Linguistics in Singapore 
What is Singlish Arh?

Singaporeans blend several local languages into a unique dialect. Ian Tan and Karen Lee consider how this reflects culture and national identity.

Red lanterns crisscrossing the narrow streets of Chinatown in Singapore

‘Singlish,’ Singapore’s unique brand of colloquial English, is the linguistic product of a society whose official common language is English, but which comprises ethnic Chinese, Malays, and Indians in a ratio of roughly 7:2:1. Borrowing freely from various dialects for its vocabulary, grammatical structures and spoken accent, Singlish has evolved into a creole that often leaves uninitiated outsiders laughing, or reeling from incomprehension. Singaporeans themselves don’t seem to know quite what to think: opposing camps either see it as a cultural treasure or a national embarrassment. The Singaporean government’s infamous ‘Speak Good English’ campaign of the past decade has met, arguably, with little success, but has provoked much heated debate over what the government’s role can, or should be, in language.

It is clear that Singlish is a live issue, but aiyoh, why they so extra? [“For goodness’ sake, why all the fuss?”] One might reasonably suggest in kind that everyone just jan-gan tension [“Calm down, take it easy.”] Why so much fuss over a few lahs and lohs? This little exchange in itself, more closely examined, sheds some light on the subject in question. It is a well-worn cliché that Singlish reflects Singapore’s cultural diversity: ‘Aiyoh’, ‘lah’ and ‘loh’ are generic Chinese exclamations; the familiar English word ‘extra’ is used here to mean any kind of excessive behaviour, in an example of characteristic fast and loose Singlish treatment of other languages; and ‘jangan’ is a Malay word meaning “don’t”, here colourfully blended with the English word ‘tension’. In a single cosmopolitan stroke, terms and expressions with their origins in the myriad languages spoken by Singaporeans have been casually integrated into a single tongue.

An English speaker coming to this topic with no background knowledge – and discovering there’s more to faking a Singaporean accent than tagging a ‘lah’ on to every beautifully-formed Standard English sentence – would be forgiven at this point for experiencing an urge to vomit blood, which is the literal translation of the Hokkien expression ‘tor hwee’.

Singlish, however, is a strangely intuitive language, and during its evolution away from its original sources, it has developed an internal logic of its own. Often the expressions are vivid and simple images – a large imagination is not required to understand the extreme frustration implied by “vomit blood”. Certain roughly common grammatical features of the Chinese and Malay languages and their variants have also been major influences on the structure of Singlish due to demographic and cultural prevalence. For example, the English verb ‘to be,’ which in Standard English plays the special and compulsory role of linking subject and predicate, is almost invariably omitted in most forms of Singlish – ‘why [are] they so extra…?’

The complex relationship Singlish has with Singapore’s multiculturalism raises the question: to what extent can language be used as an example of a Singaporean ‘national identity’ as opposed to a fragmented society? Whilst the apparent mixture of different mother tongues seems to suggest literal inter-cultural understanding and interaction, it must be acknowledged to be more complex than that.

Many words are commonly understood in Singlish to have a particular meaning, but it’s often one totally divorced from their meanings in the original source language. Sekali, a common Malay word, is used in Singlish to convey a cautionary sentiment [‘What would happen if, unexpectedly…?’], as in, ‘You everyday go to work late and leave so early, sekali your boss find out, how?’ But it doesn’t mean that at all in Malay: it means ‘once,’ denoting a one-time occurrence. It’s doubtful that most Singlish speakers know this.

There are as many sub-variants of Singlish as there are social groups in Singapore. More than just a linguistic phenomenon, Singlish is also a window into the soul of Singaporean society.

The official governmental response to Singlish illustrates Singapore’s duality: desiring to be at once standard and distinctive. The view of the government is that English proficiency is a sine qua non of economic competitiveness. This means that the proper place of ‘lah’ and all its embarrassing suaku friends (suaku being Hokkien for ‘mountain tortoise’, implying “country bumpkin”) can only be in the dustbin of history. This debate about the Speak Good English campaign is often subsumed into the greater debate of how much the nation should give up for policy goals of stability and economic performance.

More importantly, perhaps, language can be used as a marker of identity. Insofar as Singlish may play such a role, it must be raised to a standard; the perception that Singlish is a mere linguistic error has to be overcome. This standardisation would involve clearing the air on the deeply political issue of who has been deciding, and who gets to decide, the “truth” of Singlish.

Variance and society

While certain features are mutually intelligible, Singlish, like any language or variant, is far from homogenous. The blanket term ‘Singlish’ spans and obscures myriad variations of generation, class, and ethnicity. As in the case of regional dialects, social groups in Singapore may be distinguished by the variant and style of their Singlish.

