To begin, we need to establish the difference between English and Singlish. English in this essay refers to standard international English that is “used by native speaker’s of English and bilingual users of English for cross-cultural communication.” (McKay 2002:132) It is the language formally used in public administration, law and education in Singapore. On the other hand, Singlish refers to Singapore Colloquial English, which is used by many Singaporeans. It is fused with the terms and intonations with the native mother tongues such as Bahasa Malayu, Chinese, Hokkien, Cantonese and Tamil. Singlish can be spoken both by people who do not have a good grasp of English, as well as those who have a strong command of international standard English.
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Firstly, Singaporeans understand the need for proper English for economical purposes. In the increasingly globalised and interconnected world, the government realizes the need to be able to communicate fluently with others not from Singapore. Singapore is an economically prominent city and does much of its trade with other countries, America being the second largest consumer of Singaporean exports after China. (Statistics Singapore: Ministry of Trade and industry, 2008) The economic situation of Singapore requires the people to be fluent in English so as to be able to communicate well with foreigners who are doing business with them. As such, the government has put in place measures to ensure that Singaporeans are able to speak English fluently.
The first language of the Singaporean education system is English and very recently, in September 2009, the Education Minister Ng Eng Hen mentioned in his ministry’s work plan seminar that raising the standard of English of students will be a main goal for schools in the coming years. He indicated that they would realize this by allowing students to speak up more often in class. Another government measure to raise help Singaporeans speak proper English is the initiation of the Speak Good English Movement that started in 2000 and is still in effect. The then deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke at the launch of the Speak Good English Movement 2001, and voicing that there is a need for Singapore to grow into an attractive economic hub for foreign companies and foreign talent. Through out his speech, DPM Lee Hsien Loong constantly draws the link between Singapore being an economic center and the need for Singaporeans to be fluent in English. From these examples, we can see that the government in Singapore recognizes the need for English and thereby initiates practices in education and public campaigns to increase the use of English in Singapore.
I personally feel that greater emphasis on standard English in the Singaporean education system is in the right direction. I had previously tried relief teaching at a neighborhood school for a few months. On many occasions, I had the opportunity to read the English essays of the students and was rather unsettled by the fact that the students could not express themselves clearly in proper English. Many times, it was apparent that they used the sentence structure of mandarin and translated it to their written English. On many occasions, I find that the students are unable to switch between the use of standard English and Singlish, even when speaking. If they continue to use English and Singlish interchangeably, there is no doubt that people from other countries would not be able to understand them. Due to this, I agree that there is a need to raise the standard of English in Singapore.
The government is not the only party who is aware of the need for proper English. Many Singaporeans are aware of this as well, especially when it comes to representing Singapore to the global world. This is clearly exemplified in the recent controversy over Miss Singapore World beauty queen, Ris Low. A local news channel, Razor TV, interviewed Low and it was revealed that her standard of spoken English was not up to the standards of many Singaporeans. Viewers were appalled that she was chosen to represent Singapore despite her low standard of spoken English. Soon after, it was made known that she was charged for credit card fraud. Nonetheless, there were many requests by the public who wrote in to the Straits Times forum, as well as other online forums, to oppose her being chosen as Miss Singapore World even before her credit card fraud case was publicized. This shows that Singaporeans understand the need to speak proper English when portraying Singapore to other countries.
Together with their call for the usage of proper English in Singapore, government figures have also expressed concern over the use if Singlish in Singapore. In the opening speech at the launch of the Speak Good English Movement 2000 by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, he expressed concern over Singlish, instead of English, becoming Singapore’s common language. He maintained that if Singaporeans continue to use Singlish, something he referred to as a “corrupted form of English not understood by others”, we would lose our competitiveness in the economy. He also mentioned, “if they (young Singaporeans) speak Singlish when they can speak good English, they are doing a disservice to Singapore.” DPM Lee Hsien Loong highlighted a similar concern regarding this issue in his speech the following year. DPM Lee stated that on top of having more people speaking English, it is “equally, if not more important to get Singaporeans to speak good, standard English â€¦ rather than Singlish, a local dialect unique to Singapore.” He added that if we want to reinforce our identity as Singaporeans, we should choose something other than Singlish. Through this, we can see that together with their call for proper English, DPM Lee and PM Goh were also calling for a reduced usage of Singlish.
Although I agree with the implementations in educational policies and public campaigns for the usage of proper English due to the need for economic competitiveness, I think that Singlish has a role to play in Singaporean Society. Singlish is unique to Singapore as it is a direct result of the interactions between people of different races and native tongues and is part of the national identity because people are connected to the language and to each other when they use it.
