His new book touches on a very controversial subject in the history of this little island. The use of the Chinese Language or Mandarin instead of Hokien, was a battle among the Chinese intellectuals, the literati and the hoi polloi, the majority Hokien speaking Chinese, and to an extend the other dialect groups. Mandarin was not their mother tongue, spoken by the northern Chinese and used as the potong hua of China, its national language. There must be tension with competitive chauvinism of the various dialect groups feeling that they have been short changed to be forced to learn a new language. The Ah Kongs and Ah Mahs were the primary victims.
Tension was also built up among the minority communities, the Malays, Indians and Eurasians. All the talks about Speak Mandarin Campaigns and the promotion of Mandarin did not come down easy on them. Some fear that Mandarin was going to replace English as the lingua franca of the country. Of course this was unfounded and for all practical purposes not workable.
Kuan Yew Lee’s struggle to learn the language transcended all of two generations of his life time. In the process, transforming a baba into a China man, to reclaim his Chinese heritage which I think he is proud of, but at the same time being the quintessential Singaporean that he represents. He has rediscovered his roots and himself through this journey of learning the language once again.
In my last few articles on the writing of Chinese names, I was being provocative and teasing at the lackadaisical approach of Singaporean Chinese in how they fool around with this fundamental pillar of a civilization. The language is one of the key foundation of a culture and embraces many tangible and intangible aspects of the people that use it as a communication tool. There are some logic, some structure and of course a lot of room to play with as it develops over time. There were many changes to this language since the time of the Qin Emperor. The simplified written form was a major departure from the past. But as a single unifying and common language, it still serves that purpose effectively and efficiently.
At this juncture I shall disband my cheeky editorial policy of writing Chinese name in the western format. It is nonsensical and silly to do so. It is not only rude and insulting to the individual, it is an affront to a well structured and developed ancient language and culture. Kuan Yew Lee shall be Lee Kuan Yew and so will Chok Tong Goh be Goh Chok Tong. This format of writing Chinese name is deep in culture, history and philosophy and must not be taken lightly and be dismissed by the duckweeds of the Chinese civilization, be they called themselves Singaporean Chinese or Chinese Singaporeans, Malaysian Chinese, American Chinese, Indonesian Chinese, Thai Chinese or whatever Chinese.
Chua is my family name dating back to the Zhou Dynasty, and Chin Leng in my individual name. Incidentally, the Goh, Chew, Chua,Ong, and Tsao were from the same family tree.