LANGUAGES IN SINGAPORE: MANDARIN, ENGLISH AND SINGLISH

LANGUAGES IN SINGAPORE

Malay, Chinese, English and Tamil are all official languages. Almost everyone speaks English, which is the business and administrative language. Most of the school curriculum is also in English, which was selected as a national language partly as a way of unifying Singapore's different ethnic groups. Many Chinese Singaporeans speak southern Chinese dialects such as Hokkein, Teochew and Cantonese at home. Hokkein, the Southern Min dialect of Fujian, has traditionally been the primary dialect of Singapore as well as many overseas Chinese communities in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Baba Malay a fusion of Hokkein and Malay is spoken in Singapore and Malaysia. Mandarin, the most widely spoken language in China, is also spoken by many people in Singapore. Bahasa Melayu (also known as Bahasa Malaysian or Malay) is spoken by many Malays. It similar to the language spoken in Indonesia and is not a tonal language like Chinese or Thai. It is not difficult to pick up a few words.

Subway station names and signs on buses are written in all four official languages: Malay Mandarin Chinese, Tamil, and English. Schooling is available in all four of Singapore’s languages. In recent years and throughiut its relatively short history, Singapore has seen a big influx of foreigners who have brought in their own languages and dialects that are incomprehensible to the locals.

Languages: Mandarin (official) 35 percent, English (official) 23 percent, Malay (official) 14.1 percent, Hokkien 11.4 percent, Cantonese 5.7 percent, Teochew 4.9 percent, Tamil (official) 3.2 percent, other Chinese dialects 1.8 percent, other 0.9 percent (2000 census).

Singaporeans speak many different languages, and the majority speak at least two languages. Chinese is the majority language, spoken by about 76 percent of the population. The major Chinese dialect is Minnan, followed by Yue (Cantonese), Mandarin, Hakka, Mindong, Puxian, and Minbei. Although the postindependence generation and most Chinese migrants to Singapore over the centuries spoke southern Chinese dialects, since 1979 the government has promoted fluency in Mandarin Chinese. Other languages, in order of use, are Malay (about 15 percent), English (about 9 percent), and Tamil (about 4 percent). Less frequently spoken languages, in order of use, include Malayalam, Baba Malay (a Malay-Chinese creole), Punjabi, Madurese, Sinhala, Gujarati, and Javanese.

In colonial Singapore, the nearest thing to a common language had been Bazaar Malay, a form of Malay with simplified grammar and a very restricted vocabulary that members of many ethnic groups used to communicate in the marketplace. The government used English, with translators employed when necessary, as in the courts. Among the Chinese a simplified form of Hokkien served as the language of the marketplace. The Chinese schools, which were founded in large numbers in the early years of the twentieth century and associated with the rise of Chinese nationalism, attempted to teach in Mandarin Guoyu, the use of which on such formal occasions as weddings and Chinese national holiday celebrations came to carry some prestige. In the terminology of sociolinguistics, Singapore's language system was multilingual and diglossiac, that is, characterized by two languages or dialects, high and low, or classical and vernacular, each used in different social contexts and carrying differential prestige. Bazaar Malay and market Hokkien were the low languages, employed in the streets and market places, and English and Mandarin were the high languages, used in education, government offices, and public celebrations. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In addition, such native tongues as pure Malay, Teochiu, Tamil, or Punjabi were used in the home and in gatherings of members of the same speech group. In a 1972 survey asking which language people understood, Hokkien came first, at 73 percent, followed by Malay, with 57 percent. Malay was the most important language for intergroup communication, with almost all the Indians and 45 percent of the Chinese claiming to understand it. English came second, understood by 47 percent of the total population. A follow-up survey in 1978 showed that 67 percent claimed to understand Malay and 62 percent to comprehend English. As the 1990s approached English was replacing Malay as the common language. It was used not only as the high language but also, in its Singlish variant, as a low language of the streets. Bazaar Malay was declining, and Malay in its full native complexity was increasingly used only by Malays. Even though it was one of the four official languages and the putative "mother tongue" of the Indian community, Tamil was used less often and literacy in Tamil was reported to be declining. *

Chinese Languages in Singapore

Hokkein, the Southern Min dialect of Fujian, traditionally has been the primary dialect of many ethnic Chinese in Singapore as well as among Chinese in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Teochew, the Southern Min dialect of Chaozhou is the primary dialect of the Overseas Chinese communities in Thailand.

Mandarin is widely spoken in Singapore. “Knowledge of Mandarin "exposes us to the world of Chinese theater, dance, music, film, drama and literature," said Mah Bow Tan, Singapore's minister for national development, told the International Herald Tribune in 2001. "It also facilitates our dealings with China - Asia's potential economic powerhouse." But the standard of Mandarin spoken in Singapore is often low. [Source: Michael Richardson, International Herald Tribune, February 12, 2001 +++]

In the late 1970s a “Speak Mandarin” campaign was launched that coincided with the opening up of China. Mandarin (properly known in China as Putonghua, which means standard speech, and based on the Beijing dialect) is the official language of China. Mandarin is not the most widely spoken language in China. It is also widely spoken in Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia. Baba Malay a fusion of Hokkein and Malay is spoken in Singapore and Malaysia.

