An interview with Chen Show Mao

Lee Yew Leong

Photograph by Edwin Koo

Opposition Member of Parliament Chen Show Mao is a household name in multi-lingual Singapore, thanks to the recent General Elections which saw his Aljunied team win a watershed victory against the incumbent PAP. In the following interview, conducted via Email, the Taiwan-born, Harvard- and Oxford-educated lawyer explores the intersection between language and politics.

Let's start by talking about your linguistic identity. Given that you have lived in places where different versions of English and Mandarin are spoken, which language operates at the deepest level of your thought? At that level, do you find yourself switching from one language to another in different linguistic contexts?

Even at the deepest levels I switch between English and Chinese, depending on the context.

Are you a different person when interacting or thinking in one language as opposed to in another?

Not that much different, I'm the same person in either language after all. It's like an asymptote—the curve comes awfully close to the line... But the two do not become one. School children in my day had stereotypes for the difference: in one language I think more "like a Catholic High boy" (which I was) and in the other I think more "like an ACS boy" (which I also was).

George Steiner once said that language is the storehouse of a culture. A language can be further differentiated by accents and dialects and regional uses and even their written forms. For instance, the Mandarin that one speaks in Taiwan is different from that spoken in China and in Singapore. The same can be said of the forms of English spoken in the US, the UK and Singapore. As someone who has adapted successfully to these linguistic milieux, do you agree that differences in culture may manifest through language?

I agree with that, even as I also feel that the storehouse that is language (with its deeper structures that change only very slowly) necessarily affects and constrains the growth of the culture that is contained within.

I am trying to wrap my mind around your proposition that language might constrain culture. Can you give me a specific example?

I'll give you a slogan from the May Fourth movement in China close to a hundred years ago: 死文字决不能产生活文学。 "No dead language can sustain a living literature." Some would say that the flowering of Italian literature became possible only after Dante, Boccaccio and others broke free of the shackles of Latin.

Speaking of China, do you think that the word "democracy", translated into Chinese as 民主社会, may have the same meaning but nonetheless connote different values in different countries?

Each ethnic-Chinese society will likely understand 民主 principally with reference to its own experience with Democracy, going back to say 德先生 rather than Periclean Athens.

The 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Winston Churchill "for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values". Oratory is clearly an art. Who do you look to both internationally and locally as models for your own oratory?

Winston Churchill ... just kidding. I imagine my mind (and ears) must have searched in all the obvious places, but I also tried not to take myself too seriously.

What do you think are the features of a good speech?

Short, simple and rings true.

Singapore being a multi-racial society, you have had to speak in as many as four different languages (English, Mandarin, Hokkien, and Malay) during your rally speeches to reach out to the electorate. I was present at one of these rallies and was amazed by how articulate you were in all these languages. How did you prepare for this feat? Did you have different speech writers in some of the languages?

Thank you very much for your kind compliments, which are undeserved. The truth is, I wished I had more time to prepare and write the speeches. 

How about speaking in Malay? How did you prepare for that?

I showed my draft to two friends who each gave comments. Your readers will not want to know how the sausage, or sosej, was made.

Lee Kuan Yew once compared the brain to a hard drive where one language competes for space with another, his point being that when a person becomes good at one language it is always at the expense of another. Therefore, apart from a minority set every year, Singapore's language policy has never been about producing effective bilinguals as much as it is to groom Singaporeans to manipulate English for practical purposes while keeping in touch with one's 'mother tongue'. There was even talk in April this year of Malay being taught as a foreign language in order to halt the decline in fluency among Malays. As an effective polyglot yourself, what do you think of Mr Lee's view of languages, and also of the government's policies vis-à-vis language education?
I guess that is the hard truth about hard drives. Perhaps by necessity as a result, from the earliest days there was a whiff of the utilitarian and instrumental about our language education. I understand the first head of the Chinese Language department of Singapore University—the redoubtable Jao Tsung-i 饒宗頤 of「北季南饒」fame who arrived in Singapore in 1968—put it this way: "沒有 '文',學華語就夠了" (No 'culture', just learn the Chinese language"). Even so, generations of Singapore schoolchildren have struggled under our bilingual policies. I feel for them and would very much like to help them find workable solutions, even if at this point I still do not know definitively what those would be.

You were educated in Taiwan up to the age of 11 before you came to Singapore and experienced the education system here. Was it difficult to adapt to the linguistic environment when you first came over? Can you give the many foreign students entering into our system each year some advice on how to adapt to education the Singaporean way?

I found it challenging to begin learning English in Primary 5, even as a student in a Chinese-language-medium school. Things have changed a great deal in Singapore schools since then, and I will not presume to give advice to the foreign students today other than to "learn English quickly," which seems patently obvious.

Singlish is the monster that just won't die despite the government's efforts to exterminate it through the Speak Good English campaign. While the local filmmaker and cartoonist Colin Goh advocates the preservation of Singlish through his website, Alex Au, a well known blogger, has argued that as long as Singlish is perceived as the language that allows Singaporeans to be authentic, the man in the street will not desire to improve his English to be on par with international standards. Where do you stand on this issue?

Personally I think we should speak both languages and bear constantly in mind that Singlish is not English "as she is spoke" by others. The more we think of the two as different languages, the happier we'll be.

How's your Singlish? Can you understand it and speak it well, given that you were away from the country for some time?

Can. We had many occasions to speak Singlish overseas.

From empirical observation, how has Singlish evolved as a language between, say, the time you served national service here in the 80s and when you moved back to Singapore this year?

Some widely-used terms during NS such as "blur" and "gabra" seem less common now. That could just be that my crowd has moved on.

The Booker-Prize winning author of Life of Pi, Yann Martel, was moved to start the website What Is Stephen Harper Reading? and send his country's Prime Minister 101 books over a span of 5 years, along with a personal letter recommending each book, after noticing that Stephen Harper remained unmoved from start to finish during a reading. The project took time away from his own writing but Martel is convinced of its necessity. Are you sympathetic to the notion that Literature can help a politician function better?

Indeed. Reading can teach us to be more empathetic, which is a helpful trait in a politician. It's not just from reading about how characters in a novel think and feel, but the act of reading also engages you to figure out what the writer is thinking and feeling.

Who are your favorite authors?

The following among others have left their mark on me.

For fun: Rabelais, Cervantes, Twain, Hrabal, <六祖坛经>。

For style: Shaw, Hemingway, Beckett, 梁启超,<般若波罗蜜多心经>。

Finally, what do you think is the value of a translation journal like ours to Singapore?

Edwin Thumboo wrote: "My neighbour is another language." I think that sums up the Singapore condition, whether we look inward to our Island or outwards to the World. As a result of that condition, we read a great deal of translations, or should. "READ! Singapore"—the National Library Board initiative to promote reading—is likely unique among the "One book, One city" reading-programs worldwide in the number of translations collected for reading by Singaporeans. That's translations in the four official languages of the Island. Our conception of Singapore's place in the World as a global city would suggest the value of reading translations of writings in even more languages of the world.

Other articles with Singaporean relevance:

Plights: on being a migrant worker in Singapore

Views and Testimony of a Sheep