Monday, August 30, 2010

The Forgotten Tongue

Cerelia Lim

Should the use of dialects be encouraged once more?

This question was the focus of the Dialect Forum: The Forgotten Tongue hosted by the People’s Youth Association Movement at Toa Payoh Central Community Club on 27th June.

“I will say that dialects made my life colorful, but beyond that, in the area of work in the professional life, it was mandarin that made the difference,” summed up Mrs Josephine Teo, MP for Bishan- Toa Payoh GRC.

Mrs Teo, who speaks Hakka, Cantonese and Hokkien, is also the GPC chairman for education. She was present as one of the panelists at the forum.

Having studied in Dunman High, a Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school, Mrs Teo had a good grounding in mandarin. This stood her in good stead when she accepted a posting to work on the Suzhou Industrial Park Project. Although she spoke Hakka at home, she mastered English and mandarin at school. Cantonese was learnt from accompanying her grandmother to the market. And, as her family owed a shoe shop in Geylang, she learnt how to speak Hokkien and a smattering of Malay.

In the early days of Singapore, the majority of the Chinese community spoke their native dialects. Mandarin was rarely used and English only utilized for official businesses as we were a British colony then.

In 1979, in a bid to simplify the language environment and improve communication amongst the different dialect groups within the Chinese community, the Speak Mandarin Campaign was launched by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

The present Chinese community of today is mostly bilingual in English and mandarin. Amongst the Generation X and Y, dialects are a tongue unknown to them, a language of their grandparents’ era.

However, has the gradual phasing out of our dialects erased more than just a local lingo?

Mr Danny Yeo (Yang Jun Wei), a panelist and also a Chinese studies lecturer with Ngee Ann Polytechnic, told participants that in many of his drama performances at Chinatown, he often finds himself using dialects, instead of mandarin to engage the audience. He mentioned that his ability to speak Cantonese opened up doors and unlocked the obstacles between the audience and himself.

Medical doctor, Mr Yong Tong, who is also the chairman of the Chinese association (Youth Wing), recounted that learning English and Chinese at the first language level allowed him to do his Executive MBA in Chinese but it was dialect that allowed him to communicate with his patients in the hospitals.

Another participant of the forum, Ms Xuan Na, a Human Resources practitioner who studied in Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools, questioned if our pursuit of the bilingualism policy is at the expense of dialects.

In defense of the policy, Mrs Teo replied that as a parent if her children are able to master English and mandarin well, she would have no problems if they wanted to learn dialects as well. However, she reiterated that we should not have the belief that being able to speak a variety of languages is better than being able to speak well in a lesser number of languages.

“Must it be assumed from the Speak Mandarin Campaign and the educational policies that the advocation of dialects come at the expense of English and mandarin?” Sherman, a Nanyang Technological University undergraduate.

Elaborating further, he said that dialects have a role in society and their role is in our cultural identity. He also asked if there was a need to believe that learning of dialects will compromise learning standards of other languages and proposed that we appreciate our rich linguistics mix.

In response, Mr Yeo said that he is an advocate of promoting mandarin and protecting dialects. He feels that we need to look at the language abilities of the youths today and compare it to the youths 10, 20 years ago. He said that if the language capabilities of the youths have decreased over the years, then a review of the language policy should be conducted.

However, he also added that besides education, there are other ways of learning dialects such as watching popular Hongkong Cantonese dramas on cable.

Ms Jillian Tiong, a Fuzhou native who has lived in Singapore from more than 20 years, concurs and said that learning dialects is not a difficult thing.

“I learnt my dialects from speaking with children. If you really want to learn, it is not impossible.”

Saturday, August 14, 2010

When Wet Market Becomes NTUC - the poor suffers

Report by Tng Ying Hui / Photos by Wallace Woon

BARELY six months into the job, Mr and Mrs Teo, like many others stallholders in Sembawang wet market, were told by their landowner to move out in a month’s time.

With three mouths to feed –two children, one in polytechnic and the other doing ‘O’ levels and an elderly in the old folk’s home, the couple’s monthly income of about $500 provides just three meals a day.

Since they could not obtain bank loans, borrowing money to set up the stall was the only way out. Their business was just picking up pace when the initial decision to be evicted came.

“We didn’t sleep well for three days when we first received the news”, says Mr and Mrs Teo, who declined to be named.

“If our stall closes, we won’t get to eat.”

While relief came from the recent overturning of the decision by HDB to replace Sembawang wet market with a NTUC Fairprice supermarket on 11 October (see here), stall owners in other wet markets are not so lucky.

Health Minister and MP for Sembawang GRC Khaw Boon Wan has publicly reassured residents of his efforts to retain the wet market environment. But Sheng Siong supermarket will still be replacing six other wet markets all over Singapore while air-conditioning some (see here).

HDB has allowed the lease to be extended for three more years, but there is no telling if the averted disaster might strike with a vengeance once the lease ends.

While the stallholders could continue operating for now, one question remains. A fishmonger in Sembawang wet market asked: ” Is [closing the wet market] the right thing to do?”

The Online Citizen asked a spokesman from HDB about which supermarket will be replacing Sembawang wet market, but he evaded answering the question by insisting that they were “still evaluating” then. It was, however, revealed in The Straits Times that the vendor was in fact NTUC Fairprice.

Nonetheless, HDB did tell the Sembawang stall owners that their decision to allow NTUC Fairprice to take over was partly due to “problems with its appearance”, says a fishmonger in Sembawang, who do not wish to be named.

