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THE POLITICS OF LANGUAGE

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PM Lee’s FB post on ‘plain speak’ piques my interest. Lucy Kellaway who writes about Apple losing its way to ‘gibberish’ is often heard on BBC FM88.9. I like her irreverent style and some of her prescient observations of modern life.

Perhaps PM Lee did not read the readers’ comments which followed. Pity.

The one comment that stands out relevant to Singapore’s context is a George Orwell quote.

“Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes… But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

“In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”

“Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

How very apt, methinks!

Form Follows Function
Orwell appears to be saying that how a language develops or is used is essentially shaped by the politics and economics of the day and place. Hence, if PM Lee finds he has to ‘circulate(d) this article to my colleagues, to remind ourselves to be simple and direct when we communicate with the public’, is he not tacitly admitting that, per Orwell, PAP’s language has declined due to political and economic causes?

For those of us who lived through the 60’s to the 80’s, it is telling that Goh Keng Swee prescribed ‘Complete Plain Words’ as compulsory reading for civil servants. LKY even organized a talk devoted entirely ‘to discuss the importance of simple, clear, written English’. Note, the problem for LKY then was ‘ much graver lower down’ [Link]

But now? It is ‘ministers and the govt’, albeit only ‘once in a while we still fall short.’ But isn’t that for us hearers to judge?

Anyway, what does that imply?

Two things; one, vs the 60’s-80’s, the cabinet and govt echelons are now one in sync (echoing Low Thia Khiang’s take on ‘abuse of power’ using ‘civil servants to serve partisan goals’).

Two, since PM Lee must believe that his cabinet is doing fine except for those ‘once in a while we still fall short’, the many white hot issues – PWP, unemployed PMEs, CPF, housing, transport, healthcare, NS, cost of living, income gap etc – were non-existent or are now under control.

But PM Lee cannot run from the fact that language used (form) must serve the function – the purpose being to evade or divert, obfuscate, cover-up, talk-up. Think defamation suit, hospital beds, Dinesh Raman’s death and housing prices falling by decimals vs past triple-figure increases respectively.

Function Follows Truth
Digging deeper, what drives function? Ah…The function/purpose must surely come from the truth that lies behind it. What then is the truth behind the function?

Orwell lists ‘foolishness’, words become ‘ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish’. Therefore, is PM Lee indirectly admitting to ‘foolishness’ amongst his administration?

As an e.g., consider his admission of lack of 20/20 foresight resulting in once world-leading services/products (say, train services & HDB prices) becoming a curse to citizens the last decade. Instead of attacking the root causes of over-population and high land prices, they work to assuage the symptoms. Hence, the language to play up the ‘truth’ of their (stop-gap) solutions – but burying, never addressing the root causes.

Adding to ‘foolishness’ would be greed masquerading as GDP growth at all cost. It’s the economy, stupid – and nothing much else. Everything else is secondary, if it ever mattered at all. Hence, the purpose becomes to communicate, promote the golden calf as the only dance in town. All other music must follow therefrom. No growth, no go for other programmes. Nope, cannot touch bits of what’s saved, never mind the raining all about us.

Truthiness From Form
Nowadays, technology and higher literacy drive the demand for openness, if not the truth. But ‘you can’t handle the truth’, more like ‘our truth’ is what PM Lee & colleagues must think. So, in place of openness/truth, PAP gives us ‘truthiness’ (the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true).

Here’s a sampling; ‘CPF is your money’, ‘constructive politics’, ‘flip flop’, ‘here’s $10,000, $1,000 buys you a 3-room flat’ etc. All sounding like the truth that they should – but are ‘not necessarily true’.

But the words that take the cake:  PM Lee at the National Day Rally, 14 Aug 2011, ‘we are putting Singaporeans first’…. being overridden by his junior colleague, a senior minister of state (manpower), Amy Khor in parliament, 27 May 2014 ‘“Singaporeans first” will not benefit the economy in the long term’.

The Leader himself seems to have missed the forest for the trees.

Houston, we have a problem’.

 

2cents

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One thought on “THE POLITICS OF LANGUAGE

  1. Pingback: Daily SG: 23 Jun 2014 | The Singapore Daily

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