Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Singapore: Back To The Roots with Proverbs Project

By Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-InDepth NewsReport

SINGAPORE (IDN) - “I’m making a claim that we have to discover our own heritage and not just learn about the West, at the cost of leaving behind your own culture and forgetting your own roots,” Dr. Madanmohan Rao told IDN after launching his latest book of proverbs which focuses on Singapore, perhaps the most multicultural and cosmopolitan nation in Asia.

The book captures over 1,000 proverbs translated into English from Chinese (mostly from Mandarin and the Hakka, Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew dialects), Malay and Tamil. Singapore has four official languages – English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil – which reflects the migrant background of its 4 million population.

Singapore’s linguistic foundations are influenced by its local Malay roots, and its position as a trade settlement that has attracted foreigners from Asia and beyond, bringing in new languages and dialects and creating new mixes in the process. The local Chinese dialects have now been absorbed by Mandarin, which many older Chinese, who speak Hakka or Hokkien for example, have resented. Thus, one of the book’s aims is to preserve some of the proverbs from these dialects.

“From what I gather, a lot of dialects in Singapore are dying. Not enough support is given by local radio (to air programs in these dialects),” notes Dr. Rao, who is a Bangalore based Indian IT and Internet industry and social media specialist with deep interest in languages and world music. “This proverbs project is to document and preserve local proverbs and wisdom and try to pass it on to the next generation,” he added.

Dr. Rao started his proverbs publishing project three years ago when he published a book of Indian proverbs in English. It was a follow-on from a childhood passion of his where he had a scrapbook of proverbs. He followed this publication with another on African proverbs with an African partner. He hopes to follow up the Singapore project with further books of proverbs on South Asia, Southeast Asia, Middle East especially from Turkey and Iran, and he has also been invited by a Russian publisher to do one on Russian proverbs.

As part of the launch here on July 20, a panel of literature and cultural specialist discussed the role of proverbs in cross-cultural communications and globalization of education.

“Proverbs are precious because it’s different from wisdom that emanates from top down. Proverbs come from the bottom up, its embedded in our daily heritage,” argued Prof Kwok Kian-Woon, Associate Provost of Nanyang Technological University.

“The lot of proverbs gives a general guideline on what is acceptable in your culture,” noted co-panelist Tara Hasnain, an Oxford University alumni and an editor at Marshall Cavendish International. She said that though she is Indian her education was in English and she has read a lot of proverbs from the Bible but nothing from other religious traditions such as Hinduism or Buddhism. “(If you look at) Buddhist sutras it gives an idea of Indian thought,” she argued.

Another co-panelist, Katelijn Verstraete, director of arts and creative industries East Asia for the British Council agrees that through proverbs we could look at non-western perspectives on culture. “Proverbs can be translated to different languages and give diversity to globalization,” she noted.


But, the co-author of the Singapore Proverbs book, local television journalist Shivali Nayak pointed out that there are also some proverbs in the book that may not be in line with the norms of the modern cosmopolitan city-state that is Singapore. She pointed out two in particular for its sexist stereotyping that says: “a wife and children are a man’s burden” and “a husband with a beautiful wife will need another pair of eyes”.

With trend towards globalization of education, IDN asked some of the panelists about how this proverbs project may impact on cultural diversity in education.

Prof Kwok told IDN that cosmopolitan values characterize globalization and this “cosmopolitan mindset seems to be very much extorted as a virtue”. But he believes (quoting somebody else) that cosmopolitism is a language that is everywhere but it a language of nowhere. “In our everyday life we are rooted in certain time and certain place that should not be obliterated in the course of globalization,” he argues.

Verstraete said that though globalization gives access to many to education at the same time it mainstreams and standardizes a lot. “It’s a matter of how curriculums are designed. If there is no local relevance, globalization is not connected,” she argues.

She told IDN that she’s noticed a growing debate in Asia about collective identity and it relates back to education. Since a lot of people in Asia are ex-colonies of the West, and they have been educated there, Western values have been passed over to the next generation. But the new generation could be different and projects like this one, if incorporated into the education system in Asia could open up minds to new thinking.

Reaching out to young people

Local Malay school teacher, Shahira agrees that proverbs in the book need to reach out to young people and the best way to do it is through curriculum based exercises. “We will come up with a youth friendly version, even using twitter, YouTube, crowd-sourcing and setting up a website,” she said. Already a video has been produced for u-tube with young people from different communities reciting their proverbs in their language accompanied by English subtitles.

Interestingly, British Council which has been instrumental in spreading English culture around the world, is now looking at translating Asian literature into English to provide cross-cultural links between Asia and the West. Verstraete said one of the projects she’s involved in is to take Korean literature to the next London Book Fair by translating Korean novels into English. They are also funding an Asia-Pacific Writers Conference in Bangkok later this year.

Dr. Rao describes his proverbs project in Asia as “one attempt in the great attempt to de-colonise the Asian mind”. He argues that a lot of proverbs we hear in our countries come through the English language and hence are based on English literature (of the British). Though ironically he uses the same English language, he says that he is using this language to take proverbs “from the silos of local language(s)” such as Tamil, Hindi, Marathi or Malay into each other’s cultures across Asia. Perhaps he and the British Council may agree after all.

He plans to translate his proverbs books into Asian languages such as Mandarin, Hindi, and Bhasa Indonesian as and when funds come by. The Singaporean project that started in December 2011 was funded by the National Heritage Board of Singapore.

“We have to define our cultures, we have to define our values” argues Dr. Rao. “Not only to understand other cultures, but also as indigenous carriers of values in their own right.” [IDN-InDepthNews – July 22, 2013]

Photo: Dr. Madanmohan Rao