if I went to China or Britain or France or the USA and ‘give feedback’ that their station names should be changed so it is easier for me to pronounce? Where would I be told to stuff my suggestion?

I guess more than anything else this is what would piss many off. That they somehow have to adapt to the ‘new citizens’  to make them feel welcome and any form of resistance is labelled as ‘xenophobia’. It adds a cultural dimension to the disempowerment Singapore citizens feel: like clay to be shaped and reshaped into any form the powers that be desire. One wonders where this bending over backward will end. Will the numbers of new citizens be so large that housing quotas be placed on Singaporeans so we don’t ghetto ourselves and ‘integrate’ with the new migrants?

  1. Maarof Salleh says:

    Some people in power are still very racist in their attitude, pleasing one race, pretending not listening to others. If there are Chinese who are not proficient in English, there are Malays and Indians who are also not proficient in English.
    But why Chinese appear to be more previleged?

  2. Kamaruddin says:

    Definitely agree with you as this sinicizing would only lead to more racial issues. Sinicizing one language will only lead to other races feel left out or “cast aside”. This will also contradicts in what all Singporeans believe in that is multi-racial harmony. What will the tourist think of these language sinicizing? I hope the relevant authority will look into your suggestion

  3. Lily says:

    Actually, I do not think that most people in Singapore would know the names of the MRT stations in Chinese. I thought while the announcements sounded weird at first, it was quite a refreshing change to start knowing the Chinese names of the stations. I believe that our bilingual education policy should address such aspects as well. By the way, I don’t think the Malays or Indians have different pronunciations for the names, which is why they won’t have them announced in Malay or Tamil anyway.

    • icedwater says:

      I agree with Lily. Most Singaporeans would probably not know the Chinese names of the MRT stations. From an objective curious standpoint it is nice to know these.

      But it is also possible to use names in other languages that makes sense. Bukit Merah, for instance, could be used instead of Redhill. And what would the Tamil version of Redhill be? Does it make more sense to do a literal translation of ‘red’ ‘hill’ or a phonetic transcription like ‘兀兰 (wu lan)’ for Woodlands?

      If we are not going to translate ‘Tanah Merah’ into ‘Red Land’ and start wondering why it is so far away from ‘Red Hill’, I do not think it is relevant, required or should be encouraged to mention that 武基巴督 is the Mandarin version of ‘Bukit Batok’.

      This is Singapore. There is one numerically dominant ethnicity, but we are ALL Singaporeans and we all should be aware of others.

      • Ratchai says:

        Your point in translating ‘Tanah Merah’ into ‘Red Land’ and making assumption of its proximity to ‘Red Hill’ is already illogical and irrelevant. Each station is named after an area which most stemmed from historical events and anecdotes. Just leave it as that, and the necessity to feed the curious mind on how interesting it would be if translated into Chinese names should be left at personal level and not public.

        The issue here is the relevancy of translation to inform commuters of the stations they are alighting at or boarding from. Since we are ALL Singaporeans and we should be aware of others; we should also be mindful of the move to sinicize that can potentially cause dissident in our social fabric. Our lingua franca is English and it has kept us directed as one until recently.

  4. izahhh says:

    I love you for this post. thank you so much. my thoughts precisely.

  5. Reblogged this on Jentrified Citizen and commented:
    From Singapore to Chinapore? What is the givernment’s real reason for doing this now?

  6. kelphain says:

    Sounds like a plausible argument over here. But a rather single-tracked view too. Yes, I am rather apprehensive of the influx of foreign workers into our island, but I think it would be unfair to point our fingers to these people at whatever changes or unhappiness, that arise around us.

    While I also agree that it not ideal to have the stations’ names announced only in English and Mandarin, one cannot deny that statistically speaking, the population is about 70% Chinese (foreigners/new immigrants aside). I am not saying that the other races should be ignored, but looking from the train company’s viewpoint, is it not reasonable that a trial project be targetted at an audience that is easily reached? Furthermore, hasn’t it been already promised that reviews are underway with regards to making these announcements in all the 4 official languages? Perhaps one could more patient before showing distate to this exercise.

