The war between Singlish and English has been drawn out for too long. Writer Renald Loh explains why both can, and must, co-exist.
When I first heard of the Speak Good English movement, I hated what it insinuated. I pictured a group of British expats sitting on burgundy polyester armchairs along Oxford Road, sipping tea and lamenting how us uncouth locals have butchered the Queen’s language. Simi sai la sial, I thought. (Translation: “This is such elitist bullsh*t.”)
I, like many Singaporeans, love Singlish. A quick poll on our Ask.SMU Telegram channel proved as such. It’s efficient, and emblematic of our multi-ethnic, rojak society. Each time the government insinuates their preference for Singlish to be eradicated, the people fight back – with stickers, banners, even counter-movements.
But a good portion of people also believe that Singlish is English’s degenerate child –an undesirable knock-off language that makes us sound brash and unsophisticated. English, the mighty chamomile tea, and Singlish, the insipid kopi-o siu dai.
From my observation, Singaporeans are split into two camps: The people who believe that Singlish is best left in the past, and the people who prefer the government keep their noses out of what we choose to speak. As someone who formerly believed in the latter, I would like to come out of the trenches and call for a truce: we should not let our love for Singlish stop us from learning to speak better English.
That is not to say that Singlish has no place in today’s society. Far from it. Singlish must stay; for it defines who we are, but it should not come at the expense of English. We must not allow our affection for our culture and identity to stop us from properly learning English – because we stand to gain so much with a strong command of our common language.
But first, there is one thing that needs to be made abundantly clear.
Singlish is Not Broken English.
Growing up, my parents always asked me: “Dinner want eat what?” I recall writing this sentence down for an English composition in primary school and being greeted a week later with an excessive amount of red crosses. “This isn’t English!” she wrote.
Of course Mrs. Kheng was right, and she helped me correct it. I always wrote standard English in my schoolwork from that point on, but I swear on char kway teow that my parents have never heard the words “What would you like to have for dinner?” leave my mouth.
This whole ‘war’ between Singlophiles and anglophiles is predicated on the belief that Singlish is an illegitimate version of English, but that is not true. It is a language on its own – with its own syntax and phonology – the result of language contact between different ethnic groups for decades. This article by Tan Ying Ying, a Singaporean linguist, explains it best.
Language contact happens when two or more languages interact with, and eventually influence, each other. Before English was institutionalized as our official language, the local population spoke a whole mix of different languages. Terms like “buey tahan” and “shiok sia” are but two examples of the Singlish lexicon that show how it can exist without the input of English at all.
When you assess how ‘good’ Singlish is compared to English, you are essentially comparing kueh lapis to fish and chips. The former is a snack, the latter is a meal. They serve different functions, and you’re allowed to eat and like both.
It’s not about whether we feel Singlish is inferior (it isn’t), it’s whether we have the ability to communicate effectively with our counterparts overseas with standard English. It’s knowing to say “Could I have a piece of that chicken?” to your friend from London and knowing you can get away with “eh stng your food” other times.
Good Language Forms Good Impressions; Allows Us to Be Understood
That’s why there is value in the Speak Good English movement. It emphasises the differences between Singlish and English, and advocates for the use of standard English in appropriate situations – for our benefit. And I’m all for it.
As Jon Gresham, a committee member on the movement's board puts it, "...it's about recognising that there are different functions and purposes for different modes of language. Good English is not about using airy-fairy words, it’s about getting to the point, expressing nuances that need to be expressed."
Business publications often repeat the truism that body language helps to create a good first impression. Chest up. Firm handshake. Big affable smile. Less mentioned is the importance of what we say. In a 2019 study on English language proficiency for employment, findings showed that employers paid attention to the language skills of interviewees during recruitment interviews. Industry personnel in this study reasoned that the main reason for it is the fact that an employees’ skills reflect on the reputation of the organisation as well.
The Reform Party’s Charles Yeo gives us an apt example of the importance of language proficiency in the field of politics. Bits of his Mandarin speech during the Constituency Political Broadcast went viral due to the way he conveyed certain ideas with a mix of English and Singlish expressions. While the size of his balls for going on national TV unprepared can’t be questioned, the credibility of his party was, according to YouTube comments and general public sentiment, greatly diminished.
Contrast that with Jamus Lim of the Workers’ Party and his performance in the GE2020 debate, which captured the attention of Singaporeans. The way in which he was able to communicate his ideas fluently and succinctly to a national audience immediately elevated his, and his party’s, credibility in the eyes of the public – and superfluous language wasn’t needed (except for the phrases ‘cockles of our hearts’ and ‘blank cheque’, which at this point is mildly galling).
My English is Fine, Thank You Very Much.
And yes, not all of us desire to be politicians or professional speakers, or an entrepreneur on Shark Tank. The argument that effective communication is more important than pedantically following the rules of grammar is one that I subscribe to as well.
The only problem is that we may not be as competent in code-switching as we think we are, and bits of Singlish might pop up where we would’ve thought it was indeed standard English. Additionally, many of us tend to overestimate our competence at certain tasks. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect – because we don’t know what we don’t know, we end up thinking that we know a lot more than we actually do.
Take a few minutes to breeze through the Speak Good English movement’s resources page, or follow their Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube pages. Try to see if there is anything that catches you by surprise. Although I consider myself competent in both Singlish and English, and trust my ability to code-switch well, I still learned a fair bit from the movement (which I highlighted in this article here).
In the same way that one can never be too healthy, it doesn’t hurt to open our minds to what we don’t know about the English language. Our new-found knowledge may even turn out to be beneficial in helping us create a good impression; in job interviews, in interactions with global clientele, in writing reports and marketing materials. Heck, there’s even research that error-free language can increase your chances on a dating app.
So sheath your swords and keep your parangs, because frankly, the war between Singlish and English has been drawn out for too long.
Both have value and both can, and must, co-exist.
We can, and should continue to use Singlish for it is a massive part of our heritage and culture. But we should also continue to advocate for good English to be used, for it is crucial for us and the generations that follow ours to navigate this increasingly anglophone world.
In the paraphrased words of our Deputy Prime Minister on Nomination Day, together we do have a plan - and that plan is to make sure that we, and the generations that follow us, are able to utilise the linguistic weapons of English and Singlish in the way they were designed to be used. Ok zhao - makan time.
This article borrows inspiration from both the Speak Good English movement, as well as Tan Ying Ying’s paper titled “Singlish: An illegitimate conception in Singapore’s language policies?”.