A Dictionary's Desperation to Define "Chinese Helicopter"

My mother is 59 and Chinese-educated. Her sisters, too, are Chinese-educated. On many occasions she has revealed to me that her biggest regret in life is this very fact.

Now that the derogatory term “Chinese helicopter” is a codified phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary (‘OED’), what does this mean for her and the Chinese-educated members of the Singaporean public?

“A Singaporean whose schooling was conducted in Mandarin Chinese and who has limited knowledge of English” — OED’s definition

A quick look at the education system that existed in Singapore more than 50 years ago – Life then was completely functional without a significant English-speaking population. You would imagine that the heartlanders spent roughly half their days figuring out what their neighbours of different racial and dialect groups were talking about, but that is the magic of the “pasar patois”. Singlish – in the midst of creolisation. A work in progress; a labour of love among all to understand one another.

The rapid, post-independence urban dream and bilingual policy eventually bullied dialect schools into shuttering, with their students taking a grin-and-bear-it approach to the new, standardised education system. Lan lan suck thumb, right?

Source: sgschoolmemories.blogspot.sg

Half a century later, what good were their efforts? Half a century later, what does this mean?

In the Singapore of today, being a Chinese-educated Singaporean means constant fear when talking to strangers. This blanket phobia covers everything from speaking to telemarketers, bank tellers, and even pizza deliverymen. Lest they sound like a “Chinese helicopter”, this generation would rather not speak at all, living life like a tourist in their own home, an increasingly English-oriented environment that’s hostile and condescending to them by virtue of their very tongue.

Being Chinese-educated means little to no job security – how would a middle-aged worker who was just retrenched from their corporate job even pass an interview for another office position? How would they even hold a conversation with an English-educated millennial executive?

Being Chinese-educated also means permanently excusing oneself from the tired Singlish vs. Standard English debate. What is there to argue about when one is clearly effective and the other an impossible skill?

Now I’m definitely not calling for Singapore to cater exclusively to the Chinese-speaking. I’m not asking our multiracial society to cater to anyone at all. The English language was introduced as a means to rally all Singaporeans together, and it continues to do so today. On a related note, however, if any concessions are to be made, they should be made to all the major racial groups. It’s not a matter of demography, it’s a matter of respect.

“Chinese-educated” does not mean “Uneducated”

It’s akin to being the victim of a for-profit college scam. The final batches of students from dialect schools were suddenly thrust into an English-speaking world in their secondary school years; a world where their more affluent batchmates had already received years of English language tuition.

Imagine being told that all you’ve learned in school up to that point was still valid, but your knowledge would be examined in a totally foreign language. If this were to actually happen, everyone would be writing full-length op-eds regarding the absurdity of that situation in their Facebook statuses.

A quick check among my friends revealed that Singaporeans born after the 90’s have zero clue what the term even refers to. This is echoed in a short opinion piece on BBC (rather gleefully titled “Singlish OED entry baffles Singaporeans”), where one Joseph Lim even mistook it for “a sexual term”. Why, then, is the Oxford English Dictionary raking up the past? Does it arise from the same desperation for controversy that gossip rags are known for? What exactly are the folks behind OED trying to do?

It’s been a month since the fiasco and the dust has already settled. For having riled up an entire nation (albeit a small one) over an obsolete term, OED’s marketing team have probably duly received their pats on the back. No publicity is bad publicity, right?

Sociolinguistics proves that language is and always will be a key status symbol, especially in countries where the English language is not native.

Kindness and being a decent human being, however, are innate. How will you choose to act when speaking to these unfairly-labelled “Chinese helicopters”?

I’m thankful that the education system of today offers all students a more egalitarian playing field with regards to language. But while we enjoy the fruits of a flourishing national policy, let’s not forget how much it cost the ones before us to water that tree.

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