Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Speak White

Vietnamese Notables greeting the White Masters

Last year, the blog diacritic : art and culture published a post quoting the IMF as estimating that it would take Vietnam 200 years before it could reach the level of development enjoyed by Singapore []. At the time, I commented that maybe Vietnam wouldn’t want to become like Singapore [].

Last week, diacritic revisited the issue and quoted Lee Kwan Yew’s advice to Vietnam. In one word (okay, two words), it’s this : Speak White.

To quote the « Singaporean legend », Vietnam was developing at an admirable pace, but it would take several decades for her to catch up with other developed Asian countries like Malaysia. In 2005, Malaysia’s annual income per capita was 4,960 USD, Vietnam’s was 620 USD and Singapore’s was 27,490 USD. According to Mr. Yew, Vietnam’s greatest challenges are weak infrastructure, unfair educational practice [whatever that means], and a weak knowledge of English. It currently costs Vietnam a lot of time and money to translate research and learning materials from English into Vietnamese. As long as Vietnamese teachers don’t teach in English, Vietnam’s education will find it difficult to develop.

Now you know how I feel about languages. From a purely empirical and personal perspective, I can tell you that the more languages a person understands and/or speaks, the more intelligent that person is. The Vietnamese urban populations are already very keen on learning foreign languages, especially English. In my professional capacity (I’m a translator/interpreter), I have had many opportunities to talk with high level, sometimes even ministerial level, civil servants from Vietnam and they all agreed on the necessity for the Vietnamese new generations to master a second language, preferably English. So of course, Prime Minister Lee is quite right to stress the importance of fluency in English if one wants to succeed in today’s global economy. But it’s not like Vietnam is still stuck in the agricultural anti-intellectual mindframe of the war period. With the financial, economic and cultural contributions of the Viet Kieu diaspora, the booming tourist industry and the ubiquity of Internet access, the English language is more prevalent in Vietnam than Mr. Lee can imagine and the costs in time and money to translate stuff into Vietnamese are mere drops of water in the sea of Vietnam’s development ambitions and eagerness.

“As long as Vietnamese teachers don’t teach in English, Vietnam’s education will find it difficult to develop”. Oh really? According to the CIA, Vietnam's literacy figures for 2002 are: 90.3% for the total population, male: 93.9%, female: 86.9%. Not too shabby, wouldn’t you say, compared to Singapore’s 92.5% rate?

The elephant in the room that Mr. Lee is careful to tiptoe around is this: the Republic of Singapore, a former British colony, does not have a national language (instead, the following various languages are spoken: Mandarin 35%, English 23%, Malay 14.1%, Hokkien 11.4%, Cantonese 5.7%, Teochew 4.9%, Tamil 3.2%, other Chinese dialects 1.8%, other 0.9%). That is why Mr. Lee has a hard time understanding that other countries could very well, and just as efficiently, use a common national language, that is not English, to foster development in the economic as well as the social and cultural fields.

I don’t know if it would take another 200 years for Vietnam to catch up with Singapore, and frankly my dear, who gives a shit. But like I said, if anyone asks me, Singapore isn’t the country I particularly would want to emulate. And I have nothing against Singapore, never having visited that country. But from the usual description (clean, disciplined, in other words: Swiss), I think it is a disservice to the world to have Vietnam assimilated borg-like to the Nice Boring Countries Club. Resistance is not futile!!!

Singapore by night


Anonymous said...

Tell that to the japanese, who have by far the strongest and developed asian economy.

Only 5% of japanese are considered fluent in english.

The case of singapore is particular. It is a former british colony and small city state.


HanoiMark said...

Hear hear! Very well said. I find the Singaporean advice grating, preachy and patronizing.

hat said...

Eloquently stated, and very on point. Statements like Mr. Lee's originate from a certain superiority complex -- and those kinds of patronizing attitudes neither edify nor change the world.