Language is fundamentally a tool for us to communicate with one another and Singlish enables Singaporeans to do this effectively among ourselves. In fact, Singlish came about precisely to perform this function. Singapore, before and during the colonial times, already had a wide variety of people from different native tongues working here. Due to its situation as a port along the naval Spice Route, there were many emigrants from the region, such as southern Chinese and Indian laborers. Coupled with the indigenous Malay speaking population, this made Singapore a place with diverse language background. English was introduced when the British colonists used English as the medium for administration. Soon after independence in 1965, the government made English that main medium of education in Singapore. (Low, Brown, 2005, 20) Gradually, English came to be localized with terms from the native tongues of the people in Singapore. Malay, Mandarin and its dialects, and Tamil words were incorporated into this local version of English. This is especially so for words which seem to have no direct English equivalent, such as “kiasu”, “blanjah” or “shiok”. Singlish also often takes on the syntax of Chinese and Malay. (Wee, 2009, 56-59) It is seen that the Singaporean version of English, or Singlish, has come about as a result of the interactions between the different cultures and languages here and this mix is not observed anywhere else in the world. Wee (2009, 63-66) states that the “formation of Singlish was not from a committee who sat down and discussed the structure, grammar and vocabulary of Singlish.” Rather, Singlish was a natural result of the people from different native tongues and cultures in Singapore, communicating and interacting with one another. It is precisely because of the fact that Singlish is a cultural product that came about naturally from Singaporeans that makes it relevant to Singaporean society.
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While English can be used by everyone in Singapore and allow them to communicate with one another effectively, Singlish has an added quality to it. It allows Singlish speakers to feel a sense of connection to and through the language because Singlish is localized and English does not possess this trait. From my personal experience as a student in Singapore, it is apparent that my teachers try to use proper English during lessons where it is in a formal setting. As a student, I would answer and pose questions to my teachers in standard English. However, I would use Singlish when conversing with my friends because it is an informal setting. In fact, sometimes when we hear someone speaking in proper English in an informal setting, my friends would comment that that person was “pretentious” and that there was no need to use proper English among friends. In another experience, where I went for an inter- secondary school leadership camp, we were put in groups with students from other schools and backgrounds. During the first group discussion session, I had taken to speaking in standard English because I had thought that it would be more appropriate. However, I realized that some of my group mates were not responsive so I decided to switch to Singlish, hoping that they would open up and contribute more. As I had hoped, they immediately started to speak up more during the discussion. In the following group discussion sessions, I realized that when the facilitator posed a question in standard English, my group mates did not seem forthcoming with their thoughts, but once someone contributed to the discussion in Singlish, they would speak up more and subsequent contributions were in Singlish. Perhaps they initially didn’t contribute because they had trouble understand that question or topic of discussion. However, I do not think that they had any trouble grasping what was being asked or discussed. Rather, they started to open up because Singlish provided us the opportunity to establish a bond with each other. Although simple, these examples show us that Singlish connects Singaporeans together through a common colloquial language in which we are comfortable in expressing our thoughts.
Singlish is also used in the media in Singapore to give it an authentic sense of being Singaporean. Singaporean sitcoms like Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd, My Sassy Neighbor, Police and Thief, Under One Roof and Growing Up are seen as portraying the lives of Singaporeans and the characters in these shows speak in Singlish. Local films like I Not Stupid, Money No Enough and Just Follow Law had actors speaking in Singlish throughout the film. Even their titles are in Singlish. Musicals like Beauty World, Dim Sum Dollies and $ing Dollar incorporate Singlish as well. In fact, Beauty World was originally a play and it is seen as one of the more successful creative literature locally and has been produced into a musical a few times. It is about a girl called Ivy from Malaysia who comes to Singapore to find the true identity of her father. Her boyfriend, Frankie, accompanies her to Singapore as well. As noted by Low and Brown, both Ivy and Frankie speak in standard English throughout the show while the other Singaporean characters speak in Singlish (Low, Brown, 2005, p. 181). This amplifies how the use of English and Singlish by different characters help identify their nationalities in the show. These shows target the local audience and as a result, include the Singlish language to depict an authentic local portrayal.
The Singapore tourism Board portrays Singapore as “Uniquely Singapore” and a common question asked is whether Singapore has anything to call their own. Singlish is definitely something that is uniquely Singaporean. A poll by NUS Students Political Association done on 750 undergrads revealed that Singlish was considered most Singaporean with 75.3% of the votes (Leo, 2005). Similarly, in a recent Political Science forum, the topic of debate was whether Singapore had a national identity. Singlish came up quite often because many forum participants recognized people who speak Singlish as being Singaporean. Whenever I visited Malaysia, my sister and I would even play a game where we would try to distinguish if a person was Malaysian or Singaporean simply by the way they spoke. Despite the fact that Manglish (Malaysian English) and Singlish are somewhat similar, we were still able to find something distinctive and unique in the way that Singaporeans speak. In this sense, Singlish can be said to be part of Singapore’s national identity because it differentiates us from people of other places and nations.
In conclusion, I do agree that there is a need for Singaporeans to be fluent in standard English so as to be competitive in the global world and raising the standard of English is indeed the right course of action by the Singaporean government. However, I do not think that Singlish should be excluded from being used in Singapore. Not only does it transcend people of different racial identities in Singapore, it allows people to feel a sense of connection to the language itself, which English does not offer. Singlish is part of the nation identity because people are connected to the language and to each other when they use it.
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