Thursday, October 27, 2011

Hey you - speak good Singlish!

I have to admit that when I first moved to Singapore, I was a wee bit baffled by Singlish. But as time's gone by, I've learnt to appreciate it not only from a cultural perspective, but also a linguistic perspective. So I have started to get a little irritated when people poo poo Singlish.

The way I see it, it's an important part of Singapore's culture and and a special ingredient of the rich cultural melting pot this little red dot is,  something to be treasured - just like the fast fading Queen's English in Great Britain! Plus it's a damn good way of communicating things in a to-the- point fashion.

With that in mind, when I heard about the Speak Good Singlish Movement, my brain cells starting tingling especially when I read the following...

"We are tired of people confusing Singlish with broken English. We are tired of people pretending to speak Singlish by speaking bad Singlish. We are tired of people categorizing  Singlish speakers as uncouth and unintelligent."

I always feel that the number one route to living in harmony with others is understanding them, and for this to happen it means being educated and sensitive to the things that set us apart from one another.

With this in mind I thought I'd interview the nice folk at the Speak Good Singlish Movement to help those who don't "get" Singlish to get on the road to getting it. So let's here what they had to say...

What, in your view, is the importance of Singlish – in terms of history, culture, and linguistics?

Hello you, Ms De-mean-our! But mean what ha? Singlish’s importance cannot be easily dismissed. People who siow-siow (mess around) with it have kena whacked quite jialat (get trounced quite badly) by others before. It is because many Singaporeans have come to embrace Singlish as a national treasure. As this, it is also the only one being preserved directly by the people and not by the state. Singlish is a linguistic rojak (mix), a blend of various aspects from languages used locally such as English, Malay, Tamil, Mandarin, and the Chinese dialects. It is the natural product of forces in Singapore’s history: colonial rule, nation-building, bilingual policies, education policies, immigration policies, what have you. More importantly, it is a spontaneous witty response to them.

So I don't get it -  why would some locals want to mock Singlish?

Well, you know mockers lah: they are their own problem. If I may generalise, these come in two main outfits. The first includes a type of Anglophiles we call the kay angmos (fake Caucasians), locals who seem to forget that they are not White. So speaking English, especially with an angmo twang, is super-sought after by them. They think that it can make people look more zhai (cool) and atas (self-important) – never mind the content of what is being said. These yaya-papayas (snobs) have never left the Colonial Era! Either that or they want so hard to be part of the West that they resent being stuck in Singapore. So they take it out on the rest of us.

There is also another lot, the pragmatists; you can spot these the moment they explain why they dislike Singlish so much. Their own English competence may vary, but it does not stop them from whacking Singlish speakers for being irresponsible to themselves, their loved ones, and the nation. For them, if you speak Singlish, your English will automatically suffer, and your career will kena sai (be defiled). Which means that you will then have damned your family to a life of poverty and, in the long run, helped throw Singapore back to a fishing village. Speaking, for them, is not about connecting with those around you; it’s just another economic activity to be optimised. Poot them man!

What are some of the common misconceptions about Singlish?

Let me share just two with you, Ms Demeanour. Firstly, there is this crazy recurring idea that Singlish is guilty for the drop in written and spoken English in Singapore. Please lah OK! If English standards are down, isn’t it more logical to look to the schools? If English is taught well, people will know how to use proper English and can tell when they are speaking Singlish and when not. By knocking Singlish, you still won’t be improving anyone’s English what! And it is not even that the rules of Singlish and the rules of English are same-same. They are so different that blaming poor English on Singlish is as good as blaming it on, say, Malay!

Secondly, there are these jokers who come to Singlish with prejudices, thinking that its speakers are mostly Ah Bengs and Ah Sengs. Their argument is classic and goes like this: since Ah Bengs and Ah Sengs don’t usually speak good English but rather Singlish, Singlish must be the lingo of low-class, uneducated, and stupid folks. Problem is, a lot of successful, educated, and smart Singaporeans speak Singlish too – at home and at play, with their families, neighbours, and friends. And Ah Bengs these days also go to university and can code-switch and phak (play) golf! So where is the connection between Singlish and a lack of brains, status, or refinement ha? Siow (mad) lah!
What is your greatest annoyance in the Singlish debate?

