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Singlish — a uniquely Singaporean threat

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.

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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.




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.”



Eugene K B Tan is associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University School of Law

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