Switching between languages to say it best

It never occurred to me that I might appear unfamiliar to my Singaporean friends, until I was at dinner with some of them together with friends visiting from Beijing, where I had spent my undergraduate years.

My Singaporean friends, despite being educated like me in schools under the Special Assistance Plan (SAP) - introduced in 1978 to preserve traditional Chinese values - commented, "You were like a Chinese for two hours."

"A Chinese"? In the past, we would have interpreted that as a categorisation of race. Spoken that day, however, it meant that I did not behave like a Singaporean Chinese - presumably because I had picked up habits during my time in China that re-emerged as I code-switched and interacted with my Chinese friends.

I "laughed at jokes that were foreign" and was unusually "touchy" with them. I "spoke putonghua and not huayu" - my friends distinguished the two, with the former referring to standard Chinese language in China, and the latter referring to the lingua franca of the Chinese community in Singapore today.


The Speak Mandarin Campaign was launched in 1979 to discourage the use of Chinese dialects, such as Hokkien and Teochew, so that the Chinese community would speak one common language while still retaining their heritage.

However, many of our parents continued to speak their dialects at home even as they learnt Mandarin in school. They code-switched between situations at home, school and work; they did not find it difficult or unusual to do so. Even before the Speak Mandarin Campaign, code-switching had become a norm. My mother code-switched to bahasa melayu with Malay friends at school, while my father code-switched to different dialects when conversing with colleagues.

  • The essays here are from The Birthday Book 2017: What Should We Never Forget?, published by The Birthday Collective. It retails for $25 (with GST) and is available at Kinokuniya, major bookshops and www.ethosbooks.com.sg

Yet, today, code-switching between putonghua and huayu is met with discomfort, and even occasional disdain.

This could partly be due to our generation having a more robust sense of a Singaporean Chinese identity, which becomes heightened when we encounter Chinese nationals in Singapore and around the world. The very language that was supposed to tie us back to our roots has become a gulf between the mainland Chinese and us.


It is hard to think of code-switching as an easy task, especially for new languages that are unfamiliar. The learning of a language, in (linguist) Michael Halliday's words, is "the learning of meanings", meanings that give birth to choice and decisions. Thus, to fully grasp a language means to understand and to adapt to the full package of nuance, both in verbal and non-verbal communication.

This uncomfortable task of attaining versatility in multiple cultures defined the spirit of the early settlers in Singapore. Even before Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in 1819, there already existed a population of Chinese merchants here: The Peranakans, descendants of Chinese immigrants who had settled in the archipelago generations ago and integrated with the local Malays. With Raffles' establishment of Singapore as an entrepot, the island grew and became a hub for merchants from Arab, China, India and other lands to come and to leave, and to code-switch and to learn to do business with counterparts from different cultures.

Along with the merchants came the sinkehs, Chinese migrants who flocked to Singapore to escape chaotic situations at home. Many were uneducated and worked as coolies in harsh environments, leaving Singapore eventually due to the short supply of wives. Nineteenth-century Singapore was a story of flow - the flow of goods, and the flow of people; people who came with dreams, and people who left with dreams.

With the 20th century came more complexity for Singapore, thanks to its unique location as a regional node. In 1906, it became the South-east Asian headquarters of the Tongmenghui, a revolutionary Chinese organisation founded by Sun Yat Sen and dedicated to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty.

In 1943, it became a base for Subra Chandra Bose to gather Indians from around South-east Asia so that he could rebuild the Indian National Army to fight for India's independence. Singapore provided space for regional efforts to be consolidated, and our land became fertile ground for the exchange of ideas and aspirations.


The first of the four years I spent in Beijing as an undergraduate was an assault to the senses. My mind was accustomed to using English as a working language and to viewing issues through a Singaporean lens. Despite being ethnically Chinese, I felt like a fish out of water. Everyone around me spoke an unfamiliar, standardised form of Chinese. Things on the ground changed too quickly to rely on tried and tested solutions to problems. As I grew more uncomfortable, I became almost desperate to seek out familiar identity markers.

One day, a fellow student reached out to me, to learn about Singapore and our ways. He was Chinese, but from a different province, and so he also felt foreign in Beijing. As I would come to learn, yifang shuitu yifang ren - where the water and soil differ, the people will also differ.

Across Chinese cities, there was no "one Chinese way", so my local-but-still-foreign peer channelled his discomfort with his new environment into a constructive hunger to learn the ways of others who were different.

He reminded me of what our forefathers stood for - a determination to develop versatility and the ability to view discomforts as opportunities. My friend often reminded me that, what Singapore lacked in size, it made up for in geographical location. Yet, this did not mean that we could take things for granted: Individual hard work and street-smarts were continually needed for the nation to truly fulfil its potential.

If we wanted to venture beyond our national boundaries, then we must accept the differences we have with others, and turn these into possibilities for new markets and products.

I do not think that it was a specific set of lexicon and intonations that captured the undying spirit of Singapore's pioneering generation. Rather, it was the ability to choose whichever language they wanted to speak in at any time which made our forefathers effective and tenacious.

Learning putonghua has allowed me to appreciate the importance of always feeling sufficiently uncomfortable - a lesson which I hope I will always keep with me, and that, as a nation, we will never forget.

•Tan Bao Jia earned her bachelor's in economics from Peking University, and master's in energy and natural resources policy from Stanford University. She has worked with the World Bank, the Stanford Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Centre and Gavekal Dragonomics on various publications on Chinese capital markets, social policies and infrastructure sectors.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 24, 2017, with the headline 'Switching between languages to say it best'. Subscribe