Is the Tamil Language Festival doing more harm than good?

The Tamil Language Festival was kicked off yesterday with much fanfare on Singapore’s only free-to-air Tamil TV channel, Vasantham,  and marked the start of a month long spree of Tamil language-related activities and events catering to the Indian diaspora  Tamil-speaking population here.

Before we get off on the wrong foot, let me make it clear that this is not a rant against the Tamil Language, nor is it a rant against the Tamil-speaking community or the many people that have worked long and hard on this festival and its events.

I’m a Malayalee by origin, Singaporean by birth and I learnt Tamil for 10 years in school. I absolutely love the language and am more fluent in it than my own mother tongue. Tamil movies are my guilty pleasure and Ilayaraja is king . Regardless of all that, I am looking at future generations of Indians and thinking what kind of an identity crisis they will face going down the road. For the past  10 years , we have been dedicating a whole month to celebrate an Indian language that is spoken only by around 54 % of the Indian population here and only in 36.7 % of Indian households (as of the latest census in 2010 ) . 

Some might say this is exactly the reason why we need these kind of Tamil Language related activities - to promote and increase usage of the language. However, do we stop to think that these activities might instead be marginalising the rest of the Indian community who are not Tamil in origin  ?

The Indian population has grown immensely over the last 10 years or so and its diversity has expanded to such a large extent that schools now offer Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu to be taken as examinable subjects. Even Vasantham has taken to showing movies of a different Indian language once a week to cater to the needs of an increasingly diverse Indian audience. Is it then right that we still dedicate an entire month to celebrating an Indian language that is no longer fully representative of the diaspora here - especially when the rest of society has already adapted to this new climate ?  Are we writing off the Indian population here as a Tamil population and forgetting to celebrate the amalgam of different people that is now our community?

Our late leader Mr Lee Kuan Yew once called India “not a real country” but “32 separate nations that happen to be arrayed along the British rail line”. My fear is that this will ring true for the Indian community here when we start seeing ourselves as separated by our languages and cultural differences. We already are the minority in Singapore, so is it necessary to split us into further minorities? I was  at a concert recently and  looking around , felt so happy to see various members of the community enjoying music that most of them could barely comprehend, let alone understand. Many of these individuals felt pride and happiness in being able to immerse themselves completely in the music of their motherland and language was not going to stop them doing so.

Yet, there were some , especially when the band started playing songs that weren’t in Tamil ,  who started to catcall or walk away once the Ilayaraja hits stopped playing.  One of them even said “ This Malayalee song all I won’t support” . This music was representative and celebratory of Indian culture as a whole and language was simply a medium to express that in words. However, all it took was exactly that to turn some of the audience members off. They were unable to appreciate Indian music that was simply not in the language that they spoke in.

How incredulous is that when we have many Singaporeans here enjoying K-pop regardless of the fact that absolutely nothing from the songs can be understood ? This might just be a simple case of not liking music in another Indian language but it reveals a deeper flaw that needs to be corrected in the community.  We have segregated ourselves into enclaves within the Indian community and for years, have put one Indian language on a pedestal. It may have been the dominant language of our people a generation ago but in today’s context, by continuing to give it increased importance, we are nurturing an ‘us vs them’ mentality that could spell disaster for the community in the future. This needs to change.

I’m not suggesting that we don’t celebrate the Tamil Language at all but instead, we should  embrace it as a multitude of Indian languages that make up our culture. Why not have a month dedicated to each Indian language that makes up a significant proportion of the community ? Each of the different language associations can anchor such projects and while bringing the larger community together, they can also help to educate the many locals among us who think that the only two Indian languages in Singapore are Tamil and Hindu Hindi . Some of these people like the Malayalees and Punjabis have been here for the generations and they have never been part of the mainstream conversations and activities of the community. It's high time we share the limelight with them.  And for the expatriates, it’s a reality that many of these 'India Indians' are here to stay , so it’s best that we accept them, include them and move forward together as one community.

Sairesh Pillai


[Ed Note: As our writer has mentioned, we, as an organisation, have nothing against the Tamil Language, the festival nor the events. In fact, we are supporting some of the events as digital media partners etc. What we are concerned with is the lack of real purpose of this effort.

If we are indeed serious about Tamil being the official language for Indians, then we should take this seriously. Every Indian child studying in Singapore should be taking a compulsory course on Tamil, for example. It is really pointless having a direction with no destination in mind. The divide is real. We need to stop doing things just for the sake of it.

The Tamil Language Festival started in 2007. The Indian community in Singapore has changed much since then. I have the utmost respect for the people at the Tamil Language Council. I am also going to assume that just as these people are passionate about about the Tamil Language and culture, they are also equally passionate about the Singaporean community and culture. We need to sit down and decide what our way forward is going to be.

At the Guru Project, we do try to go beyond just talk. We will be taking steps in an attempt to a hold a National dialogue about the Indian community in Singapore. We will keep you posted.  ]

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