Singapore Girl announcing that she’s from China

From ‘Stewardess making announcements:Why the need to specify her origins?’, 25 May 2013, ST Forum

(Kua Bak Lim): WHEN on board a recent Singapore Airlines Beijing/Singapore flight, I was puzzled when the flight stewardess who made announcements in Mandarin identified herself as someone from China. It struck me as odd that the airline found it necessary to make such a distinction when it came to announcements in Mandarin.

I then asked the in-flight supervisor whether the stewardess or steward on board an SIA flight to London needed to declare that he or she was from the United Kingdom when making announcements. The answer was no. This piece of personal information about the staff is completely irrelevant to the announcements, regardless of the language spoken.

This, in my view, tends to be divisive for the staff on board. I also find it disconcerting for SIA’s image as a world-class international airline. One also cannot help but notice that there seems to be the subtle insinuation that Singaporeans cannot speak good Mandarin, which is certainly not true.

Would the SIA management please comment?

There’s no need for an SIA stewardess from China to announce her origins simply because her accent and grammatical precision would be a dead giveaway, if the intention is to cater to PRCs on board. SIA has been hiring foreign staff for a while now so it’s no secret,  though they still insist on keeping the ‘Singapore Girl’ moniker.  As of April 2013, 7 out of 10 cabin crew are locals, with Malaysians, Thais, Chinese, Indians, Japanese and Koreans making up the numbers. It is perhaps the only airline in the world to brand their attendants after a nationality. Even Air India doesn’t call their ladies ‘India Girl’, nor China Airlines ‘China Girl’. The latter is also derogatory in the local context, often associated with mistresses and illegal immigrants than a glamorous profession that involves pushing foodcarts up and down a aisle asking if people want the chicken or the beef.

Interestingly, according to the SIA recruitment site, it’s a prerequisite to be ‘proficient in English and Mandarin’ if you’re a Taiwanese, whereas the requirement specified for candidates from China is just ‘a HIGH level of English proficiency’, though I believe the average Chinese or Taiwanese native could deliver any announcement in Mandarin without much difficulty at all. No such language criteria has been set for the Singaporean candidate, though you’d need to have A and O Level credits in General Paper and English respectively. Which means you can fail your Chinese exams and still become a successful Singapore Girl. But having splendid passes in GP or even Chinese doesn’t necessarily make you proficient in ANY language. The writer above seems highly optimistic about our locals’ standards of spoken Mandarin, but if we were that good we wouldn’t need ‘Speak Mandarin campaigns’. Even ang mo children put Chinese Singaporean adults like myself to shame. I can only remember one Chinese nursery rhyme during my childhood, the one that goes ‘san zi lao hu’ (Three Tigers, Three Tigers, run very fast, run very fast, one has no eyes, one has no ears, very strange, very strange), compared to today’s non-Chinese kids reciting Confucian EPICS like San Zi Jing.

So how many Singaporeans you know are actually up to the task of delivering a message to international travellers over a PA system? How many can deliver a simple interview to a Mandarin news crew in full sentences? How about telling a Chinese tourist the TIME? Not a lot, apparently.  Ex Mediacorp actor Ix Shen says we have a TOTAL DISREGARD for grammar and sentence construction. Sumiko Tan posits that English educated folks like herself lacked interest in the language because it was forced down our throats and not promoted in a fun, lively way. Journalist and film-maker Pek Siok Lan mocks our ‘half-baked English and half-baked Chinese’. Back in 1981, a Taiwanese professor urged us to ‘DROP Singapore Mandarin’ because we were over -‘translitering’ it. We could consider a Speak Mandarin mascot like Water Wally or Singa, but it would be hard to conceive of a character related to Chinese culture without making it a dragon or coming across as racist and xenophobic.

From a business and customer service standpoint, it’s better for SIA to let a ‘professional’ handle a Mandarin announcement than risk an unseasoned Singaporean butchering it in front of PRCs, generally thought to be so proud of their language they wouldn’t stand for anything slipshod and ‘half-baked’. It would also be a hassle for the cabin crew if PRCs started throwing up their meals because they heard us speak. But you don’t have to tell people you’re from China because it’s obvious and it would confuse everyone about what ‘Singapore Girl’ means. I suppose with enough practice, a true ‘Singapore Girl’ would be able to deliver Mandarin with striking confidence. Maybe that would be the ‘makeover’ that we locals can truly be proud of, a bilingual SIA stewardess who knows what is Chinese for ‘mild turbulence’ and ‘fried mee goreng’, rather than say, toning down on blue eyeshadow.

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Singapore Shiok ad makes Caucasian look like a schmuck

From ‘Singapore Shiok, or just silly?’, 28 April 2013, article by Nicholas Yong, Sunday Times

First, Singapore was marketed as uniquely itself as a tourist destination. Then, it became yours. Now, it is “shiok” too. The Singapore Tourism Board’s (STB) latest marketing video on YouTube revolves around the Singlish expression – derived from the Malay word “syok”, which means nice – for extreme pleasure. Cold ice kacang on a hot day? Shiok. The adrenaline rush of sky-diving? Shiok! Being massaged at a posh spa? Shhh…iok.

…In the Singapore video, a Caucasian man struggling to pronounce “shiok” – defined helpfully on screen as “a Singaporean expression denoting extreme pleasure or the highest quality” – opens the clip. When he finally succeeds, his Singaporean friends applaud him…Branding expert Tim Clark, a Briton in his 60s, thinks “using the local language to help visitors to connect with a country is a good thing”.

…Professor Gemma Calvert, a British professor at NTU’s Institute for Asian Consumer Studies, agrees with Mr Clark that the video makes the featured foreigner struggling to pronounce “shiok” look “a bit of a shmuck“. She says: “The phrase isn’t particularly difficult to pronounce and therefore may come across as slightly patronising to outsiders. As a Caucasian myself, I admit I cringed to some extent at the representation portrayed by this particular individual.”

