Andrew Loh

The Speak Good English Movement was officially launched on 7 September this year. It has been more than a decade since the first campaign was started here. Its aim this year is to get Singaporeans “to speak the language well in more environments.”

Launching the campaign this year was the Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. “You know there are many people who champion speak Singlish, or let’s create our own language — things that we can be proud of,” he said. “But I appeal to you to think of our children, and understand that for the majority of us, we can only speak one way.”

Not everyone agrees with the minister, however.

In the same month when the campaign was launched, a Facebook group – called the Speak Good Singlish Movement (SGSM)- was set up in defence of Singlish, the colloquial version of the English language which is peculiar to Singapore and perhaps neighbouring Malaysia as well.

The Online Citizen (TOC) interviewed the person behind the Facebook page. “We really ought to be proud of Singlish rather than be made to feel ashamed of it,” he said.

Here is the interview in full. And feel free to post your comments – in Singlish, if you prefer.

TOC: Why did you set up a Facebook page to support Singlish?

SGSM: All thanks to Speak Good English Movement 2010 lor, what else! Once again, Singlish and bad English get thrown into the same basket, and no one in power bothers to tell them apart. This creates a lot of confusion for the rest of us. On the one hand, Speak Good English Movement chairman Goh Eck Kheng admits that Singlish is part of being Singaporean and that his target is just ungrammatical English. On the other hand, the gahmen still runs around insisting that the more Singlish you speak, the worse your English becomes, and then the economy will suffer. We may become a fishing village again.

So, a few days ago, some friends and I were discussing on Facebook about what proper Singlish really was. We kept hearing all these non-Singlish phrases thrown about by powerful people as examples of both bad English and Singlish. The gahmen doesn’t seem to have a clue to what the difference is, and it really doesn’t care. It seems more than happy to throw the baby out with the bathwater. You must remember that there is no linguist among them. You can’t even make one between two of them. No linguist, no writer, definitely no novelist, no poet – you get the idea.

One of my Facebook friends was, in fact, Goh Eck Kheng, who is a wonderful person by any measure. He published that Singlish classic Eh, Goondu?, by Sylvia Toh Paik Choo, back in the 1980s and Gwee Li Sui’s Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems?, a popular poetry book with Singlish poems, in the 1990s. At some point in our discussion, Eck Kheng started calling me the Singlish mata – which I thought was rather ironic since it wasn’t my army of activists that was takking [sticking] post-its everywhere. This irony inspired the group. I thought: “What the heck. If I’m a mata, I’m going to have my own movement.”

TOC: What do you hope to achieve with your Facebook page, i.e. create awareness only or to preserve Singlish, etc.?

SGSM: Wait wait, let’s be clear here hah: this is not the first pro-Singlish online group to exist, nor will it be the last one hor. But, every year when the Speak Good English campaign truck comes around, there will be a lot of people running out like siow charbors and siow tahbors with brooms and tekko to protect our Singlish. This has become a tradition of sorts, a folk ritual. After ten years of Speak Good English, it also looks like a farce because it exposes a stalemate. There is a brick wall, but no one in power wants to acknowledge it, and no one cares enough to adopt a different perspective.

Our Facebook group is a result of that frustration with the regular raid on Singlish and its stigmatisation. We made our manifesto very clear on our page, and it is these statements that have been winning over our daily visitors. We feel that there has always been an answer: just “Get It Right” with speaking English as well as Singlish. We are tired of people confusing Singlish with broken English and especially those who pretend to speak Singlish by speaking bad English. It’s rather insulting. How do you like it if I say that you talk like a pig and then oink at you all day long?

We are also fed up with the depiction of Singlish speakers as crass, poorly educated, and unintelligent. This issue is a bit more complex as it is aided by popular stereotypes in every major ethnic group in Singapore. So the Ah Bengs, Ah Lians, Mats, Minahs, Muthus, etc. are supposed to be experts in Singlish. But the gahmen turns this into a cautionary tale as well. If you don’t speak proper English and persist with Singlish, you will have no future and everyone will laugh at you, everyone from your neighbour to Barack Obama.

The reality itself is very different since Singlish is spoken by many Singaporean professionals too. These people are not stupid, unsuccessful, or tragic figures; they know well how, when, and where to use standard English, and when and where using Singlish is more appropriate. Singlish is often used at home and at play, with family – especially aged parents – and with friends, and to inject humour into stuffy or pointless discourses. The gahmen knows this special place Singlish has in Singaporean life. It is why it sometimes uses Singlish in public messages, as seen during the SARS epidemic and in those songs sung by Phua Chu Kang and the Dim Sum Dollies about the MRT.

TOC:  What do you think of the government’s Speak Good English campaign then? Do you support it or are you totally against it?

SGSM: The Speak Good Singlish Movement isn’t against the intentions of the Speak Good English Movement. If those guys want to improve the nation’s standard of English, well then, all the best and steady poon pee pee to them. But can they please not claim to be helping to improve English by insulting and degrading Singlish? Surely, you improve someone’s English proficiency by teaching the language to him or her better. And, if the schools have been doing this job well, then there is nothing to fear from its speakers’ casual code-switching. They will do it anyway; if there were no Singlish, it would be Manglish, Hokkien, American slang, J-pop, K-pop, Indi-pop, what have you.