    I cannot be sure, but I believe many stations have their names sounding similar in English, Malay and maybe Tamil, and as pointed out in other articles, are usually not so in Mandarin Chinese. There is a significant number of people living in the said areas (“Pasir Ris, Tampines, Tanak Merah, Bedok, Kembangan, Eunos, Paya Lebar, Aljunied, Kallang or Bugis”), especially the elderly, who are English illiterate. Remember the era where there were English schools, Chinese schools, Malays schools, et cetera? The people who were schooled in these schools are now in their 50s and 60s, and many of them did not attend English schools, and many of these people barely understand even Singlish, much less English. Can you imagine the the difficulty a man educated in Chinese, now in his 60s, would have trying to pronounce Buona Vista, Raffles Place, or perhaps Clarke Quay? These people are Singaporeans. Your fellow countrymen. And they benefit from this change.

    Notwithstanding the fact that it benefits the Chinese immigrants, please also spare a thought for the large group of non-English educated Chinese still living in the heartlands. Insisting that this change only benefits the former demeans the efforts made by the train companies in reaching to the latter group.

    Lastly, Singaporean prides itself as a nation with bilingual citizens. To what extend that is true is another matter, but why shut ourselves from knowing the names of the stations by what another group of Singaporeans know them as? It is not painful to learn that City Hall is called 政府大厦 (zheng4 fu3 da4 sha4) by another group of Singaporeans, is it? Sure, it is not necessary. Neither is using Singlish in our daily life. But we go on to do it anyway not only because it is convenient; it enriches and adds colour to our lives. They may be many others who are would like to be informed, rather than ignorant.

    While we go on to progress, as an English literate nation, let’s not forget that just a generation ago, things were really different, and these people are still very much contributing to our society, just as we are, in their own ways.

    • Daunkesom says:

      How many citizens who grew up in Singapore you know have been getting lost on the MRT stations everyday because they could not pronounce the name?

      • kelphain says:

        How many I know is not important. I may or may not know any, but just because you and I or any other English literate person don’t get lost on the system doesn’t imply that no one does. And even if the figure is few and far, should that justify leaving them to be?

        That particular point I raised serves to highlight that this brings convenience to many of our local friends. Again, it may not be necessary, but if it is useful to them, what is the harm? It just so happens that… well, another large group of people not many of us find palatable also benefits from this… But I think this should not be the reason not to have the announcements in Chinese.

        But of course, this is just my opinion, and you are entitled to yours too!

    • LinCH says:

      Good article. Actually, I think we have given away too much. Because of our silence, detractors have forgotten we ain’t Ang Mohs and should value our native languages. And which group is the largest one? Which group has allowed English to be the dominant language to appease others and now find themselves boxed in a corner.

      Anti-Chinese language people nowadays hide behind anti-Mandarin and anti-PRC rhetorics.

  7. Dandy says:

    Alamak, Correction, it was announced in Mandarin not chinese, ie shi bu shi! Why promote Mandarin for MRT station, Chinatown sounds like cow car water leh! In hokkien, it is called water cart towed by cow. Speak mandarin campaign, ended up young generation don’t understand the true meaning of our national language leh! Grand parent can’t communicate with grand children in dialet, ie no dialogue comms between elder and young ones! We must remembered that we are born in this part of former Malaya Peninsula not China, India, Western, Middle East Countries, ie Singapore. Always remember when you are in trouble while in oversea country, always say that you are Singaporean not Chinese, Indian, Malay, then Our government will assist and help you but don’t expect help from China, India or other countries, right?
    Cheers……we are Singaporean and will always love our country and shared the multiple-raci
    al culture. So, why bother about the chinese,
    they should make an effort to speak English in Singapore, likewise the Chinese in China are currently learning English leh! If we go to China, of course we need to know little bit of mandarin, go Thailand, learn Thai first, right?