…Creative director Hanson Ho, in his 30s, of H55 studio also notes: “‘Shiok’ is sometimes expressed somewhat artificially in certain scenes, making it seem quite unnatural.” For instance, having a little boy whisper “shiok” at the sight of zoo animals at the Night Safari seemed to be stretching it a little.

…Lawyer Samantha Ong, 31, wonders if the video could have varied its local vocabulary a little. “There’s a serious overuse of the word ‘shiok’ that’s kind of cheesy and annoying,” she says of the yelled, purred and breathed incarnations in the video.

“Aren’t there other ‘uniquely Singapore’ words or ways to express pleasure, such as ‘sedap’ or ‘ho chiak’ (delicious in Malay and Hokkien)?”


By attempting to globalise the word and sell it to visitors, ‘Shiok’ has become as problematic as ‘Lah': Both also ‘ANYHOW use one’. If a kid exclaimed to me that watching animals in a zoo is ‘shiok!’ I would instantly correct him that he should have used the more generic ‘Wahh’ instead. I may even tolerate the Americanised ‘Awesome’ or ‘Whoa!’. Other scenes where the use of shiok is exaggerated and unnatural include Singaporeans showing off their shopping haul, ‘shioking’ at a club, or marvelling at the LV island in MBS. A simple ‘Wow’ or ‘Niiice’ wouldn’t stick as well, but these poor examples of shiok are as misplaced as getting locals to yell ‘Yahoo’ or ‘Yippee’ while exhibiting ‘extreme pleasure’, though ‘yahoo’ is something I often say in my head with an imaginary fist-pump whenever I manage to board an MRT train during peak hour.

Singaporeans also tend to be bad teachers of their own beloved lingo. When UK boyband The Wanted popped by to perform, fans cheered when they said ‘Singaporean girls are SHIOK’. Totally wrong and even demeaning in today’s context, but the fans don’t care, and this mistake will be perpetuated to every celebrity the world over, who’ll pepper their concerts with forced Singlish like ‘You’re such a SHIOK audience, LAH’. Ugh.

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When singer Demi Lovato was in town, DJ Divian Nair decided to teach her how to use shiok (like ‘awesome’) as a warm-up during an interview, with the superstar obliging with ‘I’m feeling shiok right now’. Lucky Divian. Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine says Singapore is ‘like, TOTALLY SHIOK’. Neither of these Caucasians has difficulty pronouncing the word, which is like replacing the C in Coke with Sh- (unless you want to be picky and insist that there should be a ‘-yee-ok’ sound). We seem to have an obsession with trying to get foreigners to speak Singlish with the same sadistic enthusiasm as teasing a kitten with a laser pointer. It may well be pride on our part to promote Singlish, but it does make a sporting goon out of non-Singaporeans when they mutilate it, be it shiok, lah or ‘Ho-Say’.

The worst abuse of shiok, however, comes from our Board of Censors. In 1999, when they found the use of ‘Shagged’ in the movie title Austin Powers:The Spy who Shagged Me objectionable, they proposed to replace the offensive word to the verb-form ‘SHIOKED’, as in The Spy who SHIOKED me, which would suggest to those unfamiliar with Singlish that shiok is a euphemism for the F-word. Thanks to our authorities, IMDB now thinks that shioked means ‘to be treated nicely’. If they had really pulled the title edit off, this ad, with the zoo kid whispering a potentially foul word into Daddy’s ear, wouldn’t exist. Max George from the Wanted would have said: ‘I’m here to Shiok some Singapore Girls’. To some cheers still.

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Yet, it’s not so simple defining when exactly shiok should be used. It’s like trying to teach someone when to use ‘lah’, ‘leh’ and ‘lor’. We have been known to use it in various contexts outside of food from which I believe it originally evolved (Humorist Paik Choo described ‘shiok’ mee rebus in a 1979 ST article). Enjoying rainy weather, lying on a hard cold floor on a blistering hot day or even sprawling out on a king-size bed in a hotel room may qualify as ‘shiok’ activities today. It’s often an interjection ejaculated reflexively, like the opposite of ‘Ouch’, and preceded by a period of anticipation or suffering, specific to a relatively quick, pleasurable stimulus. Nobody goes to a club and yells ‘SHIOK’ while dancing, nor experiences shiok-ness after staring at a fancy floating building for minutes. A massage after a long day? Shiok. A hot bath after a marathon? Lagi shiok! But saying ‘Singapore is SHIOK’? GET LOST LAH.

My First Skool’s spelling is cruel and nonsensical

From ‘Teach kids proper spelling from young’, 11 March 2013, ST Forum

(Estella Young):…A renewed interest in proper English might push pre-schools and childcare centres with misspelled names to reconsider their policy. Names like “Twinkle Kidz Kindergarten”, “Kidz Playhouz”, “Jenius Kindergarten” and NTUC’s “My First Skool” are not modern or cute. They are an eyesore.

Reifying common spelling errors only imposes an adult’s definition of creativity upon a young child already struggling to learn the basic rules of his world – ranging from social behaviour to grammar to mathematics.

Teaching him that his school’s name must be spelled “skool” is as cruel and nonsensical as telling him that red is blue, or that one plus one is four. Such a child would have a nasty shock when he enters primary school and discovers quickly that correct spelling does matter.

In 2009, NTUC childcare rebranded itself as ‘My First Skool’, explaining the deliberate typo as reflective of its philosophy of ‘encouraging children to be creative’ and ‘not penalising them when they make spelling mistakes’. That’s over-explaining it. I think it’s just simple marketing in an attempt to make pre-school sound, well, ‘kewl’. Critics bash the Skool for confusing small children and setting a bad example, but this ‘skool’ trend was started way back in 1994, by another brand known as ‘The Little Skool-house’. Well that explains our generation’s horrible shorthand spelling on Whatsapp and Facebook then; It’s because our educators told us it’s OK to spell something the way it sounds, u know, like dis. Wadever.

