Singaporeans debasing the English language

From ‘Why debase English?’, 18 March 2017, ST Forum

(Manoraj Rajathurai): In the 50s, 60s and 70s, Singaporeans spoke proper English.

Today, they don’t, and they take refuge in something called Singlish.

It is a shame. If only those who use it could hear themselves.

Nothing is done to discourage it, and remedy the situation. People are getting away with debasing a language and making it fashionable to do so.

Singlish is not even a language. There is no grace in it, especially when it comes to grammar.It is nothing to be proud of, and should not be made into something that is associated with this country.

Many expatriates and foreigners whom I deal with often tell me they are unable to understand much of what many Singaporeans attempt to pass off as English.

Why do we even encourage Singlish, especially with this display of it on public transport?

Will we, one day, stop speaking English, and speak Singlish instead?

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Nowadays very fashionable to hantam Singlish, hor? Sometime back got people say those who talk Singlish is ‘missed opportunity’ to master English. I ask my English sifu friend he say this means our English cannot make it so use Singlish good enough. Also, last time 50’s, 60’s, 70’s people’s angmor very good meh? I asked my lim peh he say no leh, this bugger obviously never do NS before. Only his school teacher speak proper English, and also those people on TV read news one. And the policemen wear shorts.  

But hor, he say Singlish is not even a language. AHBUTHEN? If different language then ang mor totally liak no kiu right? My ang mor colleague even learn how to say ‘lah’ and ‘lor’ already. If not he go hawker da pao food sure die. Simi sai. My English sifu say in UK the people from different regions ownself don’t even understand each other also. Hello, these are the people who invented ENGLISH ok. Don’t tell me they all speak different language? Don’t talk cock lah. 

Brother, relac lah brother. Phua Chu Kang already retire. The bus sign just for fun only. Why so serious. You go kopitiam how to order tea with evaporated milk less sugar (teh si siew dai). Anyway Singlish is our way of life, it’s not fashion like bubble tea. We are not taking ‘refuge’ in it. It’s people like you who are hiding from the reality of how our society works, up on your high horse telling people their grammar no good, say we should be ashamed of ourselves. We are Singaporeans OK. People say durian smell like shit we still proud of it can. 

Anyway I say what you also no understand. If you do, then I rest my case. Kthxbye.

Jetstar making inflight announcements in Singlish

From ‘Confirm plus chop: Jetstar to go Singlish for National Day’, 1 Aug 2016, article by Wong Pei Ting, Today

In-flight announcements on Jetstar Asia flights flying into Singapore will be made in Singlish on National Day this year, and this time it is not a prank.

So don’t be surprised if you hear the cabin crew saying “make sure your seatbelt kiap tight tight” or “cannot smoke anywhere hor”. The Singlish lines were first cracked as part of a joke on the eve of April Fool’s Day this year, but they will be used on flights following “an unprecedented number of requests from passengers and fans on social media”, the airline said on Monday (Aug 1).

…“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking ah! Weather along the way is quite swee. But just to be safe, please kiap your seatbelt tight hor. Thank you and enjoy your flight,” it went.

Incidentally, the Singlish version of ‘fly aeroplane’ is completely different from the literal form. As a one-off publicity stunt, Singlish on a Plane is probably harmless, provided the captain doesn’t confuse passengers with ‘Eh siao liao, the left wing pecah already, very jialat leh!’ when disaster strikes. By then, the joke isn’t funny anymore. To foreign ears, the cutesy use of ‘kiap’ or forced ‘lahs’ may raise a smile or two, but to Singlish veterans, there comes a point when it just seems, for lack of a better word, “bo liao”.

If Jetstar keeps it restrained and limits the use of Singlish to non-essential communication, it’s unlikely that their reputation would go down the longkang.  Just don’t expect Singapore icon SIA to follow suit. Passengers have complained that flight attendants spouting Singlish were a disgrace to international travellers. Yes, our very own Singapore Girl is forbidden from speaking the local tongue, and was bred only to articulate with the same eloquence as our television newscasters, or befuddle passengers with a chapalang of fake Western accents that make Singlish more intelligible in comparison.

Speaking of whom, it would be fun to see our CNA anchors breaking into Singlish as part of the festivities. Just watching Cheryl Fox reading a story in Singlish for 3 minutes would be far more entertaining than the entire Red Lions-less National Day parade.

