This last week has been quite a revelation. We are gearing up for the pre-production of our movie, ’1965′. Casting for a movie is never easy, but for this movie, there is a need to speak Malay, Tamil, Mandarin and English in a way they were spoken in the 1960s. There is also a need to speak some dialects for authenticity. Our younger generations do not speak dialect. They can always learn. But for this movie, when I have asked for everything to be real, from the smallest detail in a police uniform to the architecture of the time, the actors need to have a real feel for the dialects. This feel will have to come from the deeper layers of our cultural landscape. While looking into ways to provide the look, feel, smell and taste of Singapore in the 1960s, when we want the voices of the time, we invariably come face to face with the imposition of our official languages in the 1980s and its myriad impact on our society today.
While I am eternally grateful that ours is a nation proficient in the main languages of the emerging markets, China and India, and the biggest market, America, last week, the impediment of our own language deficiencies became a painful and reflective reality. It was my mother’s 90th birthday. There were gatherings when she was in the midst of young and very young people. I noticed she was always visibly happier when she saw her grand children and great grand children. But she needed to cross the dialect bridge. Try as I would, I could not wheelchair her to the other side of the language divide where English and Mandarin were spoken. I am sadly aware it will be the same for most senior citizens in Singapore. They cannot have meaningful interactions with the younger generations, or watch television programs and movies where they can feel the desired familiarity for the characters and stories.
In the 1960s, like most de-colonised countries, Singapore began a search for an independent national identity. The Chinese in particular turned to the cultural products of films and music from Hong Kong for inspiration. This fascination with Hong Kong was also seen as a reactionary and feudal ‘Yellow Culture’ that was set out to oppose the ‘Red Culture’ still apparent in communist China. Canto-pop boomed way before the four ‘Heavenly Kings’ made their presence felt. That was when Chow Yun Fat started his ascent. Those of a certain age will remember his Cantonese voice in ‘Man In The Net’ and ‘Brothers’. Looking back, if our ‘Speak Mandarin’ and ‘Speak English’ campaigns were enforced fully, yet dialects were still allowed, would they have been any less effective? Or was it crucial for a strong hand to steer the linguistic tracks of a diverse immigrant state on the road to a few common viable languages?
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