Let The People Sing(lish)

The debate over Singlish vs. English can never seem to rest: even before the furore over Singlish between local poet Gwee Li Sui and the Prime Minister’s press secretary Li Lin Chang last year, many have thrown their hats into the arena. Recently, a few The Straits Times’ Forum articles generated more attention than usual:

From: www.straitstimes.com/forum/letters-on-the-web/unnecessary-to-promote-singlish

Singlish is used by people in Singapore who have missed the opportunity to master proper English.

It is essentially English with Chinese syntax, based on word-by-word translation of Chinese to English.

From: www.straitstimes.com/forum/letters-on-the-web/use-quotation-marks-when-using-singlish-on-signs

Although Singlish may be inappropriate in formal situations and sometimes unintelligible to people from other countries, it has its advantages, often owing to its succinctness (Singlish signs on new bus, can or not?; March 14). Tower Transit deserves praise for having considered the concerns of those opposed to the Singlish signs, by using standard English for the explanations. Perhaps placing the Singlish headings within inverted commas would help emphasise that colloquialism was used intentionally.


Photo: The Straits Times
Photo: The Straits Times

From: http://www.straitstimes.com/forum/letters-in-print/why-debase-english

In the 50s, 60s and 70s, Singaporeans spoke proper English. Today, they don’t, and they take refuge in something called Singlish. It is a shame. If only those who use it could hear themselves. Nothing is done to discourage it, and remedy the situation. People are getting away with debasing a language and making it fashionable to do so.
Singlish is not even a language. There is no grace in it, especially when it comes to grammar. It is nothing to be proud of, and should not be made into something that is associated with this country.

“Walao leh” (quotation marks as prescribed by a Forum writer). As a person who has hopefully “mastered proper English”, I felt a deep sense of injustice when I see someone yet again attacking Singlish, our national creole. At times, I even feel that our national newspaper might be publishing these sensational pieces of writing to attract knee-jerk responses and increase views for the Straits Times’ website. Nonetheless, these Forum posts treat Singlish as a zero-sum game; either you speak proper English, or speak trashy Singlish. Singlish is painted in a bad light and attacked for its sheer existence. This rigid dichotomy is at odds with the fluidity of language and the human capacity to learn, unlearn and relearn languages, the Singlish issue has often been portrayed as a zero-sum issue by the latter’s rigid approach to something native to Singaporeans.

Graphic: Chiam Da Jian
Graphic: Chiam Da Jian

Singapore’s relationship with Singlish over the years has been a love-hate struggle tangled in a paradoxical mess. This debate has been complicated by the state’s stance in favour of Standard English despite its implicit acceptance of Singlish in the public sphere. At its core, Singapore is driven by standard English in the aspects of our economy, education, and diplomacy. As a global city-state, it is with pragmatic concern that Singaporeans are able to connect with the world primarily through proper English. Nevertheless, while standard English is being adopted nationally on an official basis, Singlish has been playfully experimented with by politicians, businesses and even the media. When they use Singlish to try and add a human touch to an otherwise larger-than-life presence, they are implicitly supporting Singlish and indirectly lending credence to it. In a macro sense, this spells out the tensions between the Singaporean state’s pragmatic approach in connecting with the world as a global city-state and the innate desire of Singaporeans to have that unique sense of identity shaped by our common tongues.

Unlike quantifiable and tangible measures such as economic growth, birth rates or our Cumulative Average Point (CAP), the use of particular languages is relatively harder to engineer and shape. No official has ever come up and said “Our Speak Good English campaign has successfully squashed the use of Singlish by 88% islandwide!”. While national campaigns have been routinely utilised to combat the perceived ills of Singlish, the qualitative nature of its objectives makes measuring their success difficult. The onslaught of national campaigns advocating for the use of proper English has been silenced by the everyday use of Singlish throughout all aspects of Singaporean life. Singlish permeates our society as it becomes a part of our daily dialogues. It moulds into the tongues that we speak, the cadence of our speech and the syntax of each sentences, no matter how mundane or simple our intentions may be. Most importantly, it bridges generations. From saying “steady bom pipi” when your Ah Mah finally sends you her first Snapchat video, to exclaiming “you goondu stupiak sotong” when your brother brought teh o ping ga dai instead of teh o ping siew tai, Singlish is definitely here to stay.

Ultimately, the use of Singlish is completely independent from that of speaking proper standard English. By using Singlish, you do not implicitly disagree with standard English or deny its importance. Instead, you are speaking two separate languages, akin to that of speaking either English or Chinese. No one ever blamed the use of Chinese for “poor English”, at least in recent years. By scapegoating Singlish as the root cause of “poor English”, we deviate from solutions that may truly work. We spend resources on correcting something that needs no correction, while ignoring the need to improve English education in the first place and exposing the young to standard English early. It is more important to strengthen one’s language capabilities than to inhibit certain creole forms for the sake of purity. Acquiring a good habit need not necessarily mean that you have to give up other habits. You just have to keep practicing the language over and over again. That is how we learn how to become bilingual. Code-switching is not something unique to PhD holders; it is innate in each and every one of us Singaporeans who has to weave through complex social circles and environments on a daily basis, responding to each scenario with a socially acceptable approach. While not everyone is equally effective at code-switching, clamping down on Singlish is not a solution. Singlish is not the villain that it was made out to be here; we should be pointing at our ignorance instead.

Perhaps Singlish represents the kind of messiness Singapore was meant to live with, especially in our diverse and complex society that cannot be sanitised completely for global consumption. The state’s pursuit of spartan cleanliness and neatness contradicts the messiness of Singlish as it extends throughout our lingua franca haphazardly in its organic forms. Perhaps to the state, Singlish is frivolous, wastes too many words, and sounds so bizarre that no one in the world can understand us. Sometimes, we do not need the world to listen to us talk. Sometimes, all we want is to talk to our fellow Singaporeans freely in this unique creole English language. Our need for global attention may remain, as we are a small island after all. Nevertheless, the ability to speak Singlish does not spell the death of standard English. Deep down, we use Singlish as an identifier for our culture and to connect with our fellow Singaporeans n; be it coffeeshop talk to writing sonnets in Singlish, texting your army buddies about the next ICT or printing “Anyhow Paste Kena Fine” stickers, or even seducing your paramour with MRT puns in Singlish.

People should not impose their language choice and preferences over others, just because one feels that Singlish taints English. Singlish is not the polar opposite of English. Bad English is. Any superiority complex borne over the use of language is just a feeble attempt in propping up one’s fragile ego. Let us speak the way we want. If one chooses to speak in prim and proper standard English, let that be a choice. If one chooses to speak in only Singlish and his mother tongue as it serves him well, let that be a choice. Behind this article lies a writer who chooses to write in standard English, yet has his roots to Singlish at home, with his buddies and loved ones. An utterance of Singlish should not be misheard as a death gong for standard Singlish. Let us be more forgiving of Singlish and embrace its presence in Singapore, while tackling the root source of “poor english”. In a zero-sum game for the survival of Singlish, Singapore will definitely stand to be the biggest loser.

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