Purists argue that distinguishing variations in spelling to deliver tone or ‘style’ wouldn’t work for kids, who need to develop the fundamentals in the language before they start listening to rap music and get traumatised when they find out that ‘dog’ can be spelt ‘dawg’. Some work, while others, like the writer complained, are indeed an eyesore. ‘Kidz’, for example, has a zany exuberance to it, and is the ‘fun’ plural you’ll find on children’s TV, camps or breakfast cereal. ‘Playhouz’, on the other hand, sounds like Nazi kindergarten where they serve booze instead of milk and cookies, while ‘Jenius’ is the kind of slangy abomination that bimbos type on their status updates, as in: ‘Einstine is such a Jenius!’ I guess the people at Jenius have good reason could deny that they mis-spelled ‘Genius’ on purpose. I mean, who would have the ballz to give themselves that sort of pressure? J is also not a ‘hipper’ G. Joat, Jorilla, Jirlz all look jod-awful.

People who frown on ‘skool’ are also likely to take offence at neologisms like ‘skratch’, ‘rox’, ‘luv/lurve’, ‘teenie-weenie’, ‘midnite’ and argue over ‘hurray’ and ‘hooray’, yet are unable to account for the numerous ‘errors’ that abound in the same literature text that they hug to sleep with. Even if one did drill into kids that Skool should be ‘sCHool’, they will have to find out the hard way that the ‘CH’ sound is different in ‘chair’ vs ‘choir’ vs ‘chaise lounge longue’. English itself is exasperating in its usage, as explained in a 2009 piece by ST’s Janadas Devan, who revealed that the old ‘school’ used to be spelt as ‘scole, skule, skoole, skoll, scolle, scoile, scwle, schoule and scool’. Skoole, in particular, sounds like a nursery for pirates. If there’s anything that’s ‘cruel and nonsensical’, it’s not just the people at First Skool screwing up the language and hence the way we spell for the rest of our lives, but the creators and contributors to a confusing universal language themselves. Blast you, ye ole swill-sippin’ dandy scallywags!

Besides, which kid would want to go to the grave sounding ‘My First SCHOOL’ anyway. It’s like celebrating puberty with ‘My First Period’.

Singaporeans not pronouncing Singapore correctly

From ‘Pronounce Singapura correctly’, 18 Dec 2012, ST Forum

(Mohammad Yazid): IT IS strange that many Singaporeans, be they media hosts, broadcasters, celebrities and even some politicians, do not seem to know how to pronounce the country’s name correctly.

Singapore or Singapura is a combination of Malay and Sanskrit words. Singa, meaning lion in Malay, should be pronounced “si-nga” as in “singer”, instead of “sing-guh”.

It is important that they say it right by virtue of their positions in society. How they say it may be taken as the right and official way of pronouncing Singapore.

I think the writer means Sing-GAH-Pore as the mispronunciation instead of the ambiguous Sing-GUH-pore. In fact, according to and contrary to what he claims, Singapore SHOULD be pronounced ‘sing-GUH-pawr’. Amazingly, this petty confusion over whether it’s ‘ga’ as in ‘manga’ or ‘galore’ goes all the way back to the 1930’s, when some called the country ‘Singgah-pura’, which means ‘Port of Call’ instead of ‘Singa-pore’ (Lion City). The ‘correct’ way of pronouncing Singapore/Singapura wasn’t initially the ‘British’ way either. In the early 20th century, British seamen reportedly referred to the island as, incredibly, SINKAPORE, which many of us still use affectionately, cynically or in sing-song jest. Just ask any uncle or auntie on the street. I would love to hear a demonstration by Mr Yazid himself.

Let’s see how SinGAHpore is bandied about in Parliament by our very own MPs, courtesy of Lim Swee Say and Low Thia Khiang:

How do our National Songs fare when it comes to accurately articulating the country’s name? Here’s ‘We Are Singapore’ from 1987, which pronounces Singapore the ‘proper’ way. Try singing it with ‘GAH’ instead and note the difference; using ‘-er’ sounds subdued, while the cathartic ‘AH’ can be ejaculated with much more gusto and pride.

How about ‘Singapura, Sunny Island’? Not so clear here. I still hear some ‘Gah’ moments, though it still sounds perfectly natural to me.

Listen to the National Anthem closely, written and sung entirely in Malay. In my opinion, there’s not a single word of Singapura in the track sounding like ‘Singerpura’.

So, if the writer is right in claiming that the proper way to saying ‘Singa’ is ‘Singer’, is ‘singing’ it as ‘Sin-GAH’ for melodic effect, especially in the National Anthem, OK? How would foreigners sing it? Listen to Manhattan Transfer below. Pretty vague here.

You would expect an American, European or African to pronounce Singapore differently, but will anyone correct them on the spot, or our fellow countrymen for that matter, for making this ‘mistake’? The French, for example, pronounce it the ‘heartland’ way.

Here’s how Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean says it:

And Prince William during his State Visit. Nothing out of the ordinary here.

I think the phonetic difference is trivial, insignificant even. Most of us express it somewhere in the spectrum between ‘er’ and ‘ah’, which has since been formalised as the non-commital ‘uh’. We have more important things to worry and complain about than saying our own country’s name one way or the other, like what the anthem even means or how the Merlion came about. I would use the softer ‘Singerpore’ when introducing myself to an immigration officer or someone in a foreign land, while the brash, uncouth ‘Sinkapore’ is what I’ll use with family and friends. It’s almost like Singlish really, which makes it oh so uniquely SinGAHporean.

‘Double confirm’ more catchy than ‘confirm confirm’

From ‘Double confirm, double confusion’ 18 Aug 2012, article by Melissa Kok, ST Life!