Lessons in public schools were largely taught in Chinese until the mid 1970s but today nearly all lessons are taught in English. There also has traditionally been a greater emphasis on reading British and American classic literature rather than Chinese literature. One issues that is being debated today is whether or not English should be used to offer explanations in Mandarin Chinese classes. Constraints on Chinese-language education are only moderate.

Pang Cheng Lian, first vice president of the United Overseas Bank and an executive committee member of the Chinese Heritage Center, is among those concerned about what they saw as the declining standard of Mandarin in Singapore. "Just as English-speaking Singaporeans worry about the development of Singlish, they are concerned that the Chinese here will end up as a nation of 'Singnese' who mix Mandarin with dialect, English and Malay," she said. [Source: Michael Richardson, International Herald Tribune, February 12, 2001 +++]

Singapore’s Speak Mandarin Campaign

In 1979. The Singapore government launched a campaign to promote Mandarin to unite under one language Singapore's disparate Chinese communities that spoke a multitude of dialects passed on by their ancestors who came from China in the 19th and early 20th century. Unifying the Chinese majority in a country with sizeable Malay and Indian minorities was a priority and in the early days the Speak Mandarin Campaign discouraged ethnic Chinese from speaking the dialects that prevailed such as Hokkien. [Source: Reuters]

The campaign to replace the Chinese "dialects" with Mandarin, called the "mother tongue,” was the most ambitious aspect of Singapore's language planning and attempted social engineering. The Speak Mandarin campaign began in 1979 as a PAP project and was subsequently institutionalized in the Mandarin Campaign Secretariat in the Ministry of Communications and Information. The promotion of Mandarin as a common Chinese language dates back to the early years of the century, when it was associated with the rise of Chinese nationalism and the foundation of Chinese schools. Learning Mandarin would, it was argued, permit all Chinese to communicate in their "mother tongue," be useful for doing business with China, and, perhaps most important, promote traditional Chinese values. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989 *]

All ethnic Chinese were required to study Mandarin through secondary school and to pass examinations in it for university admission. Chinese civil servants took a required 162-hour conversational Mandarin course, and the Mandarin Campaign Secretariat coordinated the annual Speak Mandarin campaigns. Mandarin classes were offered by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry and by some native-place and clan associations. All Chinese television broadcasting was in Mandarin, as was most radio broadcasting. Radio programs in Chinese dialects were limited to 9:00 P.M. to midnight on the same station that broadcast Tamil from 5:00 A.M. to 9:00 P.M. In 1989 members of Parliament complained that some residents were tuning in to Cantonese opera broadcast by television stations in neighboring Malaysia. By late 1988, some 87 percent of the Chinese population claimed to be able to speak Mandarin. People did not agree, however, on the appropriate social contexts for use of what was for everyone a school language. As a result, people tended to use English or their native tongue on most everyday occasions. During the late 1980s, the Speak Mandarin campaign attempted to persuade people to use Mandarin when shopping and targeted taxi drivers, bus conductors, and operators of food stalls as workers who were to use Mandarin. *

The goals of the Speak Mandarin campaign included improving communication between Chinese speech groups, teaching people to read Chinese, and promoting Confucianism. Some critics argued that children were expected to learn two foreign languages in school (English and Mandarin) and that for some students the result was fluency in neither. The official response was that the problem would be avoided if people would speak Mandarin at home. Some educators questioned whether a sufficient level of Chinese literacy could be achieved with the amount of time the schools devoted to Chinese, a point that was indirectly supported in August 1988 when Brigadier General Lee Hsien Loong, the minister for trade and industry and son of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, urged Chinese newspapers to use simpler language to attract younger readers. Some academics questioned the restriction of Chinese values to Confucianism and recalled that in the 1950s and early 1960s Chinese was the language of radicalism and revolt rather than of loyalty and conservatism. The necessity of learning Mandarin to conserve traditional Chinese culture was not obvious to those Chinese who felt that Chinese culture had been transmitted for centuries through Hokkien, Teochiu, and Cantonese. They pointed out that the colloquial speech of modern Beijing (upon which Mandarin is based) was as distant from the classical Chinese of the Confucian texts as was colloquial Cantonese. Giving up the dialects implied a major transformation of the social structure of the Chinese community, because the associational and commercial structure of Singapore's Chinese-oriented society rested on (and reinforced) dialect distinctions. *

