We are not English

From ‘A note too far’, 10 Sept 2010, Voices, Today online

(Steve Ngo):…Is the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM) asking Singaporeans to be English language vigilantes?

I’m uncomfortable with terms like “activism” which are prone to misinterpretation.

… When I last checked, Singapore’s standard of English was not so controversial yet as to warrant a guerilla war on bad English.

Has the SGEM verified with the relevant authorities whether sticking notes on public signs would not constitute vandalism or a public nuisance? Especially if it involves State properties?

I also wonder, in the event there are language “activists” who go overboard by sticking yellow notes in what may be largely non-English-speaking establishments – such as temples, mosques, Chinatown or Geylang commercial enclaves.

I agree that signs written in bad English are not desirable but we have to be sensitive to those cultural elements in our harmonious country. Singapore has four official languages; we are not English.

Pardon the inevitable pun, but great job, Steve Ngo, for Sticking it to the Man! Not only is this a waste of paper, manpower and a retina-searing eyesore, but totally counter-intuitive to go around hawker centres correcting aunties and uncles’ English, who may take it as an affront and refrain from using the language, if at all. The natural tendency for anyone encountering someone taking a jab at the way they speak is to go ‘Who the hell do you think you are?You looking down on me, is it?’, not ‘Oh, pardon me for mutilating the English language”. In fact, ugly flyers and pamphlets advertising swimming courses or rooms for rental stuck on letterboxes or pasted on staircase railings may be more useful than a government sanctioned sticky note, with its strikethrough and comic sans font and all, that looks more like the work of a rogue prankster than a ‘guerilla marketing tactic’. In this case, selling a defective product, ‘Speaking Good English’, that nobody has been buying for decades. Singlish, on the other hand, has already made its rounds on the global gaming circuit. So the fear of nobody understanding us other than ourselves (as if that isn’t that good enough. Look how far we’ve come without fixing Singlish even though it’s broke) is unfounded.

There’s a fine line between low-budget advertising and litter of course, but post-it notes, by design and like the message they’re conveying, do not stick for long. All it takes is for an accidental brush, a foreign worker cleaner, or just about anyone with a pen who needs to take down someone’s contact number urgently, to cross over into junk mail territory and render this whole gimmicky exercise completely useless. Nice touch on the Geylang ‘commercial enclaves’ euphemism by Mr Ngo.  Try this on a sex worker some time: ‘I am in need for OF sexual services. Are you available and can I know how much DO you charge please?’ and see how quickly the silhouette of her back fades from view. Perhaps this campaign would have the unintended, collateral benefit of sex workers plying their trade elsewhere, you know, where they don’t have TO entertain such nonsense.

Still, at least today we’re spared of the frivolous mockery endemic of politicians in the past who think Singlish should go the way of the woolly mammoth, as seen in this 19 April 1983 ST article ‘Major Fong’s Singlish jokes make a point about English’. 27 years on and I dare say not only is Singlish more alive and kicking than ever, but it’s THE litmus test for any foreigner who wants to integrate and survive here. Queen-spoken English will not get you your bak-chor mee with less vinegar more mushrooms, no matter how many sticky notes you have memorised. By the way, I’m not sure what disconcerts me more, the fact that politicians think ‘fifty cents per entry’ is grammatically wrong, or that they use it as a punchline for a dirty joke, which people of that stature shouldn’t be telling in the first place. Shame on you, really.

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10 Responses

  1. Quoted from 2nd last paragraph: “‘I am in need for sexual services. Are you available and can I know how much do you charge please?’”

    The correct grammar is: “… how much you charge please?”

    I am not a English vigilante, but this is a common mistake Singaporeans make.

    • Thanks I spotted that too when I was vetting it and have corrected it. Great observation. I think the title of this blog needs a stick note pasted over it too, like ‘Singaporeans Complaining About Everything’ . Not as catchy though.

  2. so 50c per entry on signs is okay but spoken not okay.
    den wad?

  3. your post it should be yellow la! haha.

  4. i think the ‘do’ can be removed but even if it’s included, the sentence is still acceptable.

    incidentally i asked a fellow english major if

    ‘I am in need for sexual services. Are you available and can I know how much you charge please?’

    was acceptable and she said that it should be ‘in need of’. lol, we all missed that one!

    • Yeah that was a tricky one. Proof that some things are less embarrassing in Chinese or Singlish ha. That’s like a sticky note on top of a sticky note!

  5. Pardon my England but

    1. Perhaps this campaign would have the unintended, collateral benefit of sex workers plying their trade elsewhere, you know, where they don’t have entertain such nonsense.
    the word “to” is missing in “they don’t have entertain such nonsense”

    2. “Still, at least today we’re spared OF the frivolous mockery endemic of politicians in the past who think”

    the word “of” has no place here, no?

    Better do more proof reading or become GEK’s speech writer, LOL

  6. the SGEM seems to produce the most ridiculous of letters, like this one

    http://www.straitstimes.com/STForum/OnlineStory/STIStory_578042.html

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