(Photo credits: P Pilgrim)
Recently, a New York Times’ opinion piece by local poet Gwee Li Sui critiqued the state’s hostile approach towards Singlish, where despite numerous attempts at correcting this native English creole over the years, this unique language remains. This drew flak from the Prime Minister’s Office, where Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s press secretary Li Lin Chang argued that standard English was central to Singapore’s survival as it allows the country to connect effectively with the world, while Singlish impedes one’s ability to adopt standard English effectively (unless you have a PhD in English Literature like Mr Gwee). Ironically, despite the fluidity of language and the human capacity to learn, unlearn and relearn languages, the Singlish issue has been portrayed as a zero-sum issue by the latter’s rigid approach to something native to Singaporeans.
Singapore’s relationship with Singlish has been a paradoxical mess tangled in a love-hate struggle over the years. This debate has been complicated by the state’s pro-standard English direction and its implicit acceptance of Singlish in the public sphere. At its core, Singapore is driven by standard English in the aspects of our economy, education, and diplomacy. As a global city-state, it is with pragmatic concern that Singaporeans are able to connect with the world primarily through proper English. Nevertheless, while we see standard English being adopted nationally on a official basis, Singlish has been playfully experimented with by politicians, businesses and even the media all year-round. As they try to add a human touch to an otherwise larger-than-life presence through Singlish, they are implicitly supporting Singlish and indirectly lending credence to it. The desire to connect with the masses through Singlish ultimately brings these institutions back down to earth. In a macro sense, this spelt the tensions between the Singaporean state’s pragmatic approach in connecting with the world as a global city-state and the innate desire of Singaporeans to have that unique sense of identity shaped by our common tongues.
Unlike quantifiable and tangible measures such as economic growth, birth rates or our Cumulative Average Point (CAP), the use of particular languages is relatively harder to engineer and shape. No official has ever come up and said “Our Speak Good English campaign has successfully squashed the use of Singlish by 88% islandwide!”. While national campaigns have been routinely utilised to combat the perceived ills of Singlish, the qualitative nature of its objectives makes measuring their success difficult. The onslaught of national campaigns advocating for the use of proper English has been silenced by the everyday use of Singlish throughout all aspects of Singaporean life. Singlish permeates throughout our society as it becomes a part of our daily dialogues. It moulds into the tongues that we speak, the cadence of our speech and the syntax of each sentences, no matter how mundane or simple our intentions may be. Most importantly, it transcends time and space where we bridge generations together with the common use of Singlish with whatever mother tongue that we use, or even English. From using “steady bom pipi” when your Ah Mah finally sends you her first Snapchat video, to exclaiming “you goondu stupiak sotong” when your brother brought a Venti Latte instead of a Grande Hot Chocolate, Singlish is definitely here to stay.
Ultimately, the use of Singlish is completely independent from that of speaking proper standard English. By using Singlish, you do not implicitly disagree with standard English or deny its importance. Instead, you are merely speaking two separate languages, akin to that of speaking either English or Chinese. No one ever blamed the use of Chinese for “poor English”, at least in recent years. By scapegoating Singlish as the root cause of “poor English”, we deviate from solutions that may truly work. We spend resources on correcting something that needs no correction, while ignoring the need to improve English education in the first place and exposing the young to standard English early. It is more important to strengthen one’s language capabilities than to inhibit certain creole forms for the sake of purity. Acquiring a good habit need not necessarily mean that you have to give up other habits. You just got to keep practicing the language over and over again. That is how we learn how to become bilingual. And by all means, code-switching is not something unique to PhD holders; it is innate in each and every one of us who has to weave through complex social circles and environments on a daily basis, responding to each scenario with a socially acceptable approach. While not everyone is equally effective at code-switching, clamping down on Singlish is not a solution. Singlish is not the villain that it was made out to be here; we should be pointing at our ignorance instead.
Perhaps Singlish represents the kind of messiness Singapore was meant to live with, especially in our diverse and complex society that cannot be sanitised completely for global consumption. The state’s pursuit of spartan cleanliness and neatness contradicts the messiness of Singlish as it extends throughout our lingua franca haphazardly in its organic forms. Perhaps to the state, Singlish is frivolous, wastes too much words, and sounds so weird that no one in the world would understand us. Alas, sometimes we do not need the world to listen to us talk. Sometimes, all we want is to talk to our fellow Singaporeans freely in this unique creole English language. Our need for global attention may remain, as we are a small island after all. Nevertheless, the ability to speak Singlish does not spell the death of standard English. Deep down, all we want to do with Singlish is to identify with this authentic form of culture and connect with each Singaporean; be it coffeeshop talk to writing sonnets in Singlish, texting your army buddies about the next ICT or printing “Anyhow Paste Kena Fine” stickers, or even seducing your paramour with MRT puns in Singlish.
Who cares if you have a PhD in English Literature or just an O-Level Certificate? Let us speak the way we want. If one chooses to speak in prim and proper standard English, let that be a choice. If one chooses to speak in only Singlish and his mother tongue as it serves him well, let that be a choice. Behind this article lies a writer who chooses to write in standard English, yet has his roots to Singlish at home, with his buddies and loved ones. An utterance of Singlish should not be misheard as a death gong for standard Singlish. Let us be more forgiving of Singlish and embrace its presence in Singapore, while tackling the root source of “poor english”. In a zero-sum game for the survival of Singlish, Singapore will definitely stand to be the biggest loser.