MAY 25, 2016
I agree that the Government cannot afford to ease up on its strict stance on Singlish ("PM's press secretary rebuts NYT op-ed on Singlish"; yesterday).
Singlish has indeed taken on a life of its own, and has flourished as a vernacular with a distinctly Singaporean heritage. We use and flaunt it like a badge of national pride.
While poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui, in his opinion piece on Singlish published in the International New York Times, said that even politicians and officials use Singlish, I believe most do so with an awareness of the specific context and register that Singlish should be used in.
It is often used to establish an instant rapport with the audience, as it transcends barriers of race and social class.
The Government is on the right track in promoting the mastery of Standard English, particularly in school and at the workplace.
If Singlish is championed at the expense of Standard English, it would, as the late former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew rightly put it, be a "handicap" that will cripple our ability to communicate with the rest of the English-speaking world, and erode the substantive gains we have made in integrating ourselves as part of the globalised economy.
[If that is the great fear, there are two solutions. One, as Mrs Koh asserts (or exhorts), is to ensure that ALL Singaporeans can speak standard English. The other solution is to ensure that Singlish becomes internationalised, so everyone else in the world can speak or at least understand Singlish. Which the Oxford English Dictionary is doing.]
This pragmatic, utilitarian approach to the use of English must prevail if we wish for subsequent generations of Singaporeans to hold their own on the world stage, where English will still be the lingua franca of choice for the foreseeable future.
Admittedly, there is a time and place for Singlish. However, it becomes a serious cause for concern if it gains so much currency as to displace the use of Standard English.
[I believe Standard English was never in danger of being the standard bearer for English in Singapore. Those who need to speak standard English know how to do so. The rest get by quite well with Singlish.]
Despite the increasing acceptance of Singlish (even the venerated Oxford English Dictionary has included a smattering of Singlish words in its lexicon), I exhort educators to continue to maintain rigorous standards of English language teaching, for the sake of our young charges ("Shiok, right? More Singlish in Oxford English Dictionary"; May 13).
[So... you are concerned that MOE and English Language teachers will suddenly take leave of their senses and decide to teach Singlish instead of English? You siao ah, you?]
Our children's employment prospects are contingent on their literacy skills. They need to be able to speak and write comprehensible and functional English in order to earn a decent living.
[Right you are! I know this hawker who speaks the blardy Queen's English. And a few engineers who speak BBC English with clipped enunciation and all. And quite a few contractors and tradespeople speaking right proper English, then. ]
If Singlish were indeed to gain legitimacy, it would be to our children's detriment. It is a reckless gamble with their future that we can ill afford to take.
Marietta Koh (Mrs)
[Thank you for your hysterically alarmed and alarmist hyperbole. You sound like a flabbergasted, frustrated, and retired English teacher. I am reminded of my last English teacher who insisted that "Citibank" was obviously a typo and should be "City Bank". She was semi-retired and out of touch.
Not to imply that you are.
But your alarm and concern are unwarranted.
The purpose of language is to communicate. Singlish is generally appropriate for day to day informal communication that most of us need and use. For those of us who need formal English in our work, we would have learnt to speak and write proper English.
Below are the letter to NYT from the PM's press sec, and the article that evoked that response.]
PM's press secretary rebuts NYT op-ed on Singlish
MAY 24, 2016
The press secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has responded to an opinion piece on Singlish in the New York Times (NYT) newspaper, saying it makes light of the Government's efforts to promote the mastery of standard English by Singaporeans.
In a letter published in the International NYT yesterday, Ms Chang Li Lin said: "The Government has a serious reason for this policy.
"Standard English is vital for Singaporeans to earn a living and be understood not just by other Singaporeans but also English speakers everywhere," she said.
"But English is not the mother tongue of most Singaporeans. For them, mastering the language requires extra effort.
"Using Singlish will make it harder for Singaporeans to learn and use standard English."
Poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui wrote the piece that was published in the International NYT on May 14-15 with the headline "Politics and the Singlish language".