‘Chinese helicopter’ degrading to Chinese-educated Singaporeans

From ‘Petition to remove Chinese helicopter from Oxford English Dictionary’, 28 May 2016, article by Leong Weng Kam, ST

Freelance writer and translator Goh Beng Choo has launched an online petition to have the term “Chinese helicopter” removed from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). She and the 185 other like-minded Singaporeans who had signed the petition as of 10pm yesterday say that the term – used in the 1970s and 1980s to describe a Chinese-educated person who spoke and pronounced English poorly – is degrading and insulting.

…The dictionary itself defined “Chinese helicopter” as being a derogatory term for a Singaporean whose schooling was conducted in Mandarin Chinese and who has limited knowledge of English….The term appears to have been derived from a mispronunciation of “Chinese-educated”.

Madam Goh and those who signed the petition are not the only ones upset. Former civil servant and National Institute of Education lecturer Tan Teng Lang e-mailed OED’s world English editor Danica Salazar asking for the term’s removal.

In her e-mail on Friday, seen by The Straits Times, Ms Tan, who now lives in Canada, said the term “had long degenerated into a label that equated Chinese-educated Singaporeans with inferior quality and low status in society. It was blatantly intended to belittle, humiliate and demean someone on the basis of his less fluent command of English“.

She added: ” ‘Chinese helicopter’ is unequivocally a painful reminder of their long and difficult struggle to find their rightful place and dignity in the Singapore society. Fortunately, by the 1980s, this highly derisive term had mostly lapsed into disuse with the closure of Chinese schools. Not many younger generation Singaporeans have heard of ‘Chinese helicopter’, much less understand its meaning. My friends and I are therefore shocked and saddened that an almost forgotten Singlish term now resurfaces in the OED, rubbing salt into an old wound that never healed.”

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Another Singlish term added to the OED also supposedly reeks of insensitivity and discrimination but so far nobody has filed a petition about it: Ang Moh (Caucasian) . Until the OED decided to make some Singlish words official, including the inexplicable ‘WAH’, ‘Chinese helicopter’ was an obscure, rarely-uttered term familiar only to Singlish scholars. Now that some people want it banned for good, they’ve unwittingly cemented it in our lingua franca.

The New Paper explains that ‘helicopter’ originated from the local book Army Daze, in which a Chinese-educated recruit mispronounced ‘educated’ as ‘helucated’, though I never heard it uttered once during my NS days. I knew what ‘bayi’ (derogatory term for Singhs) and ‘abnn’ (derogatory to Indians) were though, and those seemed more racist and insensitive than describing someone untrained in the English tongue as a flying military machine. Without further elaboration I would have thought that ‘Chinese helicopter’ referred to a specific position in the Kama Sutra only for advanced practitioners. Or, literally, a description of the quality of an actual helicopter. Just like how people use ‘Malaysian’ to imply reckless drivers, or ‘German’ (gas) to describe farts.

The uglier flipside of a ‘Chinese helicopter’ is calling someone a Chinese ‘chauvinist’, often used to label annoying Opposition candidates who play the race card during elections, short of comparing them to ‘Chinese’ Nazis. These days, Chinese Singaporeans with an obsessive flair for Mandarin are admired and valued in society, regardless of their grasp of the English language.  It is our mother tongue after all. So, if your English sucks but you’re badass at calligraphy or can memorise Romance of the Three Kingdoms by heart, you really shouldn’t be too upset about being called a ‘Chinese helicopter’. Just like how I embrace being called ‘jiak kantang’ (Chinese but English-speaking). I doubt the predominantly English-speaking among us would call out the OED for ‘rubbing salt on an old wound’ if they decide to list ‘jiak kantang’ (literally potato-eating) or the inflammatory ‘banana’ (yellow outside but white inside).

In fact, there already exists a Singlish term that has similar meaning as Chinese helicopter but far catchier: Cheena.

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.

Lingo Lingo music video not reflecting Singaporean way of life

From ‘Still no go for Lingo’, 22 Aug 15, article in TNP

…The video was uploaded onto YouTube on Aug 4. It features Ah Boys To Men star Tosh Zhang, local singer-actor Bunz and their entourage flanked by a fleet of supercars and sexy girls in lingerie, rapping about Singlish.

It was criticised by some netizens, who said it did not reflect Singaporeans’ way of life as it promoted a super luxurious lifestyle with scenes of well-dressed young people hanging out by a private jet.

Lingo Lingo Where You Go was screened for free at the National Library on July 25. The short film, which cost close to $100,000 to make, is about a man who wakes up from a 10-year coma to a world of unfamiliar Singlish terms and phrases.