Sara Webb and Richard Borsuk wrote in the Asian Wall Street Journal: The “Speak Mandarin campaign was meant to both unify Singapore's Chinese community and to further Singapore's business ties with mainland China, in recognition of China's importance in the region... But learning Mandarin proved quite a struggle for many Singaporeans, since it meant they had to study an extra language on top of English. [Source: Sara Webb And Richard Borsuk, Asian Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2000]

Eyeing China, Singapore Sees Mandarin as its Future

In September 2009, Reuters reported: “A cacophony of Mandarin and English echo through the streets of Singapore's Chinatown as crowds of shoppers buy joss sticks and fruit as offerings to the spirits during the Seventh Month Ghost Festival. English has long united the ethnically diverse island-state but Singapore's leaders now foresee a time when Mandarin will be the country's dominant language and they are aggressively encouraging their people to become fluent in Chinese. "Both English and Mandarin are important because in different situations you use either language. But Mandarin has become more important," said Chinatown shopkeeper Eng Yee Lay. [Source: Reuters, September 16, 2009 <^>]

“Strengthening ties with China has taken on a strategic imperative in Singapore which seeks to leverage the bilingual skills of its ethnic Chinese majority to get a larger slice of China's fast expanding economic pie. "With the growing importance of China on the world stage, Chinese Singaporeans who are competent in the language and familiar with the culture would have a distinct advantage when working and interacting with Chinese nationals," Lim Sau Hoong, chairwoman of the Promote Mandarin Council, told Reuters. <^>

“Now, with a majority of Singaporeans speaking Mandarin in their homes, according to government figures, the focus is on improving fluency in spoken and written Mandarin. "In two generations, Mandarin will become our mother tongue," said Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew at the launch of the 2009 Speak Mandarin Campaign. His vision is for Singapore to become China's Southeast Asia hub as it expands its commercial interests in the region, while Singapore firms would entrench their positions in China, giving them a first-mover advantage over foreign firms. <^>

“Singapore has come a long way since the 1970s when its Cambridge-educated Lee was suspicious of Maoist China's designs on the region and focused on keeping the country predominantly English speaking and aligned with anti-Communist powers, the United States and UK. Now, Singapore is proving to be a fertile recruiting ground for Mandarin-speaking middle and senior managers to run multinationals' operations in China where a lack of qualified managers has held back expansion plans by many foreign firms.” <^>

Push to Promote Mandarin in Singapore as More People Speak English

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “More families here are using English on a regular basis when talking to their young children, raising fresh concerns about Singapore’s bilingual future. This has raised a new initiative that could total S$100 million from 87-year-old former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew to defend the multi-national language strategy. Lee announced that he himself would donate S$12 million while three of his children would donate S$200,000 each.The Education Ministry will match it dollar-for-dollar up to S$50 million. The fact that Singapore’s language future still retains Lee’s major interest in his sunset years, has raised some young eyebrows, especially the fund’s ambitious size. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, January 28, 2012 <=>]

“However, senior citizens who understand Lee’s visionary preoccupation on the issue are not surprised. “While the Cabinet is wrestling with day-to-day matters, it is good for someone to be concerned with long-term needs,” a former teacher said. There were now added reasons for promoting the mother tongue, she said. Firstly, Singapore has seen a big influx of foreigners, who have brought in their owncacophony of languages and dialects, that are incomprehensible to Singaporeans. Secondly, the government is determined to transform Singapore into a global metropolis. Latest statistics show that the majority or 56 percent of homes with primary-school children speak English at home, an increase over the years. <=>

“Lee’s Promote Mother Tongue project will as a start fund activities for pre-schoolers and later nursery pupils. Lee believes that if the children begin early enough, they would be bilingual by Primary Six – with a strong foundation in the mother tongue for life. “After primary six, at age 12, they can concentrate on their master language which is English in Singapore,” he said. He has spent much of his life on an uphill task of persuading more Singaporeans to use their mother tongue with their children, especially among the Chinese. <=>

Lee “once said that mastering both English and Mandarin was not an easy task for most children, including his own seven grandchildren. Among the lot, only one preferred to use Mandarin, while the rest often answered in English when he asked them questions in Mandarin, Lee said in 2009. The new generation appears, under study pressures, to be continuing to downgrade the language, studying it only to pass exams and then quickly discarding it. This could, Lee fears, adversely impact the nation’s future. It could lead to Singapore losing its Asian identity if the various races – especially the ethnic Chinese – lose their mother tongue and culture. <=>

“Many Singaporean believe that being fluent in Mandarin offers no real advantage in business. “You don’t need to be good in Chinese to succeed in Singapore,” a bilingual professional recently said. “Do you think not speaking Chinese will seriously hamper your career? In most cases, I don’t think so.” In a local survey some years ago, about 25 percent of ethnic Chinese, aged 17 to 29, told a poll that they did not think it was necessary for Chinese Singaporeans to speak Mandarin at all. <=>

“Singapore’s bilingual language policy has served the country well to firstly, maintain race harmony and secondly, promote a channel of communication, with each race keeping its own identity. A botched effort could result in Singapore losing its “Asianness” and vastly influenced by everything Western, Lee believes. But one writer puts it in this way: “Whether or not the Chinese language is promoted, Singaporeans will still be losing their individual cultures. “Globalisation and the Internet are a certainty, and we are all being assimilated. Resistance is futile.” <=>

English Language in Singapore

English is arguably the most important language in Singapore even though most Singaporeans are Chinese. For long time it served as a lingua franca, allowing Chinese, South Asians and Malays to communicate with one another. Now it the language many people, regardless of ethnic background, speak at home.”

