Singlish is okay, la
In 2000, then prime minister Goh Chok Tong introduced to Singaporeans the Speak Good English Movement, aimed to persuade us to speak proper English and rid us of the bastardised, colloquial version more commonly known as Singlish.
A little over a decade later, the government continues to pursue this senseless and detrimental goal. While there are many fundamental flaws with this campaign, perhaps it is best to begin with its namesake. Good English. What is good English? Who defines it? Is good English spoken by the British? Americans? Australians? Nobody knows – till today, academics are still constantly arguing over it. Turns out good English is something you can’t even define. What bollocks.
With the advent of globalisation, English has traversed all over the world and found its way to the tongues of many. To put it simply, the English can claim indisputable ownership to lots of things – the Queen and her corgis, royal weddings, Manchester United, Harry Potter – but English (the language) is not one of them.
From Bangkok to Calgary, humans have modified languages for their own easy usage. Not the other way around. Sure, occasionally, people lament at their own idiosyncratic use of English – but none demonise it and start a witch-hunt (not till 2000, at least).
Some American’s go Howdy. Australians say G’day. Even within the United Kingdom, more than 40 dialects of English are in circulation, many of which won’t be classified as ‘Good English.’ Surely, you won’t disagree with me if I say that Singaporeans qualify as a people just as much as them? So whats wrong with wielding our own variation?
And besides, Singlish is the far superior option when communicating amongst ourselves. Its our own local remix of a popular song, revitalised by bits of Malay, Mandarin and Tamil and better adapted to our multi-cultural society.
When we want to find out where someone is going, we don’t go, “May I know where are you going?” Instead, we use the far more succinct, direct, “go where?” Two words versus seven. Thrice ￼ the speed. The epitome of cutting-edge Singaporean efficiency.
An analogy: Queen’s English is like one of those antique swords. Fancy, traditional, classy and nice to admire, yet unwieldy, obsolete and impractical. Singlish (and English’s other illegitimate children) are like Japanese katana blades: simplified, no-nonsense and yes, while you sacrifice niceties and politeness, the message gets across. That’s what the whole idea of speech, isn’t it?
I’m not suggesting that we throw English out the window and replace them with Singlish textbooks. Contrary to popular local belief, our country isn’t a superpower. We do not possess vast amounts of oil nor nuclear weapons to use as leverage. We depend on communication and trade to survive. A decent standard of English connects us with the rest of the world and gives them the impression that we are a first world nation with well-educated, trustworthy, honest people. Good. This makes investors and multi-national corporations want to do business with us. Better. And as a result, this makes us wealthy. Best. But learning to speak Good English and wiping out Singlish are two different things.
While we flaunt our high GDP, world-class airport and extravagant casinos, these do not define us as a nation. The relentless pursuit of economic success has left us empty; a city full of cutting-edge architecture, efficient infrastructure and glamorous shopping malls but one with no soul. As we have collectively discovered in recent years, being a Singaporean is not about being able to brag about how affluent or developed your country is. It is about identifying with other Singaporeans. By eating our local dishes – Ba Chor Mee, chilli crab, and ordering multiple glasses of Teh Ping. By complaining about the lack of freedom of speech and media. And last but not least, by speaking Singlish.
The continued efforts at the eradication of Singlish reflect only our self-loathing and lack of confidence as a nation. On one hand, we spend millions of dollars on advertising, hoping to attract tourists with the slogan “Uniquely Singapore.” Yet on the other, we are persuading people to disown a linguistic creation forged by our own kind.
Make no mistake: language is the soul of the people. Singlish, an irreplaceable part of our identity. Embrace it. Accept it. Never mind that Microsoft Word underlines our expressions with squiggly red lines, la.