Saturday, 6 February 2010

Throwing the Cultural Baby Out with the Bath Water

The is a report today about an ancient tribal language that has become extinct; its last speaker has just died. What a sad indictment that a 65,000-year link to one of the world's oldest cultures has been broken.

It does however remind one just how important language is to a culture; once it becomes extinct so does the culture itself.

The modern generation of Singaporean's have largely lost the ability to speak in their dialects and for a couple of generations the focus promoted by the government has been on both Mandarin and latterly, the up-skilling of English.

I can't help but think that something of the richness and diversity of Singapore culture of old Singapore has been lost as a result?

To try and revive aspects of a culture once much of the old traditions have been lost is extremely difficult.

For example, the retirement of of the old hawkers often means that the original recipes are not handed down. The modern imitations of classic South East asian cusines found in the food court chains somehow never live up to the original.

In neighbouring Malaysia the Orang Asli (original peoples) are suffering as a result of the all pervasive oil palm industry. Maha Meri art is recognised as part of the world's heritage and can fetch thousands of US dollars but the tribe's access to the rare woods they need for carving has been increasingly cut off.

There is more to these ancestral spirit carving than making money. Through them the culture of the tribe survives.

I saw similar trade and spirit cultures in the Sepik region of Papua New Guina when I lived there in the early 1980's.

In our rush for modernity let us not lose the cultural traditions and practices that made us what we are today. If you don't know where you have come from you will not know where you are going.

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