Page 1

why so like that we go first what you say ah huh

i dont know lah why she so one kind one uncle, i want one kopi-kosong he damn fierce

ah wah piang eh say say only

Singlish,lah! this one pow-ka-leow

don’t play

play okay jia lat man so cheena pok

one ah wah he very low class leh don’t come and ji seow me

mata come i ga-

bra already ser-ka-li why he so kpo one

shiok shiok

i come and hoot you

choy dont anyhow say okay wah she so garang one

2 Singlish, lah!

the quest to speak good

English It’s been ten years since the then Prime Minister Mr. Goh Chok Tong made a National Day Rally speech and mentioned the word ‘Singlish’ eleven times. How far have we come? By Elizabeth Lee

Singlish, lah! 3


here are books everywhere in this room. Some are lined up neatly on shelves, some stacked on the study table and some are even piled precariously on a sturdy wooden chair. Ten years ago, this room was the study room of a 40-something year old man. Today, it has been converted into a child’s bedroom and is home to ten-year-old Isaac Lee. But out of all the books that are in his room, he excitedly picks up a 163-page book entitled, “An Essential Guide to Speaking Singlish” and says that this is his favourite book amongst all the other books. On the cover, a cartoon version of Sir Stamford

Raffles ensures what could only be the then Sultan of Johor, Tengku Hussein when he arrives on Singapore (or Temasek as it was known then) soil that not only does he speak English, “Singlish also can”[sic].

As he pages though the book, Isaac occasionally stops to show off his favourite parts of the book. “I like this page the most! The comic is really funny and it always makes me laugh. When I showed it to my friends in school, we decided to act it out. It was so hilarious all of us couldn’t stop laughing,” he says with a cheeky grin on his face. “I don’t know why his father had to buy him that book. His English

Isaac does some exercises in an English assessment book.

4 Singlish, lah! is bad enough as it is; now he goes around peppering ‘lahs’ and ‘lors’ in almost all his sentences,” laments his mother, 49-year-old housewife, Joan Tan. “It was amusing at first, but now I think it’s frustrating! How will he be able to learn proper English?”

I don’t see the need to forbid Singlish, it’s a natural thing! Out of class, who actually speaks proper English?”

Madam Tan’s concerns are not one in a million. In fact, the Singapore government has been avidly encouraging Singaporeans to stop speaking Singlish and start speaking good English in the past ten years.

Cultivate the need to speak good English from young

In 1999, our then Prime Minister, Mr. Goh Chok Tong mentioned the word ‘Singlish’ eleven times in his National Day Rally speech. He urged Singaporeans to curb their use of Singlish and focus on speaking “good English” instead. He reasoned that “if [students] get into the habit of speaking Singlish, then later they will either have to unlearn these habits, or learn proper English on top of Singlish. Many pupils will find this too difficult. They may end up unable to speak any language properly, which would be a tragedy.” In the following months after that speech, Singapore’s favourite (Singlish-spouting) TV show contractor, Phua Chu Kang, went

for BEST English classes, 8,000 Primary School English teachers were made to go through compulsory grammar classes and the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM) was officially launched on 29 April 2000.

Today, all primary school teachers have to go through grammar classes, says primary school teacher, Amelia Ng. “We go through two types of classes – the Curriculum Studies class where we learn how to teach English and the Subject Knowledge class where it gets technical and we are the students,” the 22-year-old says.

Exams are round the corner: Final Year St Cafe.

“Singlish makes

“There is a huge debate about the use of colloquial English because whilst it is a reality in real life, we are the models for our students and should not be speaking Singlish in class. Ultimately, we want our students to speak good English so that it will be a asset to them when they go out into the working world”.

“Singlish is used by the young more so than the older generation”, says Dr. Tan Ying Ying, a Linguistics Professor from Nanyang Technological University. “So, for me it’s quite clear that the Speak Good English Movement is targetted at the young”

Speak a language the whole world under-

English Conversation classes are offered a are interested in brushing up their Englis

tudents hard at work at a Starbucks

s people laugh”

at Community Centres for people who sh speaking skills.

Singlish, lah! 5

stands Another rationale the government gives for learning to speak good English is the need to be understood by English-speakers all over the world. During the 2008 launch of a SGEM tailored for service sector, Minister Lim Boon Heng from the Prime Minister’s Office reiterated what was highlighted in PM Goh’s speech in 1999. “English is the most widely spoken language. Thus it is important that we speak good English. As Singapore hosts more and more international events, like the Youth Olympics and the F1, and as we develop more tourist attractions like the IRs, it becomes even more important that Singaporeans are able to converse in good English”, Minister Lim said.