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star: “Statistics show that the majority or 56 percent of homes with primary-school children speak English at home, an increase over the years. Six out of 10 ethnic Chinese and Indian families and 35 percent of Malays use English at home. The 2010 Census showed that 32 percent of adults in the republic spoke English. This means families with younger children using English make up nearly twice the proportion of the general population. The swing towards English has been dramatic for all, except the Malays – from one in 10 families in 1980 to six in 10 last year. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, January 28, 2012 <=>]

Singapore is arguably the only truly English-speaking nation in Asia. English is an official language and it is taught in schools and widely spoken in government office, businesses, and stores. It gives Singapore an edge in an increasingly English-speaking globalized world.

Some worry that the effort to get people to speak English has gone too far and Singapore has lost part of its traditional culture as less people speak Chinese, Malay and Tamil. One study in the early 2000s found that two out of every five first-grade ethnic Chinese students speaks English at home, compared to one in five in the early 1990s. Another study found that many ethnic Chinese who spoke English if given the choice would rather be Caucasian.

English Bridges Cultural Gap in Singapore

Michael Richardson wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “In the aftermath of World War II, countries in Southeast Asia became more nationalistic as they rejected continued colonial rule for independence. Many adopted indigenous languages as their national languages and the medium of instruction in schools. Malaysia made Malay its national language and Indonesia did the same. But Singapore - a small multiethnic island nation sandwiched between these two much larger countries - took a different tack after it gained self-government from Britain in 1959 and sovereignty in 1965. Singapore decided to keep English as its working language, partly because it was a neutral bridge between the different races in the country, and partly because it was the pre-eminent language of international commerce, technology and science and thus offered the fledgling economy the best prospects of success. [Source: Michael Richardson, International Herald Tribune, February 12, 2001 +++]

“Singapore's Chinese are mainly descendants of people who came from different parts of China speaking different dialects. Malays from different parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. South Asians are from different parts of the subcontinent. The rest came mainly from other parts of Asia. "We needed a common language," Lee Kuan Yew said, told an audience at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "English is not any group's mother tongue, so no one gained any advantage...We have not forced or pressure cooked a national identity. We aimed for integration, not assimilation." +++

“In some ways, the policy has succeeded admirably. Singapore is widely regarded as a model in Asia of inter-ethnic harmony, tolerance of religious differences, meritocracy, and economic progress. "The use of English as our working language has helped us become a natural node in the global network of banking and commerce," Mr Lee said. ++

“Out of respect for its three main ethnic communities, Singapore has adopted Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil, along with English, as its official languages. Malay is the national language. But English is the language of administration and increasingly has been adopted as the main medium of communication, so much so that more than 90 percent of school enrollments are now in schools where English is the language of instruction in all classes except when a so-called mother tongue - Mandarin, Malay or Tamil - is being taught. Each student is obliged to become literate in his or her mother tongue; reaching the official standard is a prerequisite for admission to university. +++

“The ability to communicate well in English is seen by Singaporeans of all races as a passport to good jobs, business success and wealth. "English is the language for upward mobility," said Pang Cheng Lian, first vice president of the United Overseas Bank and an executive committee member of the Chinese Heritage Center. Mastery of English is also seen by the government as a critical factor if the island state is to succeed in an increasingly globalized economy in which harnessing the power of computers and information technology gives a competitive advantage. +++

"Our most difficult economic challenge in the future is having to compete with the developed, and not the emerging economies," Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said recently. "Singapore has to climb higher up the mountain and move into new areas like information technology, life sciences, petrochemicals and financial services. In these areas, we compete with developed economies like Japan, Germany, Britain and the United States." Mr Goh said it was fortunate that Singapore had chosen English as its main medium of instruction and its working language. +++

“But there are problems. The spread of English has encouraged talented Singaporeans to search for a better future abroad, while the less educated and skilled struggle to cope with the official bilingual policy in school. A survey by Singapore's Ministry of Education in 1999 found that 60 percent of children started school with little exposure to English at home because they spoke their mother tongue or a Chinese dialect, usually Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese or Foochow. As a result of a government campaign that started 22 years ago to get Chinese to drop dialects, Mandarin is being increasingly used. +++

