The Malay Heritage Foundation

Sembang Ilmu Plus (+) Series #04 – Language and Our Worlds: A Forum on the Power of Language to Shape Our Lives

The Malay Heritage Foundation‘s (MHF) Sembang Ilmu Plus (+) Series (SIP(+)) returned with an enriching fourth session in November 2023. Launched on 14 March 2020 as a spin-off from MHF’s previous event, Sembang Ilmu, SIP(+), was designed as a forum organised by youths for youths. This series is meticulously designed to not only engage but empower young minds, delving into intricate realms of Malay heritage, culture, and the arts. While Sembang Ilmu primarily targeted Malay youths, MHF, in collaboration with Andika Warisan Temasek Foundation, has extended the reach of this platform to youths from all ethnic groups, thus introducing the new series as SIP(+).

Guest Moderator, Ms. Shireen Marican, setting the context and introducing the panellists. (Credit: MHF)

Saturday, 4 November 2023 – Mohamad Tauhid, emcee and a representative from MHF, inaugurated the event, extending warm greetings to the audience and panellists in the Screening Room at The Arts House. Following a brief introduction of SIP(+), he introduced and welcomed the forum’s guest moderator, Ms. Shireen Marican.

Ms. Shireen is a cultural manager, systems thinker-developer and educator motivated to advance cultural engagement with people, institutions, and organisations for a just and equitable environment and society. She works with organisations and individuals to co-create strategy and practice for global critical and social issues through her Consultant role at Desire Lines, a consultancy providing strategic advisory on organisation transformation programme design and cultural-spatial strategy, and an adjunct lecturer position at LASALLE College of the Arts. She was also awarded the Platform Curatorial Projects Award in 2019 by NTU Centre for Contemporary Arts, an affiliation of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and received the Teman Warisan (Cultural Heritage Ambassador) award in 2022 from the Malay Heritage Foundation. 

In setting the stage for the enlightening discourse ahead, Ms. Shireen illuminated the forum’s aim of exploring language’s pivotal role in shaping the human experience and culture. She emphasised the fundamental nature of language, serving as the bedrock for fostering healthy connections, collaborations and even knowledge production. More importantly, she highlighted the profound impact of language as the gateway to new cultures, fruits of diversity and diverse worldviews through mediums like education, media and interdisciplinary programming.

With that, Ms. Shireen welcomed the first speaker, Dr Tan Kar Chun, to delve into his “Code Mixed and Word – Formation Characteristics of Chinese in Singapore” presentation.

Dr. Tan Kar Chun sharing some commonly used lexical items. (Credit: MHF)

Dr. Tan Kar Chun is a Singaporean scholar specialising in Chinese language and literature. Having pursued his higher education locally, earning a master’s degree from the National University of Singapore and a Ph.D. from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Dr. Tan is not only an academic but also a prolific local Chinese author, recognised for winning several prizes in prose and short story writing competitions. His works can be accessed at the National Library of Singapore.

Dr. Tan commenced his presentation by acknowledging the rich discourses surrounding many fascinating aspects of culture in our multicultural society, from diverse cuisines to traditional attire. However, he shed light on the lack of attention given to the influence of linguistic infusions on the Chinese language.

Transporting the audience back to the 1960s-70s, Dr. Tan highlighted the prevalence of Chinese dialects as the primary spoken language. The infusion of Malay lexical words into these dialects was commonplace during this period. Drawing from personal experiences and observations, Dr. Tan shared instances where Malay terms seamlessly integrated into Chinese dialects, rendering it challenging to discern their origins.

To illustrate this, Dr. Tan presented a non-exhaustive list of “loan words” characterised by remarkable similarities in meaning and pronunciation in Malay and Chinese dialects. These words included familiar terms like “sabun” (soap), “makan” (eat) and “baharu” (new). In relation to this, he emphasised the need and intrinsic value for extensive collaborative research between experts in the Chinese dialects and the Malay language to unravel the true origins of such terms.

Beyond the influences from the Malay language, Dr. Tan deliberated on incorporating English terms into Chinese dialects spurred by the state’s efforts to promote Mandarin in the 1970s. This resulted in the creation of Chinese dialect terms unique to Singapore, some of which were unfamiliar even to dialect speakers from other parts of the world. Additionally, as English continued to gain prevalence over the years, Dr. Tan noted its impact on grammatical rules and clauses in Chinese dialects.

