The need for cultural translation: a re-post of Ng E-Ching’s May 14th, 2012 response in the Kent Ridge Common to Ng Kok Lim

Dear Mr/Ms Ng Kok Lim,

Please call me E-Ching. Thank you for your email, which makes important points! One disadvantage of trying to say so much in such a short article is that my focus on adding something new to the discussion resulted in one-sidedness. A letter like yours is needed.

It is precisely because I saw the Yale faculty resolution as both a “sincere expression of basic goodness” and an unwitting “request to be kicked out of the country” that I decided to write my article. As both a Singaporean and a Yalie, it was painful for me to see good people on both sides misunderstanding each other so deeply. I am optimistically certain that if they better understood each other’s expectations, much of the negative feeling that has arisen over the resolution could be lightened. There is a need for both you and me to try to bridge the differences, by first recognising them and then identifying the deeper commonalities.

Some differences are fairly well-known, such as the laws on gay male intercourse. Some need to be better known, such as GRC gerrymandering and the distance between law and enforcement. As you may know, the Straits Times (20 April) told the world that I broke the law by giving my students a banned article, and the police haven’t come knocking since then. Obviously, I agree with you that it shouldn’t have been banned in the first place. But the lax-to-non-existent enforcement in certain domains was the part Yale faculty didn’t seem to know yet.

We are both aware that the resolution annoyed people in Singapore who are totally unconnected with the government. It’s brought about an amazing upwelling of patriotism. I don’t see this as loyalty to our “rulers” – I respect my fellow Singaporeans, and I think our country holds very few unthinking fans of the People’s Action Party. Rather, I think the reaction was rooted in genuine love for “the city-state of Singapore”, as the final wording of the resolution puts it. I’m quite certain the Yale faculty never expected criticisms targeted at the government to irritate such a broad swath of the Singaporean people, and they really need to know that’s what happened. [Added 15 May: I think it made Singaporeans ask themselves: why would Yale faculty want to upset the government enough to break off the partnership? Is the country not good enough for Yale?]

As a writer on the Temasek Review Emeritus website, I’m sure you agree that it’s important not to say “Singapore” when we mean the PAP. It’s equally necessary to be clear when we’re talking about Singapore the government, versus Singapore the people and Singapore the city-state. When I say Singapore society is extremely open to foreign influences, I mean the people, and perhaps you mean the effect of censorship on the city-state? The myriad points of congruity and disjuncture between these different Singapores must be very difficult for others to keep straight without a lifetime of experience, especially when the people are so very diverse in the first place – and I’m not even talking about race, language or religion. Let’s help by being as clear as possible.

For my part, I should clarify that I would have seen myself as taking the easy way out of intercultural communication if my article had simply pointed to similarities between many Singaporeans’ and Americans’ stated opposition to censorship, or between Singaporean and American laws such as the ISA and the Patriot Act. I felt that this would mask important underlying differences that become visible when we look at specific test cases such as the 1991 backlash against relaxation of film censorship in Singapore, or the recent Dove World Qur’an-burning controversy in the US. To clarify further, I see democracy and free speech as a means to achieve an aim, which is human welfare defined according to a hierarchy of needs. When I read in the International Herald Tribune (16 Feb) that Americans see democracy and free speech as absolute goals in themselves, I was at first disbelieving, then astounded when my classmates confirmed that this seemed self-evident to them.

Having understood this, I would like Americans to consider the possibility that a different perspective might facilitate practical consensus-building between diverse communities with different traditions – because after all, survival, physical well-being and emotional well-being are universal values in a very basic and unifying sense. Democracy and free speech are important ways to realise these states, but I hope you will agree that there is value in recognising more fundamental goals. Even as the PAP liberalises, I think it is increasingly failing by these fundamental standards, and that is where I stand in opposition to them.

Incidentally, you are quite right to point out that the Internet has driven recent political liberalisation. However, I would say that it is because the greater availability of information has forced the PAP to change for fear of not getting elected. The Internet has lowered barriers, but I don’t think our desire for change itself is recent. The more of our history I learn while researching the development of our many language varieties, the more respect I have for the marvellously sceptical and independent-minded generations of Singaporeans who have been aware all along of many points on which the PAP’s rhetoric departs from reality.

At the risk of boring Singaporeans, after the national press has told us so many times not to take offence at the faculty resolution, I’d like to share some of my own learning process. When I started writing my article, I thought the resolution really was the faculty’s way of telling Singapore they didn’t want Yale-NUS. So I was amazed when I found out that a majority voted against the word “proposed” to describe Yale-NUS, signalling their acceptance of the partnership. No one could spend two and a half hours toning down the original wording unless they were really trying to be tactful. But I had to blink again when the Yale Daily News editor requested: “Just flesh out how the resolution will damage the relationship, because I think most Yalies think it won’t because it doesn’t call for any action.” They were trying not to be … bossy? Um, thanks!

When the American visa officer asked me, “How do I know you won’t stay in the US?” I told him, “I don’t want to bring up my kids there.” But as a Singaporean who wants the best for my country, I genuinely think Yale-NUS will benefit Singaporeans if done right. One of the unexpected rewards of writing my article has been increased dialogue with Singaporeans who are more sceptical about this, such as NUS student Koh Choon Hwee and recent Yale graduate Huang Zhipeng. I think all of our perspectives are needed to avert a massive waste of Singaporean time, money and effort, and to help many more students access the kind of education that I feel so fortunate to have had. Although actually, I think the Yale-NUS curriculum is better, partly because it takes cultural translation seriously.

I hope this makes it clearer where I think we agree and disagree. Thank you again for responding to my article so thoughtfully and in good faith.


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