“There are times when I am conversing with my Singaporean colleagues and I would have to stop them and ask them to explain certain words and phrases to me because I didn’t understand them”, 26-year-old Indonesian Dimitri Tjandera says. The graphic designer also remembers some of the problems he had with Singlish when he arrived in Singapore in December 2007. “There were times when I didn’t know what some people were saying, so I thought they were scolding or swearing at me!”, recalled Mr.


On top of speaking good English, Singaporeans should learn to speak in a neutral accent too, said PM Goh. “Most of us speak with a Singaporean accent. We are so used to hearing it that we probably don’t notice it. But we should speak a form of English that is understood by the British, Americans, Australians, and people around the world”. But there are questions as to what exactly is a ‘neutral accent’.

“There are linguists that say we are moving into an era where there is an International standard of English – where English that is spoken is internationally understood by everyone. I can use the same words, construct the same sentences, and I will be speaking International English, but there will be inflections in my speech that will still have colourings of where I come from”, says Dr. Tan

How far have we come?

So has SGEM actually improved the standards of English in Singapore?

“Singaporeans have a way of shortening long sentences into nice compact phrases. It’s wonderfully time-saving!”

A survey carried out by students from Singapore Polytechnic School of Business in November 2007 found that 66% of the adults aged between 1539 that they interviewed claimed that

6 Singlish, lah!

Street Poll

they felt their English had improved over the past two years.

We took to the streets and surveyed 100 people on their thoughts According to their findings, the about SGEM and Singlish. survey found that Singaporeans made the effort to speak proper English when they were conversNo ing with their superiors, clients, 13% customers or business associates. I don't know 18%

27-year-old Procurement officer Tan Enzheng agrees. “Back in school, language was an inforYes mal thing. Now at the workplace, 69% there are clients and bosses to impress. I need to speak good Q: I am aware of the Speak Good EngEnglish because I do not want to lish Movement. be misunderstood. I love Singlish, A: Yes, 69% No, 13% but speaking it at the workplace I don’t know, 18% may make you come across as unprofessional”, the NTU graduNo ate shares. 17%

But Dr. Tan says, “How do we gauge whether someone has improved or not? What are the criteria or tests that one carries one? To me, one’s language Yes proficiency or the judgement of 72% whether one has improved or not Q: Is Singlish important to Singapor- cannot be simply ‘said’ like that. I don't know 11%

ean identity? A: Yes, 72% No, 17% I don’t know, 11%

Primary school teacher Miss Ng too says she does not see the how speaking more or less Singlish may result in her students speaking better or worst English.

“I do correct my students when they make any grammatical errors when they are answering a question that I have asked in class”, she says. “But if I hear my students speaking to one another in Singlish, I try not to interfere. Q: Is the government right in mak- I don’t see the need to forbid ing Singaporeans speak only good Singlish, it’s a natural thing! Out English? of class, who actually speaks the A: Yes, 42% No, 26% Queen’s English?” I don’t know, 32%

“Who actually speaks the Queen’s English?” It’s a Singaporean thing Miss Ng admits that while she may come across as blasé, she says she takes her role as an educator very seriously. The main reason why she does not try to correct every single Singlish word or phrase she hears is because she herself converses in Singlish with her friends and family. “It’s a much more relaxed and informal way of communication. If all of us were to interact with each other in proper Queen’s English, it would just be too odd and stilted!”, she exclaims.

“When I order food at a hawker centre, I speak in Singlish. When I first arrived in Singapore, I ordered my food in ‘proper’ English and was greeted by a puzzled look from the aunty. It’s the culture here and though it got some getting use to, I use Singlish very often now and I love it”, Mr. Tjandera says. “Singaporeans have a way of shortening long sentences into nice compact phrases. It’s wonderfully time-saving!”

Isaac sums it up by saying, “There are so many funny Singlish jokes. They always make people laugh; I don’t see anything wrong with it. I think Singlish is special, it makes me happy to know that all Singaporeans speak this language.” Which begs the question, Singlish really cannot meh?

Singlish, lah! 7

why so like that we go first what you say ah huh

i dont know lah why she so one kind one uncle, i want one kopi-kosong he damn fierce

ah wah piang eh say say only

cannot meh? this one pow-ka-leow

don’t play

play okay jia lat man so cheena pok

one ah wah he very low class leh don’t come and ji seow me

mata come i ga-

bra already ser-ka-li why he so kpo one

shiok shiok

i come and hoot you

choy dont anyhow say okay wah she so garang one

Singlish, lah!  

A look at Singlish almost a decade after the launch of the Speak Good English Movement.

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