While exploring the lexical items in Singapore, Dr. Tan emphasised the importance of paying attention to the distinctive ways these items are formed, citing everyday coffee orders as an example. Engaging the audience with a mini-game, Dr. Tan challenged them to decipher terms like “kopi C gao siew dai” (coffee with evaporated milk and less sugar) and “kopi O gao gao” (black coffee, extra thick). This interactive game elicited laughter from the audience, who actively participated and recalled some of these locally used lexical terms in everyday lives.

Concluding his presentation, Dr. Tan shared some historical insights from the pre-independence days in the 1940s. He spotlighted the concerted efforts of Chinese writers from Singapore and Malaysia during that era as they sought to project the distinctiveness of the local language by incorporating Malay terms into their writings. This resulted in forming sentences with unique structures, influenced by both Malay and English. While some contemporary researchers find this to be a challenge in terms of readability, Dr. Tan expressed his view that it is precisely in this integration of lexical terms into their works that the region’s unique multicultural fabric of society is effectively portrayed.

Ms Isadhora Mohamed sharing her experience in educating the public on the Malay culture. (Credit: MHF)

Ms. Isadhora Mohamed is a highly experienced and bilingual radio and television producer and presenter who has played executive roles in prestigious events like the National Day Parade live commentary and the Singapore General Elections. Her leadership extended to overseeing Warna 94.2FM and Ria 89.7FM radio stations. From 2003 to 2016, she led the Singaporean team in producing cross-country programs in collaboration with fellow ASEAN broadcasters. She was also a member of the Malay Language Council and then the Malay Language Learning and Promotion Committee. Currently, Ms. Isadhora is the Supervisor Editor of CNA938, the radio arm of Channel News Asia.

Her presentation, titled “Language Transcends Borders”, delves into her extensive experiences related to the topic. Aligning with her theme, she began by sharing a photo taken with Dato’ Sri Siti Nurhaliza in 2000. At that time, Ms. Isadhora formed part of the production team of a mega concert, “Concert Diva”. Besides her role in the production team, Ms. Isadhora also served as Dato’ Siti Nurhaliza’s translator during media interviews, highlighting the power of language to transcend physical borders.

Moving on, Ms. Isadhora reflected on how the principle “inform, educate and entertain”, instilled since she began her career in television and radio, remains her guiding philosophy today. An illustrative example of her commitment to “educate” is presented through her involvement in an activity to enlighten the public about the Malay culture, specifically the Malay wedding. Alongside anothe local radio presenter, the late Nordin Kassim, they role-played as Malay bride and groom in a public setting, adorned in actual wedding outfits and even accompanied by the traditional sounds of the kompang. Ms. Isadhora emphasised that individuals from diverse racial backgrounds gain a genuine understanding of Malay culture through such initiatives. Additionally, she shared her involvement in cultural preservation projects, including collaborations with ASEAN countries in producing dramas.

Ms. Isadhora also shared some of her participation in teaching the Malay language, including organising activities for youths and conducting workshops. These workshops serve as a valuable avenue for individuals to enhance their command of the Malay language, boost their confidence in public speaking in the Malay language and even cater to those aspiring to become presenters.

Beyond education, Ms. Isadhora explored how language serves as a bridge to connect us with neighbouring countries and the wider world. She shared her involvement in the production of “Anugerah Planet Muzik”. As the competition saw participation from Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, the production team received feedback regarding the usage of Malay words with very different meanings in other states. For instance, the Malay word “pengacara”, used to refer to the host, actually means “lawyer” in Indonesian. This was discovered when an Indonesian counterpart inquired about using the word, expressing confusion. Such experience reinforced her point about the capability of language to foster connections with neighbouring countries and the global community. Consequently, she emphasised the need to select words that can resonate carefully across all four countries.

On the note of being mindful of our words, Ms. Isadhora raised a recent video captioned “Uncle warns Singaporeans: Don’t be haolian when you travel to Malaysia”. In agreement with the video’s content, she reminded the audience of the importance of being aware of the people around us and the impact of our words on others. To tie it all together, she reiterated that through learning a language, one can understand the cultural heritage of others, fostering international relations. In doing so, being aware and mindful of those around us becomes crucial.

