2 Aug 2006

Being Deaf in Singapore

From An Equal Voice
Today, I spent the day touring Johor Bahru, a Malaysian city north of Singapore.

I was with 37 other deaf people, four of whom were volunteers like me, who organised today's trip as part of the Singapore Deaf Association's adult outreach programme.

The programme is a noble one. Started 21 years ago, it holds informal sessions with illiterate deaf adults every Saturday. During these sessions, volunteers teach them life skills, such as how to apply for jobs, manage their money, even how to read, write and sign.

Most of the early deaf immigrants who came to Singapore did not speak English, and used signs that originated from Shanghai.

Others did not sign at all. They use what is known within the community as "home signs". Simply, they are crude gestures that are not understood outside the family, since no standardised grammar system guides their expression.

Many of these deaf adults were left behind by an uncompromising government. When the government instituted English as the nation's official language in the 60s, they failed to set up measures to help assimilate these deaf adults into mainstream society.

There were no schools to teach this new and strange language. There was no effort to help them acquire skills which, in time, could lead to industry expertise. The average age of the first generation of deaf people here educated in English is only 35.

Today, the situation of our deaf Singaporeans is not much better.

Schools lack the government support to provide equal quality education. Interpreters, like myself, are mostly volunteers, untrained. Television programmes, including news broadcasts, are not captioned.

Every day, some basic right is ignored - and the relevant ministries' official response is that demand has not yet reached a critical mass to justify the allocation of such resources.

Today, I looked into the faces of these people, and felt ashamed that I was the by-product of a government that took the sensible, economic decision to cultivate only the mainstream.

For many of them, it was the first time they travelled out of Singapore. I saw many passports that were new, applied for in the last month. One of my biggest challenges today was to explain what was "foreign currency", and why they couldn't use Singapore money in the department store.
posted by Cliff


Capt_Canuck said...

a very noble thing, to work with the underprivilaged when a gov't throws them aside because it is either viewed as a 'waste of resources' or because of ignorance and lack of compassion on the gov't side. I am ashamed to say that Singapore is not alone in their alienation of the underprivilaged, as we have it here in Canada, just as there are probably countless other cases in all countries.

Though, one thing that I have always wondered. Anyone know if sign language is universal or if it is like spoken language and there are different languages/signs for different countries? If you were deaf and learned sign language in China, would you speak 'chinese' sign language and not understand what an American that learned 'american' sign language was signing? and if there is that, can sign language be broken down even more to dialects like Hokkien, Mandarin and Cantonese sign language? Tried doing research and looking into it, but couldn't find anything on the net or in books about this.

teck soon said...

To answer the question above, there are many sign languages just as there are written languages. British Sign Language and American Sign Language, for example, are not mutually comprehensible. A deaf person signing natively in ASL can learn to sign in BSL, but will do so with an "accent" and will be identifiable by native signers as an non-native signer.

It is truly cruel that the government does not mandate closed captioning on television channels. Many programs aired in Singapore are American programs, supplied from American satellite feeds. The United States requires captioning. Why aren't the captions rebroadcast?

Similarly, satellite television stations routinely have closed captioning. These, of course, are also not available in Singapore due to the fact that personal satellite dishes are banned. They are banned because they are not censored! So the cruelty from censorship is not merely an inconvenience, but for some deaf members of our society, a unwitting ban on television itself. Since Singaporean deaf people rarely leave Singapore, are they aware of much better treatment in other countries? Why doesn't Singapore have the equivalent of the Americans with Disabilities Act? Is there no compassion in Singapore?

Anonymous said...

notice our neighbouring country, such as Malaysia do have someone to do the sign languages during news broadcasting.

Anonymous said...

Teck Soon, I am impressed with your knowledge of sign languages.

It is true that each country has a unique sign system. Even in the US, different states have different "accents" or "slang" unique to the culture there. The reason for this is logical: As language is inextricably linked to culture - each community must develop a set of signifiers specific to their culture for communication.

ASL is a very beautiful language. Most people do not know that it is considered a "true" language in the international federation of languages. What this means is that is has 1. a specific and unique grammatical structure, 2. it is specific to culture and 3. it is able to expand and change with the times.

To answer your question, most deaf people in Singapore have very little exposure to deaf communities overseas. That is one of the main issues facing the deaf community in Singapore today - the lack of a vibrant deaf culture and community.

tamago.sg said...

You are featured on this week's Sunday Times.

article text

Anonymous said...

Cliff, I am glad to hear that you have a knowledge of hearing-impaired conditions.

I am hearing-impaired. I have bad experience that many companies discriminate against my handicap. I went to Manpower. They said they cannot help me and they have no power to require companies. I spent about 5 months to find a job until I got a chance to find job. Bad things, many hearing-impaired people are jobless.
I am impressed that American with Disabilites Act requires the American companies to employ hearing-impaired people in US. They also requires Cinema and TV to be captionised. US govt allows hearing-impaired people to drive car without hearing-aids. American companies employ hearing-impaired lawyers, manager, CEO, etc. In Singapore, here is no hearing-impaired lawyer.

Also some of my normal hearing colleagues fed up writing on paper to communicate with me. During a meeting, no one help to write to me. My hearing-impaired friends immigrated to USA. They said that their American colleagues treat them very well and they are very happy. They do not want to come back to Singapore any more.

US govt is very clever to compare normal hearing drivers to hearing-impaired drivers. High numbers of normal hearing drivers got car accidents while low numbers of hearing-impaired driver got car accidents.
That's why they allow hearing-impaired drivers

Malaysia is not rich but Malaysia govt support hearing-impaired people that TV provides sign language interpreter for news hearing-impaired watchers. Local TV said it is too expensive make caption so that they cannot afford. But why local TV company is very rich while Malaysia TV is not rich, do you agree ?
In Malaysia, airplane, public bus and train gives hearing-impaired passengers 50% discount fares.

- Xavier (not real name)