  8. Daunkesom says:

    If you are referring to the convenience of the people who have grown up here, how many have been ‘inconvenienced’ by not having the station names in Mandarin? Even the older folks are more fluent in dialect.

    • kelphain says:

      Again, the absolute number is not of interest to me.

      The group of people I highlighted are educated in Mandarin Chinese. And yes while they may be also be fluent in dialect, they are fluent in Mandarin too.

      The more elderly folks that you are referring to, is yet another issue. =)

  9. Daunkesom says:

    If you grew up here and get lost, it really has nothing to do with your ability to pronounce the place.

    • kelphain says:

      Well maybe you can try growing up in the 50s in a non-English school, and then maybe you’ll have some ground to talk about ability?

  10. Daunkesom says:

    Absolute numbers mean nothing to you because your target demographic is wholly imaginary

  11. Daunkesom says:

    My dad grew up in a non english school. Tun Sri Lanang. Heard about it? he has no problem navigating MRT stations in singapore even the ones with Chinese and English names

    • kelphain says:

      Yes, and that is strong evidence that every other non-English school goer has no problems. You see, anecdotal experiences helps in steering us towards certain conclusions, but cannot justify them. I’m only asserting that there are people who will benefit from this, so let’s not stop them from being helped.

      (some logic lesson here… the statement “all girls are pretty” is false, if you can find ONE girl who is not. However, the statement “some girls are pretty” is true, if you can find ONE girl who is pretty.)

      • Justice says:

        There is one point you are clearly missing here. A persons name do not have to be translated to be understood. I am quite sure you studied in a school with different races whose names were not in Mandarin. As part of the “70%” population, did you go to MOE and gave feedback that you didnt understand the Malay or Indian names and would like a Mandarin translation to able to communicate to them? A Road, Station, City, Building names are in the same category as that. These names do not need to be translated to understood.

  12. Daunkesom says:

    My grandfather had only primary school education in a malay school and he has no problem either.

  13. Daunkesom says:

    THen what happens to that one Malay school goer who also for some reason can’t understand the stations with chinese pronounciations? How come he isn’t considered?

  14. Daunkesom says:

    Or that one INdian person who cant speak english or Chinese. Or the one English school goer who has problems with CHinese and Malay names. THat’s the problem with your argument. If you make it up on the imagined demographic of one, there is no end to the examples you can come up with. Rather, on the whole, whatever stream they went to, Singaporeans who grew up here won’t have trouble travelling on the MRT because of the pronounciation of the names.

  15. Daunkesom says:

    The people who DO have trouble are the new migrants, its OBVIOUS who this policy is catering for.

    • Myr says:

      Names should remain as names. No need to change them or put it in a different way of pronouncing them. If that’s the case… Why don’t every singaporean have different pronunciation to all thier names. Have four different names on the i. D… Damn bodoh la this new ruling on the places names. And that kelphain fella is talking too much kok. He should have different pronunciation to his/HER name cos it hard for ppl to pronounce it.

  16. shermie says:

    I have to agree with kelphain here. I don’t see how and why a new implementation by our fellow train provider can be viewed and twisted to an issue on benefitting foreigners. I personally have met cases of chinese elderlies (Singaporean) experiencing problems of nagivating their way just because they could not understand what the announcements were saying (especially the circle lines). Furthermore, using your dad as an example is kind of a form of overgeneralising the issue here, don’t you think so? I think we should view this implementation in a positive manner, inculcating general knowledge to younger generations. For example, not everyone knows that the station Admiralty is actually called 海军部 in Chinese, definitely not a literal English-Chinese translation here. 🙂

  17. Lily says:

    It is unfair to merely target the immigrants. There is a Mandarin speaking population in Singapore and this is not exclusive of Singaporeans. It is not un-useful to know the names in Mandarin. I agree that it is part of being an informed citizen. Think about students who need to write essays for their Chinese class – I am sure it will be of use one time or another to know the names of the MRT stations. Think about the Chinese press writers and readers – they do need to know the names in Mandarin. I do not think that there is much of a harm announcing the names in Mandarin so maybe we could just take a step back and view the issue from a fairer standpoint.

