‘Mandarin Fever’ and Chinese Language-learning in Brunei Middle Schools: Discrepant Discourses, Multifaceted Realities and Institutional Barriers

Research Highlighted

Koh, S.Y., Hoon, C.-Y., & Noor Azam Haji-Othman. (2020). ‘Mandarin Fever’ and Chinese Language-learning in Brunei Middle Schools: Discrepant Discourses, Multifaceted Realities and Institutional Barriers. Asian Studies Review. doi:10.1080/10357823.2020.1801577

The rise of China as a global economic powerhouse has led to a surge in Chinese language-learning worldwide (i.e. ‘Mandarin Fever’), including in Southeast Asia. The rapidly growing interest in Chinese language-learning around the world has brought about shifts in some Southeast Asian governments’ stances towards Chinese education and Chinese language-learning in schools. Given the long histories of suppression or curtailment of Chinese schools and Chinese language-learning in many Southeast Asian countries, does Mandarin Fever signal the cusp of a transformative change in ethnic minority education and language-learning in these multicultural contexts?

We explore this question through the case study of two Chinese middle schools in Brunei Darussalam, a Muslim and English–Malay bilingual majority country. Drawing on participant observations at two private Chinese middle schools, 19 interviews with teachers and parents, and 10 focus group discussions with students conducted in 2018, we find that there are discrepant discourses and multifaceted realities within and between different groups. By this, we mean that there are conflicting and irreconcilable desires and realities in the learning of Mandarin in Brunei.

Teachers and parents agree with and understand the need for Brunei’s school children to learn Mandarin, and often articulate this in relation to ethno-cultural preservation as well as China’s global and local economic position. Despite their desire for ethno-cultural maintenance, parents ironically emphasised that a basic understanding and command of Mandarin was the least they expected from their children. This paradoxical co-existence of desire and actual expectation among parents is understandable, given the context of Brunei’s linguistic and cultural environment, which does not usually require advanced use of Mandarin either in the workplace or in everyday life. Furthermore, parents themselves may not be fluent Mandarin speakers and may lack the ability to nurture their children’s learning of the language outside the classroom.

Students, however, struggled to understand the broader and longer-term benefits articulated by their parents and teachers. Instead, they articulated banal motivations such as being able to communicate with non-English-conversant family members (e.g. their grandparents) and new migrants from China. This suggests that students primarily considered Mandarin to be a communication tool with ‘others’ who are not conversant in English. Some students gave deviant responses, demonstrating their inability to understand the utility of the Mandarin, and their frustration at having to learn what they perceive to be a difficult and an unnecessary subject.

We found that students repeated the discourses of ‘should learn the mother tongue as a Chinese person’, ‘at least being able to speak Chinese’ and ‘shameful if we can’t speak our own language’ that their parents and teachers had verbalised. In their study on language attitudes and linguistic practices among parents and students in the Chinese diaspora in Britain, Australia and Singapore, Li and Zhu found that the parents articulate similar ethno-essentialist ideologies, but the younger generation tend to embrace multilingualism and desire ‘a more dynamic and fluid definition of Chineseness’ (2010, p. 166). In contrast, our student respondents did not seem to downplay their Chineseness. For them, learning Mandarin appeared to be a necessary task that they should do because their parents and teachers told them to.

This apparent lack of inherent motivation on the part of students was linked to the institutional barriers to Chinese language-learning in Brunei. First, there is a lack of textbooks and teaching materials appropriate to Mandarin school learners in Brunei. Second, there is a heavy reliance on foreign teachers since there is no teacher training programme for Mandarin teachers locally. Third, Mandarin is not a compulsory or significant subject in key examinations (e.g. Primary School Assessment, end of Year 6; ‘O’ Levels, end of Year 9). Finally, while there have never been any official bans on languages other than Malay (the official language of Brunei), many younger Chinese perceive an instrumental and integrative need to master the Malay language and English (the main working language of Brunei).

Our study finds that there are similar challenges to Chinese language-learning in Brunei as there are in neighbouring countries where the Chinese are ethnic minorities, such as Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. We argue that it is the cumulative effects of these educational and non-educational institutional barriers that hamper the development of an effective and comprehensive Chinese language-learning environment in Brunei.

Our findings suggest that the rise of China has had a limited impact on Chinese language-learning among Chinese students and parents in Brunei at this stage. A plausible explanation for this is that the cumulative institutional barriers are relatively entrenched, and there may be a time lag before the effects become evident. This highlights the importance of contextualising any analyses of ‘Mandarin Fever’ to the specific ethno-cultural and ethno-political contexts of the location under study.

Nevertheless, our exploration of the emergent interest among non-Chinese students and students of mixed ethnic genealogies in Chinese language-learning suggests that the rise of China may have potential longer-term impacts on Chinese language-learning in Brunei as a whole. With the continuing rise of China and increasing trade exchanges with Brunei, it remains an open question whether attitudes towards learning Mandarin will change in the future.


Li, W., & Zhu, H. (2010). Voices from the diaspora: Changing hierarchies and dynamics of Chinese multilingualism. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 2010(205), 155–171.

Author bios

Dr Sin Yee Koh, Monash University Malaysia

Sin Yee Koh is Senior Lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Monash University Malaysia. Her work seeks to understand the causes, processes, and consequences of structural and urban inequalities, and how people cope individually and collectively under such conditions through the lens of migration and mobility. She is the author of Race, Education, and Citizenship: Mobile Malaysians, British Colonial Legacies, and a Culture of Migration (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and co-editor of New Chinese Migrations: Mobility, Home, and Inspirations (Routledge, 2018).

Dr Chang-Yau Hoon, Universiti Brunei Darussalam

Chang-Yau Hoon is Director of Centre for Advanced Research and Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. He specialises on identity politics, diversity and inclusion, multiculturalism, and the Chinese diaspora in contemporary Southeast Asia. He is the author of Chinese Identity in Post-Suharto Indonesia: Culture, Media and Politics (2008, Sussex Academic Press), which was translated in Chinese and Indonesian; and co-editor of Chinese Indonesians Reassessed: History, Religion and Belonging (Routledge, 2013),  Catalysts of Change: Ethnic Chinese Business in Asia (World Scientific, 2014), and Contesting Chineseness: Ethnicity, Identity and Nation in China and Southeast Asia (Springer, Forthcoming).

Dr Noor Azam Haji-Othman, Universiti Brunei Darussalam

Noor Azam Haji-Othman is Associate Professor in English language and linguistics at Universiti Brunei Darussalam, where he currently serves as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. His main research interests include the indigenous languages of Brunei, minority communities, bilingualism and bilingual education, and more recently transnational education, involving English as Medium of Instruction. He is particularly interested in issues of language and identity in relation to those topics mentioned above in the context of inter-cultural encounters. He is co-editor of The use and status of language in Brunei Darussalam: A kingdom of unexpected linguistic diversity (Springer, 2016).

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