Singlish is not the enemy

Jun 03, 2016 08.05PM |

by Michael Cyssel Wee

SOME 10 years ago, I wrote an editorial in TODAY newspaper entitled “English is not the enemy”, arguing that English should be more accepted as part of our local Singaporean culture, and not simply as an instrument of pragmatic value. Language use and language learning, I have since maintained, are never just about good grammar but also about cultural affinities.

Thinking about all that with regard to the current debate over Singlish in the New York Times, I am prompted to ask a different but related question: Is Singlish the enemy?

The enemy of what, you might ask? Well, the government’s stand has long been clear—Singlish is the enemy of learning standard English. That was recently reiterated by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s press secretary in response to Singaporean poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui’s New York Times article, “Politics and the Singlish Language”.

In that article, though, Dr Gwee for his part spoke of Singlish as an “enemy of the state”, thanks to official policy against it, and as a language that has in fact developed as a vehicle of “political resistance”. That, of course, should be unsurprising for any common, self-developed language of the people. (It is said that London’s Cockney Rhyming Slang was once used by thieves to dodge the police who didn’t understand it.)

The reality of the situation is that Singlish has long taken root as our vernacular—standard English remaining the language of officials, in a way. Attempts to de-legitimise Singlish, such as by pitting it as the enemy of the state-promoted standard English, may only give it more legitimacy as the language of the people, and increase its political potential of the kind Dr Gwee points to.

Yet this rigid separation between “official” and “mass” culture need not be the case. If both are embraced by both sides, we might perhaps find ourselves closer to a solution—a settlement—regarding the status of Singlish. But one must remember that the battle is not simply about good grammar, but also about people’s hearts.


The situation of English

The short history of the English language in post-1965 Singapore is this: After Singapore’s independence, English was retained and promoted because it could be a neutral language that could unify a multiracial society like ours. What happened, of course, is that Singlish became the unifying language, and a source of cultural distinctiveness.

Even today, standard English is still like a foreign language to many, useful for practical purposes—to be understood by foreigners, indeed to do business with them—but not the language of the heart.

That place, for many, belongs to Singlish. Overseas Singaporeans will know what it feels like to suddenly hear Singlish in, say, a crowded London metro station.

When I first came to England to study, I remember meeting a Singaporean in my college in my first week, and the first thing he said to me was, “No need to speak properly lah”.

Like it or not, Singlish is most likely here to stay. And it’s also true, I think, that people probably don’t like being told that they should not speak it. Suppression breeds resistance.

Yet, if Singlish is to remain, so will the challenges that Singlish poses to learning standard English. That is something Singlish-promoters cannot run away from. Even the most well-schooled in grammar rules at some point move to performing crucial linguistic tasks—conjugating verbs, identifying appropriate vocabulary for different circumstances—in an intuitive manner.

If one is habitually surrounded by language users who only use Singlish, one’s intuitive sense of correct grammar could be easily weakened. And so as PM Lee’s press secretary, Ms Chang Li Lin, rightly pointed out in the New York Times, not everyone “can code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English”.

But the problem is not merely grammatical. So long as English is seen as something only of practical value, even if we eliminated Singlish completely, we would still have difficulties with teaching good English. The other Mother Tongue languages would only fill the void left by Singlish—nature abhors a vacuum, so the saying goes.

So Ms Chang is not wrong to say that standard English “is vital for Singaporeans to earn a living and be understood not just by other Singaporeans but also English speakers everywhere”. But our promotion of standard English needs to go beyond this.

Until English fully takes root as the language of the people, and not just of the international marketplace or of official settings, our efforts to improve the standard of English in Singapore will be severely limited.


Bridging the Singlish-Standard English divide

Let me summarise the task at hand. On one hand, we should not stigmatise or suppress Singlish. Nonetheless, we need to find a way to make standard English co-occupy the place of the language of people’s hearts with Singlish—a more modest aim than seeking for it to replace Singlish.