  18. reservist_cpl says:

    Sure there is a Mandarin speaking population in Singapore. They have existed since pre-independence days. But why is this happening only now? And wasn’t it the government who got rid of the Chinese schools?

  19. Daunkesom says:

    ‘Think about students who need to write essays for their Chinese class – I am sure it will be of use one time or another to know the names of the MRT stations. Think about the Chinese press writers and readers – they do need to know’

    Aren’t there chinese classes for teaching the names of the MRT stations? Aren’t there Chinese newspapers, Chinese TV stations and Chinese Radio Stations? Unlike the otehr races, there are even Chinese schools funded by the government. Aren’t these enough? Why must you insist turning every nook and cranny of Singapore public space into one giant Mandarin class??? Especially when a sizable chunk of the population don’t even speak Mandarin.

  20. Zal says:

    The elders grew up in Singapore and spend most of their life here, it is logical to presume that they have adapted to the english names of the locations and have them deeply ingrained in memory after living in Singapore for decades. So there are really no merits to introducing the mandarin translation to the stations, other than to allow chinese migrants to feel welcome in Singapore or to propagate the speak-mandarin campaign. It is not so much on why smrt doesn’t have the translations in all languages, but the suspicious intent of smrt decision in lieu of recent events – the hike of migrant chinese.

  21. LinCH says:

    ASk yourself: What if the language of foreigners are not used here and Mandarin is. Then your guys won’t be talking nonsense

  22. LinCH says:

    What they did is a small thing (and less than what they should) and it is done against other needs because it is an easy thing to do.

    Anyway, next in line is the Malay language.

  23. Stuly Kan says:

    English is the National language of Singapore and we have been neglecting its development. Psle scores give equal weightage to english and second language. We can’t speak our national language as well as one generation ago. We are a bilingual country of half baked English and mandarin and other languages. English is the neutral language that is acceptable by all. We shouldn’t be changing our language use for the sake of foreigners working here. Please also be sensitive to the feelings of the Malays and Indians.

  24. Daunkesom says:

    Firstly, I don’t think it is anti Chinese language to not want the station names sinicized. On the whole, there are still many platforms for the education of the Chinese language than the Malay language, including state funded schools.

    Secondly, I can understand if segments of the Chinese community are upset at Nantah, but consider this: the Malay schools were closed so that the Malays could better ‘integrate’ with the majority.

    Lastly, as hegmonic as the English language has been in SIngapore, you don’t have the anglicizing of Malay station names. I don’t think anyone person wants the stations names to be pronounced/ translated into other languages, merely that the names not be sinicized. The change in policy may seem small, but in context it contributes to the feeling of marginalization.

  25. Faizah Jamal says:

    Stuly Kan – English is NOT the national language of Singapore. That would be Bahasa Melayu or Malay. Since independence , mind you. English is one of the four official languages. Big difference. Unless the Consitution has been changed while we were asleep. Which it has not.

  26. Ivan says:

    horrible article skewed by your fear of marginalization. the increase in language of instruction in public areas is merely to accomodate and lure chinese tourists. mentioned in dec 2011, chinese tourists are our target and priority.
    this is evident throughout Europe too as I walked about wondering why are there so many Chinese words?! it was then that I eealised the tourism board was merely catering to the Chinese please, get your head out of your ass and see the big picture my friend, it’s nothing personal, it’s just good business.

  27. […] of station names and creeping sinification of social space . Indeed, as the blogger Daunkesom notes, it is not as though Singaporeans need a translation of these station names into another language […]

  28. David says:

    It’s a great honour to read your posts. I am deeply impressed by your intellectual incisiveness. Thank you.

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