Someone of an older generation inviting you out for a togo session might leave today’s younger Singaporeans flummoxed; it is a derivation from a Malay word, ‘gogok’, which means to gulp, and as a word for a night out drinking has largely fallen out of use with the younger set. Chinese, Malays and Indians in Singapore speak Singlish with obviously different accents, which are partly dependent on the other languages they speak. There is also an occasional tendency to insert non-English words in speech, which often leaves other Singaporeans of different language backgrounds confused.

Singaporeans with higher educational qualifications often pronounce the finer consonants, such as the ‘th’ in ‘three’ or ‘t’ in ‘don’t’, whilst those with lower educational qualifications or non-English-speaking backgrounds often substitute them for “simpler” ones or altogether omit them, to the extent that ‘three’ is often pronounced as ‘tree,’ and ‘don’t’ is often pronounced as ‘don.’ Grammar usage also corresponds to these strata: the more highly educated one is in the English language, the closer to standard English one is likely to speak.

For now, while Singlish is spoken in a large variety of contexts, there continues to be an implicit recognition amongst Singaporeans that Singlish remains a colloquial tongue and that its proper place remains in informal, “private” settings. Standard English continues to be recognised as the proper medium of communication in official, “public” settings, such as in the mainstream media, government publications, and public notices.

Transactions and translations

The government argues that Singlish is detrimental to the Singaporean economy, and endangers its perceived economic edge over other Asian countries. More importantly, it is about building and maintaining impressions; if Singapore wants to truly take on the global market, it must (so the argument goes) be able to truly straddle East and West, and present itself as an equal part of both.

To this end, the government of Singapore’s infamous Speak Good English Movement, conceived in 2000, has taken the form of organized Standard English courses and related promotional events, resources for schoolchildren and workers seeking to improve their business communications, as well as simple, forceful publicity. Results have been mixed at best; there is little indication that the majority of Singaporeans now speak more Standard English than when the movement was first launched. It has also been noted that all the helpful posters that read, ‘Don’t say [Singlish phrase], say [Standard English phrase] instead!’ only serve to highlight how much more vivid and succinct Singlish can be.

The correct conclusion to draw from this argument would not be the straightforward eradication of Singlish, but the evaluation of a more complex tradeoff between the additional economic benefits of full-blown bilingualism and the social and cultural value of an organically-evolved, indigeneous dialect. This value could turn out to be very substantial, not least for a nation that is barely forty-five years old, whose citizens still face internal debate and uncertainty over the nature and future direction of their national identity.

One might reply that bilingualism is open to compromise; preferential treatment could be given to English education over that of all other languages from Mandarin Chinese and Malay to the various Indian languages. This approach, however, raises still larger questions about what the conception of Singapore’s future is, and whether it is one of a genuinely multicultural society, or a nation which aspires to cultural homogeneity.

The truth of (a) language

Is Singlish really just a “wrong” version of English?

Critics argue that it is, and that it is consequently a reflection of the failure of Singapore’s linguistic education system. A certain degree of Singlish “exceptionalism”, however, persists in the more strident rhetoric of the Speak Good English campaigners. Those who argue for the cultural value of Singlish point to other examples of linguistic variance, from internationally incomprehensible Geordie, Scots or Irish English in the United Kingdom itself, to the various creoles and patois of the Caribbean.

Moreover, sophisticated observers may note that linguistic variance occurs more or less constantly across most societies and between different countries, especially in the case of English. It is not surprising if an Australian is unable to immediately understand a thick Scottish accent or Cockney slang. If what critics mean is that all English-speakers ought to speak “standard international English”, then perhaps they should just say so, and apply the terms ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to local accents of English elsewhere in the world. If not – if one accepts some relativity in linguistic standards – some other additional justification is required for condemning Singlish as a mere linguistic mistake. At the moment, no such justification appears forthcoming.

Similarly, the Singapore government’s Speak Good English campaign has often been derided as an example of characteristically Singaporean nanny-state behaviour. Unsurprisingly, however, it finds counterparts in the Indian and Chinese governments’ reactions to “Hinglish” and “Chingrish” respectively. The common thread between these phenomena is a concern that everyone ought to speak Standard English.

The translation from Singlish: "Stop being such a douche and buy a drink"

The mentality that states “Singlish is just wrong” is unsympathetic to the development of local variations that are expressions of linguistic adaptation to local contexts. In a closely related matter, though, it also tends to neglect the essential fact that language is an expression of culture, thought and way of life. Accordingly, such “linguistic authoritarianism” may have far larger implications for a  society than its authors expect.

This explains what distinguishes the reaction of the Singaporean government from that of others. It is not their paternalism. It is the fact that Singapore aspires towards having English as the first language of the country, in contrast to the situation in India and China.

Ultimately, the outcome of what is to be deemed “correct” and “wrong” language depends on conflicting views of society, and is hence a deeply political issue. The government, in giving Singaporeans a piece of its mind on the issue, is merely one among many with interests at stake. A disagreement of ideals demands compromise and dialogue, and not well-intentioned but ill-informed exhortations to “Speak Good English”: can we truly expect a piece of mind to translate into peace of mind?