“Dey, makan or dabao?”
Four words, four different languages.
Or just one, if you consider that sentence Singlish, instead of Tamil, Malay, English and Mandarin.
It’s our unofficial official language
If you’re Singaporean, you probably grew up with Singlish. You might have spoken it at home, in school, and possibly even in the workplace.
It’s something uniquely and perhaps exclusively Singaporean – only a true blue Singaporean would know all the vocabulary and nuances of Singlish, which some kantang (potato, or Westernised Singaporean) might not be aware of.
An uninitiated ang moh might be left scratching his head when locals enthusiastically reply “steady!” instead of just “yes”, while those unaware of just how kiasu Singaporeans are, may wonder why there’s a tuition centre or three in every mall.
Personally, I love Singlish.
But unfortunately, not everyone feels the same way about it.
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Depending on who you ask, Singlish is either a local treasure or a detriment and danger to the country.
Why do so many Singaporeans seem to hate Singlish?
There are two sides of the great Singlish argument: on the one hand, it’s uniquely “us” – it is shaped by our culture, history and people and is something no other country can accurately recreate.
On the other hand, perhaps it is too uniquely “us” – to the point where the language’s syntax and lexicon may leave Singaporeans disadvantaged in an increasingly globalised world.
In 1999, after the rise in popularity of local sitcom Phua Chu Kang, the then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew said: “The more the media makes Singlish socially acceptable, the more we make people believe that they can get by with Singlish.
“This will be a disadvantage to the less educated half of the population.” He then pithily denounced Singlish as “a handicap we must not wish on Singaporeans”.
The then Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, said of those who speak Singlish: “They are doing a disservice to Singapore.”
Now, almost two decades later, Singlish is still alive, but taking hit after hit.
Anti-Singlish letters have poured into The Straits Times Forum: like this one that attacked Singlish for “serving only to confuse and hinder the learning of standard English”, thus causing Singaporeans to be “hampered by their inability to be understood globally.”
While some consider it warm and familiar, there are those who think it is crude and uncouth.
Singapore’s suppression of Singlish is similar to its past strategic culling of dialects, like Hokkien, in favour of business-friendly Mandarin.
“Singapore used to be like a linguistic tropical rainforest — overgrown, and a bit chaotic but very vibrant and thriving,” said Tan Dan Feng, a language historian in Singapore, to The New York Times, about Singapore’s diverse dialects.
“Now, after decades of pruning and cutting, it’s a garden focused on cash crops: learn English or Mandarin to get ahead and the rest is useless, so we cut it down.”
The same could be said about Singlish.
Singlish isn’t all bad
But, while some think Singlish reflects poorly on our education standards, the truth is that Singlish is so much more than just bad English.
First, it’s a linguistic representation of the harmony in Singapore.
Singapore’s pioneer in English Literature, Professor Edwin Thumboo, said this about Singlish: “We have taken the language, and it is ours. We put our special words into it. Our spirit, our style, our idiosyncrasies.”
It was born from generations of different races living and working together harmoniously. Our rojak (eclectic mix) language beautifully represents the melting pot of races, religions and cultures that helped shaped Singapore into what it is today.
Plus, it was born from a very Singaporean characteristic: efficiency. Singlish sentences are short, and to the point – think “Why cannot?” instead of “Why can’t I do this?”. Singlish doesn’t fuss about the difference between a long and short vowel – like how many Singaporeans ‘pill’, instead of peel, bananas.
Secondly, as Singapore changes, so does Singlish.
Think how, in recent months, thanks to a Social Studies textbook gone viral, the terms ‘low-ses’ and ‘high-ses’ (pronounced ‘ses’, not ‘S-E-S’) have become assimilated into the Singlish lexicon and are on their way to replace the words, “poor” and “rich”.
Dr Peter Tan, a senior lecturer in the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) department of English language and literature, told Today that he sees Singlish as a “variety of English that has developed in the context of mixing, and the particular kinds of mixing that we have make it Singaporean”.
Singaporean literary critic, Gwee Li Sui, writes: “Singlish is nimble, practical and dynamic — everyone who speaks it shapes it.”
Ultimately, Singlish is dynamic and evolving constantly.
Dr Jakob Leimbruger, an assistant professor at the English department of the University of Freiburg in Germany, has been introducing Singlish in classes since 2007. He said to The Straits Times that there is no end to potential changes in Singlish.
It’s a language that every Singaporean helps to shape.
Thirdly, it’s the glue that helps Singaporeans connect easily with one another.
“It’s a bit of a secret language. It’s a mark of friendship, and automatically, you become closer,” Associate Professor Tan, who heads the Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) division of linguistics and multilingual studies, told Today.
Whenever I travel overseas, it’s easy to spot another Singaporean: from our eagerness to join queues, to our smartphone and selfie addictions, and of course, our Singlish.
Nothing beats the feeling of familiarity when I hear someone speaking Singlish. Plus, I know if there’s another group of Singaporeans in the cafe, that the food has passed their gastronomical standards.
Does Singlish have a place in our Lah Lah Land?
In a formal setting, Singlish can come off as unprofessional and incomprehensible to many other English speakers in the world.
And, with globalisation showing no signs of stopping, Singapore needs to further cement its position as a global financial hub in order to stay relevant.
It’s true that we have to continue to attract foreign investors and ensure we communicate effectively with them. And perhaps it’s also true that Singlish might hamper our ability to be understood – imagine saying “steady pom pi pi!” in admiration about a colleague, only to be met by perplexed silence.
Yet, as much as I understand the government’s need to promote proper English, it doesn’t have to be at the expense of Singlish.
Trust in Singaporeans to be able to speak both: Singlish at home or the kopitiam, and English in the boardroom.
Singaporeans have embraced Singlish and found success: from the author of Sarong Party Girls writing the entirety of her book in Singlish, or artistes like Thelioncityboy paying homage to the language through songs like Yaya.
Language isn’t binary – Singlish doesn’t have to be replaced by English in order for Singapore to thrive.
Simply put, Singlish isn’t swee (perfect), but it’s part of our national identity, lah. Can don’t be so quick to censor it?