To Singlish or not to Singlish

Another perennial hot topic for debate in Singapore reared its head again recently. An article by a foreign journalist, based in Singapore, suggests an open-mindedness amongst foreigners to learn Singlish.

I’m always weary why they would want to. I don’t know if it’s mostly a piss-take, as foreign Singlish sometimes has a slight mocking or sarky tone accompanied by the even slighter eye-roll or almost undetectable condescending stance. This is not the same as the stereotypical mimic of the Italian accent – Maanday, Twosday, Tersday… It’s more a “oh-isn’t-this-patois-fucking-peculiar-and-soooooo-Far-East”.

Patois is something I just learnt; seconds ago as I Googled for the right definition of “pidgin”. I was going to use that, but found it was too prestigious to describe Singlish. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, patois is “a dialect other than the standard or literary dialect” or “uneducated or provincial speech”.

Now that certainly sounds like Singlish with it’s poorly constructed sentences and the mix use of Chinese and Malay words. I don’t think Singlish is necessarily bad. I do think it’s special to Singapore. However, I believe it isn’t time yet to promote such a dialect to a young nation.

It takes generations for a language that is not native to various groups of people to truly set it; one in which speakers would use it comfortably and properly. Singaporeans have not reached that level of proficiency with English.

One could argue that perhaps they don’t need to, as long as they have a mother tongue. That may be so. But think on these things:

  • English is the working language in Singapore
  • English is the international business language
  • Singapore doesn’t have a strong base of local companies that are world dominating MNCs
  • Singapore has truly become a global city
  • The world is now flat and Singapore is attracting a huge amount of international interest – from MNCs looking to set-up their regional HQ to foreigners looking for work opportunities

Competition is needless to say, stiff, and English, very important. Every Singaporean should therefore have a vested interest in speaking and writing good English. It’s not easy to learn a language well – it takes a lot of practise and hard work. How is that going to happen if Singaporeans are constantly using Singlish?

Singlish advocates argue that Singaporeans are able to discern when to use English and when to use Singlish. I have my doubts. I’ve read too many poorly written presentations and documents. Each time, I’ve had to spend extra time deciphering what the owner had intended. Once, I came across a commenter to a blog post who was ranting about how difficult it was to get a job. She was university educated and had written in Singlish. Right there, she lost any potential to be recommended or hired for a job.

To believe that Singlish deserves wider recognition now will be a disservice to Singaporeans and Singapore. Promoting a provincial speech would set this country back by a few good years. Let’s not kid ourselves about the importance of Singlish. If it disappeared tomorrow, Singapore would still flourish. But if Singaporeans only spoke Singlish, Singapore would falter.

And on that note, ask yourself honestly if your English is up to standard. If it’s not, what are you going to do about it?

Update:

The Dec 10/Jan 11 issue of Monocle has a feature on EF, a Swedish language school. Here are excerpts from interviews with Chinese students in Shanghai.

  • “It’s so competitive in China that if you want to find a better job, it’s important to have skills. Oral English is one of the best to have.”
  • “I work for a Fortune 500 company and need English to communicate and make presentations. I want to show I’m well educated.”

And here are a few more fun facts:

  • It is estimated that 300 million people in China are learning English. That’s slightly less than the population of the US.
  • In the US, 200,000 students are learning Chinese.

We’ve also all heard about Chinese foreign students coming to Singapore barely able to speak English. But within a year, they’re acing it and top of the class.

So do yourself a favour if your English isn’t good – Stop speaking Singlish. If you do, understand that it’s at your peril. Don’t blame the foreigners for taking your job, denying you a promotion or behaving badly towards you. Frankly, you asked for it.