Citing examples of common Singlish phrases like "yaya papaya" (a snooty person), Dr Gwee wrote that Singlish "may seem like the poor cousin to the island's four official languages, but years of state efforts to quash it have only made it flourish".
"The government's war on Singlish was doomed from the start: Even state institutions and officials have nourished it, if inadvertently," he added, citing its use in National Service and the tourism board showcasing it as a unique cultural creation.
Dr Gwee also cited examples of politicians using Singlish in recent years, saying: "Finally grasping that this language is irrepressible, our leaders have begun to use it publicly in recent years, often in strategic attempts to connect with the masses."
Ms Chang said in her letter: "Not everyone has a PhD in English literature like Mr Gwee, who can code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English, and extol the virtues of Singlish in an op-ed written in polished standard English."
Do You Speak Singlish?
By GWEE LI SUI
MAY 13, 2016
SINGAPORE — Is the government’s war on Singlish finally over? Our wacky, singsong creole may seem like the poor cousin to the island’s four official languages, but years of state efforts to quash it have only made it flourish. Now even politicians and officials are using it.
Trending at the moment is “ownself check ownself,” which was popularized by Pritam Singh, a member of Parliament from the opposition Workers’ Party. He was mocking the ruling People’s Action Party (P.A.P.) for saying that the government was clean and honest enough to act as its own guardian.
Singlish is a patchwork patois of Singapore’s state languages — English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil — as well as Hokkien, Cantonese, Bengali and a few other tongues. Its syntax is drawn partly from Chinese, partly from South Asian languages.
“Steady poon pee pee,” from the Hokkien, means to be so poised as to deserve an admiring whistle. A snooty person is “yaya papaya”: with yaya perhaps originating from yang-yang (god of gods in ancient Malay) or jâjâ (father in old Javanese), and the “papaya” thrown in for the derisive rhyme. “Blur like sotong” means to be clueless: Sotong is Malay for squid.
Singlish is nimble, practical and dynamic — everyone who speaks it shapes it. Which may explain why, after emerging from obscurity half a century ago like an accidental byproduct of decolonization, over the years it has become Singapore’s most political language.
During British colonial times, English was the language of administration, while street talk was carried out in pasar Malay, or market Malay. English continued to be the preferred means of instruction and governance even after the island became fully independent in 1965, partly because its global currency seemed to advance the young government’s modernization agenda.
All of Singapore’s citizens had to learn English, and also Malay, Mandarin or Tamil. In particular, the government took nation-building to mean harmonizing what was spoken by the ethnic Chinese, a majority of the population. From 1979, the authorities aggressively pursued the Speak Mandarin Campaign, requiring every ethnic Chinese to abandon other forms of Chinese, like Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and Hakka.
But the more the state pushed its purist bilingual policy, the more the territory’s languages met and mingled in Singlish. Through playful, day-to-day conversations, the unofficial composite quickly became a formidable cultural phenomenon. Sylvia Toh Paik Choo’s humor books celebrating Singlish in the 1980s — “Eh, Goondu!” (“Hey, Stupid!”) and “Lagi Goondu!” (“Even More Stupid!”) — were rare national bestsellers and the defining books of the era.
A Singlish Primer
Pokkai (Pork-car-ai) Translates as “drop dead.” Means to go broke, e.g. “Aditi shops at Gucci until she pokkai.”
Bo hee hae ma ho (Boh-hee-hay-mar-ho) Equivalent to “Beggars can’t be choosers,” it means “When there's no fish, prawns are good too.”
Gone case A lost cause.
Very the To say “very” in an incredulous way, e.g. “You know, you look smart but you talk very the stupid.”
Buay tahan (BOO-ay tar-hun) Means that you cannot tolerate something, e.g. “I buay tahan the weather these days.”
Kiasu (KEE-ya-soo) To behave in a competitive, self-serving way, e.g. “Those kiasu people have been outside the Apple shop since 3 a.m.”
