Singlish



Singlish is an informal, colloquial form of English that is used in Singapore. Linguists refer to it as Singapore Colloquial English or Singapore English.1 The use of Singlish has been the subject of much debate since the 1970s, when it first became an observable phenomenon. The government actively discourages the use of Singlish among the population, citing the need for Singaporeans to be able to communicate effectively with the wider English-speaking population in the world.2

Description
Singlish contains non-standard features of the English language and incorporates elements of other languages. It has its own unique grammatical structures as well as a distinctive pronunciation.3 The intonation and sentence structure of Singlish are influenced by the main Chinese dialects spoken in Singapore such as Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew, while the influence of the Malay and Indian languages are also noted in the use of certain lexical Singlish terms – for example, agak agak, which means “estimate” in Malay, and kaypoh, which is Hokkien for “busybody”.4

Standard English grammar rarely applies to Singlish. For instance, grammatical endings, tenses, plurals, the definite article and the linking verbs (such as “is” and “am”) are often ignored.5 Speakers of Singlish would say “You walk so slow” instead of “You walk so slowly”, and “She shop here yesterday” rather than “She shopped here yesterday”, and “Teck very rich” for “Teck is very rich”.6 The sentence endings “lah”,  “leh” and “lor” are also commonly heard in Singlish conversations.7

Due to its departure from standard rules of the English language, Singlish has been labelled as “ungrammatical”, “poor”, “bad” or “broken” English.8 Some linguists and academics, however, prefer to view Singlish as a variety of English that has evolved out of Singapore’s unique multi-ethnic social milieu. According to linguists, although Singlish deviates from the standard rules of English, it has its own system of rules and grammar.9 For example, the repetition of words or parts of words to convey specific meanings (a process that linguists term as “reduplication”) follows certain principles in Singlish. Nouns (“Where is your boy boy?” where “boy boy” means boyfriend or son); verbs (“Let her be, cry cry awhile then she’ll be all right” where “cry cry” means cry a little bit); and adjectives (“Don’t always eat sweet sweet things” where “sweet sweet” means very sweet) can be reduplicated. There is also double reduplication to indicate that the action is continuous or ongoing, for example, “I walk walk walk then I fall down” means “I fell down while I was walking” and “Take bus no good, always stop stop stop” means that “the bus keeps on stopping”.10

History
For most of Singapore’s colonial history, English was a minority language that was mastered by a small elite and its use was limited to official purposes such as in government offices and the law courts.11 However, soon after Singapore’s independence from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, the government began actively promoting the use of English as it was seen as key to the nation’s economic survival. Because Singapore possessed no natural resources, proficiency in English was considered necessary for attracting foreign investments and facilitating access to scientific and technological know-how.12

Over the years, the English-speaking population in Singapore has increased. However, Singlish also gained usage alongside standard English as a result of English being introduced into a linguistically diverse country where it is spoken along with various ethnic languages.13 Statistics from the Census of Population 2000 revealed that only 23 percent of the resident population aged five and above spoke English as a first language at home; the majority of the Chinese population spoke mainly Mandarin or one of the Chinese dialects, while most of the Malays and Indians spoke mainly their ethnic languages at home.14

Debate over Singlish
While standard English is taught in schools and is designated as the country’s main working language, Singlish continues to be used in everyday interactions within some, if not most, segments of the population. In the 1990s, Singlish featured strongly in plays and popular local television and movie productions such as Phua Chu Kang, Army Daze, Money No Enough! and I Not stupid.15 In the Phua Chu Kang television series, the titular character’s trademark phrases – “Use your blain” and “Don’t pray pray”, in which he mispronounces “brain” as “blain” and “play” as “pray” – turned into trendy catchphrases.16 However, this became a cause for concern among schoolteachers and the government.17


