Many Tongues

Rediffusion Singapore in Clemenceau Avenue in the 1950s, from Radio Heritage Foundation. 
Rediffusion Singapore in Clemenceau Avenue in the 1950s, from Radio Heritage Foundation

When I was growing up, many adults in their 30s and older were multi-lingual, without any certification required! Most aunties and uncles could speak a smattering of Malay, Chinese or Indian languages, and very often they got along with Pasar Malay as their common tongue.

Having just been feted by my colleagues with delicious tarts for my 66th birthday, I can’t cease to wonder at this multi-lingual ability of the Pioneer and Merdeka generations. Tanglin Halt was my playground in the 1960s, and a Malay family lived two doors away from our corner unit. Mum got along famously with Nana’s mother, with my family being happy recipients of rendang and curry dishes from her. In turn, we would help babysit Nana while Mum lent a shoulder to Aunty when she shared her woes. In ‘emergencies’, eggs, sugar or salt would be passed along the common corridor so that the cooking on the stove could continue. Besides the language of love, they understood one another completely with their mastery of ungrammatical English and Pasar Malay.

The Ah Por living right next door would fan herself and yak the afternoon away with Granny or Mum, in her version of Cantonese, quite different from my mother tongue. This heart language of mine has been the only sound in my ears from birth, and only when I entered kindergarten did I realise that there were other tongues called English and Mandarin. As television entered our homes, wow, besides Cantonese cinema, Mandarin and Hokkien movies, Malay dramas, and Bollywood dances with the actors’ rapid-fire dialogues exploded into my consciousness.

Rediffusion, a cheap cabled radio service, conducted the mesmerising tales of Chinese martial arts and classical tales through Lee Dai Sor, the masterful Cantonese storyteller. He could quell quarrelling children and adults whenever his signature tune came over the air, even those who weren’t Cantonese. In the process, he helped a child like me imbibe values like honour and integrity with stories from the Water Margin and the valour of Justice Pao.

My rambling above underscores the importance of language exposure. In the 1960s before Singapore was politically decoupled from Malaysia, my ethnically Chinese schoolmates and I had the great privilege of learning Bahasa Kebangsaan–our National Language–in Primary 3 (1963), besides English and Mandarin. Such a wonderful eye-opener for me to learn that satu, dua, tiga… equates yi, er, san… and one, two, three.

These days, though I may be more versatile in English and Chinese, one of my proudest pieces is a ‘poem’ in Malay, composed with the help of my Berita Harian colleagues back in 1986. Our umbilical cord with Peninsular Malaysia may have been cut by political wrangling, but ties of kinship and friendship across the Causeway are still strong. It behoves us to appreciate our closest neighbour by understanding their language and culture better. And publishers like us have a role in supporting more multi-lingual translation projects.

See the upcoming Khairat Kita, as well as Potongthe evergreen Malay Sketches, and The First Five (an anthology of Southeast Asian writings). 

Here’s that one-and-only Malay ‘poem’: 

Dunia dan cinta
Dunia hutan,
Manusia berwarna.
Apabila kasih dan cinta telah bersemi
Tentulah hati tenteram.
Kalau melihat kesalahan
Apa harus dibuat?
Manusia merindu kedamaian
Namun masa terbatas.
Dunia adalah hati kita
Warnakanlah ia dengan cinta
Kau akan hidup seribu tahun lagi.
The world and love
The world is like a forest,
Peopled by many colours.
When love blossoms
Peace will reign.
If you see wrongdoings
What should you do?
People long for peace
But time is limited.
Our heart holds the world
Colour it with love
You will live another thousand years.
- Wai Han
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