On students from families that don’t speak English at home, Mah Bow Tan, Singapore's minister for national development said. "But I suspect that the large majority lose out because English really is an alien language to them. So they either go to the normal stream or technical schools or, worse, they drop out." The difficulty many Singaporeans encounter in having to learn at least two languages - English and their mother tongue - has created the phenomenon of Singlish, a mishmash of English, Malay, Hindi and various Chinese dialects that a lot of Singaporeans speak among themselves. In addition, Miss Pang, of the Chinese Heritage Center, is concerned that for the children of lower-income Chinese Singaporean families who tend to use Mandarin or dialects at home, improving their English will be difficult. +++

Singlish

Singlish is a style of English mixed with Malay and Chinese idioms and English expressions unique to Singapore. For a long time it was regarded as the lingua franca of immigrants making ther way in Singapore. Seth Mydans worte in the New York Times, “Clipped and direct, it embodies the no-frills essence of Singapore: drop particles, pronouns, niceties. Get to the point.” Typical Singlish phrases include “It a bit the difficult. How can?” “Got cofferr or not? Got!” “You havemilk, is it? Also ave.” “Join me, don’t shy.” [Source: New York Times]

“Blur” is Singlish for “not knowing what is going on.” A tired worker might say “I was blur at work.” Other common Singlish words and expressions include "air cons" (air conditioning), “last time” (in the past), “off the light” (turn of the lights), “mug” (study hard), “ya ya papaya” (a snobby person), “is it?” (An expression of skeptism), “action” (to show off), “makan” (to eat, dervived from a Malay word), “obiang” (ugly or outdated, from the Hokkien Chinese dialect), “kai kai” (walk, also from the Hokkien Chinese dialect). "Cannot-lah" means "that's impossible;" "shiok" means heavenly or pleasurable.

Taxi drivers are regarded by many as the most fluent Singaporeans in Singlish. One told the New York Times, “Singlish is same for everybody. Every Singaporean speak. Me too. It not a dialect or what...Strict, lah, is good. That why we have a nice city.” Lah is is the common Singlish expression of emphasis.

According to the Singapore Tourism Board: “While it may not be recognised in the world as a formal language, a bit of knowledge on Singlish is definitely essential when travelling around Singapore. It is a unique blend of English, Chinese, Malay, Tamil and local dialects. To some, it is a beautiful language that proudly displays the multi-cultural character of our society; to others, it is a colloquialism so full of grammatical errors that it makes you squirm each time you hear it. Regardless, it is useful to understand a fair bit of Singlish, or at least understand the most common phrases used to avoid getting ‘lost in translation’. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]

Besides the typical “lah” which punctuates most sentences used by the locals, here is a quick guide of phrases that you may encounter and use most often: 1) Don’t pray pray ah!: “Don’t mess around!” 2) Oh, izzit?: “That’s interesting.” / “Oh, is that true?” 3) Dohwan: “No, thanks.” / “I don’t want it.” 4) Kiasu: A general term used to describe the highly competitive nature of many Singaporeans. It is originally a Chinese dialect expression that literally means “fear of losing”. 5) So how?: “So what do we do now?” 6) Alamak!: A general expression of dismay or incredulity. 7) Can can!: “Yes, definitely.” 8) Auntie / Uncle: A respectful form of an address for an older man / woman, respectively. 9) Lai dat also can?: “Is that acceptable?” 1) “Half past six” is an insult used in Singapore and Malaysia that means “useless.”

Sara Webb and Richard Borsuk wrote in the Asian Wall Street Journal: Singlish “origins have become fodder for academics, who are still a bit foggy on some of its roots. A hallmark is the practice of ending a sentence with "lah," much like a Canadian might say "eh." It gets more complicated when Chinese syntax comes into play, says Mark Astill, a British language teacher here who runs a Web site on Singlish that aims to help people improve their English. A standard practice is to use a literal translation of a Chinese sentence - for instance, "You see me no up" translates as "You look down on me."[Source: Sara Webb And Richard Borsuk, Asian Wall Street Journal,May 1, 2000]

Oxford English Dictionary Recognizes Singlish

In 2000, the Oxford English Dictionary recognized Singlish in its online version. Barry Porter wrote in the South China Morning Post, “Rather embarrassingly, this comes days before Singapore launches a campaign aimed at wiping out "Singlish". The first online version of the Oxford English Dictionary - which is being officially launched today - includes two popular Singlish words among its 60 million entries - "lah" and "sinseh", incorporating them into ordinary everyday English-language usage. [Source: Barry Porter, South China Morning Post, March 14, 2000]

“Placing all 20 volumes of the dictionary on the Internet has enabled its compilers to begin its biggest overhaul since 1928. Asian words and expressions are included in the online version from day one. The popular Singlish and Malaysian expression "lah" has been defined as "a particle used with various kinds of pitch to convey the mood and attitude of the speaker", as in "Come with us, lah" to emphasise persuasion, and "Wrong, lah", demonstrating annoyance. "Sinseh" has been defined as a traditional Chinese physician or herbalist. [Ibid]