…Freelance model-actress Melody Low, 22, who is the main female star in the video, is not affected by the negative feedback. She told TNP: “It is quite common these days for people to have differing views as they have different tastes and mindsets.

“Some netizens say that the Lamborghinis do not represent Singaporeans. However, we are a First World country and Singapore has one of the highest rate of people buying supercars, so I think it is okay.”

Melody doesn’t do much except pout and preen for a few seconds in the Lingo video, though what she said about supercar ownership in Singapore is not too far off the mark. For anyone familiar with the rap genre, it’s all about swag posturing with fast cars, bling, babes and booty. You even have a singer in there who calls himself ‘Bunz’. Definitely not something to sign off graffiti with. If the private jet scenes look familiar, it’s because the director was clearly inspired by the video for ‘I Want it That Way’ by the Backstreet Boys. Well at least it’s not THESE dandy guys rapping instead.

Some of the verses in here are truly cringeworthy, like ‘Wassup Lah Leh Lor’, or ‘I love my Singlish like my Ferrari/Just like my mee rebus, teh peng and curry’. The problem with the video is not the blatant ripoff from Fast and Furious, the use of Autotune, or Bunz singing about his Ferrari, but that ‘Lingo Lingo’ takes itself way too seriously.  And ironically, this vulgar glamourisation of Singlish would be an effective way of getting Singaporeans to STOP using it, whether its echo is louder than the Lambo or not. And nothing irritates me more than the cocky vroom vroom of a supercar on a small street. Kao peh la!

Here’s a curious history of the genre known as ‘Singlish rap’, ranked in ascending order of personal preference. Note that this is not ‘Singaporean rap’, but rap incorporating elements of Singlish (lingo, intonation) and inevitably some low-brow humour. So the unwatchable MDA rap is thankfully excluded.

Special mentions:

An interesting companion to the ‘Lingo Lingo Where you Go’ video, where Mr Brown and his podcast gang lament about COE and ERP. Or should I say, the E to the R to the P.

A rap about not wearing pants. Not much different from most commercial rap songs nowadays.

6. ‘Excuse me ah, while I give you a kick!’ – PCK (A happy journey starts like that, 2009)

The irony of this public service announcement rap is that it’s not typically Singlish to say ‘Hey you over there’. In terms of effectiveness, this video did nothing in terms of commuter graciousness, but it paved the way for the Dim Sum Dollies. Phua Chu Kang also appears more than once in this list. Which says a lot about the genre.

5. ‘Some say Leh, Some say Lah’ – PCK (The Sar-vivor rap, 2003)

Here’s PCK again telling you wash your hands to ward off SARS. Unfortunately people remember the ‘some say lah/leh’ lyric more than the rest of the stuff that’s actually important. Yes, there’s an album for this, and ‘lah leh lor’ is still as frequently used as ever. ‘Don’t be a Regretter’, thankfully, didn’t ‘Sar-vive’ as a catchphrase for long. The lingo Gods have spoken.

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4. ‘I’m just a recruit so I really bobian’ – Recruits’ Anthem, Ah Boys To Men

Another Tosh Rock rap from the Ah Boys soundtrack. Propaganda much. Retired generals can use this as their entrance song when they conduct rallies.

3. ‘Some say we kiasu, some say we kiasi’ – Limpeh, Shigga Shay (2013)

The above line sounds like a nod to the SARS rap, but this is a better effort from Tosh Rock, who guest stars on this track. I suspect the reason why this put ‘Lion City Kia’ Shigga Shay firmly in the limelight is that it’s rapped mostly in Hokkien. Of course it would be even funnier if veteran actor Richard Low performs this. He’s totally wasted on Tanglin.

2. ‘No chai tau quay then kai fan lor’ – Rasa Sayang, Dick Lee (1989)

Moe Alkaff is hilarious here. The Singaporean-ness is strong on this one, though it comes from a musician who’s not exactly known for busting gangsta rhymes. Apparently in the late eighties, according to Dick, ‘life is like a holi-holiday’. We also could afford pagers and ‘cordless’ phones. However, it mentions Sang Nila Utama and Raffles, not no LKY. WHHHYYY.

1.’I always give you chocolate, I give you my Tic Tac, but now you got a Kit Kat, you never give me back’ – Why you so like that, Kopi Kat Klan (1991)

The mutha of all Singlish rap. Charming, timeless and sibei funny.

My grandfather road vandalised

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

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.

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 Dictionary.com, 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 Alamak.com (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.