Honour (Singapore) and the absence of understanding

[tl;dr]
Honour (Singapore) has taken flak for its efforts so far, perhaps unfairly. Being Christian or rich does not immediately equate with dishonesty or malice. Perhaps we should take Honour (Singapore) at their word — that they want to strengthen the nation based on the value of honour.


 

The tone that local media has taken in recent months has started to worry me. Taking into account everything I’m seeing — on social media, blogs, independent journalism sites, and the mainstream media — it seems that my beloved little island is heading into the mire that American popular political discourse has found itself in. Yes, that’s a bad thing.

There is almost a complete lack of understanding in the debates (on social media) that I’ve been watching. The opposition supporters don’t get the PAP supporters, the atheists don’t get the religious folk, and so on. The bulk of Singaporeans are no longer talking with each other; we are talking at each other. There is no attempt at understanding the concerns of your opponent, no recognition that we share a massive amount in common.

That brings me to the Honour (Singapore) issue. [Read the news reports here and here.] While the organization’s mission is ostensibly “To seek the well-being of the nation by promoting a culture of honour and honouring”, they have been criticized on two fronts: that their board members are Christian, and that the organization is overwhelmingly made up of people from the governmental/business elite in Singapore.

Christians and the elite in Singapore, of course, haven’t presented themselves very well in recent times. When even The Straits Times points out that “Income + wealth inequality = More trouble for society“, you know the typical Singaporean is carrying a considerable amount of resentment against the elite. Christians, moreover, have presented themselves as bullies in the recent NLB saga, in an attempt to shape a secular space (the library) according to their biblical ideals.

Honour (Singapore), therefore, comes across as doubly tainted to some of us. They are both Christian and elite. Ouch.

Honour (Singapore), therefore, comes across as doubly tainted to some of us. They are both Christian and elite. Ouch.

Sadly, it seems that they have been judged not on their own merits, but solely on the labels that people have thrown upon them. Let’s get one thing straight — “Christian” or “elite” does not automatically equate as “bully” or “bad”. The simultaneously sad and funny fact is this: there are many rich Christians in Singapore who are quietly working behind the scenes to make this country a better place. The reason we don’t hear about it is that Jesus clearly states in the gospels that they are not to boast about their actions.

Jesus said (Matthew 6:1-4, NIV):
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Let’s get one thing straight — “Christian” or “elite” does not automatically equate as “bully” or “bad”.

Sometimes I wish that Christians here would boast more about their social justice efforts, but perhaps they are wise not too. The moment Honour (Singapore) announced themselves, they were judged even before their organization took any large steps to achieve their mission — just because of the “Christian” and “elite” labels. Make no mistake about it, moneyed individuals and organizations have more power to make a difference in society than those of us with less money. If, like Bill Gates and his fellow billionaire philanthropists, this organization wants to make a positive impact in the world with their money and power, then we should all celebrate and support them. (Of course, if they’re just another front to selfishly make more profit or to push a fundamentalist Christian agenda, then we should denounce them — not for wanting profits, or for being Christians, but for their dishonesty.)

Visiting the Honour (Singapore) blog gives me some hope that they are earnest about accomplishing their mission. Their latest post seems to signal their intention to build a bridge between the Christian community and the rest of the nation — it’s titled “What the hell is water?” For those of us unfamiliar with Christianity, Christians aren’t supposed to use the word “hell” with such flippancy. Even more encouraging is their use of the allegory of the great turnip, and their observation that “we must honour our word (give fair and just reward) and honour each other (respect and value every effort and every one).  It is a good way to conduct ourselves in life.” (Read that blog post here. It’s worth a read.)

I’m not saying that Honour (Singapore) is going to be a massively positive force in this country. I’m saying that I don’t know what they’re going to do, and that I’m hoping they will use their resources and influence to accomplish what they say they want to accomplish.

What they want to accomplish are things that I thoroughly agree with. Here’s a selection (from blog posts here and here):

  • Being people who honour our word.  We keep promises.
  • Being people who honour each other. By honouring each other, it means we respect each other as persons who have the right to be themselves. [. . .] So we should not be trading insults, imposing our views on others, creating avoidable racial or religious disharmony.
  • We must honour our word (give fair and just reward) and honour each other (respect and value every effort and every one).  It is a good way to conduct ourselves in life.