To conclude her presentation, Ms. Isadhora urged the audience to reflect on their identity. In a time when culture Intertwines with local and foreign elements, she posed the question: How can and would one define oneself?

Mr. Shridar Mani opening his presentation with Arundhati Roy’s quote, “Language is that most private and yet most public of thing”. (Credit: MHF)

Mr. Shridar Mani is a company manager and co-artistic director of The Opera People, a Singapore-based opera company that redefines the opera experience for live audiences and online through multidisciplinary collaboration. He also co-founded The Public Space, a production house with an arts-centred vision, designing experiences that bring together people, stories and ideas.

Titled “Multilingualism, Vernacularism and Intimacy”, his sharing revolved mainly around his own identity and personal relations with languages. He commenced by sharing the poignant words of Arundhati Roy, “Language is that most private and yet most public of things”. Mr. Shridar found this quote highly relevant to Singapore, where official languages are limited to four, through a myriad of languages has traditionally been spoken in homes. He views this as a sacrifice of the private for the sake of the public.                                                    

Delving into his ancestry, Mr. Shridar traced his roots to Kerala, where his ancestors were displaced from Madurai due to the wars in Tamil Nadu between various kingdoms. He shared that his family were traditionally Tamilians from Kerala who spoke the Palakkad dialect – a blend of classical Tamil from Madurai, Malayalam from Kerala and Sanskrit. Growing up, this dialect, although not standard Tamil, held great significance because it allowed him to connect with his ancestors from Kerala.

Mr. Shridar then recounted his childhood experience learning the Palakkad dialect at home. As he entered primary school, his parents initially wanted him to learn Malay as his mother tongue. This desire was driven by their proficiency in Malay and the fact that the only Tamil they could read and write was the Palakkad dialect. He emphasised that many words used in the Palakkad dialect, although present in classical Tamil, held vastly different meanings. Nevertheless, prevailing policies compelled him to take Tamil as his mother tongue. Fortunately, he shared how he began learning the standard Tamil at six, even before entering primary school.

However, upon entering primary school, Mr. Shridar recalled resorting to the dialect whenever he encountered words for which he was unfamiliar with their Tamil equivalents. That said, he described this period as a time of relearning words and “switching to fit into what a collective has deemed to be the way a particular language has to function.”

That aside, Mr. Shridar shared his experiences growing up in various countries, immersing himself in different languages. Describing it as a “cosmopolitan linguistic environment,” he highlighted how constant exposure to diverse languages and witnessing seamless language switches around him enhanced his ability to pick up new languages efficiently.

This multilingual environment also played a significant role in his relationship with music; he defined music as “a language but without words”. Growing up in an environment where he consistently had to identify and interpret new words in familiar contexts, understanding music became second nature because it was all about finding nuance in the sound, even without fully comprehending its intent.

Concluding his presentation, Mr. Shridar shared his perspective on the unique understanding of ‘multilingualism’ in Singapore. With Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and English declared as the four official languages, an individual’s mother tongue is officially determined by the ethnic group of their father, irrespective of the language(s) they may have spoken. With that, he posed two crucial questions for the audience’s reflection: (1) What is at stake when my multilingualism is regulated against the languages I grew up with? and (2) What is the intimacy with language and identity that I lose when I am told that I can’t speak a language in my way – or that a language is not mine?

Panellists addressing questions from the audience during the Q&A segment. (Credit: MHF)

The forum concluded with a Q&A segment where the panellists responded to several questions from the on-site audience.  SIP(+) is a spin-off from MHF’s previous event, Sembang Ilmu Series (SIS), a discursive platform for our youth and young professionals to deliberate and discuss issues related to the socio-cultural development of the Malays in Singapore from a contemporary perspective. Differentiating itself from the latter, SIP(+) aims to extend its outreach to youths from other ethnic groups. Through these sessions, participants from various ethnic backgrounds are exposed to issues and intrinsic cultural values that shape the Malay community and the perspectives of their Malay counterparts. Ultimately, SIP(+) seeks to sustain interest in arts and heritage matters over the long term. With this, MHF hopes to nurture thought leadership for future reference, build connectivity and creativity through creative collaborations, and groom future role models and icons for the culture and heritage sector, motivating and inspiring others.

Group photo with MHF Vice-Chairperson, Mdm Rahayu Buang (centre), moderator Ms. Shireen (second from left), and the panel. (Credit: MHF)

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