When it first aired last year, television gameshow We Are Singaporeans made the catchphrase “double confirm” its trademark. Such a phrase went down well in the light-hearted show, which tests contestants on their general knowledge of Singapore history and culture.

“Double confirm” is what the show’s host, Hossan Leong, said to ask contestants to lock in their answers. But now that the show is back for a second season on MediaCorp Channel 5, viewers have noticed that Hossan uses the phrase less often.

Hossan now uses a new catchphrase – “confirm confirm“. The change has got some viewers wondering if it is because the original catchphrase is “too Singlish” for mainstream broadcast.

…When contacted by Life! last week, host Hossan Leong admitted that he was told to use the phrase “double confirm” “less frequently”, but did not give a reason.

But Ms Choo (Mediacorp Vice President) said Leong was advised to do so as they “had planned to introduce the new catchphrase in Season 2″ of the show, which started airing in May. A problem that English language experts find with “double confirm” is that the “double” is redundant.

‘Double confirm’ has entrenched itself in the vernacular of Singaporeans as ‘non-standard’ English, but Hossan Leong’s catchphrase has drawn flak previously for being ‘bad English’. Technically, it consists of two legitimate English words merged in a ‘redundant’ manner, though most of us would understand what someone means by ‘double confirm’, like how we ‘get’ a salesperson telling us we’re entitled to a ‘free gift’, instead of the less enticing GIFT with every purchase. It’s just a pidgin way of emphasis, though it loses its meaning once we ply another layer of ‘confirm’ to make it ‘triple confirm’. In fact, replacing the favourite ‘double confirm’ with yet another tautological ‘confirm confirm’ would make it more similar to Singlish than Anglophiles would care to admit, as the use of repetition is a hallmark of many troublesome Singlish and non-English phrases which purists often frown upon.

For example, Phua Chu Kang’s catchphrase Don’t PLAY PLAY (or the deliberately mispronounced ‘Don’t PRAY PRAY’) was used in a gracious commuter campaign, much to the annoyance of some people who thought it should be rephrased, or rather neutered, to ‘Don’t fool around’. The Malay language is also chockfull of rhythmic repetitions, such as SUKA-SUKA, MASAK-MASAK, AGAR-AGAR (a gelatinous dessert) and AGAK-AGAK ( estimate). If your boss gives you a dressing down, it’d best that you ‘DIAM DIAM’ (keep quiet), and if you want to say ‘I knew it!’, what better way to express a self-pat on the back by ‘ZAI ZAI (eh)’. You’d better be careful what you say online, in case you ‘SUAY SUAY’ (by bad luck) get caught and posted on STOMP. Perfectionists like their tasks done ‘SWEE-SWEE’ (flawlessly). The Chinese use ‘Q-Q’ to describe springy noodles, as well as SK-II models’ cheeks which also happen to be ‘BAI BAI NEN NEN (fair and soft)’. The use of redundant repetition also has its roots in how fairy tales use ‘A long, long time ago’ ‘ many, many times’, which serves not so much to quantify time, but rather for melodic, even poetic, effect.

Some words, however, are not meant for rhythmic repetition. You can have a ‘No-no’ but not a ‘Yes-Yes’, a ‘Boing-Boing’ but not a ‘Thud-Thud’. ‘Confirm’, too, is NOT one of those words you could multiply in a bid to sound cute (1 CUTE would suffice). It’s like saying ‘ARMADILLO ARMADILLO’, or a doctor telling an unfortunate patient that he has ‘AIDS AIDS’. It’s fine if you want to scrape ‘double confirm’ off telly altogether, though Singaporeans are likely to switch to ‘SURE OR NOT’ or ‘YOU SURE AH’ if saying ‘double confirm’ became a crime. Even if you insist on pitching this new phrase, at least HYPHENATE it. You can’t explain it, but Confirm (x2) just sounds, well, WRONG WRONG.

My grandfather road vandalised

From ‘My grandfather road vandal arrested’, 4 June 2012, article in

Police have arrested a 25-year-old woman who is believed to have vandalised several roads in Singapore. Between May 17 to 21 this year, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) saw that the words “MY GRANDFATHER ROAD” were painted along Robinson Road and Maxwell Road and reported the matter to the Police.

It also reported that circular stickers printed with captions were pasted on a pavement around Lau Pa Sat and on a road traffic sign along Robinson Road. The female suspect was arrested at her residence in the eastern part of Singapore on June 3. The officers also found several paint-stained stencils and several pieces of stickers printed with captions. These items were seized for investigation.

Investigation is ongoing. The police are also working with LTA on earlier reports of round stickers found affixed on other pedestrian crossings at various places.

The case is classified as Vandalism under Section 3 of the Vandalism Act, Chapter 341. A person who is convicted for the offence shall be punished with a fine not exceeding $2,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding to 3 years and shall be liable to caning subjected to the Criminal Procedure Code 2010.

Sins of the Grandfather

Spray painting a road may land you 3 YEARS in jail and a severe beating, but knocking over someone while drunk driving and splattering someone’s BLOOD all over the road gives you a miserable SIX months sentence, or a fine between $1000 and $5000. So, the police have spent the past month tracking down someone placing stickers on pedestrian crossing buttons, while elsewhere cyclists and joggers are being mowed down by maniac drivers.  Instead of monitoring speedsters, they’re keeping their eyes peeled for sticker vandals, who do nothing more than kill pedestrians’ time, not kill THEM unlike some nuisance drivers we know.

