Deepavali or Diwali? Going beyond vernacular

04 Aug 2019

Straits Times, 4 Aug 2019, Deepavali or Diwali? Going beyond vernacular
Deepavali or Diwali? Selamat Hari Raya or Eid Mubarak?
The Ministry of Communications and Information's "longstanding advice" to government agencies is to use local vernacular terms like Deepavali and Hari Raya in their public communications, it said in response to queries about the use of non-vernacular terms by public and private organisations.
The PUB, Ministry of Transport (MOT), Sembawang Town Council, Nee Soon Town Council, private education institution Kaplan Singapore, Hotel Jen Tanglin and the Bank of Singapore are among those that have wished Singaporeans a "Happy Diwali" - a Hindi term commonly used in India - in recent years.
The Tamil term is Deepavali. Both are variations of a Sanskrit term "row of lights", and refer to the Hindu festival of lights that usually falls in October or November.
Debating which to use may appear to be nitpicking, but unease over the use of "Diwali" taps into the broader disquiet that local culture and language may be displaced by that imported by immigrants.
When the PUB wished Singaporeans a "Happy Diwali from Water Wally!" in 2017, financial consultant Jamunarani Manunethi wrote on its Facebook page to correct the use of the term. "It should be the Tamil term Deepavali, as Tamil is our official language. When migrants come here, they should not dilute our culture but embrace it instead," said the 57-year-old.
Retired civil servant Lelavathi Annamalai, 70, said that while those who are more familiar with the term "Diwali" should have the freedom to use it in private, public signs and communications should reflect the fact that Tamil is one of Singapore's four official languages.
National University of Singapore sociologist Indira Arumugam said a reason that "Diwali" is being used could be the changing profile of new migrants. For instance, more Hindi-speaking North Indians are settling here.
"These migrants not only differ linguistically from the older migrants - largely from Tamil Nadu - but also in terms of (socio-economic) class. They are more well-off and therefore consume more. To attract them, corporations may be offering the Hindi instead of the Tamil greeting."
"Diwali" may be used also due to convenience or a lack of awareness.
Dr Indira added: "Diwali is the form that proliferates throughout pop culture and Internet-speak in India. Therefore, some may simply be mimicking the greetings that are most visible when one does a Google search."
Humanities lecturer Nazry Bahrawi, from the Singapore University of Technology and Design, also notes that more Arabic terms such as "shukran" (thank you) and "Eid Mubarak" - which means Blessed Eid - are being used daily, based on his interactions with Malays here.
Like "Selamat Hari Raya", "Eid Mubarak" is used as a greeting during the Islamic festival that concludes the holy month of Ramadan. The former is commonly used in South-east Asia, where the festival is called Hari Raya Puasa, while the latter is used in Arab countries, where it is known as Eid al-Fitr.
Marsiling-Yew Tee Town Council and Singapore-based travel portal TripZilla used the "Eid Mubarak" greeting this year on Facebook.
Such usage is a symptom of what some have dubbed the Arabisation of Islam in South-east Asia.
Veteran diplomat Bilahari Kausikan said on Facebook last week: "This is a process whereby exclusivist, Wahhabist variants of Islam from the Middle East is displacing the open, syncretic Islam, as traditionally practised in South-east Asia.
"This is obviously not a healthy development for the social cohesion of multicultural societies of South-east Asia, particularly Singapore."
Another perspective, said Dr Nazry, is that more young Malays want to learn Arabic as they want to read the Quran and understand what their prayers are about.
TripZilla associate editors Inshirah Majid and Nur Sofia said it started using "Eid Mubarak" a few years ago to cater to its international readers. It "would resonate better with our international audience from regions like the Middle East", they said.
The PUB said that it had used "Happy Deepavali" since 2012, when it began putting up festive greetings on its Facebook page. But in 2017, it used "Happy Diwali" for the first and only time so that it rhymed with "Water Wally", which is the water board's mascot. "We have since corrected it to Happy Deepavali in all our messaging."
The key to using more diverse terms, phrases and languages is to address them to apt audiences, noted Dr Nazry.
"It can be a boon to multiculturalism when 'Deepavali' is used to address South Indians and 'Diwali' to address North Indians, but a bane when one is used as a blanket term to address varying audiences of South Asian descent.
"This means that organisations, and Singaporeans at large, need to transcend reductive definitions of ethnicity suggested by the CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) model. Not everyone from the 'umbrella ethnic culture' think or behave alike."