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Singlish is recognized, but not by Singapore

By Benjamin Goh

The last two weeks created much buzz about Singlish after 19 Singlish words were added to the Oxford English Dictionary and Gwee Li Sui’s piece in the New York Times. This was not the first time Singlish gained international attention, but in a post-SG50 climate, the Singlish “problem” was dealt with a new sense of urgency, interest, and vitality.

Of course, the talk of the town—at least on social media—was the rebuttal by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s press secretary in the New York Times to Dr. Gwee’s Op-ed. Ironically, the rebuttal only proved Dr. Gwee right, that government condemnation of Singlish made it more cool. But as a fellow non-Ph.D. holder, the press secretary’s letter read as a somewhat surprising and perhaps misleading account of why Singapore needs English.

If learning English indeed requires “extra effort”, why would Singlish, and not bilingualism, diminish our ability to speak English?

Secondly, English standards have indeed been rising, and blaming Singlish for lackluster English standards is a cheap shot and possibly makes less sense than blaming the country’s annual Speak Mandarin Campaign for eroding the importance of learning English

Many intuitively condemned the idea that the Singaporean government should be restraining Singlish, because of Singlish’s inherent value to the social fabric. Andrew Loh’s tongue-in-cheek collection of NDP2015’s kitschy use of Singlish amplified this sentiment, as it showed the government’s contradictory stance around Singlish, seeming to support low-value endorsements of Singlish but feeling threatened by thoughtful arguments on the value of Singlish (in Gwee’s piece) in Singapore society.

Is there a legitimate reason not to encourage Singlish? As a proud Singlish speaker, it is frustrating that the government is seemingly suppressing the “lingua franca of the grunts”. But of concern is also the issue of reverse snobbery: the promotion of Singlish comes primarily from Singaporeans who already have a good mastery of English, many of whom have studied or worked overseas and often bonded with fellow Singaporeans over Singlish. Singlish becomes an important part of their identity, but these people are already globally mobile and if (and this is a very big if) Singlish indeed diminishes English-speaking ability, these people will not bear the economic brunt of it. The government’s stance to continually promote “Standard English”—presumably referring to the version of English spoken in most English-speaking countries today—arguably helps those who need it most.

Perhaps at a deeper and subtler level, the government’s reticence to promote Singlish comes from the in-group versus out-group mentality it might create. Singlish is the glue that binds local Singaporeans, but being too self-absorbent in this language possibly fuels even more anti-foreigner, xenophobic sentiment. You’re never “ga ki nang” (Hokkien for a person of the same tribe) if you don’t speak Singlish. If we one day use Singlish as a barometer to gauge someone’s level of “foreign-ness”, we can become inward-looking and negate continual efforts to create a metropolitan Singapore.

While the out-group derogation is possible, it is not probable. Supporters for Singlish are not looking to include Singlish as a language to be taught in schools. Most Singaporeans, in fact, recognize the importance of what David Foster Wallace calls “Standard White English”, and many of us speak slower and articulate our words more clearly when we speak to non-native Singlish speakers. Rather, supporters of Singlish are looking to expect a realistic portrayal of themselves in pop culture—local movies dubbed over in Chinese, or local TV dramas with actors speaking in contrived English accents seems foreign to most of us. In contrast, even though the now finished Phua Chua Kang Pte Ltd TV series featured only tacky and cheesy jokes, its relatability made it one of the most popular local TV sitcoms.

Lest one equates Singlish with inferiority, the accolades given to our film directors at prestigious international film festivals suggest otherwise. Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo, which won the Camera d'Or award at Cannes Film Festival, was filled with characteristic portrayals of Singaporeans. The line by the little boy (Jia Le) to his domestic helper (Teresa), “Your hair very 臭 (Chou, meaning smelly) eh?” is a line to which many could relate and is pregnant with meaning that cannot be replicated in standard English.

Essentially, supporters of Singlish want to see our culture, our lingua franca, our heritage (that is embedded in this mixed creole of English) is recognized at least as an equal to the dominant cultures to which we are exposed. Don’t be a “jiak gan tang”—a term used to snub those who believe that a Western education is superior to local knowledge; Singlish is not an inferior substandard version of English, it is a symptom of the multiculturalism on which we often pride ourselves. As Dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Kishore Mahbubani often warns, the continued mental colonization prevents Asians from having the psychological self-confidence to believe in its practices, to believe that its own legacy and ideas are worth listening to. Singapore needs cultural confidence to build its resilience, and we should start by being proud of a language that binds together people of different races, languages, and religions. There’s been a lot of talk about building a “Singaporean core,” and Singlish is as close to a Singaporean core as we have got.