Ideological Debates over Municipal Soundscapes: The Case of Mandarin Chinese Station Announcements on Trains in Singapore

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 18:30
Oral Presentation
Mark SEILHAMER, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
The Singapore government, since independence, has steadfastly attempted to maintain the appearance of equality for each of its three official ‘mother tongue’ languages (Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil) while positioning English as a neutral language for inter-ethnic and international communication. In keeping with this ideology, signs in train stations were only in English until 1991, when, after a great deal of parliamentary and public debate, all four official languages began to appear on municipal signs in train stations and other public places. Onboard the trains, station names were announced only in what is widely regarded as ‘English’ (a controversial characterization since various languages are actually represented in the station names themselves). But in 2012, SMRT Corporation, a public transit operator partially owned by the Singapore government, began broadcasting station announcements in Mandarin Chinese in addition to ‘English’. This change resulted in a fierce debate in newspapers and online forums, with many non-Chinese Singaporeans reporting that the move left them feeling deeply alienated and Singaporeans of all ethnicities questioning the motives of SMRT and government officials. SMRT defended its actions, claiming that this was just a temporary trial aimed at assisting elderly Singaporean passengers that understand little English. This explanation, however, failed to assuage the concerns of many Singaporeans that feel their sense of belonging in their home country is threatened by a recent influx of Chinese PRC immigrants, who they accuse the government and SMRT of pandering to. In this talk, the presenter will deconstruct this debate, examining letters to newspapers and online forum posts, highlighting the ideological positions of Singaporeans disgruntled over the government’s shift in recent years from the cultivation of an imagined national community to encouraging Singaporeans to conceptualize the city state as a global city serving as a cross-roads for a larger global imagined community.