English Language in Singapore’s Context


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English is a language we all speak daily in Singapore. It enables us to communicate with people from different races and backgrounds, and is also the working language for government and business use.

However, have you ever wondered: how did English come to our shores and become so widely used in Singapore? To understand the importance of the English language, we have to go back in time, into Singapore’s history books.

How English has Grown in Singapore Over Time

Singapore was under British colonial rule for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. Back then, English was a minority language spoken by just a few, and officially used only in government offices and law courts.

When Singapore gained independence from British rule, the population was diverse with different races speaking different languages. This prompted a need to reform the education system in the multi-racial city-state with English as the lingua franca, to enable communication among all the races in Singapore.

English, in particular, was also chosen because it is commonly used internationally and hence would help improve Singapore’s global competitiveness. As English became an official language in the government, people were incentivised to learn it as their socio-economic mobility relied heavily on proficiency in the language.

The broadcast media also played a role in promoting the language. Singapore’s first television station, Radio Television Singapore, offered free-to-air telecasts, one of which was an English channel which facilitated the spread of English.

In schools, students had to learn their mother tongue language, such as Chinese, Malay or Tamil, to remain linked to their cultural roots under the government’s bilingualism policy from the 1960s. English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil are our four official languages, with Malay being our national language and English as the working language.

As a multicultural city state, our language use has also been influenced by people around us. This has given rise to a distinct Singapore language, Singlish, one that we are very familiar with.

Singlish as Evidence of our Melting Pot Culture

Today, when we think of English in the context of Singapore, the first thing that may come to mind is Singapore + English = Singlish.

Singlish is considered as non-standard English as it incorporates influences from Chinese dialects such as Cantonese, Hokkien and Teochew, as well as from the Malay and Indian languages. Phrases like “alamak”, “paiseh”, “shiok” pepper the daily speech of many in Singapore – of course lah, we are Singaporeans leh.

The use of Singlish is so widespread that I can say with confidence that all of us living in Singapore will hear it daily. However, you may have heard of Singlish usage being discouraged as it is criticised as “bad” English.

I, for one, personally feel that Singlish is beautiful evidence of our melting pot of cultures that should be retained.

But at the same time, it is also important to have the ability to speak in good English when required. Imagine if you had to give an important business presentation to a client. Having a good, confident command of English will showcase your sincerity and capabilities even better. Speaking of presentations, do check out our other article on digital presentation skills here!

In short, it is about having the ability to code switch whenever appropriate. In fact, many of us may already be doing so when we start speaking in our mother tongues halfway through speaking English. The challenge now is to be able to do so between English and Singlish. To do so, we need to have a strong foundation in English, with knowledge of the grammatical rules and linguistic functions.

One initiative that launched in 2000 to help Singaporeans learn to speak and write better standard English is the Speak Good English Movement. If you are interested in improving your spoken or written English, they provide resources which you can check out here.

Singlish is a unique part of Singaporean identity, while English is important to help us be better understood by people outside of our culture. If we are able to master the art of standard English and code switching between the two, then perhaps we will be able to find our footing in both worlds.

But within the English language itself, there are some differences between British and American English, which I will attempt to address in the following section.

British versus American English?

In Singapore, the English taught in schools is largely based on British English. Yet, there are others among us who prefer to use the American English. Written forms of British and American English differ, but only slightly in terms of spelling and punctuation.

For example, British English uses “-our” while American English uses “-or” at the end of certain words (“flavour” vs “flavor”). In addition, items may be named differently between the two as well. For instance, “aeroplane” in British English is known as “airplane” in American English.

This is interesting as it illustrates the linguistic differences between the two, but it is not as important for us to choose one over the other. What’s more important is to stay consistent in one form. To that end, I highly encourage you to read up on and be aware of the nuances; who knows, they may come in handy one day if you travel to those countries!

English is Here to Stay

The growth of English in Singapore may have largely occurred because of strategic advantages in Singapore’s early years of independence, but now it has become a way of life and a bridge between different races. Learning to speak and write good English will be beneficial as we seek to communicate better with people from other cultures.