The colloquialism ‘My grandfather’s road’ has been used since the eighties, often used to describe motorists taking their own sweet time on the roads, or road-hoggers. In this case, the phrase could also double up as a visual protest against people who think they ‘own the road’ so they could streak about in the early wee hours in their Ferraris. Just a couple of days back, the ST ran a piece on these mystery ‘Press until Shiok’ stickers, that these  antics were ‘to the amusement’ of Singaporeans, with some speculating that it could be a smart ‘guerilla marketing’ campaign. One interviewee remarked that this shows ‘the vibrant culture of Singapore and a let-your-hair-down attitude’. More like ‘let-your-pants-down for a whipping’ attitude. It almost sounded light hearted and did not end in the typically admonishing ‘Anyone with information on the culprit are to report to the police immediately’.  Next thing you know, the one putting a smile on people’s faces with catchy slogans and making Singapore ‘hip’ again is being hauled to court for vandalising public property. Well thanks a lot, Straits Jinx. Don’t ever attempt to act cool again.

The ‘grandfather road’ vandal brings to mind the ‘white elephant’ incident at Buangkok MRT, where cut outs were put up to mock the two-year delay in the opening of Buangkok MRT station. It remains unknown as to who was ultimately responsible for this ‘outdoor protest’, though it was reported that a ‘veteran grassroots leader’ was behind it and his identity remains protected till this day.  The blatant symbolism seemed to prick the conscience of the authorities that they forgot about the elephant displays being vandalism at all. Instead the police had to investigate if there had been any breach of the ‘Public Entertainments and Meetings Act’. Which means if you’re sticking it to the authorities though a piece of art, you’re ‘protesting’ without a permit. If you’re just trying to be funny with some stencils and stickers, you’re a menace to society.

A couple of years back, the Speak Good English campaign embarked on their own spate of state endorsed ‘vandalism’, putting ugly sticky notes on lampposts and hawker centre tables to instruct people on on speaking properly. So if it’s for a ‘good cause’ and you have a permit, marring the urban landscape is OK, but not if you’re a street artist inspired by the ‘functional’ landscape graffiti of Banksy. With an actual sense of humour. You can’t even walk around with a piece of chalk these days without a cop telling you to stay away from roads and buildings, as if you were in possession of a stick of dynamite instead.

Postcript: Fast turning out to be a anti-establishment cult heroine, ‘Sticker Lady’ is actually Samantha Lo, artist and founder of online magazine RCGNTN. Her Pinterest is still available for viewing, where she appears to have a special interest in typography. Also see the rest of her ‘Press’ series (Tumblr disabled), including ‘Anyhow Press Police Catch’, ‘Press for Nirvana’ and ‘Everything Also Press’. OK I made the last one up.

Then there’s the question of whether My Grandfather Road is considered ‘art’ at all. According to a ST Forum writer and SOTA student Darshini Ramiah (Suspect art has no value, 9 June 2012, ST Forum):

While the works are humorous, parodying Singaporean culture and Singlish, they seem to have no value whatsoever. Furthermore, the removal of the ‘art’ from public property involved spending money, time and effort.

While the suspect’s intentions may have been light-hearted, she appears to have had no consideration for the impact that her work may have caused. Art should serve to enhance and better a community. But the suspect’s work seems to be nothing more than a tongue-in-cheek attempt to garner public attention.

The writer fails to mention what is considered ‘proper’ art and how this makes a community ‘better’, using vague words like ‘value’ and ‘enhance’ without explaining why art MATTERS. Value, like art, is subjective and in order to argue if what Sticker Lady did has any ‘value’ in the very mundane sense of dollars and cents, consider if anyone will purchase any of her sticker creations after her conviction (It would probably sell like Hello Kitty plush toys). In terms of more abstract ‘value’, her ‘tongue-in-cheek’ humour may have made someone’s day, or made people conscious of their furious but useless pedestrian button pressing, i.e altered someone’s behavior, at least temporarily.  In contrast, an almost blank piece of canvas may be clamoured to death as a timeless masterpiece, but if it leaves a viewer nonchalant and deemed as mere wall filler, how does it ‘enhance’ the community, despite being extremely ‘valuable’? Does ‘Brother Cane’ and its pubic hair snipping have any ‘value’? When Josef Ng broke the law (for public indecency) staging the act, like how Samantha Lo committed an offence (defacing public property), does it mean that the original Brother Cane wasn’t art?

Sticker Lady was eventually charged with mischief in late March 2013, in which the maximum penalty is one year’s jail and a fine. It was revealed that one of Lo’s creations was labelled ‘So Kancheong For What’. Though it was placed near a pedestrian crossing, I wonder if she was really referring to the government asking us to have more babies.

Teenspeak killing the English language

From ‘How teenspeak came to be’, 14 Jan 2012, Life! Mailbag

(Gabriel Phua): I have noticed that older people are trying their best to understand the short forms used by teenagers. Sometimes, when we are frustrated, it is hard to explain in proper language so we use our own terms. And when we have our own language, it gives us a sense of freedom and achievement.

When parents actually understand what we are trying to say, our sense of freedom and achievement is lost. Instead of teaching the older generation what such lingo means, I prefer an ‘only with friends’ rule, rather than ‘killing’ our language.

This letter was in response to a Sunday Times feature showcasing hip slang such as ‘like a boss’, ‘epic fail’ and Skyrim’s ‘I took an arrow to the knee’, phrases which are supposedly used to death by young people in daily conversations, though it’s unlikely that ‘conversation’ today refers to the form of dialogue that oldies like myself were used to in the past.   Today’s teenspeak is really a copycat collection of imported memes from Western social media, unlike the homegrown mash-ups of the past. If words like ‘trolling’ and ‘facepalm’  are ‘killing the language’, we wouldn’t be speaking English as we know it today since the appalling standards of past local lingo would have utterly massacred it.

At least parents can second-guess when proper words are used, despite contorted meanings. What’s more frustrating are acronyms like ‘OMG’ and ‘TTM’, which anxious parents may suspect as secret code words implying some display of sexual affection. In 2010, Mr Brown compiled a comprehensive list of teen acronyms, with some like ‘ZSQY’ being the kind of verbiage that Scrabble enthusiasts have wet dreams over. Not a parent myself, it’s bewildering why some would go to the extent of exchanging OMGs and FTWs with their kids. It’s like Daddy wearing an inverted baseball cap, a hoodie and gesturing like M.C Hammer when his son is really into Lil Wayne. Like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air once said, parents just don’t understand.