Let me state from the outset that I think Singaporean workers haven’t been given “fair and just” rewards for their work. I think that with Singapore’s “tripartism” and structures of taxation, Singaporean workers have been given short shrift. But I wish that all of us will be able to discuss those issues with a spirit of cooperation and empathy, instead of trading insults or imposing our views on each other.

The absence of understanding we have for each other is sad, but it isn’t surprising. History has shown us that it’s the norm: witness the disgust people used to have for Jews; witness the hate some Zionists have for the Palestinians; witness the violence visited upon the powerless by the powerful.

Let us honour each other as human beings, first and foremost. We have to think about how the elite in Singapore — the politicians, billionaires and almost-billionaires — can honour the man in the street. And yes, we have to think about how the common man can honour the elite. Descending into hate and resentment isn’t going to help anybody. If we give in to hate, we’re only going to get more and more isolated from each other. And guess what? The people behind Honour (Singapore) could just fly off to another country to enjoy the luxury their money can buy them. They didn’t have to do anything for the well-being of our nation.

And I honour them for that.

Doing away with a Singaporean accent (Improving your pronunciation and enunciation for oral examinations)

Short answer:
Use the Oxford Dictionaries‘ pronunciation guide. Select “English (UK)” if you want to sound more British, and “English (US)” for the American version. Keep your Singaporean accent, but develop a new one if you need to.

Long answer:
I’m an English Literature graduate, and I entered NUS with a very, very heavy Singaporean accent. I can speak Singlish like any other normal Singaporean, but after some years of suffering and recording my own voice, my students are surprised when I make the switch from my teaching voice to my “for taxi driver uncle” (Singaporean/Singlish) voice.

<If you wanna hear what I sound like these days, check out my music, but just read on if you wanna, no loss — Take Your Time (Bedroom Demo). Warning: no autotune.>

I still remember the day I decided I really had to work on my pronunciation. I was making some clever-clever point about something or other being an anachronism, clever-clever except for the fact that I was saying “AN-na-KRO-niz-m” instead of “a-NAK-ruh-niz-m”.

My hitherto strait-laced lecturer almost giggled as he corrected me.

So began the painful process to correct my pronunciation, bit by bit. I still have some Singaporean-isms in my speech — some of my “L’s” and vowels aren’t properly enunciated, for example. But by and large, most of the problems are gone.

The quickest way I’ve found that works is to record yourself speaking — or in my case, singing. My 2011 recordings really exposed how much work I had left to do, and how difficult that work is. Singaporeans/Asians, try saying the word “golden” now. Do you notice how much it sounds like “gowden”? Or this fantastic one — “children”. (Chewren, hee hee..) Try your best to properly pronounce the “L” sound. It’s not easy, I know.

To this day, I use online dictionary apps to make sure that I’m pronouncing my words properly. It’s an ongoing process.

It’s also important to pay attention to word stress, which is the emphasis that we place on certain syllables within a word. The dictionary.com pronunciation guide is a good way to understand this in a visual manner. The entry for the word “decide” shows us this guide: [dih-sahyd]. If you stretch the second syllable [dih-saaaaahyd], notice that it doesn’t sound as awkward as stretching the first syllable [diiiiih-sahyd]. 

One benefit I’ve found is that no English-speaking foreigner has ever found it hard to understand what I say, no matter how quickly I’m speaking. And it’s true — when you switch to Singlish, the ang mohs really tiah boh (the foreigners really don’t understand), especially if they haven’t spent any time in Singapore/Asia before.


There’s also the matter of sentence stress, which essentially is the choice of what words we choose to emphasize in a sentence. This has some impact on how our listeners perceive our meaning and intention when we say something.

For example:
Put your phone away. (Instead of putting it on the table, in your pocket, etc)
Put your phone away. (Instead of your pen, or toothbrush, etc)
Put your phone away. (Instead of my phone, or his phone, etc.)


 

Combining proper word stress, pronunciation, and sentence stress will help the average Singaporean become more intelligible to an English speaker who has no knowledge of Singlish or the Singaporean accent.

Funny story:
I actually tested my different accents in Copenhagen. When a friend and I conversed in our Singaporean accent, our Danish friend assumed that we were speaking in a foreign language that was only slightly related to the English language. And when we switched to Singlish (“Eh, you eat oredi anot?”), she thought it was Chinese.

Edit:
I’m still terribly proud of my Singaporean accent, and of Singlish in general. If you live in Singapore, you NEED it. If you’re a Singaporean overseas, it will be THE thing that unites you with other Singaporeans living overseas. That and char kway teow.