Photo of a sign in a Tower Transit bus by Straits Times

Give Singlish a break!

by Wan Tsung-Lun

Signs written in Singlish have called attention to social identity of this language again recently. However, the debate does not have a significant progression regarding how people stick to argue over whether Singlish should be a pride to Singaporean people. Frankly speaking, the government has shifted its attitude towards this so-called ‘dialect’ from the standpoint suppressing its existence. Surprisingly, the public discourse is going around in circles.

Linguists have agreed Singlish as a language has its importance in terms of either social reality or academic discussion. It is worthless to insist on the stigma in which Singlish is just a broken word-by-word translation from Chinese into English. There is no evidence supporting this idea. So, just give up spreading the rumour. The concern this globalized city-state has more with Singlish is whether this would stop Singapore from receiving good reputation for its openness. I would say the answer is an obvious ‘not’. They are dealing with the wrong issue.

According to sociolinguistics studies, the negative linguistic attitude, the researchers have gathered from foreigners, towards Singlish is not a matter of this language itself. Instead, the issue is more about the social interaction between the locals and the non-locals.

Priven (2008) points out that whether one grieves the loss of the language of the other or not is connected to their own interest. This point is supported by previous studies which have shown how immigrants and guest workers from different social backgrounds have heterogeneous attitudes towards Singlish.

For instance, Kang (2012) reports that with more and more Korean families sending children to Singapore for learning English and Mandarin, Korean mothers have found that Singlish is being widely used. On the one hand, based on pragmatism, these mothers view Singlish as a useful tool, though with some negative characteristics, in this island; on the other hand, from the perspective of sociolinguistic competence, their children are required to be able to switch between Singlish and Standard English because they are positioned as global elites by their parents.

As a contrast, McKay (2013) points out that the migrant workers who go to Singapore because of poverty in their homelands tend to marginalize Singaporeans who can only use Singlish. Their negative attitude toward Singlish, compared to Filipino or Indian English, becomes a strategy to challenge their positions of social inferiority in Singapore society.

Furthermore, De Costa (2010) studies how the standard English language educational policy is interpreted by a female student, with a designer-immigrant identity, from China in the classroom. De Costa finds that throughout the classroom interaction, this student shows a certain degree of agency in using standard English and not adopting the Singlish features employed by other students to negotiate her professional identity.

And, according to my own analysis on a spontaneous discussion in an online group comprising Taiwanese in Singapore, Taiwanese who condemn the use of Singlish are actually ‘relocalizing’ their negative experiences contacting local Singaporeans. Due to a rising exclusionism, some locals try to use Singlish to differentiate other Asians and themselves. Sometimes it takes the form of criticizing these foreigners’ English as “incorrect English”, since they already knew these outsiders are not English native speakers. Taiwanese immigrants, however, see this action to be unacceptable speaking of the cosmopolitan role of this state. Therefore, their solution is to make strong arguments against Singlish.

All the studies above have shown one important thing—Singlish is not the real issue. As we have known the reason why foreigners seem to not accept Singlish is out of their own interests, attacking Singlish as a shameful language will never answer the real question. Even if Singlish disappears one day, as long as the contrasting relationship between the locals and non-locals is constructed within the neo-liberalized era under the government’s policy, the non-locals will always be able to internalize their ideologies to something else to condemn. This is the real issue. Singlish is a fake issue. Give this language a break.


  • De Costa, P. I. (2010). Language ideologies and standard English language policy in Singapore: Responses of a ‘designer immigrant’student. Language Policy, 9(3), 217-239.
  • Kang, Y. (2012). Singlish or Globish: Multiple language ideologies and global identities among Korean educational migrants in Singapore. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 16(2), 165-183.
  • McKay, S. L. (2013). Globalization, localization and language attitudes: the case of “foreign workers” in Singapore. Multilingual Education, 3(3). doi:10.1186/2191-5059-3-3
  • Priven, D. (2008). Grievability of first language loss: Towards a reconceptualisation of European minority language education practices. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 11(1), 95-106.