This “appearance problem” , however, is an important feature of heartlanders’ lives, one which everyone identifies with. The camaraderie that the stall owners and residents share can never be found in a supermarket despite its pleasant look.

Yes, the eventual verdict for Sembawang wet market seemed to have mitigate worries for many, but Singapore is still stuck in a quagmire of financial uncertainty and stall owners in other wet market is facing this malapropos eviction.

(Photo: A closed wet market shows none of the life it displays in the day.)

Mr Khaw did spare a thought for the residents, saying that their “interests will be preserved and protected.” But what about the stall owners?

“I am the sole breadwinner, so are many of the others,” said the 55-year-old father of three who wanted to be known only as Mr Sherll in another interview with the Straits Times.

“This is the disadvantage of being in a private market. Suddenly it’s sold off, and where do I go?”

This question seemed to be neglected by the landowner who claimed that she knew of Sembawang’s potential takeover by NTUC Fairprice two years ago. Yet, she continued to lease out these stalls without notifying the stall owners of the possibility of an impending eviction. Her decision has caused backlash from the stall owners.

A Filipino stallholder who moved in barely two months ago, called the land owner a “cheater” whose friendliness is just a facade as “she just wants money.” The land owner till date has yet to return this stall owner her contract. Some other stallholders share similar sentiments, feeling disappointed in her.

HDB had abided by the rules as the termination only came after the contract with the landowner had ended. But a caveat in the contract gleans starkly when the problem of eviction came — it is renewed monthly, such that to terminate the lease, there needs to be only one month notice.

The stallholders received a letter stating the termination only on 18 September.

“This one month notice is too short a time!”, says Mrs Teo

It is necessary to upgrade wet markets to improve hygiene, but to wipe it out from the face of Singapore portends means that we would lose something dear to our hearts, raising a generation further adrift from their roots.

The haggling for prices, the fishy smell, the jostling with people in the crowd, the slippery floor littered with rotten vegetables, all constitute what a wet market is, but above all these, a wet market is the heart of a heartland, irreplaceable and timeless.

If the wet market disappears, memories of it would erode with time, and an “air-conditioned nation”, as Cherian George’s book title reflects, would unfortunately materialize.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Singapore's suicide rate highest in 50 years

In 2009, a total of 401 confirmed suicides were recorded. 267 of them were male, while the remaining 134 were female.

The suicide rate increased from 8.76 per 100,000 residents in 2008 to 9.35 in 2009.

These figures were revealed in a press release by Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), a confidential hotline for people in crisis.

Young men in the age group of 20-29 were found to be at high risk of suicide. Those who called in to the SOS hotline talked about difficulties and anxieties in coping with life's stressors.

Youths were also another high risk group. Such callers were concerned about their studies, family and relationship problems, as well as crisis and identity-related issues.

On 8 September, SOS will hold a workshop on suicide prevent among young people, conducted by Professor Graham Martin who is the national advisor on suicide prevention to the Australian government. Prof Martin is also the keynote speaker for a conference on suicide prevention on 9 September.

SOS handles an average of 3,330 calls per month, or 110 calls per day. The 24-hour hotline (1800-221-4444) is manned by trained volunteers. Ms Christine Wong, the Executive Director of SOS, said that the organisation's ability to help those in need is limited by the number of volunteers.

Those who are interested in volunteering with SOS may e-mail to Those who wish to know more about the upcoming workshop and conference may visit for more information.

DBS posts $302m Q2 loss

Paying for past mistakes and abuses, the poor Indian FT CEO is placed there to be made scapegoat for some honest mistakes made by our selected genetically bred scholars.
By Harsha Jethnani
DBS posted an unexpected $300 million loss in the second quarter after it took a $1.02 billion goodwill charge on its Hong Kong business. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

DBS Bank, South-east Asia's biggest banking group, on Friday reported second-quarter losses of $302 million owing to a goodwill impairment charge of $1.02 billion for DBS Hong Kong.

The group had recorded $552 million in profits in the second quarter of last year.

Excluding the one-off impairment, earnings in the free months ending June were a healthy record-breaking $718 million.

The writedown is a legacy from 2001 when DBS took over Dao Heng bank in an expensive US$5.8 billion deal (S$7.9 billion).

DBS said there have been 'noticable and persistent strains' in wholesale funding markets, which is forcing banks to adjust their funding strategies.

Liquidity pressures and persistent strains in wholesale funding markets have increased the likelihood of interest margin compression for DBS Hong Kong. In conducting its six-monthly fair value test and adjusting earnings projections for 2010 to 2014 according to these pressing market conditions, the bank decided it was appropriate to take an impairment charge.

The charges will have no affect on operating performance or expansion plans, said DBS chief executive Piyush Gupta. He said at a results briefing on Friday that he does not anticipate further goodwill impairment charges.

Net interest income was four per cent down to $1.067 billion while net interest margin was down to 1.84 per cent from 2.01 per cent. More than half of the decline - six basis points - was due to a shift in the securities portfolio to higher-quality issues with lower yields, DBS said. Deposit costs were also higher due to competition for US dollar and Hong Kong dollar funding.

Non-interest income registered a positive 16 per cent growth to $748 million. The non-performing loans ratio fell to 2.3 per cent from 2.8 per cent and loans expanded nine per cent from demand by regional corporates and from draw-downs on housing loans in Singapore and Hong Kong.

Mr Gupta said on Friday that he was pleased with the quarter's results but added that it was unlikely for the momentum to continue to the second half of the year. Globally, economic growth rates are expected to slow down in the latter part of the year, he added. The chief executive also does not expect to see double-digit growth in loans.