Poor English by Singaporean Beauty Queen Sparks Debate About Singlish

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “Educated Singaporeans who consider their spoken English as world-ranking have been jolted by a controversy over a beauty queen’s interview. The centre of the storm was 19-year-old Miss Singapore World 2009 Ris Low, who shocked Singaporeans by speaking in dismal English, with poor diction as well as mispronunciations. Low sparked a debate about the state of English in Singapore that ironically coincided with the government’s annual Speak Good English campaign that began nine years ago. In her interview, Low spoke in a mix of local pidgin English that was splattered with slurred or mispronounced words. She would say “preens” instead of prints, “rad” (for red), “pis” (piece) and “begini” (bikini), and used a distorted word “boomz” to describe a glamorous outfit. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, October 10, 2009 ***]

“Critics also say her answers were contradictory and of low quality, leading to calls to stop her representing Singapore in a televised international event. “Her English is atrocious. She can’t even speak a proper sentence,” said one of the 100,000 viewers who watched the recorded interview online. “It will disgrace our country. The world will think that all Singaporean girls speak like that,” said another critic. (Low ended up not competing the Miss World contest after her conviction for credit card fraud became public.) ***

“The angry discussions soon took on a national dimension. A reporter wrote: “(It) triggered a storm of online debate, complete with hand-wringing over Singapore’s education system (and) the state of intelligence of today’s youth ...”. Some writers rallied to her defence, saying the criticism was overblown. Low, they say, is no more than a product of Singapore’s education system; she talks the way many educated Singaporeans do, including graduates. She has a very Singaporean background. She hails from a Mandarin-speaking family, grew up in the heartland and attended a neighbourhood school. Now, her mangled English and poor communication skill have became a national issue. ***

“Goh Eck Kheng, chairman of the Speak Good English Movement, told the Straits Times that Singaporeans should be the last people to be mocking her. “How many people are you laughing at, if you laugh at Ms Low?” he asked. Another official, Jennifer Yin, reportedly said: “Lots of Singaporeans speak this way. She is not unusual.” So, if many of the nation’s youths, even graduates, speak like Low, why single her out? ***

“Singaporeans were last week like a community looking at itself in the mirror and seeing one problem: deteriorating language skills in a place that is renowned for its education standards. “Most of us are competent in neither English nor Mandarin,” said a community representative. “We have become a nation of half buckets, as the Chinese saying goes.” “We only have to open our ears in food centres, shopping malls and school canteens, and we get a constant aural assault of sub-standard English and Mandarin,” one letter stated. ***

“While the republic’s secondary schools rank top three in the world in Science and Maths, its level of English is below par. Many teachers and students speak a casual, sub-standard language. Misspellings are widespread. “I often hear train station employees, TV presenters and newscasters stumbling over their sentences and digging themselves into holes of garbled grammar,” a newspaper reader observed. This has been aggravated by two factors. First, the extensive use of short handphone messages or email that routinely ignore capital letters, drop verbs and shorten words — a virtual sub-language. Second, the massive, rapid inflow of foreigners from different countries who bring with them their own languages (and dialects) has diluted Singapore’s own. ***

“The demographic changes are causing a dent not only on Singapore’s English-speaking skills but also on the national language policy itself. This calls for the use of English as the common lingua among the races as well as for business and work, but the various mother tongues — Malay, Mandarin or Tamil — are encouraged to be used at home. Many people are against eradicating Singlish because it is a part of Singapore’s identity but concede that it should not be used when dealing with foreigners or in business. “I need Singlish to express a Singaporean feeling,” said Catherine Lim, a prominent novelist who switches easily from one level of English to another. For the broad majority like Low, however, who lack the basic grounding, switching is almost impossible and they are stuck with a half-baked language. “ ***

Singaporean Government Anti-Singlish Efforts

The government has tried to encourage people to use standard English over Singlish. It launched a “Speak Good English” campaign and routinely censors Singlsh from television. Lee Kuan Yew is a big critic of Singlish, saying it is backward and arguing that Singaporeans need to speak standard grammatical English to compete in the global economy. He has said the use of Singlish in television comedies slowed economic development and said that he would take upon himself to “educate” the main character in the series. Effort to discourage Singlish have has little success. Making it forbidden only has seemed to make it cooler.

