Singlish – Nay? Yay?

By Regina Hong, Yale-NUS College ’17 – See bio

Maybe instead of minding our “P”s and “Q”s in Singapore, we should mind our “lahs” and “lehs”. I jest, but there is no denying that Singlish is an unique component of the Singapore fabric and should not be simply brushed off as “bad” English (which actually makes Singlish sound like a misbehaving child but I digress).

I grew up learning how to punctuate my sentence endings using“lah, loh and leh” with the help of Mr Phua Chua Kang, the iconic character with a hairdo that would be the envy of any self-respecting poodle, a conspicuous mole on his face the size of Singapore’s geographic location on the world map (perhaps bigger) and most memorable of all, his very bright highlighter yellow boots. To this day, I still believe that it is Mr Phua’s influence that has subconsciously resulted in this irrepressible urge to look for bright yellow boots at construction sites.

The character is both the pride and annoyance of Singaporeans. The conflicting sentiments arise from the same innocuous source – the surfeit of Singlish in his speech. The poor man was even enrolled in English lessons to brush up on his Standard English after then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong approached the Television Corporation of Singapore (now known as Mediacorp TV) to express his concerns about the matter. Yet, PCK’s most notable lines such as “Don’t play play ah” (delivered in a heavily affected accent along the lines of “Don’t pray pray ah”) and “Use your brain” (same affected accent, substitute “r” for “l”) were, and still are, being spoken by Singaporeans every day, whenever they are feeling particularly under the weather in the face of looming deadlines.

Growing up, I remember reading all about the Speak Good English campaign and even recall reading a fascinating article which assumed that Singaporeans could not pronounce the “r” in radio (“laylio”) nor rabbit (“labbit”). For the record, most Singaporeans do pronounce their “r” s well and when they do not, it is not so much a matter of blatant disregard for phonetics but because the dialects the older generation converse in rarely necessitate such a pronunciation, thus the seemingly affected readings of “laybin” for ribbon. The word “Rhotacism” exists in the dictionary as well, so I suppose that there are other individuals besides Singaporeans who are unable to articulate their “r”s well. It’s not that bad in Singapore, really. Yet, Singlish has remained a stubborn thorn in the side for individuals who pride themselves on speaking “proper” English and feel embarrassed by the persistent “lah, lor, leh” et cetera sentence endings that invariably demarcate each and every offending Singlish sentence.

Critics of Singlish argue that its usage in mass media would have a negative influence on the standard of English spoken by impressionable children, with nightmares of their offspring writing in unadulterated joy the taboo words “Like that lor!” in response to comprehension questions, keeping them awake at night. This has always seemed a pretty odd view to me as Singlish can hardly cause one’s standard of English to deteriorate in much the same way that learning a mother tongue/ dialect/foreign language would not dilute one’s command of English. I cannot claim to have not made any grammatical or spelling mistakes ; the word “manoeuvre” is, in fact, an old friend – without the “r”. But I can say that I have not, to the best of my knowledge, uttered or used a word of Singlish in formal occasions and tests, and neither have my classmates.

Singapore started as a city founded on the collective cultures of immigrants from different parts of the world who chose to make her their eventual home. It was a hotpot of cultures and since it is already a fact that has been repeated to death in Social Studies texts, I will not delve into the measures and initiatives that brought about greater racial and religious integration. I have always wondered why Singlish was not touted as a great success in bringing Singaporeans closer together in a way that perhaps trumps residential committee activities, housing ratios et cetera. It is after all a strange little mix of English, Hokkien, Malay and Chinese along with the ubiquitous sentence endings that are the bane of anyone new to the language and which cannot be accurately traced to a particular language. This is a medium of communication, evolved in Singapore, for people living in Singapore! What more wonderful thing could there be to shape a national identity than having a language that is unique and one-of-its-kind in the world, with strange phrases running the gamut of spiders1 to the Merlion? The latter may have been the brainchild of the Singapore Tourism Board as a well-meaning attempt to create a cultural mascot, albeit a rather quaint one, but the evolution of the verb “to merlion2” is apt in its reference to the action the Merlion is most associated with: hurling gallons of water in an unrelenting deluge.

If one should still feel the need for a greater reason to celebrate instead of denounce Singlish, let us examine the favourite theme of all colonial texts: the progression of a colony post-independence. In Wide Sargasso Sea, a riled Rochester tells Antoinette bluntly that the natives of Windward Islands speak “no English that [he] can understand”, which is clearly doublespeak for “They are undermining my authority by appropriating my language for their own uses into one I can’t even understand”. Whew, that was a mouthful. Whilst Singapore did have a colonial past, I doubt that the evolution of Singlish arose out of a need to exact vengeance on its erstwhile colonial masters, a purpose which would have been ironic anyway since the Singapore of today still bears road names such as Piccadilly Circus. What probably drove its evolution was the need for communication, but with its colourful array of languages, using a single native language from a solitary culture would probably be counter-productive. So perhaps, bit by bit, with inputs of cultural insight from each race, a language was born that would serve as an essential medium of communication for a country that had not had the time adopt standard English as its working language yet. Singlish might actually have been a dialect developed for economical purposes to facilitate the process of trade for a nation beginning its foray into the international arena.

Nothing makes one happier in a foreign land than seeing one’s countrymen (and not just the people in the same tour as you). And few things delight my ears as much as hearing the familiar twangs of Singlish. So, to all the scholarly musings wondering if Singlish is delivered in a Welsh/Jamaican/Indian accent, I hope the day will come when they recognise the Singapore accent as a unique entity of its own. Nevertheless, I’m still glad to count this quirky dialect as one of the languages I speak!

1. Kancheong spider is a Singlish term used to describe an impatient person. The adjective “kancheong” comes from the Hokkien word for “in a rush.

2 To merlion is a Singlish term meaning “to vomit”.

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