The proliferation of Singlish has often been blamed for the falling standard of English in Singapore. The government views Singlish as harmful to the economic development of Singapore and has been calling for the eradication of Singlish in favour of standard English. In his 1999 National Day Rally Speech, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong highlighted the importance of using standard English for Singaporeans to remain competitive and relevant in the global economy. He said that Singaporeans need not speak English with British, American or Australian accents, but we should speak a form of English that is understood by the British, Americans, Australians and the international community.18 Goh singled out Phua Chu Kang for its liberal use of Singlish and suggested that the Phua Chu Kang character should improve his English by attending the Basic Education for Skills Training classes that teach adults primary-school English and mathematics. In response, the Television Corporation of Singapore (now MediaCorp Pte Ltd) announced that it would be toning down the use of Singlish in its programmes, and that Phua Chu Kang would be speaking better English.19

Then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew also voiced his concern over the increasing use of Singlish during his speech at the Tanjong Pagar constituency’s National Day celebration in 1999. He stressed the importance of speaking and writing standard English so that so that “we can understand the world and the world can understand us”. He also said that “Singlish is a handicap we must not wish on Singaporeans”.20 

In April 2000, the government launched the nationwide Speak Good English Movement (SGEM), an annual campaign that seeks to encourage all Singaporeans to speak grammatically correct English that is universally understood.21 In addition, the Ministry of Education periodically sends its teachers for English lessons in an effort to improve the standard of grammar used in the classrooms and to counter the spread of Singlish.22

Despite the government’s stand, supporters of Singlish have defended the place of Singlish in the local linguistic landscape. Their main argument is that Singlish cuts across racial differences and thus functions as a marker of a distinct, multi-ethnic Singaporean identity. For its proponents, Singlish is an essential part of local culture and heritage.23