Errr, not obvious by now meh? I am damn tulan (fed up) that there is even a Singlish debate.

What would a world where Singlish is widely accepted be like?

Well, that should be very cool, very tok kong (amazing)! Singlish is a damn singable, rappable language; it is catchy, casual, friendly, comic, concise, soothing, blah-blah, you know lah. Also, Singlish is full of layers that define generations and communities. So the Singlish spoken just a decade ago is slightly different from the Singlish spoken today and definitely in ten years’ time. It is always evolving and yet contains traces of the past and openings into other social and ethnic communities. If anything, Singlish has the structure for a world language, something that can be all-inclusive, always adapting and listening to speakers who want to move outside their own circles.

For those who don’t understand Singlish but would like to, what would be the best way to learn it? What other advice would you give?

For starters, please don’t hang out with the kay angmos. The Singlish you learn from them will only prove their point; worse, it will get you laughed out of kopitiams (coffeshops). If you want to learn monkey language, don’t wade around with pond ducks. Good logic, right? Get to know some nice homely Singaporeans who you can catch speaking Singlish when they’re not being professional. Go out with them to a kopitiam or food court, soak in the setting, and get them to teach you to order food in Singlish. Then ask to know more, and make yourself speak it as often as you can!

Remember that Singlish is not just something technical but a whole set of personal attitudes too. If you are a damn how lian (arrogant) and stuck-up person, chances are, you’ll probably not do Singlish very well. Forget everything that you’ve known about the rules of English: what you’re going to pick up is a whole new way of thinking in words that echoes the vocabularies and grammars of over half a dozen languages. Central to the rojak is the willingness of each of the languages to take a step back and allow itself to be tampered with and made fun of. Such openness is key to any cross-cultural meeting.

Finally, what are five words that you think are most representative of Singlish? Please explain their meanings and cultural importance.

Just five words? But I already used a lot so far liao leh! Besides, Singlish really doesn’t translate that well despite what some people may tell you. Let me illustrate this point with five forms of exclamation: “lah”, “leh”, “ha”, hor”, and “wor”. The chow (smelly) kay angmos always mix them up and attach them to the end of sentences lousily. But, for example, “Don’t be like that lah!” isn’t the same as “Don’t be like that leh!” or “Don’t be like that ha!”, let alone “Don’t be like that hor!” You can definitely not say “Don’t be like that wor!” See, “lah” is polite, “leh” is a little more personal and persistent, “ha” is cautionary with a tint of threat, and “hor” reminds – not the same wor! You get what I mean now? Just friend a real hard-core Singlish speaker OK!

With many thanks to the Speak Good Singlish Movement for taking part in this interview. To find out more or to support the movement, visit their Facebook page here

Images courtesy of the Speak Good Singlish Movement. 


Speak Good Singlish Movement said...

Hello again, Miss Demeanour! Thank for the interview: this looks very nice wor!! Just want to say on Sunday (30 Oct) got a phak ka si (whack until die) Singlish debate at the Writers Festival. If can, people, come and see?

More info:

Anonymous said...


Kuen said...

Love this blog post! While i think we need to speak proper English but only when it's needed, when it's not.....heck care la!

Ms Demeanour said...

Hello Speak Good Singlish Movement - you are most welcome. Was great to work on this with you. :)

And Kuen yes agree agree!

Luesong said...

XD This is damn interesting lah!!

Edwin said...

Hallo Miss D, really enjoyed your post. If you haven't done so already, I just thought you might want to check out the grand-daddy of the on-line Singlish world -->

Check out the Coxford Singlish Dictionary while your're there.

food solutions said...

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Ms Demeanour said...

Hello LL and Edwin - thanks so much for your positive comments and for reading :). And yes Edwin I've certainly heard of Talking Cock! Looks like they are on hiatus for now while working on another project and I wonder would that could be!?