Monday, October 26, 2009


*Singapore's version of pidgin English which, for the most part, can only be understood by native Singaporeans

This letter was published in last week's ST Forum:

Don't use culture as an excuse for Singlish

RECENTLY, there was a programme on television which discussed the standing of Singlish in view of the recent debate on using correct spoken English. One participant held the view that it was the country's culture which should not be eradicated - it was the flavour of Singapore.

If it is a cultural characteristic pertinent to Singapore, it must be at least more than 100 years old - which it is not.

When our forefathers came to Singapore from their homelands to find a better life, they had no education, or very little of it. Then, English was the lingua franca under the rule of the British. The immigrants were creative and resilient and learnt a few words of English to survive in an alien land. Their dialects were of no use except among themselves.

So, to survive, they had to use some English. From this was born pidgin English shorn of its grammar and sentence sequence.

The situation today is different - vastly different - and the need of our forefathers does not exist any more. Why then is there this tendency to cling to broken or fractured English?

Why must we take mistakes in semantics and elevate them into a culture? Is it because it is too much trouble to master correct usage of the English language and, like water, it is easier to flow down than up?

In the TV programme, Japan was cited as a country that did not speak English and did well, with translators at meetings. I have had business meetings in Japan, with Japanese CEOs who spoke impeccable English (without translators). And the same in China too, where the country's young are being groomed in correct English to make inroads into the English-speaking world.

If one can speak correct English, without translators, the one-on-one relationship gives an edge and develops a much stronger sense of rapport with the individual spoken to.

Our children must be given this edge and not be forced to rely on translators to decode their Singlish for the English- speaking world.

The choice has to be made now.

This is an oft repeated argument, & I wholeheartedly support the author of this letter. I always see the die-hards who argue that Singlish should not be put down, that those of us who speak proper English are trying to show off blah blah blah.

The point of the matter is, many Singaporeans think that they speak English when they actually speak Singlish. It is advertised that Singapore is an English speaking country. But the reality is when foreigners visit Singapore & talk to the average man in the street, they find it very difficult to comprehend what he is talking about.

Recently, a friend of mine whose daughter just graduated from an International school in Beijing & is now attending a university in the UK, told me that her daughter noticed that many Singaporean students there tend to clique together. And when they speak, it is difficult for the British people to understand them. That is the sad state of affairs now, with regards to spoken English among Singaporeans, even the most highly educated ones.

Another friend of mine in Beijing, whose son attends immersion classes in Singapore during summer breaks, told me that her son has to switch to speaking in Singlish during his stints in the Singaporean school (an elite school, no less), otherwise he is ostracized & made fun of for trying to speak like a foreigner!!! A fine example of xenophobia in Singapore, which, unfortunately, is not that uncommon these days.

Singlish should be treated as a dialect of its own. And learning PROPER English is a must for Singaporeans, if they want to be understood by others. Keep Singlish, by all means. But know when to use it, & when not to. Otherwise we will all sound like we are speaking gibberish when we speak pretend English (i.e. Singlish)

1 comment:

rugs said...

it will be an uphill battle to:
1. instill grammar - the instinctive subconscious type
2. teach inflection to deaf ears
3. go beyond function to something resembling familiarity.

the problem with sgp is that we are functionally not even monolingual. we are poly dialect.