What underlies this state hysteria over Singlish is a strange belief that most Singaporeans can speak just one language. So, if these stay with Singlish, they won’t get better in English, and our investors will shun us, the economy will suffer, and we will become a fishing village again. There are simple problems with the logic if you think about it. Firstly, if they truly treat English as English and Singlish as Singlish, then why is there a need to police both languages? Nobody except the gahmen really makes this mistake of confusing the two. If you talk with a market auntie in Singlish and suddenly switch to complex proper English, she’s going to tell you: “Sorry hah, my English cannot.” But the gahmen is saying: “No, you are speaking standard English, but it’s a poor form. This is how you should be speaking…”

Secondly, to hold to the “one language only” idea seems pretty bizarre, especially when it is coming from the same guys who brought us institutional bilingualism in Singapore. In fact, you can easily make a case for Singapore’s bilingual policy being what turns Singaporeans into expert code-switchers. If you are a Teochew nang who has gone through the educational system here, you should know English and Mandarin, but, at home, you’ll still speak Teochew. If you are Punjabi, you are taught English and Tamil in school, but at home, you’ll still speak Punjabi. So what can Vivian Balakrishnan mean when he pleads with Singlish supporters to “think about our children” and understand that the majority “can only speak one way”? Who is his majority?

If Balakrishnan means the younger generation, then there are better strategies to teach English like encouraging reading and writing and having group discussion in English. Above all, there is the emotional attachment to a language to support, but tell me: how central is the role of English-language literature in our schools? If Balakrishnan means the uncles and aunties for whom understanding English – let alone speaking it – is a struggle, then perhaps genuine effort should be in place. Offer them free English classes to attend. Give them incentives to go for such classes. Whatever you do, don’t teach them to grow a banana by painting a cucumber yellow. But that’s what’s being done now when they teach these folks to replace “No outside food” with “No food from elsewhere please”. If someone queries them further, what are they going to speak? Proper grammatical English?

TOC: How important is Singlish to Singaporeans? What are the advantages of using Singlish? Do you recommend learning Singlish to foreigners, PRs, and new citizens?

SGSM: Most people understand that Singlish grafts aspects of other languages used in Singapore onto English. Technically, it pulls together salient bits in the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. More importantly, it is the revenge of all the Chinese dialects and Indian languages that have been pushed out of the airwaves and the public sphere and into the homes. Yet, what makes Singlish work, what glues its parts together, is something worth celebrating: an innate sense of neighbourliness which grants that, in a shared space, misunderstandings are bound to exist. So the language works at this part-cordial, part-parodic level; it is full of cultural nuances as well as intelligent wordplay.

Singlish is also an evolving language, and, like any natural language, it has layers of history trapped inside. Words fall out of fashion, become active again, or take on new meanings all the time. For example, you might hear phrases like “You are so actsy!” or “Damn stylo-milo man!” more in the 1980s than you would today. Someone who still says “Wah, that girl is very chootable!” is very likely to be in his thirties or forties now. A current favourite, “steady poon pee pee”, came in circulation only in the past decade. So Singlish further allows, at this level, types of bonding: within the same generation, across different generations, and with people who have lived so long outside the island that their Singlish is “stuck in time”.

With the recent high influx of foreigners, Singlish has taken on another more practical role: to identify native Singaporeans and to differentiate foreigners who are willing to integrate from those who are psychologically prepared only to pass through. If you want to find true Singaporean culture, it is all in the street food and in Singlish. Those who complain that Singaporeans are uptight and have no sense of humour are also those who aren’t too excited about Singlish. Singlish is where cultures get levelled – which is why trying to turn Singlish into English misses the point once again – and they meet in self-deprecation. Its simplicity, leading to the removal of elements like auxilliary verbs, shows a people’s pragmatism and sense of time.

We mustn’t forget as well that, in the same period the gahmen tries in vain to eradicate Singlish, Singlish has conversely been contributing to standard English. All-time favourite Singlish words like “lah” and “kiasu” are already in the Oxford English dictionary, and can you imagine how many more words will reach such world-class standards (cough), if we lend them our support? We really ought to be proud of Singlish rather than be made to feel ashamed of it. Any progressive foreigner should consider learning Singlish just to get an idea of what the future will sound like!

TOC: Finally, how has been the reaction to your Facebook page? What is your own favourite Singlish phrase?

SGSM: Well, when we crossed the 500-member mark within three days, I was thinking: “Walao, siow liao lah!” We got quite serious about getting Lim Swee Say to be our official mascot at the time. Then, we crossed the 700-member mark, and we put up a Singlish birthday card for Minister Mentor Lee, who has just turned 87. (Is he the oldest living Singaporean not to have been caught speaking Singlish? Cambridge education, power man!) Meanwhile, we launched our own Post-its Tak Bak Chew campaign, and excited responses have been encouraging. You are all welcome to share with us pictures of stickies translating good or bad English to Singlish or just stating your favourite Singlish phrases.

Maybe, when we hit 1,000, we will declare our own National Singlish Day. I am thinking that this day should fall on 13 July, which is Lim Swee Say’s birthday. It is all in good fun, of course, because this is what Singlish naturally invites. One of the amazing things to happen on our page is the discovery that we all agree more than we disagree on the rules of what is Singlish and what is not. This is very revealing about how deep the language has already gone. And then there is the good will from a lot of people, Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans alike, to be thankful for.

The language binds us: if the gahmen thinks that it can push ahead without Singlish in Singapore’s name, we are sorry that it thinks so. Anyone who knows enough Singlish has been learning on our page that he or she isn’t alone in sensing its importance. If we have lost much of our sense of community through missing historical landmarks and an ever-changing skyline, we have preserved a bit of this in Singlish. Bulldozing Singlish will be this gahmen’s greatest challenge yet. So the message we want to send to those who can make a difference on the matter is simple: “Please stop hum-tumming Singlish! Just leebit alone!” My own favourite Singlish line sums it all up as a word of caution: “Please, if you don’t know anything, don’t anyhow pong!”

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Remember to visit the Speak Good Singlish Movement Facebook page!

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And who say ang-mo don’t know how to speak Singlish?

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And here’s Singlish “in action”:

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