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Monday, Mar. 28, 2005 - 1:10 p.m.

The two mutes, a man and a woman, sit down at the bus-stop and do not say a word. Apart from two NSF boys in their camouflage green uniforms, there is no one else waiting for a bus.

The two boys lean against the metal railing of the bus-stop and the Malay one complains about the kanninabu Chief Clerk in the office, while his Indian friend smiles. The Indian one was a few years older, and had deferred NS to go study in the United States, where they truly did not care about the colour of his skin, but only the tenor of his accent.

He lost the Singaporean accent quickly in order to be understood by his American friends, and now he was performing the reverse, quickly losing the quasi-American one and re-discovering Singlish to fit into his new army unit. It was not difficult to find the mispronounced words in his voicebox again - they had always existed there, each word as an unfading stone of tonality. But he was ambivalent about re-finding the familiarity in his vocal chords; it was not a harrowing return, but neither was there any sweet embrace at the end of it.

The Malay boy laughs at him, and asks him to say the word again. The Indian boy pays more attention to his Singlish, but the word still comes out as caaaninaaybuu. The Malay boy had been in Singapore all his life and had written off this new Indian clerk as one of those Singaporeans who goes to America and comes back with a new angmoh accent. You call such a person a banana if he is Chinese, but what do you call an Indian one? Kinder Bueno?

The Indian boy read the mockery in the request to repeat the word kaninabu, and was tired of all the unspoken accusations of insincerity. The Indian boy felt that he was not like some of his other overseas-educated friends, who genuinely regarded themselves superior to Singlish speakers. Can't all these bumiputra accusers see that language predicated on its functionality and social context, as Michel Foucault had argued? He would not employ the shibboleth that his accusers practiced on him. Then it occurs to him that his Malay colleague would not understand half of what he had just thought about, not because of his orphaned accent, but because of its esoteric content.

The mute man finally lifts the hands off his lap and without any possibility for accent, signs to the woman, I wish I could talk like them.

note: Shibboleth is a linguistic sieve; it is the Hebrew word meaning 'grain' or 'stream'. The Book of Judges (Chapter 12) in the Hebrew and Christian bibles tell of a story, in which the tribe of Gilead defeated the tribe of Ephraim. To prevent any of the Ephraimites from escaping, the Gileadites made everyone they caught speak the word 'shibboleth'. The Ephraimites were unable to pronounce this word with the 'sh' sound and were thus identified and killed.


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