Singlish shows up a Singapore failure

Singlish shows up a Singapore failure

Author Lee Hui Min covers a range of topics in her book, Growing Up In Lee Kuan Yew's Era. This edited excerpt is from a chapter on language.

Nowadays, Singlish can be heard everywhere in public. Even foreigners can say a word or two in Singlish if they have lived in Singapore long enough.

Many think that by adding a lah or a leh it's Singlish. As Singlish is not a standard form of language, everyone has his own view on this very Singaporean form of spoken language.

There are some commonly-used Singlish words and phrases, including these examples:

Why you lai that? (The speaker is too lazy to pronounce the word, like, properly.)

What he talking ah? I catch no ball! (Catch no ball is a direct translation from a Hokkien phrase meaning "cannot understand".)

Want go makan? (Makan means 'eat' in Malay.)

Ask so much for what? So kaypoh! (Kaypoh is Hokkien for busybody.)

Singlish has become a language for communication among Singaporeans and a reflection of their identity.

Some people use Singlish out of sheer laziness, as there are no grammatical rules to follow. And some can switch to using proper standard English at formal occasions if they chose to do so.

But others can speak only Singlish because they have not mastered good English. And when they step out of the country, they realise immediately that no one understands them. With their inadequate vocabulary, they usually also fail to express their deeper thoughts well in English and give others the impression that they are shallow thinkers.

In television news programmes we often see the man in the street being interviewed. Whether in English or Chinese, the person speaks so poorly he often does not make sense.

Maybe people are just too nervous before the camera. But this problem with expressing themselves clearly seems to be more serious among Singaporeans.

Let me give an example. I was once on a bus in Singapore and overheard a quarrel between a woman from China and her teenage son. He was not happy with the way she was interfering with his choice of friends and said a lot of nasty things which hurt his mother deeply.

Holding back her tears and speaking in Mandarin, she said in a low voice: "Do you know what you have just said? Do you know that every word you uttered is piercing my heart and breaking it into pieces?"

The son, gritting his teeth, replied angrily: "I just don't like you asking me my whereabouts. You can't interfere with whom I mix with."

I know it is wrong to eavesdrop, but their exchange was too riveting. Their conservation kept playing in my mind long after I got off the bus. It made me wonder if the exchange would have been as dramatic if it was between an English woman and her son, or if there would have been some swear words if they had been American.

But what if it was a Singapore mother and her son? It might well have sounded like this: "Why do you have to say such things? You know you say this way I am very hurt?"

The Singapore mother would be no less hurt than that Chinese woman, but she would be unable to express the Depth of her feelings and emotions.

And the Singapore son would probably retort with: "Ask you don't care oredi who I go out with, why you care so much?"

You hear that kind of exchange in a Jack Neo movie, where characters with very complex emotions are capable of communicating with only basic words and phrases.

The Singapore government has long been worried about Singlish and how, if it became a dominant language for Singaporeans, they may lose the ability to communicate with the outside world. To avoid this tragic outcome, the government started another language campaign: The Speak Good English Movement!

More than 10 years ago, the television sit-com Phua Chu Kang told the story of a lowly educated contractor who spoke only Singlish. Audiences could immediately identify with him, and even children were imitating the way he spoke. Despite the exaggeration, some traits and characteristics of Phua Chu Kang could be found in almost every Singaporean.

It took former prime minister Goh Chok Tong to express concern and suggest, half in jest, that Phua Chu Kang should go back to school for some proper English lessons.

However, if Phua Chu Kang spoke the Queen's English like Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the TV character would not have been as familiar or popular. He would have come across as somewhat removed from the rest of us, rather like Mr Lee.

Let us not argue whether there is value in Singlish. The fact remains that there are young Singaporeans unwilling to give up Singlish because of their weakness in expressing themselves well on the one hand, and as a form of protest against authority on the other. They believe they are preserving their own unique lingo.

Actually, I would like to be on their side in defending Singlish. I would even ask why not promote Singlish simply because it is a truly Singapore product? Isn't it logical for Singaporeans to speak Singlish? But if we use identity to justify or explain our present language situation, we may be missing a very big problem.

Some of our students have a very high standard of English. They usually come from English-speaking homes with good backgrounds. So they have a solid foundation in English. But if our students need the help of tutors or must come from good English-speaking homes before they can master the English language, something is very wrong with the way English is taught in our schools.

The older generation spoke English with a mix of other languages because they had no chance to learn the language in a proper and systematic manner. But today's younger generation have all had at least 10 years of formal, mainstream English education. And if they still cannot speak English well and write properly in the language, it is totally unforgivable.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew once praised the beautiful language he read in Harvard University's campus newspaper and lamented that Singaporeans' English would never reach such a high standard.

But given our education system, how do we expect our students to care about the beauty of the language they use? Moreover, society's expectations of language remain at a practical level for communication purposes only, rather than to stress the importance of good pronunciation, or beauty in expression.

So although Singlish may make us feel closer to one another and brings with it a strong sense of the Singapore identity, the language is coarse and unrefined. Its widespread use shows up a serious shortcoming in our language teaching and education system.

Translated from Chinese by Leong Weng Kam

Prosaic reality Given our education system, how do we expect our students to care about the beauty of the language they use? Moreover, society's expectations of language remain at a practical level for communication purposes only, rather than to stress the importance of good pronunciation, or beauty in expression.

This article was published on May 4 in The Straits Times.

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