I read with interest Professor Kishore Mahbubani's piece on why Singaporeans should speak their national language, Bahasa Melayu ("Big Idea No. 5: Speak the National Language"; June 14).
I agree with him that for economic and political reasons, Singaporeans should learn to speak Malay. In fact, I think it should be offered as a second language in schools.
I doubt very much, however, whether it can ever become a language that will make our nation a more cohesive one.
After all, as Prof Kishore pointed out, not many Singaporeans can speak the language these days. With the majority of the population being non-Malay, it will be difficult for them to have an incentive to learn the language. Through my interactions with people at work, I was surprised to learn that quite a number of Malay children are not interested in learning it either, just as many Chinese and Indian students are reluctant to learn their mother tongue.
Whether one likes it or not, in generations to come, Singlish will become a "language" spoken by the majority of Singaporeans of all races. It will be a dialect that will unify us and identify us as Singaporean.
Many Singaporeans these days discourage the use of Singlish as they argue that it could hamper communication with other English-speaking nationals.
This need not be so as long as one is made aware that Singlish is not English, but an evolving dialect spoken by Singaporeans.
Just as one does not speak Hokkien or Teochew to other English-speaking nationals at work, one should not speak Singlish to those who do not understand it. As a Singaporean, I often speak Singlish at home and with my kaki ("friends"). At work, however, I speak English to non-Singaporeans.
As long as one makes this clear distinction between Singlish and English, there is nothing wrong with speaking and developing Singlish as our unofficial national "language".
Lee Woon Kwang (Dr)
This article was first published on June 17, 2014.
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