The trend worried the government. State ministers, rather than re-examining pedagogy in schools, began blaming Singlish for declining English standards. The government also saw it as insular and inhospitable to foreigners, and therefore bad for business.
In 1999, the country’s late great statesman Lee Kuan Yew declared Singlish “a handicap we must not wish on Singaporeans.” The next year, the government rolled out the Speak Good English Movement.
Singlish, now an enemy of the state, went underground. But unlike the beleaguered Chinese dialects, it had a trump card: It could connect speakers across ethnic and socioeconomic divides like no other tongue could. And in the eyes of the young, continued criticism by the state made it the language of cool.
Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen’s “The Coxford Singlish Dictionary” was first published in 2002, and has sold over 30,000 copies. (“Coxford” is a portmanteau combining “talk cock,” Singlish for nonsense, and “Oxford.”) Singlish’s status grew so powerful that the Chinese dialects took refuge in it to re-seed themselves.
The government’s war on Singlish was doomed from the start: Even state institutions and officials have nourished it, if inadvertently. The compulsory national service, which brings together male Singaporeans from all walks of life, has only underlined that Singlish is the natural lingua franca of the grunts. [And wistfully, the RSAF.] The tourism board can’t help but showcase it as one of Singapore’s few unique cultural creations.
In his annual national address in 2006, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a precious contribution to the lexicon. Hoping to one-up a podcast mocking the P.A.P. that involves an argument over whether a noodle dish contains pork liver — it’s a long story — Mr. Lee mentioned another popular noodle dish, mee siam, without cockles (“mee siam mai hum”). But mee siam never has cockles, and Mr. Lee’s blunder happily became Singlish for being out of touch.
Singlish seems to thrive on codifying political resistance. To flip-flop on policy matters is to prata, after the South Indian pancake made by flipping dough on a hot plate, another favorite Singaporean dish. To politicize is to “politisai,” and classic Singlish, with its lazy end-consonant and dirty pun: “Sai” is vulgar slang for feces in Hokkien.
Finally grasping that this language is irrepressible, our leaders have begun to use it publicly in recent years, often in strategic attempts to connect with the masses.
During a naturalization ceremony in 2012, as Mr. Lee was encouraging the new citizens to integrate, he conceded, “and if you can understand Singlish, so much the better.” (He should know.)
At a rally during last year’s campaign for the general election, the P.A.P. leader Teo Ser Luck promised voters a new bus station, afterschool care centers, facilities for the elderly and more. But only “when we are voted in, ah!,” he warned with a smile, because “LIU LIAN BO BAO JIAK!” No guarantee of durians to eat!
[And here is a commentary. Included here because it indirectly rebuts some of my comments/arguments.]
Singlish — a uniquely Singaporean threat
EUGENE K B TAN
JUNE 1, 2016
In 2013 and 2014, I taught two graduate-level summer seminars at South Korea’s Yonsei University Law School. Although English was not their first language, my Korean students participated in class discussions, made oral presentations and sat for an examination — all in English, albeit without the same fluency of my Singaporean students.
However, my Korean students’ consistent use of Standard English meant that other English speakers, whether in Beijing, Johannesburg, London, New York, Tokyo and Singapore, could easily understand them. It reminded me that our Singaporean students would probably not be understood outside of Singapore if they spoke Singlish, or a mix of Singlish and Standard English.
The persistent debate over Singlish reminds us of the complex language environment in Singapore. The government discourages Singlish — regarding it as pidgin English — while critics charge that a crucial national identity marker is given short shrift.
The truth is that Singlish is here to stay; it is a sign of our localising an international (and originally a foreign) language, and our speaking our own variant of English. However, it is crucial that we do not valorise its standing or exaggerate its importance.
DELETERIOUS ECONOMIC EFFECTS OF POOR ENGLISH
The use of English as the declared household language has increased with each national census. Within a decade of Singapore’s independence, it was widely accepted that social and professional advancement prospects were highest for the English-educated. This language shift reinforced the enhanced status of English at the expense of the mother tongues and made the closure of many vernacular schools inevitable.