In the age of online gaming, texting and globalisation, our homegrown slang-smiths seem to have gotten lazy. Instead of local classics like ‘happening’, ‘Z monster’, ‘agar-ration’ and the recently overheard ‘He see you no UP’,  or digging from the vault of our multilingual heritage to craft hybrids such as or ‘pongteng-ing’, we have simply abbreviated proper words so that we can make the most out of our 140 character tweets, or import them wholesale like ‘Like a boss’. The problem with the ‘only with friends’ rule is that’s exactly how lingo spreads, and if you happen to have hundreds of ‘friends’ following you on Facebook or Twitter, than the restriction is rendered meaningless.

Whether used in earnestness and a need to belong, or for comical, satirical effect, no one can explain why some memes catch on like wildfire while others flop.  Some of the more ‘viral’ teen lingo of the past has managed to seep into everyday casual conversations today, only because the kids who relied on them then have all grown up but not out of the jargon. After all, it may seem silly for me to use ‘epic fail’ now, but that’s what I thought of ‘cannot make it’ years ago before it became mainstream. Critics would also be glad to know that most of the slangs Singaporean kids once came up with have thankfully died a natural death. Here’s a brief history of teen slang evolution, including the ones that continue to exist, and those which ‘epic failed’.

Epic fails

- ‘Don’t add ears, nose and mouth’ (1986), meaning don’t fabricate. Possible reason for failure: Quite a mouthful

- ‘Worser’ (1986). Self explanatory and a close cousin of ‘understood-ed’. Possible reason for failure: Makes you sound ‘stupider’.

-  ‘Maluating’ (1986). A mash up of ‘malu’ and ‘humiliating’. Possible reason for failure: Malu still works

-  ‘Awfool’ (1986). Someone who picks his nose in public. I really don’t get this one.

- Defunct acronyms like ‘DFY (don’t friend you)’, ‘SYMYSN (shut your mouth you stupid nut)’. Today these sound like K-pop bands.

The ones that got away

- Pengsan, Ya-ya, Sabo-ing, cheena, pontengging, ex, havoc (1986)

-Fly aeroplane, steady pom pi pi, eye power (So steady pom pi pi, 27 Feb 2005, ST)

- Unglam, emo, noob, metro,  (2009)

Seng Han Thong’s nightmare before Christmas

From ‘MP Seng not racist, says Shanmugam’, 25 Dec 2011, article by Teo Wan Gek, Sunday Times

…During a Channel NewsAsia programme Blog TV, which aired on Monday, Mr Seng made a comment which some found to be racist. He was asked about the lack of communication with passengers during the evening peak-hour breakdown of MRT trains last Thursday.

In his response, he misquoted an SMRT officer, who had earlier said: ‘Our staff at the stations and in the trains may not be making sufficient announcements and also good enough announcements. And that’s because our staff of different races, it could be Malay, Chinese, or Indians or any other race, they sometimes find it difficult to speak in English.’

But Mr Seng, when rebutting the officer’s comments, mentioned only Malay and Indian train drivers. He later clarified that he misheard the SMRT officer’s remarks, which he had heard over radio while driving.

…Mr Seng has since apologised for his remarks.

It’s Christmas Day, and instead of government officials sending well wishes or attending to holiday ‘ponding’, they’re spending time on damage control over an MP’s blooper, or Freudian slip, whatever critics want to call it. A driver who’s unable to calm passengers in the midst of an emergency breakdown is a victim of inadequate training, drills and SOPs. As an organisation with a rigid mastery over templates, surely there should be some standard announcements in place to aid anxious train drivers during disruptions.  This is all just one finger-pointing and tactless blame-shifting after another between various MPs, an SMRT vice president named Goh Chee Kong, and train drivers . If this incident and Desmond Choo’s backfired sexist anecdote tells us anything, it’s that politicians need to stop paraphrasing totally, or learn how to use the disclaimer ‘I quote’ or read excerpts out loud from pieces of paper instead.

In Seng’s defence, he seems to suggest that ‘broken English’ is OK when desperate times call for it, which runs counter to the efforts of our Speak Good English campaign, that lapsing into sub-par English is our ‘default’ setting in stressful situations, while putting on Good English politeness for mundane things such as telling someone that you need to ‘excuse yourself’ for the washroom is expected of us.  In fact, broken English/Singlish, by doing away with time-wasting grammatical formalities, would be ideal in a situation where every second counts and sounding professional should be the least of your worries. The problem is speaking English of any sort, whether broken or of the pristine BBC standard, isn’t very useful when one considers elderly passengers who would be more prone to fainting spells or injuries in the event of a disruption, in which you would have to depend on good Samaritans to do the necessary translation, provided of course that the driver is relaying the right instructions, and that passengers are not busy smashing windows for air in panic. You can bet SMRT will not be happily celebrating their annual Xmas dinner, despite earning the title of the year’s biggest turkey. Even if there was some form of celebration, you can bet no one wants to be caught pants down being treated like a pharaoh like CEO Saw Phaik Hwa in a previous DnD. You probably wouldn’t see the Dim Sum Dollies providing the night’s entertainment as well.

Seng Han Thong’s faux pas is mild compared to the remark on Indians by ex-MP and soon to be convict (twice) Choo Wee Khiang, whose atrocious joke on skin colour qualifies as true racism.  But being labelled a racist and trolled online isn’t the worst that this man has suffered. In Jan 2009, MP Seng was literally FLAMED by an assailant whilst attending a community event as Yio Chu Kang GRC MP. He was inflicted with burns on 15% of his body and his attacker was determined to be a 70 year old retired taxi driver who was subsequently admitted to IMH. Even then, not everyone was sympathetic, with some forum users adopting a ‘let this be a lesson to MPs for bullying the elderly‘ tone, adding ‘fuel to the fire’. The MP torcher was even lauded as a ‘courageous hero’ by others.