Barry Porter wrote in the South China Morning Post, “Singlish is a colourful but idiosyncratic mix of English with the odd phrase of Chinese, Malay and even Tamil. Most Singaporeans love it. The government does not. Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has told his countrymen they must speak "proper" English if the city-state is to make it as a leading international economic hub, while Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew has called Singlish a handicap. Scriptwriters for Singapore's leading sitcom, Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd, have been told their lead character, an uncouth building contractor played by comic Gurmit Singh, is a bad role model and must change. The Ministry of Education has unveiled an action plan to improve the language skills of teachers and pupils. A private sector-funded Speak Good English Movement was launched. [Source: Barry Porter, South China Morning Post, March 14, 2000]

Jason Szep of Reuters wrote: “Singapore launched its annual exercise in linguistic engineering on July 2, with its "Speak Good English Movement" aimed at stamping out "Singlish", a local patois that borrows from Chinese and famously ends most sentences with "lah". It's an uphill battle. Although most Singaporeans speak English they often banter in shops, at home or with friends in a punchy native appropriation that adds words from Chinese, Malay or Tamil -- the nation's three other official languages -- with frequent Chinese grammar. To outsiders, the results can be mystifying. Frustration with a teacher might elicit the response: "This guy whole day talk so cheem; I really catch no ball." If you upset someone, they might fume: "Why you always like that one lah?"[Source: Jason Szep, Reuters, July 2, 2003]

It's the fourth and largest campaign in as many years to purge the unique slang from the multi-ethnic island of four million people, and government officials said that proper English was crucial to engage with the global economy. But many Singaporeans, about 80 percent of whom are ethnic Chinese, often resent government pressure to surrender the words, phrases and tonal inflections that for decades have defined Singaporean culture. A survey by AC Neilson released by the government on Wednesday showed that 67 percent of Singapore's professionals, managers, entrepreneurs and businessmen preferred to speak in English, but this dropped to 46 percent for white-collar workers.

"We just have to inculcate new habits and try not to speak English with Chinese or other colloquial syntax," Lee Boon Yang, Minister of Information, Communications and the Arts, told a gathering a library to launch the campaign. With no natural resources, Singapore relies heavily on foreign investment and its well-educated workforce to sustain economic growth. Widespread use of English is often cited by foreign companies as a significant reason to set up base here. Under the latest campaign, local personalities will urge citizens to speak in simple and clear English and to read more, while the message "You don't have to use big words to speak good English" will appear in Chinese, Malay and Tamil media.

Singapore’s Speak Good English Movement

Sara Webb and Richard Borsuk wrote in the Asian Wall Street Journal: “Phua Chu Kang, one of the most popular TV characters here, is a parody of a certain kind of Singaporean. His hair is permed, he has mole on his cheek, and he lets the nail on his little finger grow very long. When last seen on TV, he spoke almost entirely in Singapore's unique and baffling vernacular, Singlish. But not any more. Singapore's government has launched a crusade to banish Singlish to the linguistic dustbin. "Poor English reflects badly on us and makes us seem less intelligent," said Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, speaking at the launch of the Speak Good English Movement. [Source: Sara Webb And Richard Borsuk, Asian Wall Street Journal,May 1, 2000]

Like some of the campaigns that came before it, the Speak Good English Movement has economic and social implications that belie any snickering comparisons to the musical "My Fair Lady." The government here says it was alarmed to find recently that many children have little exposure to English at home, where families in this melting-pot town often speak a native tongue, or else Singlish. Singapore prides itself on being a world-class business town, and English is the international business language. Yet young people were having trouble distinguishing between good English and Singlish, despite the fact that English is an official language here (alongside Mandarin, Malay and Tamil). Too many kids were copying Mr Phua, the comic TV character, whose catch phrase is the characteristic Singlish expression, "Don't pray pray." (Translation: "Don't kid me.")

Lee Kuan Yew called Singlish "a handicap we must not wish on Singaporeans." Prime Minister Goh warned that foreign investors may avoid Singapore if they find they must "guess what our workers are saying." Government-controlled or influenced newspapers, TV and radio stations have been asked to run features, programs and quizzes about using better English. And later this month, Mr Phua will return to state-run TV in a new series of his popular sitcom - speaking greatly improved English. Since his last series ended, it seems, he's been back to school to brush up. In one clip shown at this weekend's Speak Good English festivities, he tests a faux-classy British accent reminiscent of Basil Fawlty, the inept hotelier in Fawlty Towers.

As part of the Speak Good English Movement, the government also persuaded two local writer-actors to refashion their 1999 short play, "The Singlish Patient," to complement the campaign. It wasn't a perfect fit, however. The skit consists of an exchange between two women, one of whom is a gynecologist. The writers, Loke Loo Pin and Jennifer Castilano, at first balked at rewriting it - the government wanted some of the skit's racy jokes eliminated, and Dr Loke (who is a dentist by profession) feared it would turn into "propaganda." A joke about oral sex had to go, but Dr Loke says they fought hard to keep another pun in place, in which the gynecologist quips about being "at your service," or as members of her profession put it, "at your cervix."

