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Singlish vs Standard English: I say, RELAK, lah!

By Law Kim Hwee

Confession: I possess no PhD in English Literature or, for that matter, a MA, Int’l Relations or a BA (Hons), Sociology & Int’l Relations (the last 2 from UK universities, no less). But I do speak and write fairly decent English – and communicate in Singlish as and when.

It is no surprise to me how Chang Li Lin, press secretary to PM Lee, came down hard on
Gwee’s ‘Politics and the Singlish Language’ (original title). The NYT editors might have thought of Singapore’s media being ranked progressively at a new #154 out of 180 low and its parallel to George Orwell’s 1946 ‘Politics and the English Language‘.  To Orwell, language is an ‘an instrument which we shape for our own purposes’. And one where ‘political and economic’ causes and effects inter-play.

That might have motivated Chang to respond i.e. the hint of political manipulation of language use in Singapore is a No-No. Her key defence: ‘Standard English is vital for Singaporeans to earn a living’, highlighting the economic – while deflecting and eluding discussion of the political causes and effects.

After a very short introduction, Gwee dives unhesitatingly into the political causes and effects at play in Singlish. He helpfully dissects a Singlish example in ‘ownself check ownself’ for his international (mainly American) audience. Readers with understanding of the need for independent checks and balances in any First World country with pretensions of democracy (whether the size of almost a continent or a little red dot) would straightaway understand the context – and the spot-on mockery therein…at the expense of the PAP leaders.

Then towards the end, he gives what amounts to a coup de grâce (on Chang’s boss, the PM himself) with discussion of how ‘mee siam mai hum’ came to exist as a shorthand to mean how out-of-touch from his peasantry the naturally-aristocratic PM (and his kind) has been.

Prime Minister has since tried to make up for his boo-boo, with Facebook pics and posts (or ‘poses’?) of his standing in queue for hawker food and eating at a humble hawker centre table  – unfortunately, with a ‘makan-kaki’ who placed her elbow on the table (an unladylike table manner…eh, appeared to be the same one who uploaded a monkey with the middle finger at her sis-in-law, probably,). The PM himself now encourages ‘new citizens to integrate..(and)…if you can understand Singlish, so much the better.’

Who can blame Ms Chang for coming out to take a sarcastic swipe at Gwee on her boss’ behalf? Besides, it makes dollars-and-sense since hers is a secured job that probably pays higher than the US President’s press secretary. But in making her point, why the need to say, ‘Not everyone has a Ph.D. in English Literature like Mr. Gwee, who can code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English, and extol the virtues of Singlish…in polished standard English.’?

Tsk tsk tsk.

Eh, hello, Ms Chang, why so liddat one? Don’t be KNS, leh. Relak, lah! 

Got something to say, say nicely, can or not? We no can tahan gahmen people tekan our bro, okay? Why? You think you gahmen so you are tok kong, ah? We all Singaporeans. Can sui sui talk one.

You know, huh, we one people, one nation, one Singapore. How we are ‘one’, you know or not? Simple lah, you go outside country, when you hear how we talk (yah lah, yah lah, I mean our accent), the Singlish we spiak and oso siow about food – you know, cannot chabot..that one sure Singaporean!

So, when Lao Lee and the cheng hu talk and talk about ‘pledge ourselves as one united people’, we the people alleady ourselves make our own way to become ‘one united people’ – with SINGLISH!

Why not you gahmen so clever, make use of what we the people alleay doing to make us more united? But you, what they call you now – ELITE ah (ha! KNS!) – want to kill Singlish. Worse ah, now our hawker food all become so expensive, liddat we sure die, we sure cannot unite one!

You talk liddat in your letter, we go pengsan liao! Bo sui, bo sui!

So, please hor, Ah Lian (eh, your name Li Lin almost same like Li Lian), I say, RELAK, lah.

(PS: I should say a word to concerned i.e. kiasu parents here. In my 30-year career I have interacted and communicated with many colleagues and customers across USA, Europe and Asia. Non-English-mother-tongue speakers from West and East have told me that they find my speech much clearer and easier to understand than my other Singaporean colleagues.

My own little secret? Rather simple – whenever I speak or include Singlish, I make a deliberate switch mentally. How can that be achieved? Perhaps, I’ll share that another time to, hopefully, benefit your children. Remember, you don’t need a PhD or MA or BA in English or Literature to speak and write well – without jettisoning Singlish.)

Mr Law also blogs at