It appears that MP Seng has a history of drawing the ire of crazy old taxi drivers. Earlier in July 2006, he was punched in the face, again by a 70-plus former cab driver during a Meet the People session. The attacker was reportedly unhappy that his contract was terminated by ComfortDelgro and demanded an answer from his MP. Despite being boxed in the face and suffering the trauma of being burnt alive, this man continues to serve, though he  might be wearing asbestos underwear wherever he goes and have a phobia of blowing birthday candles for the rest of his life.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Alamak!Jaywalking is a taboo action

From ‘Survey reveals S’poreans most common taboo action’, 8 Nov 2011, article by Faris Mokhtar in sg yahoo news.

A recent survey by the Singapore unit of multinational U.S. toy company Hasbro found that 63 per cent of Singaporean respondents said jaywalking is a taboo action they are most guilty of. Other top taboo actions include littering, cutting a queue, smoking in non-designated areas and faking illness for a medical certificate.

In the survey, 734 Singaporeans aged 16 to 50 were given 19 taboo actions and asked to pick one that they were most guilty of committing. They were also asked to pick their favourite local expression used in everyday conversation from among 21 choices. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the top choice for nearly half of the respondents was “Alamak”, which is a Malay expression of dismay or surprise.

Coming in second with 40 per cent of the votes is “Kiasu”, a Singaporean term to describe someone who is overly competitive and afraid to lose. This was followed by expressions such as “Act blur”, “Siam” which means “get out of the way” in Hokkien and “Gila”, the Malay definition for crazy.

According to, a taboo is ‘proscribed by society as improper or unacceptable’. Jaywalking, littering and smoking in non-designated areas are ‘illegal’. ‘Cutting a queue’ and ‘faking illness’, while socially unacceptable, are also universal forms of anti-social and lazy ‘behaviour’ respectively that are hardly unique to any particular enclave of society. These are things that we are constantly ‘guilty of’ but generally shouldn’t be ‘ashamed’ of committing (especially jaywalking, probably because more than 60% of us do it).

We try not to break taboos too often because of the social consequences; you’re likely to be more embarrassed dropping an urn in front of your relatives than caught running the red man at a pedestrian crossing.  Incurring the wrath of a matriarch makes you look stupid,  but nobody bats an eyelid when you jaywalk. It’s a taboo to use non-Muslim stall utensils for halal food, to step into a temple when you’re having your period, or to talk about death at a wedding. Taboos are codes of conduct handed down over generations encompassing old wives’ tales, religious customs and general superstition. They defy rational explanation, serve no purpose other than to maintain a strict code of flock-keeping conduct and people try to avoid breaching them as far as possible. The difference between jaywalking and eating with your left hand is that jaywalking is something you SHOULDN’T do, but the latter is what you MUSTN’T do in front of your hosts. The penalty of jaywalking is a fine. If you insult your Muslim friends’ elders you may be banned from all future Hari Raya parties or allowed anywhere within the vicinity of a ketupat.

Alamak is probably one of the first Singlish words ever uttered (since the 1950’s), though technically it’s a Malay ‘corruption’ of ‘Allahummak’, or Allahumma – which probably means ‘O Allah’, like how Westerners use ‘Jesus Christ’, ‘For the love of God’, or the Chinese going ‘我的天阿!’ as a term of general exasperation summoning some kind of divinity (Which makes it sort of a ‘taboo’ word if you think about it). Usually accompanied by a slap to the forehead, or in modern parlance ‘face-palm’, I’m surprised it still endears today after at least half a century of usage, in light of more expressive, four-letter, monosyllabic profanities like ‘Shit’ and ‘Damn’ becoming more widely accepted. ‘Alamak’, to me, is really a linguistic training wheel for kids before they master the essential four-letter words, though its religious association may take some of the ‘cuteness’ out of it.

In the 80’s, well known humorist and Singlish pioneer Sylvia Toh Paik Choo popularised ‘Alamak’ among other  terms in the seminal guide to Singlish, Eh Goondu! ‘Alamak’ was also heavily used in ST headlines as well, to the point of meaninglessness at times:

  • Alamak! It’s so insulting, LAH (12 Jan 1975) – Overdoing it
  • Alamak! Cantonese comic capers a delight (19, June 1995) – Awkward use as surprise
  • Alamak, someone just asked us to star in a $1.2 m movie (10 May 1997) – Awkward use as surprise
  • Alamak! Simply must buy (11 Oct 1991) – Nonsensical
  • Alamak, but what’s in a Khmer amok? (24 Oct 1999) – Just corny

Alamak! was the catchphrase which made Henry Thia, once bumbling supporting cast of Jack Neo’s entourage, a full fledged serious actor on his own (He even calls himself Henry Thia Alamak on Facebook). There’s an (a chat website), an Alamak Satay House (restaurant) in Sydney, an Alamak Biosciences company (probably unintentional, and unfortunate) and even an Alamak! awards by AWARE, ‘celebrating’ the most sexist people of 2011. So, the delicious irony of Alamak is that it continues to exist today not just because it’s ridiculously catchy or well-loved, but that it’s also over-used to the point of  everyman banality. It’s also more ‘acceptable’ compared to the likes of ‘cannot make it’ and ‘double confirm‘ because it’s essentially Malay and not ‘broken English’. I personally refrain from Alamaks, belonging more to the ‘Wah Lau‘ school of exclamations. Incidentally, ‘alamak’ has recently evolved to the progressively angry-sounding ‘alamaak’, ‘alamaaak’, alamaaaak’, ad nauseum (it goes up to 13 a’s). A Twitter search of these elongated mutants will show you what I mean.