Author

Teresa Rebecca Yeo



References
1. Hanna, S. (Ed.). (2003). An essential guide to Singlish. Singapore: Gartbooks, p. 8. (Call no.: RSING 427.95957 ESS); Low, E. L., & Brown, A. (2003). An introduction to Singapore English. Singapore; Boston: McGraw Hill, p. 16. (Call no.: RSING 427.95957 LOW)
2. Chng, H. H. (2008). Beyond linguistic instrumentalism: The place of Singlish in Singapore. In P. K. W. Tan & R. Rubdy. (Eds.), Language as commodity: Global structures, local marketplaces. London; New York: Continuum, pp. 58–62. (Call no.: RSING 306.44 LAN)
3. Low, E. L., & Brown, A. (2003). An introduction to Singapore English. Singapore; Boston: McGraw Hill, p. 16. (Call no.: RSING 427.95957 LOW)
4. Platt, J. T. (1975, October). The Singapore English speech continuum and its basilect ‘Singlish’ as a ‘Creoloid’. Anthropological Linguistics, 17(7), 363–374, p. 367. Retrieved from JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; Low, E. L., & Brown, A. (2003). An introduction to Singapore English. Singapore; Boston: McGraw Hill, p. 59. (Call no.: RSING 427.95957 LOW)
5. Hanna, S. (Ed.). (2003). An essential guide to Singlish. Singapore: Gartbooks, p. 8. (Call no.: RSING 427.95957 ESS); Low, E. L., & Brown, A. (2003). An introduction to Singapore English. Singapore; Boston: McGraw Hill, p. 16. (Call no.: RSING 427.95957 LOW)
6. Ooi, V. B. Y. (Ed.). (2001). Evolving identities: The English language in Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore: Times Academic Press, pp. 80, 82, 95. (Call no.: RSING 427.95957 EVO)
7. Hanna, S. (Ed.). (2003). An essential guide to Singlish. Singapore: Gartbooks, pp. 62–64. (Call no.: RSING 427.95957 ESS)
8. Chng, H. H. (2008). Beyond linguistic instrumentalism: The place of Singlish in Singapore. In P. K. W. Tan & R. Rubdy (Eds.), Language as commodity: Global structures, local marketplaces. London; New York: Continuum, p. 62. (Call no.: RSING 306.44 LAN)
9. Rojak with no recipe? (1992, March 15). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Ooi, V. B. Y. (Ed.). (2001). Evolving identities: The English language in Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore: Times Academic Press, pp. 89, 93. (Call no.: RSING 427.95957 EVO); Low, E. L., & Brown, A. (2003). An introduction to Singapore English. Singapore; Boston: McGraw Hill, p. 59. (Call no.: RSING 427.95957 LOW)
11. Deterding, D. (2007). Singapore English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, p. 85. (Call no.: RSING 427.95957 DET)
12. Wee, L. (2008). Linguistic instrumentalism in Singapore. In P. K. W. Tan & R. Rubdy. (Eds.), Language as commodity: Global structures, local marketplaces. London; New York: Continuum, pp. 33–34. (Call no.: RSING 306.44 LAN)
13. Chua, M. H, (1999, October 29). Dangers of the Singlish language. The Straits Times, p. 52. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Leow, B. G. (2001). Census of population 2000: Education, language and religion: Statistical release 2. Singapore: Department of Statistics, Ministry of Trade and Industry, pp. 10, 98. (Call no.: RSING 304.6021095957 LEO)
15. Stewart, I. (1993, May 15). Singaporeans speak out in debate on language. South China Morning Post. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; PCK will soon speak Best English. (1999, August 23). The Straits Times, p. 1; Rojak with no recipe? (1992, March 15). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Low, E. L., & Brown, A. (2003). An introduction to Singapore English. Singapore; Boston: McGraw Hill, p. 16. (Call no.: RSING 427.95957 LOW)
16. Chan, B. Local TV’s memorable catchphrases. (2009, May 10). The Straits Times, p. 47. Retrieved from NewspapeSG.
17. PCK will soon speak Best English. (1999, August 23). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Out: Phua Chu Kang, In: Proper English. (1999, August 23). The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. (1999, August 22). National Day rally address by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, speech in English on 22 August 1999: First-World Economy, World-Class Home. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
19. Long, S. (1999, August 21). I don’t pray, pray also very funny wat. The Straits Times, p. 36; PCK will soon speak Best English. (1999, August 23). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. (1999, August 14). Speech by Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the Tanjong Pagar 34th National Day celebration on Saturday, 14 August 1999, at the Tanjong Pagar Community Club. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
21. Ng, I. (1999, August 30). Speak Good English Campaign next year. The Straits Times, p. 1; Cai, H. (2009, November 7). Going back to the basics of effective English-language teaching. The Straits Times, p. 36. Nirmala, M. (2000, April 30). Buck up, poor English reflects badly on us: PM. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Nirmala, M. (1999, July 25). Teachers to go for English upgrading. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Chng, H. H. (2008). Beyond linguistic instrumentalism: The place of Singlish in Singapore. In P. K. W. Tan & R. Rubdy (Eds.), Language as commodity: Global structures, local marketplaces. London; New York: Continuum, pp. 63–64, 66. (Call no.: RSING 306.44 LAN)



Further resources
Lee, G. L. (1992, June 26). Can Singlish really be a language of prestige? The Straits Times, p. 34. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.


Singlish ‘a handicap we do not wish on S’poreans’. (1999, August 15). The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Tupas, T. R. (2001). Global politics and the Englishes of the world. In J. Cotterill & A. Ife (Eds.), Language across boundaries: Selected papers from the Annual Meeting of the British Association for Applied Linguistics held at Anglia Polytechnic University, Cambridge, September 2000 (pp. 81–98). London; New York: British Association for Applied Linguistics; Continuum.
(Call no.: 306.44 BRI)

Wee, L. (2008). Linguistic instrumentalism in Singapore. In P. K. W. Tan & R. Rubdy (Eds.), Language as commodity: Global structures, local marketplaces (pp. 31–43). London; New York: Continuum.
(Call no.: RSING 306.44 LAN)



The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
English language--Singapore
People and communities>>Social interaction>>Communication
Language and literature>>Languages>>English language
English language--Variation--Singapore
Politics and Government