The errors that emerged in a recent case of mistranslation are instructive because they draw attention to a serious issue: the need to respect the multiracial and multilingual nature of Singapore, in which Malay, Chinese, Tamil and English are official languages, and Malay is the national language. Demonstrating the widespread acceptance of that linguistic philosophy, a wet market operator's fliers attracted criticism last week for having a Hindi translation instead of a Tamil one. The announcement on the fliers was printed in English and translated into Chinese, Malay and what was meant to be Tamil but ended up as Hindi instead. Then, the apology letters put up ended up having an error as well and had to be replaced. Netizens pointed out that the Malay portion of the flier was also poorly translated. The hapless wet market operator made a series of honest mistakes, and deserves no more than token disapproval, but naivete must never guide Singaporeans' attitude to the languages that sustain the communicative identity of their multicultural nation.
The linguistic primacy of English attests both to the provenance of contemporary Singapore in 1819 and to the country's need to use the language of international business and commerce in which its fortunes are embedded. English also is a medium through which Singaporeans imbibe the values of the European Enlightenment that guide the enactment of secular laws and many normative social goals, such as ethnic and gender equality. Yet, English is but one medium among others - the latter being Asian languages that connect Singaporeans to their ancient ancestries, all of which survive to this day. No less than English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil underline the role of communication in creating multi-ethnic nations.