‘Ghlum’ doesn’t evoke the slightest feeling

From ‘He’s not a fan of online vocabulary’, 21 July 2011, ST Forum online

(Kang Ze Chian): …People seem to be challenging the boundaries of appropriate language by mispelling and restructuring words.

This first caught my attention when I had an online conversation with a friend who spelt “no” as “nou”, “now” as “nao” and “sorry” as “sowi”. Soon, many of my peers adopted this obnoxious habit and modified words up to a point where they were barely recognisable.

Many fail to appreciate the beauty of language. Every word has its roots, a story behind it. We ought to dignify language by spelling words appropriately and not replacing letters at our convenience, forsaking the painstaking effort once invested in creating words.

One may argue that casual conversation does not require appropriate spelling. I beg to differ. A correctly spelt word often evokes deep emotions while one that is “modified” will not. For example, the word “gloom” paints several images in my mind – a cold winter night, a war site. It also casts upon me a feeling of hopelessness and despair. A modified spelling of the word I assume would be “ghlum”. Does that even evoke the slightest feeling?

I worry for the fate of our beautiful language. As a user of the English language, it has always been of my utmost concern to preserve the rich value of appropriately spelt words. I believe observing appropriately spelt words helps a person better engage in a conversation and avoid any unnecessary misunderstandings.

People like the writer here with a low tolerance for bad spelling and shortcuts would sms ‘Management meeting tomorrow, 20th September, Tuesday, okay?’ in full instead of the more succinct ‘Mgmt mtg tmr, 20th Sept, Tues, OK?’. Anglophiles rushing to the defence of pristine English is nothing new, blaming social media and SMSing for the deterioration of the English language that we need campaigns to tell people to stop acting cute and spell words as they’re meant to be, even if you’d need 10 minutes just to construct a proper sentence, punctuation intact and all. What we’re experiencing is a dynamic system evolving at breakneck speed thanks to the online revolution and this obsession  with putting our ideas across to others as quickly as possible with minimum effort. People still spoke in full in the age of the telephone, because we only had a voice as a medium and vocalising ‘BRB’ would sound like a suppressed wet fart. When we wrote letters and we wanted to relay information quickly, our haste was reflected in the quality of our handwriting, but  shortcuts were still rarely used aside from P.S (extinct now BTW). The invention of the ‘chatroom’ heralded the online revolution,  its instant gratification features and ability to ‘infect’ chatters exponentially was a fertile breeding ground for the mutated online-speak as we know it today.  So if the writer insists on blaming something for kickstarting the decay of a beautiful language, it would be sex then. Sex also happens to be the reason behind the beautiful diversity of the human race, and also explains why you can have dogs ranging from chihuahuas to mastiffs.

If you condensed the history of how words came to be, chances are that you’re unlikely to find anything that has retained its original spelling or meaning, thanks to writers, playwrights and religious scribes all playing broken telephone and exercising poetic liberty, swaying the popularity of words over the years. Words have grown, been mutilated, euphemised, fused, cannibalised, misused, overused, gone extinct ever since we started reading and writing. We use bastardised words all the time without realising it, once faddish creatures but have since segued into everyday conversation,  like ‘google (verb)’, ‘email (without the hyphen)’, ‘amok (Malay origin)’ or even ‘online (didn’t exist in popular use before the internet, it was once even hyphened, as in on-line). To ‘fire’ someone today would imply a witchhunt centuries ago. Gay once meant ‘happy’, then referred to homosexual men, and today includes lesbians as well. So much for ‘painstaking effort in creating words’.   Sometimes it’s really all about connecting and fitting in, knowing when to use ‘bling’ and get away with it without sounding pretentious, when to use ‘bye’ and not ‘byeeeee!!’or the now defunct  ‘buai’ (I think today it’s just ‘bb’). The writer’s example is an extreme case, of course, but if such babytalk in SMSes irks people so much that they refuse to reciprocate or entertain by spreading it themselves, these words will just die a natural death without ever appearing in our children’s compositions, in case the writer fears that our next generation will become  a bunch of OMG, LOL blabbering idiots.

It’s also erroneous to say that such words do not evoke ‘the slightest feeling’.  A ‘sowi’ or ‘sorrie’ has a light hearted tone compared to the heavily apologetic ‘sorry’, usually reserved for friends and lovers when the transgression is a mild one, like missing a call or accidentally hanging up, though that’s not saying that it should be endorsed. A person who smses ‘tomorrow’ or ‘management’ in full gives an impression of prim and proper,  stiff-upper-lippedness, just like those who add a full stop after an ‘OK.’ ‘Sexxxxy’ sounds more sexy than ‘sexy’,  ‘bring some noize’ somehow sounds less ‘noisy’ than ‘bring some NOISE”, and I don’t need to explain how the verb  ‘Lurve’ compares to ‘heart’ compares to ‘love’. These are the little devilish nuances in SMS-speak which make it so successful today, regardless of what purists think.  You just don’t have an emoticon for every emotion which a deliberate mispelling would otherwise convey. Nobody in his right mind will spell ‘gloom’ as ‘ghlum’, unless he’s an ogre-trainer from Middle Earth.  Even if ‘ghlum’ were actually used, it invokes the feeling of something rather oily and sweet (ghee and plum?) or something trollish but magical out of a Harry Potter book, which adds a creative, even sensuous, dimension to the austerity of the original word. It is also totally wasteful SMSing to place silent, unnecessary consonants when most of us prefer to text words exactly the way they sound using the least letters possible. ‘Tough’ becomes ‘tuff’, ‘Enough, enuf’, ‘Straight, str8′, ‘photo, foto’, ‘lollipop, lolipop’, ‘racquet, racket’, ‘goodnight, goodnite, nite’. You could say all this is just plain laziness, but never has such lazy behaviour gotten so much things done and so many things said in so short a time.


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