An age with relative freedom

We played some music by the band Queen yesterday. When listening to the song, I Want to Break Free, my husband commented that many radio and TV stations in the USA banned this song since its release in 1984. I was surprised. I have always considered the USA a relatively ‘free’ country, much freer than many Asian countries, but why would it be so prudish as to ban a music video of four men dressed in women’s clothes? Or, could it be because some people in power didn’t like skinny ballerinas performing a modern dance in skin-tight leotards?

What does it feel like being shackled? It is the sense of total isolation, in the deafening and incoherent cacophony.

My mum was deprived of her familiar sound since the 1980s, her mother tongue, the sound that she clung on to function as a human being in the society. Her freedom to her familiar sound was brutally removed from her, when the Singapore government banned the broadcast of all Chinese ‘dialects’ on radio and TV programs.

Before that, I remember there were regular news reports and TV programs in different ‘dialects’ of Chinese, such as Hokkien (of the Min language family), Hakka, Teochew and Cantonese, along with the main Chinese language, Mandarin.

Where has the familiar sound gone?

Since the 80s, English has become the dominant world langauge for most Singaporeans, and Mandarin Chinese was decided by the government as the only official Chinese language in the public domain, consequently Mandarin has been promoted aggressively since in Singapore for the past three decades, by obliterating other ‘dialects’. This blog, Consonant Aspirations, has a good summary of the trouble with Chinese language policies in Singapore.

Freedom: image of seagulls


Suddenly, the most colourful, dynamic and vibrant sounds in the Chinese ‘dialects’ disappeared from the media in Singapore. All Chinese programs became standardised and soap operas in Cantonese from Hong Kong were all dubbed in perfect yet unnatural Mandarin.

The older generation, most of them illiterate, including my mum, were left on an desolate island on their own. I remember my mum muttered gently, “No more ‘Hokkien’, now I can’t understand anything on the TV. Everything is in Mandarin now.”

I couldn’t possibly comprehend her deep sense of loss until now. Having living in the UK for 15 years, I remember the mental struggle I have over the phone if any speaker carries a strong Irish, Scottish, or Geordie accent, or an Indian accent from an overtly polite Indian calling from a call centre in Delhi. However, my frustration is minute comparing to the loss my mum had suffered in those years in silence. I couldn’t understand an English accent. My mum couldn’t understand a language.

Why banning a song of sparrow for 23 years?

Last week, co-incidentally, I heard that the ban on a Chinese song in Singapore had just been lifted after 23 years. The nostalgic song was written by one of my favourite songwriters in Singapore, the talented musician and scholar, Liang Wern Fook (or, Liang Wenfu) 梁文福. You may wonder what the justifications were for the ban. Was the song promoting unfavourable ideology such as communism, or did the song break social harmony or cause racial tension?


The song title carries a beautiful imagery: A Swallow with a Bamboo Twig between Her Teeth. This is a Mandarin song, mixed with a few lines of non-Mandarin. The lyrics are:

“Here we live in Singapore;
My father used to be living at Hoi Shan Street — sung in Cantonese
In 1941 a Japanese bomber flew by here
And a bomb was dropped on this street
Here we live in Singapore
My mum gave birth to me at the Tekka hospital– sung in Cantonese
There were already quite many unlicensed taxis back then
But my mum still rode her bike to work
Here we live in Singapore
My childhood days were at Queenstown
Behind the tiny government apartment block
Was a little forest
Where I used to play with my childhood friends….
Here we live in Singapore
My cousin has returned from San Francisco — sung in Hokkien (Min)
Like a little sparrow carrying a bamboo twig — sung in Cantonese
Always returning to where her home is — sung in Cantonese


This charming story-telling song rekindles the shared memories of many citizens, and it carries about 5% of non-Mandarin. Because of a few lines of lyrics were in Cantonese and Hokkien, the song was banned. The Singapore government believed that the use of Chinese ‘dialects’ by its citizens on the island would be detrimental to the learning of Mandarin.

Lost and bonding in Translation



I was such an impatient translator as a teenager. My mum couldn’t read, and since everything on the airwaves was alien to her, she relied on her children. “Tell me – what’s happened?” When mum saw horrible images on the news, she would press for information. My answers were always simple but to the core: “War. Gun. Fighting. In the west, especially America, all bad things happened.” Mum would reply, “We are lucky we’re not in America.”

When it was news on Africa, I would say things like “African starvation; people dying.” Mum would reply, “You’re so lucky you were not born in Africa.” Then we would both conclude that America and Africa were very faraway placess, and neither America nor Africa were good places to be. Then we would conclude satisfyingly that Malaysia and Singapore were actually the best places in the world.

