National Language Class

Moving closer to modern-day Singapore in my research of the various communication systems in Singapore, there was no way I could exclude Singlish due to its prominent role in Singaporean culture. It is used among all Singaporeans in our daily lives, unifying Singaporean, as it remains the main language of the working class. Singlish is essentially a construct colloquial language built upon the English language, peppered with mainly Malay, Mandarin, and other Chinese dialects such as Hokkein, as well as some Indian slangs.

‘National Language Class’ (Fig. 1 and 2); a fictional national education curriculum was created for the module DD3007: Nature in Art and Visual Culture in collaboration with Ho Qi Yi under Associate Professor Lucy Davis and was inspired by Chua Mia Tee’s social realist painting of the same name (Fig. 2), that depicts a group of Chinese Singaporeans studying Malay in preparation as new citizens of an independent Malaya. I felt the premise of Chua’s painting was similar to the project, in that it also depicted a scenario of ‘educating’ Singaporeans on a language that hold the same potential for vernacular multiracialism.

The main issue that I tackled with was the idea of ownership. It is evident that Singlish uses several plant and animal metaphors, mirroring John Ruskin’s “pathetic fallacy”; the romantic projection of human emotions onto nature. Leading me to first device the class photo section of the project, where school portraits of friends were collected and juxtaposed with the imagery of the animals and plants (Fig. 2), as a means to define how irrational these projection actually are in reality, but also to emphasize the significant function of these Singlish terms in defining the ‘truer’ identity of people.

Through the appropriation of images from ‘Natural History Drawings: The Complete William Farquhar Collection’, I started to scan in relevant species of plants and animals that corresponded to the list of Singlish terms that I had compiled. I selected this collection not only for its scientific visual expression of nature, but also in regards to its reputation as a specialized collection of plants and animals within the region. As a designer, I also found the tension between the stylized oriental pictorial expressions with the realism of western art, a relevant treatment to the project, just as Singlish reluctantly merged the English language with our various ethnic languages. In addition, I valued the parallel that William Farquhar as a naturist had to the Singlish language, in regards to the act of collecting nature, one through the means of visual documentation, the other through linguistic appropriation.

Figure 1:

Dora Godfrey &. 2012. ‘National Language Class’ [Mixed Media Installation] – Animal & plant images appropriated from the William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings, National Museum of Singapore

Figure 2:

Dora Godfrey &. 2012. ‘National Language Class’ [Mixed Media Installation] – Animal and plant images appropriated from the William Farquhar

Figure 3:

Chua Mia Tee. 1950. National Language Class. Retrieved from http://www.postcolonialweb.org/singapore/arts/painters/chuamiatee/1.html