Singlish handicapping Singaporeans

From ‘Singlish impedes mastery of English’, 27 May 2016, ST Forum

(Marietta Koh): Mr Seah Yam Meng believes it is “alarmist” for me, and perhaps even the authorities, to think that Singlish would displace Standard English (“Singaporeans know right time, place for Singlish“; yesterday). As a teacher of English, I am concerned about the threats undermining the use of Standard English in schools, of which Singlish is but one.

Our young need to be taught proper, functional English that can stand them in good stead where prospects for their employability in an increasingly globalised economy are concerned. Despite at least 10 years of English-medium instruction in school, the majority of adult Singaporeans are hardly proficient in the use of written and spoken English.

Anecdotal evidence of this deficiency abounds at the workplace or in correspondence with service providers, in the form of fractured sentences and garbled messages which appear to be common.I am, thus, sceptical of Mr Seah’s belief that Singaporeans are “mature enough to switch between Singlish and Standard English”.

English is, moreover, not the mother tongue of most Singaporeans. If households are ill equipped to support the use of Standard English, this makes it all the more imperative that schools ensure uncompromising standards of English language instruction are upheld.

If the fundamentals of English grammar and usage are not properly taught, and if Singlish continues to be heedlessly imbibed as what is deemed acceptable, we will be doing a gross disservice to generations of young Singaporeans, who will be at a distinct disadvantage once they step into the working world.

Yes, you can’t blame Singlish alone for corrupting standard English. One may have a Queen’s English intonation but still succumb to bad English. An example is the use of the word ‘revert’. Then there’s the chronic problem of misplaced emphasis, like how we say ‘colleague’ (ker-league). Social media shorthand is also responsible for peppering our written language with lazy acronyms like TTYL or tmrw. Influenced by pop culture vernacular, teens are spouting rubbish like ‘bae’, ‘realest’, ‘my bad’ or ‘beneath your beautiful’.

FML

Certainly, how Singaporeans spoke 50 years ago was probably different from today, and back then you would still hear those who kowtow to our colonial masters complaining about how this uncivilised pidgin language is crippling our prospects on the international stage. In 1999, then PM Goh Chok Tong beseeched us not to overuse Singlish, in his own words: ‘Let us not go reverse direction with Singlish, or to use Singlish, let us not GO STAN’. Talk about Singlish-ception; using Singlish to warn against Singlish.

Alas, it’s 2016 and speaking English, the kind cleansed and purified of all its local nuances, is no longer as relevant, or fashionable, as it used to be. Mark Zuckeberg, for example, is mastering Mandarin, no matter how broken it is, to charm the pants off China. If you want to make it on the world stage, perfect grammar is not going to get you as far as knowing your audience, and pandering to them to look like you’re trying your darnedest to fit in. A Singaporean speaking to a bunch of teenage Koreans with a regular ‘Singaporean’ accent (whatever that is) is not going to be as persuasive as one putting on a mock American ‘Yee-Haw’ twang. Nobody’s likely to be impressed by an upstart from a pinprick country that people still think lies in China giving a profoundly fluent monologue as condescending in tone as the Queen pardoning a convict in the Royal Palace. That, I double confirm.

The Government itself has a love-hate relationship with Singlish, one moment demonising its use and the next using it for heartland campaigns, from courtesy on the MRT to SARS (PCK’s Some say leh, some lay lor) Ministers pick on trivial things like ‘Outside food not allowed’, and then go on to ‘mee siam mai hum’. The use of Singlish, occasionally sprinkled with dialect, among our politicians may even increase during election time compared to non-election days. Suffice to say the government is well aware of the utility of Singlish, though as a double-edged sword used for very specific purposes. As far as eliminating Singlish goes, there are certainly setting a very bad example. We can’t even decide on whether we should keep ‘Don’t Pray Pray’ or promote ‘Don’t Play Play’, without realising that BOTH ARE BAD ENGLISH.

Like a child with behavioral issues, we tend to be selectively proud of Singlish’s more lovable traits, like how we love our ‘lah, leh, lors’ or the ‘Shioks’, that even international stars who come to visit are urged to mimic them. In typical Singaporean fashion, ‘Shioked’ was even considered as a replacement for ‘Shagged’ in an Austin Powers movie. The most critically acclaimed local movies of our time used Singlish and dialect as the key medium. Can you think of an example of a successful Singaporean movie where actors spoke ‘un-Singlish’? I guess not. Why liddat?

The line between ‘broken English’ and ‘Singlish’ blurs when we refer to the dark, ungrammatical, side of the language, the thorn in every self-respecting English teacher’s side. This is the Singlish played more for laughs, the kind that makes memes like SGAG so virally successful. It’s fitting that professors use the term ‘code-switch’ when it comes to transitioning from Singlish to ‘proper English’. Because that’s what ‘authentic’ Singlish really is, a cipher to differentiate the true blue Singaporeans from the pretenders. How useful that would be in an actual war. Imagine us confusing the enemy with codes like ‘Eh, those chee hong kias fly our aeroplane, we hentak kaki first wait we shoot bird. Otherwise, we jialat liao’

So, this ‘war on Singlish’ is really a petty microcosm of a war on the English language everywhere. Modern English is an evolving beast that has shifted beyond the stuffy, upper-crust medium that traditionally gets you past the front door. Mastery is not so much about your proficiency in grammar or whether you know how to split the infinitive, but how and when you use it that makes a difference.

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