(These are a set of notes and fragments for an essay I intend to write about Singlish)
Let’s take a minute to go back to 1999. It seems like such a quaint time, on retrospect. The Euro was established. Bill Clinton was the POTUS, and Columbine shootings shocked the world, Napster and MSN Messenger make their debuts. ExxonMobil becomes the largest corporation in the world. Stanley Kubrick died. The cinemas brought us Fight Club, The Matrix and Austin Powers. And Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong chided Phua Chu Kang for being a bad influence on children.
Almost 20 years later, and wow, so much has changed.
Times have changed. Today, when you’re driving to the airport you see Huat and Lah on the signage. Mcdonald’s has “makan” on Filet-o-Fish boxes.
What happened? What’s changed?
The Government’s official stance on this hasn’t changed very much.
- Smart-alecky t-shirts. KNNBCCB. Opened the floodgates. Eh sia la, uh uh siol.
- Singaporeans realize you don’t have to be one or the other. We don’t need to pretend to be in love with Colonial…. We can be articulate AND ah lian, thank you very much.
- There’s more to it than meets the eye, though. Why are Singaporeans sudenly so patriotic, so nationalist? I was just a child in the 90s, but it seemed like those were simpler, happier times. People seemed to smile more and laugh more, fight and bicker less. Maybe it’s just a media thing– we now get to see the worst (and best, though!) of ourselves repeatedly on our screens, over and over.
- Foreigners. Foreign talent. Foreign trash. Ah tiongs. Banglas. Pinoys. There are times and places in Singapore where you can stand around and not hear a single word of English. (This happened to me while I was waiting for a friend at I think Aljunied MRT). And sometimes it happens on the train.
In 1999, the country’s late great statesman Lee Kuan Yew declared Singlish “a handicap we must not wish on Singaporeans.”
In 2016, poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui wrote an article in the New York Times titled Do You Speak Singlish
. He focused on the political aspects of Singlish – how phrases like “Mee Siam Mai Hum”, “ownself check ownself” and “flip flop like prata” become useful little fragments of political resistance. A way for ordinary citizens to poke fun at the stern solemnity of bureaucratic government-speak.
You can’t make this up – The PM’s Press Secretary responded to the piece
, saying that not everybody has a PhD like Gwee Li Sui, and can code-switch the way he does.
Not everyone has a Ph.D. in English Literature like Mr. Gwee, who can code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English, and extol the virtues of Singlish in an op-ed written in polished standard English.
Why she so like that?
In 2016, McDonald’s tells us that “now everybody also can atas”.
I find “Now everyone can atas” to be fascinating, because it’s technically impossible. To be atas is to be high-class. It will never be possible for everybody to be high-class. The middle-class can mimic and emulate the high class (notice how the burgers and wedges are presented, mimicking the stylings of the countless brunch places that have popped up over the past few years), but it’s a moving goalpost. Fashion is always changing because high-class people are always disgusted to be associated with the middle-class.
Corporate Singlish is a way of pandering to everyday Singaporeans. Notice that Singapore Airlines does not have a Singlish page, and it does not.
Singlish is and always will be a little uncouth, and that’s how we like it. It’s shorts and singlets and slippers. It’s eating with your hands and spitting out the bones on table.
A biologist named Lewis Thomas once made a fascinating observation that language is something that the entire human species collaboratively builds together. Singlish is a Singaporean effort. It resists repression by the Singapore Government.
“Most people do not have good english – you say it’s a bad influence on children, but is it not… there are 10k tv shows that have proper english and there’s one that’s accurate – are you saying that the way some people talk should not be reflected at all. You don’t talk in singlish at MPS? Comms is what works best not what looks best? Right?” – http://smong.net/2008/08/educating-phua-chu-kang-and-failing.html
Singapore doesn’t dominate world attention, but whenever it ets some, it has always been simultaneously fetishized and mocked by the rest of the world
I’ve often heard from Singaporeans how refreshing it is to hear Singlish in a foreign country – a little spicy taste of home.
MBS infinity pool
Michael Fay caning
https://www.gov.sg/news/content/the-straits-times—moe-no-penalty-for-using-singlish-appropriately – we are a little afraid of having our own thing – this problem is something faced by the rest of the non-english-speaking world too, and it reveals that language is incredibly political, it’s a lot about social status, class, everything.
Singlish is out: http://web.archive.org/web/20000925130805/http://atimes.com/se-asia/AH28Ae05.html
The british council has a course https://www.britishcouncil.sg/english/courses-business/workshops/interpersonal-communication/singlish-english
Can you regulate language? Does it make sense to regulate language? How do other countries manage it? Accent gripes elsewhere?
It’s impossible to imagine Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in the language of the White House, for example. And nor would one want to wade through White House reports written in the fractious language of the Beats.