Since the late 1990s, the political leadership has attributed declining standards of English proficiency to the growing popularity of Singlish. In April 2000, the Speak Good English Movement was launched with the twin objectives of promoting the use of Standard English and discouraging the use of Singlish.
In his 1999 National Day Rally speech, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong cautioned against a cavalier attitude towards English language proficiency.
He said: “If we carry on using Singlish, the logical final outcome is that we, too, will develop our own type of pidgin English, spoken only by three million Singaporeans, which the rest of the world will find quaint but incomprehensible. We are already halfway there. Do we want to go all the way? We would be better off sticking to Chinese, Malay or Tamil; then at least some other people in the world can understand us.”
The government is mindful of the deleterious economic effects that accompany declining standards of English. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Colombo, Manila and Rangoon were the leading cities in Asia, partly due to the widespread use and good proficiency of the English language, which enabled their intelligentsia and business community to be plugged into international society.
Today, these cities have lost their economic edge as the command of English has slipped. Priority is given to the local vernacular, and nationalistic pride dictates insufficient attention given to the teaching and learning of English.
No official recognition is given to Singlish as a marker of Singaporean identity or an indigenous patois. This is despite political leaders using Singlish during election campaigning to better connect to a local audience.
The government recognises that Singlish cannot be eradicated but it will not take kindly to attempts to promote it.
The concern is that any mixed signals on Singlish will undermine efforts to raise English language proficiency. A similarly tough and consistent stance is taken against Chinese dialects, in order to promote Mandarin Chinese proficiency.
Some academics and linguists criticise the official concern over, and dogmatic reaction against, Singlish as linguistically naive. They assert that any campaign against Singlish only sets back efforts to cultivate linguistic confidence and, ultimately, national pride in the local variety of English.
The recent inclusion of 19 Singlish words and phrases into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in its March 2016 update was argued as evidence that the government’s ostracisation of Singlish was untenable.
Although we need not be apologetic about Singlish, it would be hasty and foolhardy to regard Singlish words such as “blur”, “sotong”, “sabo” and the derogatory “Chinese helicopter” as having acquired international currency.
The inclusion of Singlish words and phrases in the OED does not automatically legitimise the usage of those words as part of Standard English. As OED’s world English editor, Dr Danica Salazar, said of the latest inclusion of Singlish words: “The word gets into the OED because people use it. We wouldn’t have put in the word ‘ang moh’ if we didn’t find evidence of people using the word.”
Even if Singlish is a uniquely Singaporean identity marker, an expression of our multicultural identity, the reality is that Singlish will never become Standard English known, understood and used globally.
It may be of interest when linguists seek to study “exotic” variants of the English language or the evolution of “oddities” in the language.
While debate continues as to whether Singlish is the cause of poor English, Singlish is developing into an authentic patois that Singaporeans can identify with and use in appropriate settings.
Contrary to popular belief, the effort to uplift proficiency of English does not smack of linguistic snobbery. The language is vital to our individual and collective economic relevance and competitiveness to be downgraded in importance.
This is by virtue of English being the leading global language in education, commerce, technology, access and transmission of new knowledge.
Hence, we have to maintain and enhance our proficiency in English, recognising the different competencies in learning the language.
About half of our student population come from non-English-speaking home environments and are not adept at handling different varieties of English.
The paradox is that even as English usage becomes more widespread here, this is accompanied by a perceptible decline in proficiency standards. Except for linguists and English language teachers, the average person is often unable to distinguish between Singlish and broken English. An example is: “I will now pass the time on to Jack who will explain …”, or “Please off the lights”.
I have observed that more Singaporeans, including undergraduates, are unable to properly code-switch between Singlish and Standard English. Of greater concern is that some are unable to differentiate between them, and use Singlish thinking it is Standard English.
Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had, in 1999, pithily described Singlish as “a handicap we must not wish on Singaporeans”. His premise was: “We are learning English so that we can understand the world and the world can understand us.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Eugene K B Tan is associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University School of Law