But most of the dialogue is about the use of Singlish. The Singaporean character, Jek, says: "I'm afraid that ultimately we may have no choice but to adopt standard English, but when that time comes, we also need to realize that we will lose our distinctive local flavor and charm - and that saddens me." The other character, a foreigner named Jane, argues that if Singaporeans don't speak proper English, "you can't compete internationally." Dr Loke says the original dialogue was more sympathetic to Singlish. She adds that she isn't about to stop using smatterings of Singlish at home with her family. In fact, she says, the first time she appeared on TV speaking "English" English, her brother called her up and said: "Loo Pin, I never heard you speak like that before."

Privately, some Singaporeans resent what campaigns like the Good English Movement represent. The government "is mercenary" in its treatment of people, gripes one Singaporean, as so many of the campaigns, including this one, have an economic motive.For instance, a Speak Mandarin campaign, launched several years ago, was meant to both unify Singapore's Chinese community and to further Singapore's business ties with mainland China, in recognition of China's importance in the region. Mandarin, which is China's main dialect, wasn't widely spoken among Singapore's ethnic Chinese, many of whom speak dialects such as Teochew, Hokkien and Hakka. But learning Mandarin proved quite a struggle for many Singaporeans, since it meant they had to study an extra language on top of English.

Whether Singlish has much of a future is unclear. "The challenge that faces the Speak Good English Movement is that many Singaporeans feel really proud of their Singlish," notes Mr Astill, the teacher. It's especially true of some Singaporean artists and writers, who feel Singlish is a badge of Singaporean culture. While Mr Astill says he "totally" supports the Speak Good English Movement, he adds, "I can assure you, though, it is going to meet some resistance." Indeed, even at the state-controlled phone company Singapore Telecommunications, the message that Singlish is out may take a while to sink in. The SingTel Paging Web site includes instructions on how to send canned messages via its pagers - including 20 in Singlish. Select No. 101, and you can send the message: "Aiyo! Stop pestering me-lah!"

Defending Singlish

Colin Goh, a filmmaker and producer, is outraged by the anti-Singlish campaigns and has struck back with his own Save Our Singlish effort. In 2002, Associated Press reported: “ Colin Goh is mad because the American TV character Fresh Prince of Bel Air can say "Yo, wassup bro?" on Singapore television but local actors are banned from saying "ya ya papaya." "Ya ya papaya" -- a snooty person in Singlish, the vernacular language here -- is one of the many Singlish phrases that the Singapore Broadcast Authority censors out of programs. So, Goh wonders, why does American slang stand while Singlish must go? "If the authorities want to wipe out imperfect or colloquial English they should do so fairly and across the board," he said at the recent launch of his Save Our Singlish campaign. "They should not unfairly discriminate against Singaporean English." Goh, 31, is a filmmaker is defender of Singlish. Originally the lingua franca of an up-by-their-bootstraps immigrant class, Singlish has become a symbol of free speech for many young Singaporeans. [Source: Associated Press, May 25, 2002]

"Our policy is not to glorify, encourage or legitimize the use of Singlish, especially in mass media like TV and radio, to ensure that this does not create problems for the learning of English in Singapore," said Cecilia Yip, a spokeswoman for the broadcast authority. Critics of Singlish, including the government, say that if Singapore is to be globally competitive, business people must not be held back by poor communication skills. Indeed, outsiders might have trouble with Singlish. As an example of the language, one might ask a friend if he or she has eaten by saying: "You makan already, is it?" In Malay, "makan" means "eat." A person who wants to go window shopping on Singapore's Orchard Road would say, "Let's go Orchard and kai kai" -- or "walk walk" in the Hokkien Chinese dialect. /+/

“Singlish fans like Goh say the language binds multicultural Singaporeans together and helps the young island nation forge an identity. Goh's campaign for Singlish is, in part, a ploy to promote his Web site, TalkingCock.com -- "talking cock" is Singlish for "talking nonsense" -- which lampoons Singapore's squeaky clean society. It's also intended to push along other Goh enterprises: a film called TalkingCock The Movie and a volume entitled The Coxsford Singlish Dictionary. /+/

“But Goh has a political agenda as well, maintaining his Save our Singlish campaign is about free speech. He was inspired, he said, when censors pulled a 15-second television trailer for Goh's movie because it used Singlish." Singlish survives in the film itself -- which is playing theaters with both Chinese and English subtitles -- and the broadcast authority's Yip explained this inconsistency by saying Singlish is allowed where it fits the plot or context. /+/

“That doesn't satisfy Goh, who says he and most Singaporeans insist "we should be allowed to speak our minds in the way that we wish to." Bernard Quek, 22, a sociology student at the recent Save Our Singlish launch, agrees Singlish must be saved. "It will be a crying shame if this is eradicated. You shouldn't stamp it out for the sake of appearing global," he said, speaking standard English.” /+/

Names in Singapore

Common Chinese family names: Yip, Goh, Tan. Some have English first names. Others have Chinese ones. See China, Malaysia

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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