This means that “official” and “mass” culture both need to embrace each other, and see the two languages, Singlish and English, as friends, not enemies or rivals. They can co-exist peacefully, even creatively.

How would we go about bridging this linguistic gulf?

One way is through the teaching of Singaporean literature and, through it, celebrating both Singlish and standard English. Literature has a unique place because it often springs directly from the people and in many cases can be seen as an authentic expression of cultural feelings.

Such writing can also be preserved and handed down by the establishment, as a cultural memory of “the best which has been thought and said”, to use Matthew Arnold’s famous phrase.

Singaporean literature of both of the Singlish and the standard English variety can surely find their place alongside each other, in such cultural preservation and transmission.

One of my favourite writers, the Singaporean poet Arthur Yap, is particularly known for a poem that consists of a colloquial dialogue between two mothers. The opening lines of the poem read thus:

ah beng is so smart,

already he can watch tv and know the whole story

your kim cheong is also quite smart,

what boy is he in the exam?

(“2 mothers in a HDB playground”)

The poem is well-known as a “Singlish poem” and could be presented to students as a piece that captures a familiar moment of Singaporean life. Singlish, one might learn through this poem, is not something to be ashamed of or to be refrained from, but simply is the way we speak, and a veritable means of expressing our lives.

And in fact, just looking at the first four lines, we see that the poem isn’t even Singlish at full blast—the mother says, “ah being is so smart”, rather than “ah beng so smart”, even as she asks “what boy is he in the exam?”.

The truth is, many of us actually speak in a mix of both Singlish and standard English. The latter is not all that foreign to us, and we Singaporeans are more capable of it than we sometimes give ourselves credit for.

Standard English nonetheless assumes the appearance of foreignness due to sociolinguistic factors: when we associate standard-ness only with North American or British accents, for example, when we think that only “ang mohs” can be native speakers of English, or when we are only exposed to good, literary writing set in European or American contexts. The third can be easily changed.

Mr Yap, for all the attention his “Singlish poem” has received, actually wrote most of his poetry without Singlish, though that never compromised the evocation of Singaporean places, such as Bedok or Ann Siang Hill. It might perhaps surprise many that Singaporeans have in fact been writing literature in standard English since at least 1897, with the founding of the Straits Chinese Magazine.

Singaporeans, I believe, can learn through their own literature that standard English is not a foreign tongue; it is, and has been for a long time, the language of Singaporeans’ hearts and of their self-expression.

It is a fine balancing act, to both celebrate Singlish as conveying an authentic Singaporean voice and also to instill the need for good grammar. But crucial to this endeavor is students learning that through standard English they can express many thoughts, in personal and not simply official situations, that they cannot through Singlish—something which many feel is the other way round.

The power of literature is not to be underestimated. It is helpful to think about how in the distant but not dim past, English was not the language of officials in England, but French.

Thanks to writers like Chaucer, the vernacular English gained greater acceptance as a literary language, while also absorbing many French words from the nobility (hence “pig” is Anglo-Saxon in origin, “pork” from French). Literature and language have long been a meeting point between officials and the masses.

In Singapore, with so much literature written in good, idiomatic standard English, through such writing we might be able to effect a different direction of change from what Chaucer et al achieved—make the language of officials the language of everyone.

Singaporeans hold on to Singlish because they feel it expresses who they are, both individually and as a people. What we need is to show that standard English can do the same.

If, through greater exposure to good Singaporean literature, students realise that other Singaporeans are comfortable in expressing themselves in both Singlish and standard English, I believe that there will be greater cultural acceptance of good English. This will surely make its teaching easier.

And what will happen to Singlish? Who knows—maybe more poetry.


Michael Cyssel Wee is a Singaporean graduate student in English Literature at the University of Oxford. He is currently pursuing research on English poetry from pre-Independence Singapore for his dissertation.


Featured image Singlish by Flickr user Ricardo Sosa. CC BY-NC 2.0

If you like this article, Like the Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.