Singlish is English gone native: Author of “Spiaking Singlish”, Dr Gwee Li Sui shares his insights on this uniquely Singaporean language

Singaporean poet, graphic artist, and literary critic Gwee Li Sui has released yet another intriguing book, this one on the unique ‘Singlish’. The author of the graphic novel Myth of the Stone and several poetry volumes such as The Other Merlion and Friends, Haikuku, and, most recently, Death Wish now presents a guide to Singapore’s unique language which has evolved from standard English as a result of the diversity of the small island-state.

Spiaking Singlish: A Companion to How Singaporeans Communicate explores this particular language not just in substance but in form as well, being possibly the only book on Singlish written entirely in Singlish.

“Singlish is what happens when you bring together a bunch of Malays, Chinese, Indians, and Eurasians, and you tell them to interact in English. A beautiful thing happens,” says Gwee.

Though it may sound like it at first, it’s not quite English. It’s an amalgamation of different elements and words from the various languages spoken in Singapore, where every language, in sound and sense, gets mangled…but in a good way.

For example, “Chinese” becomes “cheena”, “puncit” becomes “pumchek”, and “A-level” becomes “air-level”.

And then sources are combined to speak in a way only Singaporeans would understand, such as “I buay tahan your face”. New phrases are invented, such as “act blur”, “throw smoke”, “itchy backside”, “stir ah stir”, and “kua kua”

Gwee says that Singlish didn’t become widespread until English was displacing street Malay as Singapore’s lingua franca. It evolved from there. As Gwee describes it, English “took a turn to smell the flowers and went native”.

Playing a vital role in this rise are all common spaces where diverse people interact: schools, workplaces, hawker centres, and even the military. Another factor is Singapore’s language policies.

“When the Chinese dialects were ejected from the public sphere, they escaped into Singlish. Early years of the ‘Speak Good English Movement’ helped give Singlish an edgy, rebellious reputation it didn’t have before,” says Gwee.

The ‘Speak Good English Movement’ was a campaign launched by the government to encourage Singaporeans to speak ‘grammatically correct English that is universally understood’. However, a society as diverse as Singapore’s means that many people are already bilingual, able to speak both English and their native languages. It is this that creates the most basic entry point into Singlish, Gwee points out.

“When you have people with different linguistic sets communicating, you create the depth of Singlish. You go beyond your own bilingualism to negotiate with others’ bilingualism. So, while you may not master others’ mother tongues, in Singlish you hold up their presence in your identity as they yours in theirs.

“That’s the precious gift of Singlish!” he enthuses.

Verbal to textual

Spiaking Singlish draws from articles the author originally wrote in casual English for the now defunct Middle Ground website.

“But, while I was expanding them into book chapters, I thought: What the heck, why not rewrite the whole thing in Singlish?”

Gwee feels that there are already many books on the language written in English and that what was needed was a book to teach people how to read Singlish.

“Think about it: if we say that Singlish is a language, then it must be more than just words. We have to demonstrate its syntax, tone, and so on, to show how the whole thing actually works,” he adds.

But taking a mostly oral language and making it textual raises a unique set of questions. For example, how do you spell words without a Roman script? How far do you go to spell words as they are pronounced? There’s also the fact that every Singlish speaker considers himself or herself an authority on the language (“and rightly so”, says Gwee). Yet, there is a whole range of communities and different generations with their own variations of the language.

Gwee took it all on and came up with a rather wonderful and insightful first look at Singlish as a formally written text.

When asked for some of his favourite Singlish phrases, Gwee says “sibeh sian”, which means very boring, meaningless, or predictable. “It’s perfect for describing my life (and yours?) in Singapore,” he adds.

He continues, “‘Got eyes no see Tarzan’ is intriguing. It comes from the Chinese saying about ‘having eyes that fail to see Mount Tai’, describing ineptitude. But we in Singapore reject Chinese markers and brashly translate Mount Tai as Tarzan.”

“These days, I love ‘kolaveri’, which means murderous rage in Tamil – because social media is so full of it!”

Spiaking Singlish retails at S$23.35. You can pick up a copy at bookstores in Singapore or find it online at the following sites: