Published on Saturday, 20 April 2013 00:00
Hate it or love it, everybody in Singapore uses Singlish. I have been in Singapore my whole life. I am a local. Though, unlike most of my peers, I was handicapped; I did not know my "lahs" from my "mahs".
I was Singlish deficient. I spent my childhood and youth, sometimes feeling like an outcaste. My parents had made Singlish a taboo, long before the government did. It was not until I enlisted into the army that I realized the severity of my handicap -- almost everyone around me sounded like they were speaking in tongues. Even my friend, a Russian permanent resident who enlisted along with me, could speak Singlish.
I was not willing to be outdone by a Russian, so I set about absorbing the words, phrases and connotations. Soon, ordering a cup of tea from the neighborhood coffee-shop became a whole lot easier.
A coffee-shop in the heartlands -- is this the type of place where you could expect to hear Singlish? Definitely; but lately, not exclusively. The Singaporean government has been waging a war on Singlish (the Speak Good English Movement) since 2000.
"No point lah!"
It has been more than 10 years since the government started trying to stamp out Singlish. They have, for a lack of a better word, failed. Singlish has crept its way from the slums into the city. Eloquent looking youngsters from Singapore's elite schools converse in Singlish. Important looking businessmen, dressed in suits complete with expensive cufflinks, make big business deals in Singlish. Foreign looking foreigners can often be seen making good use of "lahs" and "ahs".
I emphasize: Everybody seems to be using Singlish. Everybody is exploiting it.
I have been a Singlish user now for about 3 years. I use it in secret, of course, when I am out of earshot from my parents. Hwee Hwee Tan, a not-so-well-known journalist for Time Magazine Online, describes Singlish as being "inventive, witty and colorful". She nailed it.
That's it! Isn't it? That is exactly why more and younger Singaporeans are latching on to Singlish. Take for example, me. I'm a young Singaporean, and I keep my radar switched on for things that are marvelously unique. The lure of something unique and different has always been irresistible. I say, if Singlish is inventive, witty and colorful, then all the more I’m going to speak it.
"Huh? What talking you??"
I am totally against the government's efforts to murder and bury Singlish, with the "Speak Good English Movement". In 1999, Singapore's Former Prime Minister, now Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong made the following pronouncement on Singlish:
"Singlish is broken, ungrammatical English sprinkled with words and phrases from local dialects and Malay which English speakers outside Singapore have difficulties understanding...my message that we must speak Standard English is targeted primarily at the younger generation...We should ensure that the next generation does not speak Singlish."
What complete and utter rubbish. Most Singaporeans today, are well educated. We fully understand the importance of speaking and writing proper English. For example, if I were to see a tourist who looks lost, I am going to walk up to him/her and say, "Oh hello! You look like you're lost. Do you need some help with directions?"
I am less likely to say, "Eh...Hallo? You lost ah? Look blur like sotong only. Aiyah come, I help you lah."
"Don't Talk Cock"
Well Mr. Former Prime Minister of Singapore, you do not have to worry. We younger Singaporeans, are not antagonizing foreigners with our broken Singlish.
At any rate, I have always found politicians and their politics to be a paradox. It is a nasty business of broken promises, discrepancies and deviations. I wonder if Mr. Former Prime Minister knew, that in 1998, just a year before he made that statement about needing to shield younger Singaporeans from the linguistic virus known as Singlish, his predecessor remarked in an interview:
"Singlish is a mark of how we have evolved as a nation and should surely have a place in our culture. Embracing Singlish as part of or heritage is not self-deception. It's about not being embarrassed by something that is unique and precious to how we express ourselves."
Obviously, Mr. Former Prime Minister had forgotten what Mr. Former Former Prime Minister had said. Or maybe, like me, he uses Singlish in secret.
When I read that Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, felt strongly against the notion that the younger generation would learn Singlish, I immediately thought of my high school English teacher. Surely Mr. Zainal must have been wary of the dark shadowy form of Singlish that must loom at the back of every English class in the country. Eager to get his point of view, I set up a meeting.
"Teh! Kopi! Milo-Peng!"
On a Sunday we met, for the local variant of tea and scones; "teh" and kaya toast. As I stirred my teh-gah-tai (tea with sweetened condensed milk), I explained to him that I was writing an article about Singlish. All the while, I consciously tried to squeeze into my speech, as much Singlish as I could without sounding like a blithering, incomprehensible idiot.
Mr. Zainal did not flinch.
In fact, he replied back in kind, with bits of Singlish blended seamlessly into what he was saying! My life was a lie. The Mr. Zainal, my high school English teacher, the same tyrant who used to bark at me every time I made stupid mistakes in class, was a fellow Singlish user!
By the end of the session, the consensus was that, Singlish is more a local heritage rather than a threat to our credibility as intellectuals. He also mentioned that most Singaporeans, young and old, understand when to switch between English and Singlish.
Indeed, we do switch between Standard English and Singlish. Code switching is most evident in Singapore's entertainment industry where most comedians employ Singlish to entice a few laughs from their audiences. The Mr. Brown Show, a local pod cast, for example, is notorious for its use of Singlish in its auditory skits.
Perhaps one of the reasons Singlish is so widely used in entertainment is its ability to bring people closer together. Singapore is a melting pot of many races and cultures. Just like its population, Singlish is a rojak (mixture) of the many races and cultures. It is essentially our very own lingua franca.
In entertainment, the comic effect emerges from the deliberate use of Singlish rather than what is being said. I believe that this personalizes the experience between the entertainer and his/her audience. A very clever, conjointly lucrative, use for Singlish eh? The comedians figured it out long before I did.
However, does Singlish only work its magic when one is trying to entertain? I reckon that at the end of the day, if nothing else, Singlish is the one thing that all Singaporeans have in common. We created it. We share it. We own it.
Or maybe not.
My statement about how we own it, might not be entirely accurate. Long ago, when Singaporeans invented Singlish, it did not occur to anyone that they should probably get it copyrighted or trademarked or patented or whatever. Therefore, unfortunately, we do not actually own it. The foreigners, whom Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong had feared, would be put off by Singlish, are genuinely quite fond of it. Oh how the plot thickens...
Not all expatriates experience a barrier when trying to converse in Singlish. In fact, most adapt to the slang with surprising ease. I have yet to meet one who complains about the Singlish in Singapore.
My friend Joseph Lang, an expatriate from New Zealand, feels that using bits of Singlish when conversing with Singaporeans allows him to be more readily accepted by the locals.
Singlish is widespread. It has fought its way through the decades without having to hide. It has escaped extinction. From being seen as an undesirable festering by-product of a language barrier many Singaporeans once had, it is now being associated with words like "witty" and "heritage". Everybody has got their own reasons for using Singlish. English is taught and used in schools across Singapore. It is the country's first language. Even our newspaper is in English. The vast majority of Singaporeans are capable of speaking in Standard English.
So why is it that a country that fundamentally operates in English absolutely insists on using Singlish? Never mind, the Singaporeans; why do the expatriates use it? Singlish has evolved from being a necessity, to being a commodity. We use it not because we need to, but simply because we want to.
Learn Singlish. It’s fun, I promise.