I have been living in the west for 15 years. I breathe freedom in my everyday life. I’ve enjoyed certain freedom that my mother’s generation had never tasted. I’m fortunate. When I compare my life before and after the UK, I’m most aware that freedom always comes with a price. Freedom is relative. Freedom is also acutely linked with culture and the historical development of a nation.


To many, Cantonese, Hokkien, and Hakka and many other vernaculars widely spoken in China and in the Chinese communities around the world are perceived as ‘dialects’; however, I believe that these so-called ‘dialects’ are languages in the Chinese language family. Ref.: The Languages of China, by S. Robert Ramsey

Victor H. MairWhat Is a Chinese “Dialect/Topolect”? — Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic Terms – spp029_chinese_dialect.pdf

This post was inspired by Blog Exercises: Define Freedom by Lorelle VanFossen. You can find more Blog Exercises on . This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.

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24 thoughts on “An age with relative freedom

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      The ‘dialects’ (which I considered Languages) are still banned in Singapore from the airwaves. In Taiwan, since 1949, when the Kuomingtang of China retreated to Taiwan, the Taiwanese language was also banned for a few decades, and the people speaking the language were condemned. Even the romanised Bibles in the Taiwanese language were confiscated and the missionaries were banned from teaching using the language. Kids got penalised if they were heard speaking the language. They were forced to learn Mandarin. But now there’s a huge liberation in languages in Taiwan.

  1. ShimonZ

    That is a very touching story about your mother’s suffering on account of the language. I feel for her. I know many people who had to give up their beloved language after WWII. It’s hard. As for the first example, I don’t know Queen, and in fact have never heard them. But there are people who are offended by the sight of men in women’s clothing or women in men’s clothing. Many of my neighbors feel that way, and I can understand them. Especially if it’s a provocation. I suppose that is a cultural thing too… just like using your old language, your ‘mother tongue’.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Shimon,

      It’s the saddest thing when people have to hide their own identity, to lose their own languages, due to social or political reasons. Speaking a language in a wrong place, wrong time, could have political consequences, as you understand so painfully through the history of your people.

      With my mother and her whole generation, their languages were considered by people in power as lower class, uneducated, uncivilised, and they are not respected as who they are. They don’t live in the mainstream and are always on the periphery. The younger generation look down on their elder generation who can’t speak the ‘official’ language (Mandarin), and the vicious circle continues. It’s terribly sad.

      I have a lot of respect for my mother for her resilience. She has picked up enough Mandarin phrases to get by over the years. She lives through the tough generation that she never complains and just copes with changes, which are often unfair for her.

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  18. KL

    The China government does not ban or to the extent of killing native languages in the various provinces in China. In the recent months Chinese government is trying to promote 普通话 (i.e., putonghua, also known as the common language, Mandarin) in Guangdong but is faced with strong protest and had to call it a halt.

    Somewhat Singapore made such abandon of native Chinese languages official just by one person’s power. Putting his authoritative power aside, I believe that this person failed to understand Chinese and culture due to his baba background. His root is not other Singaporeans’ roots.

    郭宝崑 Kuo Pao Kun, a famous Singapore artist, was jailed and had his citizenship censored due to his personal belief. He wrote a stage play 《寻找小猫的妈妈》(Mama Looking for Her Cat) in 1988, reflecting the change of language policy and its impact on older folks.

    Let’s imagine the mother could not communicate with her children because they subscribed to the government policy and only speak Mandarin. She also could not communicate with her grandchildren because they only spoke English. She could only speak to a cat, a stray cat.

    Do not forget that the mother and many others belonged to the generation who had contributed to nation building. We would not have much better life today if not because of their hard work. The government would also not be able to claim many credits without the sacrifices from this group of people. I could not understand, and still fail to understand the language policy after so many years.

    Now my father could not communicate with my brother’s children who only speak English because they were brought up from very different setting. Such story will flow for many years because of one man’s mistake. Historic mistake.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you for such a detailed, wonderful feedback.

      The Singapore government favoured English and Mandarin Chinese over other languages of Chinese (Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka……these are called 方言 fāngyán) and this policy upset many people. Generations of the Singaporean Chinese will suffer due to this policy. We already see how our older generation suffers bitterly, though with dignity, they survive and learn Mandarin and bits of English.

      The saddest outcome of this language policy in Singapore is that people in the same family cannot communicate to each other in a common language, as you described. Many historians and scholars have argued that the language policy in Singapore was a huge mistake, and the price is too high to pay.

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